The 17th annual Final Draft Awards took place Wednesday with a virtual ceremony, during which filmmakers Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley), Nicole Holofcener (The Last Duel) and Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall) earned honors for their screenwriting. Television honorees included Dopesick creator/showrunner Danny Strong and Yellowjackets creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson.
In a break from tradition, honorees were paired with another writer for 15-minute conversations about the craft and process of screenwriting and the challenges they faced on their respective projects.
The New Voice Award (TV) was presented to Lyle and Nickerson, the creators of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, who were joined in conversation with EP and co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco. For the ensemble-driven drama series, Lyle pointed out that their process usually begins with a focus on their characters. “The first thing that we always do with any new project is start to talk about the characters and build out the world through the people who inhabit it,” said Lyle. “Before we get into plot, before we get into story and structure, we really just start talking about these people. I refer to them as ‘people’ and not ‘characters’ — which is a little silly, maybe, but it’s very real to us.”
Speaking of the writing that happens in a script that does not make it into the final product, Nickerson said it’s all beneficial and part of the process. “There is use in any articulation of a thought, to refine it and distill it. My favorite part — of the part that is my least favorite, which is [putting] words on the page — is how much things change there and how much you’ve learned. Even if it is an outtake or something that gets cut, I feel like I get to know the character better.”
Added Lyle: “You have to trust the process that takes you there is going to be the process, and sometimes that means that you spend 80 percent of your time on the first 10 pages. Sometimes it’s writing monologues that you end up cutting out because they formed something that you discovered about characters.”
Writer-director Samuel, whose Netflix Western The Harder They Fall (co-written with Boaz Yakin) earned him the New Voice Award (Film), also reflected on his writing process and how he combats the dreaded writer’s block. “I don’t have to do much else but tell stories,” said Samuel. A realization came to him early in his childhood, in which he lived in “the hood, so to speak,” of West London. “We didn’t really have a choice to get writer’s block. We were literally right on the block, and we had to write to get off of it. … When you feel blocked, and you have nothing to write, use your fingers — put pen to paper, and write anything. It will all make sense after you come back on it and turn it around.”
Storyteller Award (Film) honoree Holofcener, who co-wrote 20th Century Studios’ The Last Duel with stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, joined playwright Bess Wohl in conversation and spoke about where she finds her ideas. “The spark is very personal, and [my ideas] come from my life and my friends’ lives and things that I find really curious and interesting,” said Holofcener. “I am my own muse. I am happy to make fun of myself and put all my problems out there — things that I want to learn from myself, but even I don’t learn anything. People will say, ‘Was that cathartic, because you got that out?’ No, it wasn’t, but it was really thrilling to do.”
Two-time Emmy winner Strong received the Storyteller Award (TV) for Hulu’s Dopesick, which depicted the opioid crisis in America from different vantage points, ranging from those who became addicted to pain medication to the Sackler family, whose Purdue Pharma initiated the crisis with the production of OxyContin. To get into the mindset of Purdue’s former chairman and president Richard Sackler, Strong turned to a therapist friend who had “a deep understanding of drama”: the wife of his friend Anthony McCarten, a four-time Oscar nominee who joined Strong in conversation for the Final Draft Awards.
“I started talking about the character to get a psychological understanding of Richard Sackler, and then she said, ‘Well, do you want to roleplay?’” Strong recalled of the therapy session. “We did a session in which I was Richard Sackler, and she was asking me questions. It was incredible. It was extremely fun to do, but it gave me a visceral insight into what was happening with him.”
Writer-director Jane Campion continued her winning streak for Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, earning the inaugural Trailblazer Award for her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel. Joined by writer-director Rebecca Miller, Campion discussed how blown away she was when she read Savage’s book, particularly by its structure. “I could feel the structure there, that it would not be too difficult to pull out the presence, the forward-running story structure of it,” Campion said, noting that she omitted many of the book’s flashbacks to the beguiling (but, in the film, unseen) character of Bronco Henry. “There was a desire to really build something very carefully and strongly.”
Closing out the virtual ceremony was Nightmare Alley director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, a two-time Oscar winner who was honored with the Hall of Fame Award. Del Toro began his speech by saying he considers himself a writer first. “I have written or co-written 34 screenplays in my lifetime, and I have only done about 11 movies,” said the Mexico-born auteur. “I have been three times more prolific as a writer than as a director, and every one of those screenplays is a maddening puzzle that takes between seven to 12 months to solve.”
Like Campion, del Toro focuses much of his work on story structure, even if the beginning, middle and end of a story may not come immediately. “Most of the time, you start with images or moments that are loose, and you try to hinge them on something,” explained del Toro. “But the process is always the same. What is the emotion that is making the story worthwhile? What do I want to provoke in the audience? Do I want them to be moved? Do I want them to be horrified? Do I want them to be elated? What is that emotion? That tone tries to stay alive throughout the writing process.”