Reading award winning scripts is one of the best ways to learn how to write a screenplay.
Let’s jump right into one of my favorite genres—historical drama, aka the “biopic.”
The biggest factor that increases the odds of selling your screenplay is getting a movie star attached to the project. So it’s worth looking at these award-winning scripts, not only for the excellent writing, but to see how the writers created roles that are “movie-star bait.”
In addition to these award-winning scripts, I’ve highlighted the challenges and triumphs of these screenwriters who persevered for years before their projects were produced.
7 Award Winning Scripts (Biopics)
12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Here’s how it started: screenwriter John Ridley met with director Steve McQueen to discuss working on a project together. However, it was McQueen’s wife (a historian) who had discovered Solomon Northrup’s book. After reading the book Ridley said, “I could not believe I had grown up in the States and not been aware of this individual, Solomon Northup, and his circumstances and his story.”
“One of the things you have to keep in mind, believe it or not, there is more slavery going on in the world today, right now, than there was at that time.”
Ridley shares a moving story [1:45] about receiving a letter from his neighbor after seeing the film.Discuss The 12 Years A Slave Movie Script
Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyer’s Club was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Initially, screenwriter Craig Borten knew the pitch for his film was a tough sell.
“This was the elevator pitch for my film: ‘It’s a story about a racist homophobe with AIDS who befriends a man who dresses as a woman. Then they both die.'”
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack worked for many years and getting Dallas Buyer’s Club made was an extraordinary saga.
Borten and Wallack share how they started working on the project and the many financing challenges they encountered throughout the process of getting the film made.Discuss The Dallas Buyers Club Movie Script
The Iron Lady
The Iron Lady was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay.
Screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan said, “When I was first approached about writing a film about Margaret Thatcher, there was a very good script in place. But at the time, the small screen had suddenly been inundated by some very brilliant films covering her early years.” Morgan watched the many other projects and had to come up with her own take on the material.
“It would not only be a study of power, but also loss of power. The ability of the mind to play tricks and rewind one’s life would provide a structure, a form for the chaos of a rich and powerful life. I approached this as I would approach any other subject.”
Discuss The Iron Lady Movie Script
“I am a writer of fiction, that is my job. To find something beyond the real: truth in artifice.”
The King's Speech
The King’s Speech won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Screenwriter David Seidler shared, “It only took me a couple of months to write a first draft of the script. I wasn’t happy with the results so I showed it to my then wife. She said it had ‘some rather nice scenes’ (so diplomatic) but I was being ‘seduced by cinematic technique’. Harrumph.
She then suggested, purely as an exercise, I write it first as a stage play. This would force me to focus on the key relationship. After all, the core of The King’s Speech is two men in a consultation room; if I could get that tent pole right, everything else could be hung from it like Christmas tree ornaments.”
After The King’s Speech was a box office success, Seidler said,
Discuss The King's Speech Movie Script
“I have a 1,000% better chance than a few years ago of getting work. If I’d walked into a studio five years ago and said, ‘I want to make this film about a dead Brit king who stutters’ I’d have been out the door in 60 seconds. Now they’re very interested in what I have to say.”
Lincoln Movie Script
Lincoln was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner revealed,
“I had said, ‘No’ to writing the screenplay. I just thought, ‘This is impossible.’ I had started to read Team of Rivals which is an 800-page four-way political biography, the living definition of a book that can’t be adapted. I knew enough about Lincoln to know that I would be dealing with somebody who was a genius on the level of Shakespeare, Mozart, and I really think that he was one of those people. You can’t win because the minute you explain how they do the really superhuman things that they do, you’ve failed because, of course, we have no idea how they do them. If we did, we could all go out and write Hamlet.”
“You can always smell in a film or a play when the research has crushed the spontaneity of the thing and you feel the pages turning in a quiet library, instead of something lively and exciting.”
“You want to be able to invent within reason. My guideline is, ‘Did it happen this way? Did it happen at all?’ If the answer is, ‘No,’ then it’s pure fiction. If the answer is, ‘Yes, it happened,’ then it’s historical fiction. ‘Did it happen exactly like this?’ If the answer is, ‘Yes,’ it’s history.”Discuss The Lincoln Movie Script
Milk was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black shared, “This is a spec script and a spec script is really just a lot of paper and ink. It’s just a lot of paper and ink and credit card bills on top of everything else until a team of people come together who really believe in it and they lift it up. I don’t know if you’re aware, but this wasn’t the easiest subject matter to produce, it’s pretty gay, and it’s political.”
“So why did I want to spend five years with this Harvey Milk guy? Honestly, it’s the longest relationship I’ve been able to maintain.”
In this video, Black shares his very personal story of contemplating suicide as he testifies about the importance of having a Harvey Milk Day in California. Harvey Milk Day passed and Black gave a touching introduction to a screening of Milk in the Castro on Harvey Milk Day.Discuss The Milk Movie Script
The Wolf Of Wall Street
The Wolf Of Wall Street was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Screenwriter Terrence Winter said, “Being a screenwriter was my deep, dark secret. I grew up in Brooklyn in a fairly blue-collar environment and anything to do with Hollywood was something other people did. I had gone to a vocational high school, I originally studied to be an auto mechanic, once I finagled my way into NYU, I paid for it myself, and I worked at night. I did every job under the sun to do that. I was a hospital security guard at an emergency room in Brooklyn. I drove a cab. I was the guy who delivered the NY Times in the middle of the night. I was a waiter. I was a doorman on the midnight-8 AM shift at a building on the Upper East side for a couple years and then ultimately went to law school. Did that, hated it, but figured, everybody hates their job. I didn’t count on how much I would actually hate it.
Couple years in, I just woke up one morning and was like, “I can’t do this.”
“I can’t deny what I actually wanted to do and that was to be a writer.”
Once I was able to say that out loud, I just said, “Alright, I’m getting on a plane and coming out to LA and doing it. If it fails, you can always go back to doing something else.”
“The idea of flashing forward a few decades into the future and getting to work with him [Scorsese], beyond anything I could imagine. I think at any moment, I think the alarm clock is going to go off and I’m going to be late for my job at the delicatessen in Brooklyn.”Discuss The Wolf Of Wall Street Movie Script