EXCLUSIVE: Damien Chazelle’s Sundance-winning Whiplash, an admittedly largely autobiographical screenplay he wrote, has been mysteriously classified as an adapted script by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — which did not inform Chazelle or the film’s distributor of its decision before ballots went out December 29th. In fact, Sony Pictures Classics only discovered this fact only Monday and was quite puzzled.
Chazelle, who considers his script original, is not an Academy member and therefore is unable to vote, also was completely unaware. Complicating matters, the WGA had vetted it and declared it an original screenplay for their competition (nominees will be announced Wednesday), leading to the unprecedented situation of the guild calling it original and the Academy disagreeing.
It’s already causing all sorts of confusion for the Academy’s writers branch. John Gatins, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Flight, put out an SOS via email to me Monday evening after reading my screenplay handicap on Deadline and remembering to vote. “I just tried to vote for Whiplash for a Screenplay Oscar nom and I couldn’t find it as a selection on my ‘help list’—I searched and searched—I finally switched to the ADAPTED CATEGORY and I found it there. The Academy has made a HUGE mistake!!! They are gonna have to ask the writers’ branch members to re-vote….and it makes this whole voting process off kilter. HELP!!!…Unless Whiplash is NOT an original–am I crazy? Haven’t I read 100 articles about Damien wherein he tells the story of his life being the inspiration for the flick?”
Gatins told me later he even thinks Whiplash could win the Original Screenplay Oscar. Except for one problem: The Academy won’t let it play in that sandbox.
Here is what happened: In order to try and get this wildly original and inventive script about an aspiring drummer and his maniacal teacher financed, the producers came upon a plan to shoot an 18-minute scene early in the script. It worked. They got financing to make the film, and the “short” turned out so well they entered it in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Shorts competition where it won a prize. The next year the actual full feature film came back to Sundance and took the Grand Prize in the dramatic feature competition.
The Academy, according to its rules, considers a “short” to qualify under their guidelines of “Screenplays based on previously produced or published material.” That rule also includes plays, films, TV series, songs, poems, sequels, prequels, remakes, radio broadcasts, graphic novels, comics novels, nonfiction books and stories as well as numerous categories of unpublished material. But even though it won at Sundance as a short, in the Whiplash instance it was simply a portion of the script filmed in order to get financing. Sorry, Academy Writers Branch Executive Committee, but that seems a real stretch of a definition for an “adapted screenplay.”
In fact this same situation occurred for Sony Classics with Courtney Hunt’s 2008 Frozen River, which also started life as a short in order to get financing before transforming into the full feature she envisioned and for which she did receive an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. I’m not sure why that could be an orignal and not Whiplash which found itself in the same situation.
In 1996, Billy Bob Thornton won an Oscar for his screenplay of Sling Blade, which was placed in the adapted category because he first made it as a short film. That designation cost Anthony Mingella’s truly adapted screenplay of The English Patient the Oscar, despite his film winning nine others including Best Picture.
Filming parts of a script to show money people how it might look as a motion picture seems to be a clever new way of getting financing, but in this case it completely changed the Oscar dynamic for Whiplash, which is still reeling from the decision. And it could affect the race in different ways. If Whiplash is nominated for Adapted Screenplay on this technicality, which other deserving truly adapted script might lose out? And if Whiplash misses a nomination simply because enough voters who were sure it was original, like Gatins, don’t bother to check all the way down to the ‘W’s’ under Adapted Screenplays, won’t that be a shame for this little movie that could, shot in 19 days. It may be time for the Academy writers to further tweak their rules to reflect the realities of getting movies made today. Historically, the Adapted Screenplay category was created to honor writers who brought plays and books to the screen. It has gotten a lot more complex in recent years. But the question should be asked: What exactly are we adapting here?
“We submitted it as an original screenplay to the Writers Guild and the Academy because that made total sense to us,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker told me tonight as he returned from the New York Film Critics banquet. “Remember when we had Frozen River it was a similar situation. Whiplash has been accepted as an original by the WGA. Now the Academy have made this designation that it is in the adapted category and they are not obligated to tell either the writer or the company that has the film of the designation. So it’s a surprise to us. I wish I had more information. And they don’t really give you a reason. I wish the Academy could give an explanation.”
For their part, sources with knowledge of the situation at the Academy say there is simply no way, with nearly 300 scripts submitted each year, that they can contact each writer and company individually. And they maintain they have the right to make these designations based on their printed rules. And unlike the arrangement the Academy has with the Producers Guild, which vets each eligible producer, they do not have the same agreement with the WGA , which steadfastly refuses to qualify scripts not made under the WGA’s contract.
Clearly though, Whiplash is an Original Screenplay and it would seem oddly off kilter if it does end up Oscar-nominated as an adaptation. When I moderated the Talking Pictures Q&A with its much awarded co-star J.K. Simmons at the Palm Springs Film Festival on Saturday, he confirmed just how it came about.
“Damien had written it as a feature,” he said. “When Jason Reitman and Helen Estabrook and others tried to get it produced he was shocked that nobody wanted to give him millions of dollars to make a movie about a drummer, so really as sort of a proof of concept to generate funding to make it as a feature, he distilled the first scene in the studio band where Andrew comes in and a chair is thrown and all that stuff happens. That was the short film that went to Sundance two years ago and won awards and got the interest going and the funding to make the feature. So it was originally a feature, then a short, then a feature again.”
Estabrook, one of the newly PGA-nominated producers of Whiplash, told me today she was also taken by surprise by this decision. “I’m so proud of the story of the making of this movie. We did a kind of exciting thing in that we had this great script, a full feature script which we all loved, and we thought, ‘How are we going to get this made in this climate where it’s hard to make these tiny little things?’,” she said. “So what we did was to do this scene to show what a great director Damien was in order to get the feature made. It was because how powerful we felt the screenplay was that we then did the short from that. I guess the disappointment for me is that it has become some idea that our movie was just some adaptation of a short into the feature, which is not true. We just wanted to show financiers what a genius Damien could be as a director.”