‘Lonely’ But ‘Rewarding’: Oscar Contender Screenwriters Get Candid About Writing

Natalie Oganesyan
·3-min read

The leading contenders for the Academy Award for the best adapted screenplay stressed the importance of listening to and preserving the nuanced details while translating these precious stories for the screen.

As part of Variety’s inaugural 3-day FYC Fest celebrating this award season’s premier filmmakers and creatives, an evening session featuring contenders in the adapted screenplay category included Ramin Bahrani, the writer and director of Netflix’s “The White Tiger;” Peter Baynham, one of the writers of Amazon’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm;” Angela Russo-Otstot, the writer of Apple TV Plus’ original film, “Cherry;” Kemp Powers, who adapted his own play for Amazon’s “One Night in Miami” and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for Netflix. Film awards editor Clayton Davis moderated the conversation, which centered on the challenges of reconfiguring preexisting works.

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The panelists highlighted the responsibility of doing justice to the content they were adapting and not diluting its original meaning while also ensuring its resonance to cinematic audiences.

Each writer followed a different approach to ensure their screenplays were ready for film: Kemp concentrated on shifting the plot of “One Night in Miami” to include more context and locations outside of the play’s singular hotel room setting. Meanwhile, Baynham and his team sought to create a sequel that lived up to the original “Borat” and Bahrani immersed himself in the low caste culture of India to ensure the authenticity of his script.

“That kind of process of meeting drivers, talking to chauffeurs, talking to rickshaw drivers, that really helped in the revisions of the script and just being there,” Bahrani said. “The book was an international hit, so it was like ‘How do I make sure this is culturally authentic and understandable to anyone anywhere?’”

Russo-Otstot said “Cherry,” which stars Tom Holland as an army medic with post-traumatic stress disorder who becomes a bank robber to fuel his addiction to drugs, felt personal to her as she has seen loved ones struggle with opioid dependency.

“[Directors] Anthony and Joe [Russo] felt so passionately about this, they quite aggressively went after the rights to adapt it to the screen, and part of it was because it was a very modern telling of a war experience that we haven’t gotten to see, and then it’s also a very honest and unflinching portrayal of opioid addiction,” Russo-Otstot said. “As individuals who are from Ohio and Cleveland, mainly, we’ve seen that struggle up close and personally with people we love. We’ve lost loved ones to opioid addiction and felt very connected to telling this story and felt really an opportunity and a responsibility to tell it.”

Powers, who previously worked as a journalist, said he felt an “extreme burden” to accurately portray Malcom X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown and leaned on his reporting background to do so.

“Even though the conversation that the characters are having is a fictional one of my creation, I felt, obviously, an extreme burden to make sure that I didn’t mischaracterize any of these men,” Powers said. “I really saw these four men, to me, as icons of a nascent Black Power movement.”

Santiago-Hudson, whose “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” took 18 months to write, said he strives to evolve with his writing and continue to portray nuanced storylines for Black audiences.

“All of us here are writing things that are going to make a difference in the world, and that’s the important work to me,” Santiago-Hudson said. “That’s the kind of work that I wake up to do, and so, of course, each challenge that I accept and find myself stuck in is an opportunity for me to become better and stronger as not a writer and an artist, but as a human being.”

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