One of the most frustrating things about the Nixon Presidency, (apart from the entire presidency, in general), was that, once he resigned, Nixon was immediately pardoned. He never stood trial, he never had to answer for his crimes against the American people and he never faced any jail time. Frost/Nixon uses the real post-resignation interviews conducted by David Frost and, of course, embellishes on and romanticizes the situation for the screen. They took some liberties; They made certain statements appear bigger and more dramatic, they had the Nixon character admit things he never admitted and they wrote in a long, revealing and climactic phone conversation that never actually took place. In doing so, they gave "Richard Nixon the trial he never had." By basically rewriting history, they treated Nixon like he should have been treated and showed Americans what they wanted to see. This seemed to work well, so for your script, just do the same thing, but take it a little bit further. If history is fair game, why hold back? Give Americans what they really want.
Richard Nixon Goes to PrisonNIXON, looking old and shitty in his stupid, gay prison jumpsuit surveys the cafeteria with TRENT, a tougher and more experienced inmate. Trent is "showing Nixon the ropes."
So, you'll have the top bunk, but we can switch if that gets too annoying. I think you're on laundry duty your first month, which isn't bad, it's much better than latrine duty. Latrine duty is probably the worst thing about being in prison.
NIXON (Suspicious, and fat.) Really? That's the worst part.
TRENT (Thinking.) Mmm... Yeah... Yeah, I think so, that's really it.
NIXON No...No surprises, nothing else?
TRENT No, nothing's coming to mind. It's all pretty straightforward.
NIXON (Smiling like a shithead.) What a relief. See, I'd heard all these rumors about sodomy, and I-TRENT smacks his forehead in the realization.
TRENT Right! The sodomy, how could I forget? Yeah, that- that- is definitely the worst part by, like, a million. Can't believe I didn't mention that. Total mind-fart. One of those days, you know? But yes, the sodomy is pretty aggressive and nightmarish, they don't really mess around here.NIXON slips on a banana peel and his pants fall down.
DAN O'BRIEN (On a motorcycle.) You have AIDS.
Milk succeeded because they tapped into the pulse of America. They set their story in the fictional land of "San Fran Sisco" and used a bunch of timeless, recognizable stock characters to discuss and investigate a subject that's on a lot of American's minds, (gay marriage, gay rights, gay dairy etc), and knocked it out of the park. Really, if you can hack into the zeitgeist, you're basically a lock for Best Picture. Your challenge is trying to guess what Americans are going to be concerned about by next Oscar season. Will 2009 bring a greater depression? A technological leap forward? A zombie apocalypse? To cater to this problem, write a script that has several options written in. It's sort of like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, except it's exactly like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. Sample Scene: STEVE EVERYMAN walks into his house/laboratory/the desert wasteland that is typical of a zombie apocalypse. He wears a t-shirt/is doing science/is totally sick of the zombies. A LADY/CYBORG walks/hovers up beside him.
LADY/CYBORG Good morning, Steve. How are you?
STEVE EVERYMAN Not too bad. I sure A) Wish I wasn't so poor. B) Am glad we invented that device that grants cats the ability to speak. C) Hope I don't run into zombies today.
LADY/CYBORG Oh, Steve, A) Cheer up; we'll land on our feet, we always do. B) The Cat Prime Minister would like a word with you. C) You probably will run into zombies and they'll want to eat your brains. I'm a zombie.
STEVE EVERYMAN Boy, I sure am touching on some issues that resonate with modern Americans when I say A) I sold one of our kids to buy gas money. B) Our new Cat Overlords are cruel and oppressive. C) Holy Fucking Shit Zombies!
By August, you should know which one of your scenarios is the hot button issue. Round up some actors, tell them which version of the script you'll be shooting, and buy some solid gold condoms, because, brother, you're about to fuck the Oscars.
Your plot is irrelevant. Just pretend to be the heartwarming, underexposed "Little Guy" by having super-rich production company Fox Searchlight spend millions upon millions of dollars on a brilliant yet spurious campaign that somehow convinces everyone in America that you're some kind of small, humble, "Little Film That Could." Seriously. Is it weird to anyone else that the last three little-film-that-could, underdog, pseudo-indie films "that beat the odds," (Slumdog, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), have all followed identical paths to the Oscars under the same Fox Searchlight banner? Whatever. Write something quirky and heartstring-tugging and hope it gets picked up by Fox Searchlight, and their Oscar machine will take care of the rest.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
TCCoBB succeeded in that they took a typical tale about love and mortality and twisted it, by focusing on a man who ages in reverse. The lesson to learn here is "The Twist," (in France, 'Le Twiste'). If you want your screenplay to succeed why not take the exact same story that Benjamin Button used, but put a twist on it: Make it about a man who ages in reverse, in reverse.
