Per­sonal TOUCH


Variety - - Contenders - by AKIVA GOTTLIEB

fol­low­ing a tra­di­tional play­book, the movies con­tend­ing for the best pic­ture Os­car some­times at­tempt to jus­tify their worth through an ap­peal to his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance. But this year, things have taken a more per­sonal turn, with sto­ries that come from the heart.

In Al­fonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” for ex­am­ple, the direc­tor’s in­ti­mate con­nec­tion to the story of his child­hood in a sub­urb of Mex­ico City, told through the eyes of his fam­ily’s maid, is pal­pa­ble in ev­ery frame. “A Star Is Born” adapts an old, fa­mil­iar Hol­ly­wood prop­erty, but direc­tor Bradley Cooper has said he mined “the deep­est parts of my­self” to tell a story about fame, ad­dic­tion and bro­ken re­la­tion­ships.

Other films are pas­sion projects for their direc­tors: Barry Jenk­ins has long wanted to bring James Bald­win’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” to the screen, while Adam Mckay

con­tin­ues his in­ci­sive so­cial commentary with “Vice,” ex­am­in­ing Dick Cheney’s rise to power.

“Blackkklans­man,” Spike Lee’s his­tor­i­cal drama about Ron Stall­worth, an African-amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cer in Colorado who in­fil­trates a lo­cal branch of the Ku Klux Klan, was based on Stall­worth’s own mem­oir.

But ac­cord­ing to Kevin Will­mott, who col­lab­o­rated on the screen­play with Lee, David Rabi­nowitz and Char­lie Wach­tel, “Un­for­tu­nately, I think this was very per­sonal for both of us. There are just so many con­nec­tions to what’s hap­pen­ing right now. Both [Spike and I] have fought against racism our en­tire lives, and it’s be­come an in­creas­ingly big­ger prob­lem in the last cou­ple years.”

In writ­ing the script, Will­mott drew upon not just present-day par­al­lels, but also fam­ily his­tory. “My fa­ther was a light-skinned black man, and there were times when he had to pass, when he would go out to west­ern Kansas to work on con­struc­tion jobs,” Will­mott says. “He told me sto­ries where, to stay in the ho­tel, you had to be white, so his white [col­leagues] would say to the ho­tel clerk, ‘he’s not black, he’s In­dian,’ or ‘he’s Ital­ian.’ And so [while writ­ing] the film, I thought about my fa­ther, who was passed by oth­ers be­cause of the in­con­ve­nience of seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

“Blackkklans­man” fea­tures a mem­o­rable per­for­mance by To­pher Grace as a young David Duke, who was grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and later traded robes for busi­ness suits to move into pol­i­tics. Will­mott not only knew Duke as a rep­re­hen­si­ble pub­lic fig­ure, but he also re­ceived cor­re­spon­dence from him.

“I was pres­i­dent of the stu­dent body at Mary­mount Col­lege in Salina, Kan., in 1980,” Will­mott says. “David Duke was head of the NAAWP, the Na­tional Assn. for the Ad­vance­ment of White Peo­ple. You can’t make this stuff up. [He sent me] a form let­ter. He was try­ing to get speak­ing gigs at uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges. When we were writ­ing the David Duke char­ac­ter, I re­mem­bered the let­ter. Shortly af­ter he wrote me that let­ter, he was elected as a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Louisiana.”

Let­ters also played a role in the in­cep­tion of “Green Book,” which screen­writer Nick Val­le­longa based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of his fa­ther, Tony, who drove the black con­cert pi­anist Dr. Don Shirley on a con­cert tour through the Jim Crow South in the early ’60s. Though Val­le­longa had grown up hear­ing his dad’s sto­ries about the ex­pe­ri­ence, he didn’t se­ri­ously con­sider mak­ing a movie un­til his mother brought him all the let­ters that his fa­ther had writ­ten her from the road.

“I re­mem­ber when Dr. Shirley came over for Christ­mas Eve,” Val­le­longa says, re­fer­ring to a mo­ment that’s dra­ma­tized at the end of Peter Far­relly’s film. “And then dur­ing the course of that year, my dad brought me up to Dr. Shirley’s apart­ment above Carnegie Hall, which was quite amaz­ing, like Dorothy walking from black and white into color. He had a throne, and floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, grand pi­anos, chan­de­liers, all these ar­ti­facts, and he sat me on the throne as he played pi­ano for me. I re­mem­ber be­ing a lit­tle child, hear­ing the sto­ries from my fa­ther, and then as an adult I thought ‘Wow, this would make a great movie,’ and re­ally get­ting se­ri­ous speak­ing to him about it.

