Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Written Off: Screenwriter Pen Densham dishes on Oscar

Editor's Note: We're lucky to have a special contribution from Pen Densham, an award-winning screenwriter, producer, director and Hollywood insider who has been involved with many films we've all seen and loved. Specifically, Pen has also been connected to Paranormal Pop Culture such as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and more. 
He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California's prestigious School of Cinematic Arts where he handed out chapters of his new book Riding the Alligator as he wrote it. 

The Oscars are coming! While the usual pundits are busy sharpening their predictions and betting on the biggies -- the Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture -- I would like to say a word for the oft forgotten Writing nominations. 

Scripts are the seeds of thought that movies grow from. Not many films get made without them (not ones you’d like to rest your eyeballs on, anyway).

Writers are like ancient monks, spending their lives hunkered in lonely cells illuminating movies with their imaginations. They seldom get the attention they deserve and yet they take enormous risks with their time and effort.

Maybe, as few as one screenplay in a hundred gets made. Hollywood often undervalues the writer, treating them more like a handyman or a plumber, bringing them in to fix a loose end in a story, like it was a leak. They like giving them explicit instructions and then they fire the poor scribe when the story doesn’t hold water.

Believe me, I am not complaining. I chose to be in this business with all its idiosyncrasies both good and bad. Where else could a guy who left school at 15 write a script with his partner about Robin Hood and get paid a million dollars?  But, for every winner like our Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I have a shelf of unmade scripts that I’ve invested years into and equally believe in.

As a member of the Academy, I am sworn to secrecy about my Oscar votes.

Otherwise, men from Price Waterhouse will pursue me down alleys in Hollywood and beat me with their brief cases.  But, I can reveal this about this year’s writing nominees: the big winner is going to be you!

Movies are “Show Business” with a lot of emphasis on the “business,” as giant corporations come to own most studios.  The executives are on the line when they invest tens or hundreds of millions in a story. A distinctively original movie is hard to justify. And yet that is what the marketing analysis people tell me audiences yearn for.  For a while it seemed that we writers would be forever ordered to Xerox last year’s hits, instead of being challenged to surprise and delight audiences with new tales.

Happily, the five Adapted Screenplay and five Original Screenplay selections point like a compass to the future of filmmaking, and that future promises to be amazing.

Inception by Chris Nolan, breaks away from the repetitive comic book brands that the Studios have been clinging too. It’s a daring experiment to make a mega-budget adventure set inside dreams. The fact it sold tickets like crazy at the box office means more creative ideas will follow. That’s good for us viewers.

True Grit resulted in an Oscar winning role for John Wayne.  This new adaptation by the Coen brothers is more faithful to Charles Portis’s book, an entrancing western about a 14-year-old girl hiring a grizzled, over-the-hill gunman to seek revenge on the man who killed her father.  It has some of the best dialogue I have heard in years. And it signals that a long abandoned genre still has some hi-test oats in the old horse bag.

The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, crams more electrifying words in the mouths of its young actors than a fistful of forties screwball comedies, while taking us into the mad, inventive, instant-tech world of Facebook. Who would have guessed that would be commercial?  Another win for originality.

Not a gun fired, no chases, no sex! The King’s Speech by David Seidler is just a wonderful, old-time story. A commoner, from a land founded by convicts, is the only soul able to help the highest noble in England overcome disability and self-doubt at a time of great national crisis. A delight!

Another script equally outside the Hollywood box is 127 Hours by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy. Here, the writers trap us for that time period with the true-life experience of Aron Ralston, who had to cut off his arm off to escape from a rock-fall that trapped him for more than five days. It sounds like it would be gruesome to watch, but really it’s ennobling to see the courage that anyone of us might have had to summon up to survive.

The Kids Are Alright by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg treats a committed, gay female couple as a normal family in this impressively warm story about their two children trying to discover the man who donated the sperm to create them. In a time when some groups still use gays as a political football, it is so cool to see the subject treated as just a normal part of the human love spectrum.

Among the other heartening, fresh storytellers is the nomination of Toy Story 3an animated movie lauded because it is just so darn enchanting.

And, my personal favorite script of the year is an underdog outsider movie Winter’s Bone. This is a humanistic study of a courageous, rural teenager trying to hold her family together after her father’s criminal behavior has brought them to the brink of disaster. It was made cheaply, outside the system, but has received note for its pure, deep dramatic power.

So, who is going to win?

I can say the expected Oscar winners are tipped to be The Social Network for adapted screenplay and Inception for best original script.

Who did I actually vote for? I do love underdogs, outsiders and strong female characters. “Oops, there’s a guy with a briefcase… Gotta go!”