Brow Beat

Is the Whiplash Screenplay Adapted, or Original? The WGA and the Academy Can’t Agree.

Adapted or original? 

Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

So far this awards season, the controversies have mostly centered on the contenders’ alleged historical inaccuracies and failures to distribute screeners (leading, apparently, to at least one surprising snub), but now a new issue has arisen: It seems that the Writers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can’t agree on what makes a screenplay “original” versus “adapted.”

The film in question is Whiplash, which, Deadline’s Pete Hammond reports, is facing an unprecedented obstacle set in its path by the academy. Writer-director Damien Chazelle has given countless interviews about his deeply personal relationship to the film—his past experience in a competitive jazz band served as his inspiration—and up until now, the film has seemed a likely competitor for Best Original Screenplay. The WGA, which announces its nominees tomorrow, has put Whiplash in this category.

But distributor Sony Pictures Classics and Chazelle were surprised to learn that the jazz school drama is listed under the Adapted Screenplay category on the Oscar ballots that were distributed at the end of last month. And they weren’t the only ones: An academy member for the writer’s branch wrote Hammond to bemoan the fact that he “searched and searched” for Whiplash under the Original Screenplay category, until he finally found it under Adapted Screenplay. “The academy has made a HUGE mistake!” the member said.

The reason why the academy ruled the screenplay “adapted”? Though the film was originally conceived and written as a feature film about the relationship between a tyrannical instructor and an aspiring drummer, Chazelle filmed an early scene from the script “as sort of a proof of concept,” as Simmons described it, in order to secure financing. This was presented at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the short film jury award for fiction. Later that year, it was announced that it would be made into a feature filmWhiplash is not the first film to take such a creative route, as Hammond points out—in 2008, Frozen River began in essentially the same way, and yet the academy still classified it as an original screenplay.

The academy so far has remained silent on why it chose to treat Whiplash differently—a Sony Pictures Vice-President told Hammond that they have been given no explanation. But this odd development could be harmful for Chazelle’s Oscar chances—or for whatever adapted screenplay on the fringes (WildSnowpiercer?) that Whiplash could now beat out.