Despite the fact that it had happened three times before for Eric Roth and it was an entirely new experience for Lance Black, Oscar nomination announcements had both men up early with their televisions, tuned to their local news channel. As the sun began to rise over Los Angeles last month, Roth and Black rubbed their eyes as they realized that they were both Oscar nominees.
“You’re always surprised when you’re nominated,” said Eric Roth, screenwriter of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” “You don’t write in mind for winning awards. It’s a feeling of accomplishment. It’s always a complicated set of emotions since it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s still nice to be recognized.”
Roth and Black join the cinematic elite as they compete at the 81st Annual Academy Awards in “Best Adapted Screenplay” and “Best Original Screenplay,” respectively. The two men join three UCLA alumni and students who are up for awards this year. Both men are at different points in their careers. Roth is already renowned for penning films such as “Forrest Gump” and “Munich,” while “Milk” is Black’s first film to encroach upon the mainstream. Despite these differences, the excitement of winning on Oscar night never dies, no matter how many times it has happened before.
“I popped out of bed at 4:30 (a.m.) and just started doing dishes and laundry,” Black said. “It’s not very glamorous, but I was waiting for the ABC telecast. I wasn’t breathing probably for a good two minutes, and then I had a bottle of champagne that I got when I was doing a press tour in Paris. I grabbed that and drove up the hill to Dan Jacobs (producer of “Milk”), and at 6:30 in the morning we popped a bottle and starting drinking.”
The two writers are nominated in different categories ““ Roth is nominated for “Best Adapted Screenplay,” while Black is nominated for a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar. Roth’s script was an invention of his own, loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, and Black’s script was based on research about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected into public office.
Although he is in the “Adapted” category, Roth said that the writing itself was “all original.”
“You just have to be respectful of the material that you are getting it from and dramatize best way you know how,” Roth said. “The originality of an adaptation depends on the quality of the material and how much the material provides to (allow) how much one could veer away from the original source.”
For Black, who graduated from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 1997, the script for “Milk” was years in the making. While he might not have started tangible work on the story until 2004, the story of Harvey Milk was in his mind since the age of 13. To Black, “Milk” was more about a story of a man he admired: It was a call to action meant to inspire the public to stand up for what they believed in.
“It’s more than a pet project ““ it’s a passion project,” Black said. “You hear people say, “˜This is my reason for being here. This is my compass.’ For me, that’s “˜Milk.’ I wanted to maybe inspire the younger generation to start becoming activists in a grassroots way. There’s a lot of stuff that still needs changing ““ not just gay rights.”
Roth’s work on the “Benjamin Button” narrative took a different personal approach. Always attracted to storytelling, Roth had won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award in 1970 while he was receiving his master’s from the School of Theater, Film and Television. Constantly drawing on aspects that affect him while he writes, he delved into his own ideas about the meaning of life and death for “Benjamin Button.”
“You take inspiration from all sorts of things,” Roth said. “For “˜Benjamin Button,” my mom passing away at the time was the biggest moment in my life at that point. It brought up my own feelings about personal mortality.”
As tired and cliche as it sounds, it’s true in both cases that the nominations have turned the films into winners, but not for the typical reasons. For “Milk,” it gave the film much needed publicity to release the film nationwide instead of just select cities, a decision made by Focus Features that Black believes was only because of the Oscar nod.
“This is a film that was doing exceptionally well at the box office in major cities,” Black said. “We always felt like we’re the underdogs, and after the Golden Globes, it was so exciting to have that recognition. We hadn’t yet expanded it to the places like where I’m from, small towns in middle America ““ perhaps some of the redder states where I think the message is more important.”
Roth’s hope for “Benjamin Button” is that the benefits that resulted from the hard work of director David Fincher and the cast and crew will last longer than Oscar night. Already resigned to the fact that he believes he will lose to other nominees who are getting more buzz, Roth just hopes that people will remember his work for years to come.
“I love David’s work on the film,” Roth said. “I hope everyone associated with the film gets something, but if not, it’s a wonderful movie that hopefully will last a long time.”