“As an adult, I started re­ally ques­tion­ing him,” Val­le­longa says. “And then he started telling me more details and [so] I started tape record­ing his sto­ries. And even­tu­ally when it got more se­ri­ous, he said, ‘well, if you re­ally want to do this, you have to talk to Dr. Shirley, and get his side of the story and his per­mis­sion to do it.’ And that’s what I did.”

Val­le­longa says Shirley’s me­mories mostly tracked with those of his fa­ther, though he pro­vided a unique ad­di­tional per­spec­tive. As a doc­tor of psy­chol­ogy, Shirley said he treated Val­le­longa Sr. as a kind of case study in hu­man be­hav­ior.

Shirley also asked the son not to make a film of the story un­til he had died, and Val­le­longa re­spected his wishes. “He’s from an­other era, and he was a very pri­vate per­son. He was in con­trol of his pub­lic per­sona, and maybe there were things he didn’t want re­vealed. It was very clear to me what he wanted and what he didn’t want, and his per­mis­sion to me was to make the story about his time with my dad, but not much else about him.”

In turn­ing the story of as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong into the screen­play for Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” Josh Singer con­sulted with the sur­viv­ing Arm­strong fam­ily, in­clud­ing his two sons.“this guy’s an Amer­i­can icon who no­body knows,” Singer says. “Try­ing to get at who he re­ally was, we couldn’t have done it with­out them. They were our first au­di­ence.”

On pa­per, “First Man” might not look like a text­book “per­sonal” film, and Singer didn’t have any first­hand deep-space ex­pe­ri­ence. But he doesn’t see the moon land­ing as the core of the Arm­strong story.

“To me, this is a film about grief and par­ent­hood,” Singer says. Neil and Janet Arm­strong lost their daugh­ter, Karen, to a brain tu­mor when she was 2½ years old.“i have a good friend of the fam­ily who passed away when he was 35. I’ll never for­get the way his par­ents looked, and think­ing, ‘oh, that’s the worst thing that could ever hap­pen to you.’ And now that I have a 2½-year-old, all of my fears about life, 99% of them are about his well-be­ing.”

Singer says he drew upon a quote that a men­tor shared with him af­ter his fa­ther died. In a let­ter that Sa­muel Beck­ett sent to the­ater direc­tor Alan Sch­nei­der, he said, “in the very as­sur­ance of sor­row’s fad­ing, there is more sor­row.”“to me, that’s what the whole movie’s about,” Singer says.

Even the year’s big­gest movie, one based on an ex­tremely pop­u­lar comic book se­ries, is viewed by its cre­ators as a per­sonal film. “Black Pan­ther” screen­writer Joe Robert Cole says the film rep­re­sents the ful­fill­ment of a wish from his own child­hood.

“I’m an only child and I played make-believe a lot,” he says. “I would change all the names. So in­stead of Bat­man, it would be Black­man. And in­stead of James Bond, he was James Black. My Su­per­man had a black cos­tume. I would pre­tend and I just changed them all. They had the same char­ac­ter­is­tics and did the same things, but I made them into my im­age.”

Though Cole came up through the Marvel Stu­dios writ­ers pro­gram, he stresses that he was never a comic-book reader. The writ­ers pro­gram “was my first in­tro­duc­tion to it,” he says, and specif­i­cally to the Christo­pher Priest run of “Black Pan­ther.” But he didn’t need to know the source text to know what he wanted to see on­screen.

“I grew up lov­ing he­roes and anti-he­roes and watch­ing movies and car­toons and I just al­ways wanted to see one that looked like me.”

Page to Screen Though based on the Marvel comic book, “Black Pan­ther” was a very per­sonal story for co- writ­ers Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler, who also di­rected.

Fam­ily Leg­endThe script for "Green Book" was co-writ­ten by Nick Val­le­longa, based on sto­ries his fa­ther Tony ( played in the film by Viggo Mortensen) would tell him.

Aim­ing Sky High Ryan Gosling as as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong in "First Man."

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