“I was always buried in comic books, or sitting right underneath the television, or sneaking into another movie after I’d gone to see one. I was always that kid,” says Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virgil Williams. He began his career as an actor, but through his teens and into his 20s, Virgil realized there was a freedom that came with writing. “You don’t need anything to write. And I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any resources. To be an actor, you need a scene. To be a director, you need a crew and a camera. But to be a writer, you don’t need anything or anyone. That made it very accessible.”
Virgil is constantly reading other writers’ work to help improve his own. “The writer’s dilemma is: How do I say that? This thing that I’m seeing, how do I say that so everybody knows what to do? So that costume, and actors, and everybody knows where they’re going?” He watches how his peers think and unpack those questions. To not do that would be counterintuitive. “It’d be like if you were an athlete and you didn’t watch other games,” he says. “That would be crazy. If [a filmmaker] didn’t study film, that would be just crazy.”
Below, Virgil, who received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination, along with Dee Rees, for Mudbound, shares his five favorite screenplays with A.frame. Read about the making of his latest script, A Journal for Jordan, here.
I went to USC, but I did not get accepted into the film school, so I knew that, graduating, I would need something on my resume. One of the best internships I got was at Orion Pictures when Orion was making movies like Dances With Wolves and Platoon. They had free screenings and my head exploded because I could bring a friend. It was like, “Free movies. Yeah, I’ll work for free. Are they kidding?” The day that I read [Ted Tally’s screenplay for] The Silence of the Lambs, and then hours later went and saw it, it was like, “Oh.” That’s when it started. That’s when I think the secondary fuse was lit. There’s a sentimental element to that screenplay because that really was the one that made the light go on. Plus, I think it’s such a brilliant thriller. Thank God the one that made the light go on was really, really good.
Again, a dark one. Here’s the trick that he pulls off in Se7en: They don’t even catch [the killer]. They never catch him. They follow him around the whole time and he turns himself in. You know what I mean? And I think that’s brilliant. [Screenwriter] Andrew Kevin Walker leads you down a path. I wrote for procedural crime shows for so long, and he just breaks this cardinal sin. They don’t catch him, and it’s all okay. It’s all perfect. It’s just a perfect thriller.
I thought it was such dark genius, the methods he came up with to kill these people. This treasure trove of clues that these men had to hunt this guy down. The pace of it. The idea of it. I’m okay when things are predictable; it’s execution to me. That’s always the question. It was all that. It’s just a great script. I can talk about that one for a long time.
I’m in love with that idea of: What do you do with your time that you have here? Because it could be finite, and the Creator could just take you at any second. You give your life value. You have to decide what your life is right this second because you don’t know what your expiration date is. And lines like, “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” I mean, it’s fantastic. I love that movie [written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples].
My parents allowed me to watch movies I probably shouldn’t have watched at a very young age. And that was one of the first movies I saw in a theater. I remember just loving the movie as a kid. It’s a taut thriller, it’s scary. And I love that there’s a female hero. That movie came out in the ’70s; you didn’t see that then. [Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon] created a template for heroines to come in cinema, and I just thought that was dope. I thought that was a bold stroke. At some point, somebody questioned, “A woman? Really?” And someone had to fight for that. So I appreciate that. Especially on the page.
How are you going to make Hitler funny? How are you going to do that? First of all, just the audacity. I remember thinking to myself when the movie first came out, “Wait a minute, that’s a little disrespectful, isn’t it?” And I think [writer-director] Taika [Waititi] is a genius. That dude made Hitler hilarious. And at the same time, the proper comeuppance. All of it was: How are you going to do that? The last time you see Sam Rockwell’s character running through frame, finally living his dream, I just thought it was beautiful. It was beautiful, funny, audacious, out of its mind. I couldn’t do it. It’s probably one of the things that I’m most in love with about Jojo Rabbit. Writer envy. I could not do that.