Pen Lit Awards Ignore Protesters, Honor 'Zero Dark Thirty', 'Game Change', Joan Didion, Kickstarter

Notes from Monday night’s 23rd annual Pen Center USA Literary Awards Festival:

These awards, handed out at a ritzy gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel, celebrate the “freedom to write” and generally honor books. But there were a few showbiz awards thrown in including the Screenplay honor to Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty and its television counterpart to Danny Strong for HBO’s Game Change. Kickstarter even got in on the game, winning the Award Of Honor. But the big news was happening out in front of the hotel as the Motion Picture Editors Guild followed through on threats reported on Deadline to protest the Freedom To Write award to Sonia Nassery Cole, director/co-writer/producer of Afghanistan’s 2010 Foreign Language Oscar entry The Black Tulip. Several members were there with signs claiming she stiffed them back pay for their work on the film. The protest didn’t seem to dampen the mood inside the ballroom (there was no acknowledgement of the dispute) as she won a hearty ovation when Oscar-nominated actress Shoreh Aghdashloo introduced her to receive the evening’s final award. Cole’s speech focused heavily on the fight for freedom and peace in Afghanistan, pointing out her time there was “Hell on Earth”. Her anti-Taliban book and film enabled her to fight against them, she said.”Freedom is something I have been fighting for my entire life, and for me freedom is not free. We have to fight for it every single day of our lives, especially when you go to a country like Afghanistan,” she said, although the protesters outside would probably say making a movie is “not free” either.

Boal said upon receiving his award, “I never imagined that as a young reporter from New York that I would be part of a Pen event. I never imagined I would be sitting in a room like this with so many illustrious writers. For me in those days Pen writers were like New York Yankees, someone you admired from afar, from the bleachers. I never dreamed I could be a part of it. Tonight it’s nice to be among the pros.” Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow was there with Boal. Before the event we reminisced about being on the awards trail, a path she’s taken twice recently with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and last year’s powderkeg Zero Dark. “A journalist asked me early on if I was enjoying being on ‘the circuit’. I had no idea what he meant then by the circuit,” she laughed. The two-time Oscar-winning director (to whom Boal offered great thanks) certainly knows what it is now.

Strong also seemed thrilled to be in the room. At the reception, the Emmy winner told me he’s also excited to be in the Oscar game now contending for an Original Screenplay nomination for his hit film Lee Daniels’ The Butler. “I’m going to be on a roundtable with other writers including George Clooney on Friday. It doesn’t get much better,” he said. His Game Change director Jay Roach came to cheer him on. Roach told me his next film will likely be the Lance Armstrong project he has been developing for Bradley Cooper to star, but cautioned there were so many Armstrong projects in the works, including the Stephen Frears film, that whichever one gets there first will likely prevail. His other big film is a Dalton Trumbo biopic to star Bryan Cranston as the famous blacklisted screenwriter. He’s very excited about that one.

One of the evening’s highlights was the presentation by Harrison Ford and Anjelica Huston of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Joan Didion, who had just suffered an accident at home and couldn’t make the trip to Los Angeles. Organizers only found out Monday morning. Ford, a friend of hers for 40 years, said he met her originally when he was her carpenter. He read a letter of thanks she composed. Ford, by the way, could be in the Oscar race himself this year as Warner Bros tells me they plan to campaign him for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Branch Rickey in the April release 42.

Kicking off the evening, California Gov. Jerry Brown said, “As government becomes ever more bureaucratic and ever more intrusive, we always have to celebrate those who stand up, and without chant and without cliche, speak to life as we all experience it”.

Oliver Stone and Laura Dern were also presenters on the show.

  1. I spoke to a couple of editors from the union at the reception before the ceremony on Monday night and they both said they didn’t know anything about the Sonia Nassery Cole protest out front.

    And it was Anjelica Huston who read Ms. Didion’s letter of thanks.

  2. Sonia Cole is not just a bad boss who doesn’t pay her workers what she agreed. The government shut down has meant that some workers have gone without pay for two weeks — with Cole, her workers have gone unpaid for more than TWO YEARS. She also allegedly bragged that she had “bribed” the Afghan government to select her American-made film as Afghanistan’s submission for the Oscars a few years back. As it was one of the only films allegedly shot in the country, that wasn’t too hard. The clumsily-made first time film from the Beverly Hills gad fly clearly didn’t make it into the nominated films of that year (unlike most films submitted, it hadn’t been screened or reviewed *anywhere* by *anybody* and had been in no festivals when it was submitted). Besides not qualifying on creative grounds for Academy submission, all the principals on that film were American: American screenwriter, American cinematographer, American sound guy, American financing, and a novice Afghan-American ex pat “director” who hasn’t lived in the country for nearly 30 years. Many of those experienced American crew members went unpaid or uncredited by Cole, as referenced in this article and by the protest outside the Pen awards. As a film which all the principals were American, the film didn’t qualify by Academy rules for foreign film submission. I shudder to think what poor Afghan filmmaker must have been shoved out of the way to make room for that Beverly Hills socialite’s self-aggrandizing production. It’s a shame that PEN USA clearly hasn’t vetted this award recipient.

  3. Miss Cole’s “Freedom to Write” award was given under an umbrella of very dark awkwardness. Claiming that “Freedom is not Free” it appears she expects her hires to provide services under that very idea – to work for free and to expect their credits to be minimized. Christopher Young was forced to sue her for not paying the musicians for the score, the actual writer of the piece, David M. O’Neill was excluded from the Pen Awards, and the Editors Guild is owed 85,000 from the production. But the town rewards in full glamour. Maybe next time won’t be so easy.

  4. Sonia Cole did not write the book about the making of her movie either, apparently there was a ghost writer on that too, who abandoned the project during last-minute “fact-checking” when statements Cole made turned out not to be true.

  5. Kudos to Mark Boal and the Pen Center USA awards. Misguided politics prevented him from receiving the Oscar for best screenplay – but thanks to the integrity of this organization he got what he deserved this time.

  6. It is time to hear from Sonia Nassery Cole. For her sake and PEN’s it needs to be cleared up. But the issues surrounding her should in no way disparage the accomplishments of the other honored winners and nominees.

  7. These people trying to drag Sonia’s name through the mud are pathetic. I know from several people on the crew (including post), that the production was completely non-union, and that everyone, including editorial staff, was paid in full. The previous editor, Chris Innis, can’t find a job since she was blacklisted by the industry after getting fired from The Hurt Locker, since she wet the bed. Her poor husband Bob tried to throw her a bone by giving her an editing credit, even though she can barely do the most basic tasks of an assistant editor, and has no creative talent. He had to leave the production too when she threw a fit. The actual editors didn’t even get credited. Then poor Sonia tries to work with her, and the same thing happens again, and she has to fire her too. Now Innis can only whine and tell her union lies since she can’t find any work. Don’t take my word for it, it’s not a coincidence that she hasn’t worked in editing for nearly four years: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0409197/

  8. Nobody needs to hear from Cole. She has talked about herself enough. A good one is a YouTube conservative thinktank video in which she talks about how women should not be “equal” to men. It’s a laugh riot. PEN USA has lost credibility when it doesn’t vet its award recipients and when it put a recent member of the US State Department in charge. I thought this was supposed to be a writers’ organization?

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