The Astounding Account of Dr. PantsA CATE-BLANCHETTY-TYPE-CHICK comes in. [Note: If it turns out that Cate Blanchett was the one who was in the Button movie, don't use her. Use one of the other Cate's, or alternately, Blanchett in a mustache and trench coat.] Cate Blanchetty-type Chick's long, luxurious hair pours down her back like a waterfall of blood; strands flow fluidly, splashing onto her shoulders. Maybe there are even fish in it. Every move she makes is like an intricate dance step in a complicated and sexy tango. DR. PANTS sits at his desk, being the most passive and unexciting lead character in the history of cinema.
CATE BLANCHETTY-TYPE CHICK Why, Dr. Pants, do you look so forlorn, here in New Orleans, or whatever?
PANTS (The sadness weighs his words down.) Today...today is...my birthday.
CATE BLANCHETTY-TYPE CHICK Oh, Pants, that's nothing to get so down in the cheeks, for. You're just a year older, yes?
PANTS Yes...Yes, a year older this year. Same as last year. (His eyes widen with horror.) Same as every year.DR. PANTS bursts into the tears of a man doomed to live his live in forward forever, (until he dies at a statistically average age). He sobs into his hands for several seconds and then CATE BLANCHETTY-TYPE CHICK's top falls off. SEXY TV REPAIR MAN DAN O'BRIEN bursts into the room and throws a pie at her.
Full Disclosure: I did not see The Reader. I did, however, read a fairly thorough plot synopsis, which I think makes me more than qualified to give advice on the subject. As I understand it, The Reader is about a collection of security droids that malfunction and go on a murderous killing spree in a mall one night. It's not hard to see why this film got nominated: The Academy loves robots. Whether it's a couple of harmless, kooky droids used as comic relief, as in Star Wars, (Best Picture Nominee, 1977), or a cold and unfeeling killing machine, as in Rain Man, (Best Picture Winner, 1988), including a robot in your script is a one-way ticket to Oscar-ville. I'm certainly not the first person to notice this, (as evident by the amount of robot movies that get made every year), so the trick is to make your robot movie stand out from the crowd. What makes your robot movie different? What's new, here? In The Reader, they put the robots in a shopping mall after hours, which is a good start, but then they struck the robots with lightning, thereby turning the robots into killbots and The Reader into 2008's Best Picture of the Year. So, put your robots somewhere new and exciting, and then make them do things you wouldn't expect robots to do. I don't think I need to walk you through a sample script because, when it comes to robots, once you have your location, the script basically writes itself. Case in point, I just got funding for the following six movies and I didn't even put a single word down on paper:
-Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Robocop. -Robot President. -Forbidden Love: ("There's a Robot On the Pirate Ship!") -Crouching Tiger, Robot Pediatrician -Everybody Get Robot, Tonight! (I admit, I don’t have a plan for this one.) -West Side Story but with Robots and a Monkey
***So there you have it. A complete guide to writing a hit Oscar flick that positively cannot fail. If it does fail, fear not- there is a back up plan. All you need to do is combine any two of the movies mentioned, no one will know or care. Really, the big Oscar secret is that, if you combine any two movies that have enjoyed any degree of success, you will have a guaranteed hit on your hands. (If you think about it, Forrest Gump was just a shoddy mash-up of Goodfellas and Look Who's Talking, Now!) It's simple math: Two hit movies when added together make one super movie. I've applied this formula to my own personal screenplay and it's currently making the rounds at all the major film festivals and generating some serious buzz. I leave you today with some of the early praise for my latest movie, Hostel for Dogs. See you at the Oscars! --- "Hostel for Dogs is the most important thing to happen to film since eyes."- The LA Times. "Screenwriter Dan O'Brien unapologetically plunged his sweaty, throbbing dialogue deep into the film's warm and inviting subtext, over and over again until, finally, steamy, gooey cinematic brilliance erupted all over the screen. The audience will have this film's fresh ideas and complex themes stuck in their hair and dripping down their faces for years to come."- Morgan Freeman. "Hostel for Dogs made Citizen Kane look like two pigs fucking." -The reanimated corpse of Orson Welles. "I want to take a shower with the writer of this film."-Anne Hathaway "This movie was so sexually charged, watching it was like freebasing an orgasm."-Roger Ebert
The Hero of the Day and Weblog-award-winning Professor Daniel O'Brien currently teaches an Advanced Screenwriting Workshop at Harvard University.