Mr. Logan, a Tony-winning playwright turned screenwriter whose credits include Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” and Mr. Scorsese’s “Aviator,” set about reworking the story, based on Brian Selznick’s children’s book about an orphaned boy (Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station.
“I was looking for opportunities to make that a very physically active journey,” Mr. Logan said. So he had Hugo traverse the station’s innards; scenes with dogs were also added, a Doberman and a dachshund, “long dogs that looked good” in 3-D.
Even with much prep and the involvement of veterans like the production designer Dante Ferretti, the movie was a challenge to produce: Mr. Scorsese’s first foray into 3-D and HD filmmaking, and his first time working at length with children and animals, meant lots of on-set changes. An electrifying 3-D moment when a train crashes through the station was added late in the process.
“When we decided to put that in, I had to find a way to justify it, to justify the train crash, and so we came up with a dream-within-the-dream” sequence, Mr. Logan said, adding, “I felt like Stephen Sondheim writing ‘Send in the Clowns’ overnight.”
All told, Mr. Logan said “Hugo” was far and away the hardest movie he had ever worked on, and that includes his Sondheim adaptation. “It makes ‘Sweeney Todd’ look like ‘My Dinner With André,’ ” he said.
He was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay, his third nomination, and one of 11 for the movie. (He had also been nominated for his original screenplays for “Gladiator” and “The Aviator.”) Mr. Logan is one of the few veterans in the screenplay categories this year; many of the other hopefuls are first-time screenwriters.
On Oscar night, Feb. 26, after picks by groups like the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild and others will have made the rest of the Oscar race easier to predict, the writing categories may remain a toss-up. Will voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences skew to Hollywood favorites, like Woody Allen, who received his 15th screenplay nomination for “Midnight in Paris,” or Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, previous winners who adapted the famously difficult-to-wrangle “Moneyball”?
Or will they reward unorthodox original-screenplay nominees like Asghar Farhadi, the writer-director of the Iranian family drama “A Separation,” or J. C. Chandor, for the financial thriller “Margin Call”? The writing Oscars often hold surprises.
(As in years past, many Oscar nominees were not eligible for Writers Guild prizes, so those awards may not have that much bearing on the Oscars race.)
For many hopefuls, a nomination is the culmination of a long and strange trip to movie screens. When Judd Apatow invited Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig to try writing a screenplay, Ms. Wiig and Ms. Mumolo, longtime friends who had met in the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings, pretty quickly came up with the idea for “Bridesmaids,” an original screenplay nominee. That was in 2006.
Then they pretty quickly had second thoughts. A few days after pitching “Bridesmaids” to Mr. Apatow, they told him they had another idea. “And he said, ‘Oh, I already sold the other one to Universal,’ ” Ms. Mumolo recalled. “We were like: What? So we just ended up settling into it.”
The inspiration came from bits and pieces of their own lives. “That was my exact car,” Ms. Mumolo said of Ms. Wiig’s clunker in the film. “I had a maroon Mitsubishi Mirage. But mine had the windows duct-taped on — one was duct-taped and one was just hanging. And I would drive around and go to these fancy parties as each of my friends got engaged, got married.”
As first-time screenwriters, they had few expectations. “We were hoping to get it made,” Ms. Mumolo said. “That was kind of our main goal, like: ‘Can we get this movie made? Oh my gosh, it would be crazy if we got this movie made!’ ”
To prepare, they read some books on scriptwriting and watched a how-to DVD from Syd Field, a screenwriting guru. Their script changed substantially from the first table read in 2007 to the shoot. The director, Paul Feig, had the cast do the scenes as written and then improvise, while Ms. Wiig and Ms. Mumolo handed him notes as they punched up their own material — a trial for anybody but seasoned comedians, and not typical for Oscar contenders. Since 2000, only 11 screenplays that credit women as writers or co-writers have been nominated, and only two of those — “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Bridesmaids” — are true comedies.
Ms. Mumolo, who appears briefly in the movie as Ms. Wiig’s nervous seatmate on a plane, was also eight months pregnant during the shoot. “Seventeen hours a day — it was a challenge, I’ll just say that,” she said.
More Groundlings — Jim Rash and Nat Faxon — are represented in “The Descendants,” also written by the director, Alexander Payne. Jim Burke, a producer of “The Descendants,” asked Mr. Rash and Mr. Faxon to adapt Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel of the same title, whose rights he had bought even before publication, because he liked the Hawaiian setting.
But the book is written in the first person, with interior monologues from the point of view of Matt King (George Clooney). Getting out of that perspective “was certainly a challenge,” Mr. Faxon said, “because you wanted to understand this character, and in the book it was so well described, because he could tell you exactly how he was feeling.” The solution came from Mr. Payne: an opening voice-over that gives the background.
Mr. Payne, the writer-director of “Sideways,” for which he won a screenplay Oscar, schooled Mr. Rash and Mr. Faxon (also an actor in movies like “Zookeeper” and “Bad Teacher”) on how to balance comedy and emotion.
“I think that was something that was very beneficial for us to watch,” said Mr. Rash, who plays the college dean on the TV series “Community.” “Applying his tone, and watching him work, not only in the writing but as a director.”
For Mr. Chandor, the writer-director of “Margin Call,” the test was finding any sentiment in the financial meltdown of 2008. “Our film has always suffered from the fact that it doesn’t sound that good on paper,” he said. “It’s not the most heartwarming, feel-good movie.”
It was also difficult to structure: it mostly takes place after hours in an anonymous office building, as Wall Streeters talk complicated financial failings to one another. Mr. Chandor, a former director for commercials, wrote the script while he worked as a real estate broker, keeping it a secret even from his family.
Eventually he hit on the idea of pacing it like a tension-filled procedural. The device of having one piece of information travel up the chain of command gave the story a needed momentum, Mr. Chandor said. “The underlying factor of the whole movie is that this is not the day for choices — that was years ago,” he said. There lay the drama, for the audience, and for the filmmakers.
Because even for experienced screenwriters like Mr. Logan (who in addition to adapting Mr. Scorsese’s “Hugo” also wrote this season’s animation nominee “Rango,” as well as Ralph Fiennes’s “Coriolanus”), keeping the right perspective on a project, as it changes shape and stretches out for years, is a struggle.
“The temptation, since Marty and I are veterans, is that you become cynical about the art form,” Mr. Logan said. In making “Hugo,” “we were careful to talk about movies as magic. Marty kept saying, ‘Look at movies as a form of enchantment.’