For a Nicholl Night to Remember

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One of the Academy’s greatest initiatives to foster creativity in the film industry is the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. Held for the first time ever in 2013 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, the 28th annual awards ceremony offered an exciting new twist in the form of a live reading of selected scenes from the fellows’ scripts. Each of the new fellows, among them four writers and one writing team, received a $35,000 prize, with the first $7,000 installment presented during the evening.

After Academy CEO Dawn Hudson spoke to the packed house about the significance of the Nicholl Fellowships program, she welcomed producer Gale Anne Hurd to the stage. The chair of the Nicholl Fellowships Committee, Hurd described how Nicholl co-founder Julian Blaustein, producer of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), inspired her to become a producer. Next, Hurd cited some of notable accomplishments by past Nicholl recipients, many of whom were present in the theater for the ceremony.

First awarded in 1986, the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting is designed to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters . Over the years, it has evolved to accommodate a steadily increasing number of entries, with 2013 hitting an all-time record of 7,251 script submissions.  For the first time, new sponsor Lexus is supporting an extension of the fellowship: one of the five winners will receive a grant to write and produce a short film to appear on the company’s digital creative platforms.

The live read was directed by Rodrigo Garcia and produced by Julie Lynn, who collaborated on “Albert Nobbs” and “Mother and Child.”  A writer in addition to being a director, Garcia shared his own thoughts on the creative process and remembered sage advice from his father: “There is nothing better than something well written.”  He also suggested that the new fellows never forget the spirit in which these scripts were written and to remain artists, whatever project they might be writing.

Following his remarks, Garcia introduced  the actors for the evening: Elle Fanning ("Ginger & Rosa," "Super 8," "Somewhere"),  Taraji P. Henson (Oscar® nominee for  "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Karate Kid," "Hustle & Flow"),  Jason Isaacs ("Harry Potter," "Peter Pan," "The Patriot") and Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek Into Darkness," "Like Crazy," "Star Trek").

The first selected reading came from “Legion,” a screenplay written by Frank DeJohn and David Alton Hedges. DeJohn, a businessman from Santa Ynez, California, and Hedges, a SWAT team leader from Santa Barbara, California, heard their words come to life in a scene involving  Roman legionnaires observing the spear-filled showdown between their Celtic scout and an imposing Germanic warrior.  This was one of many vivid moments that impressed the presenter, Academy Award winning actress and committee member Eva Marie Saint. DeJohn and Hedges gave articulate, gracious speeches, including a potent moment reflecting on a writer’s familiarity and need for quiet moments of introspection even when “someone was shooting at me.”

Offering stark contrast to that action-packed opener was a hilariously colorful scene from “Joe Banks” by Patty Jones from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. In this highlight, a young man named Sam grapples with the aftermath of a drunken fight with his just identified father, an “airport” novelist far from the Nobel Prize winning DNA his mother had led him to believe resulted in his conception.  The many colorful, masculine turns of phrase here had initially convinced presenter and writer Dana Stevens that the author had to be a man, and she was shocked to learn that the writer of “Joe Banks” was a woman.  Jones’ acceptance speech was just as witty and winning as her dialogue. She was particularly pleased by the live read on the stage, a symbol of writers’ ultimate dreams: to hear their words spoken up on the silver screen. Well, that “and someone to make us a grilled cheese sandwich.”

A trip to 19th-century England came next in “Queen of Hearts,” a delicate drama penned by Stephanie Shannon. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, soon better known to the world as Lewis Carroll, has a memorable encounter demonstrating photography to a young girl named Alice, the daughter of an Oxford dean, and finds her mother making a very different sort of impression in the process. The presenter, London-born producer Peter Samuelson, was convinced that this was an “authentic British voice” waiting to be discovered (“It’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ all over again”), only to find out even more impressively that Shannon originally hailed from Dallas, Texas. Shannon shared her own personal moment of inspiration, a confession to her grandmother after a viewing of “Gone with the Wind” that she wanted to write movies, too – something that seemed impossible at the time for someone living in Texas.

Local voices of a different kind were on display next in “Jersey City Story” by Suffern, New York’s Alan Roth. Here a pro basketball star named Poe is accosted by a headstrong senior citizen and finds his blustering, angry façade cracked by a young boy named Paulie courtesy of a toy basketball net with special sentimental significance. The presenter, writer Tom Rickman, explained that a writer not only has to have a good ear, as the popular advice goes, but have other keen attributes as well from eyes  to touch to heart. Roth’s acceptance ranged from his humorous answer to the question in school of what he wanted to be when he grew up (“Leo Tolstoy!”) to a touching promise he made to write his script and share the moment that inspired it involving his godson, the child of a late dear friend.

Finally, the character study “Sugar in My Veins” displayed the authoritative voice of Barbara Stepansky, a Polish-born writer now living in Burbank, California. With quick brushstrokes, the excerpted scene portrayed a confessional car ride between a young man named Ray and Jillian, the 14-year-old little sister of the woman he’s dating. Stepansky expressed gratitude to her presenter, producer Robert W. Shapiro, and she shared a pivotal moment at Sundance where she approached a filmmaker of a film she admired for an autograph. The film was “Blue Car”; the writer and director was Academy Nicholl fellow Karen Moncrieff. The autograph was more than a signature, offering a piece of advice that everyone in the room could take to heart: “You can do it, too.”

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