Former actor has a shot at winning screenplay Oscar

Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay for Hell Or High Water (above).
Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay for Hell Or High Water (above).PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

LOS ANGELES • Because he was told that neo-westerns were box-office poison, and he wrote the screenplay for Hell Or High Water anyway, resulting in one of the few Hollywood films of last year to shine a light on red-state America.

Because, as a former actor, he creates vivid characters that are fun to perform.

Because he was overlooked by Oscar voters for his last script, the much-admired drug thriller Sicario (2015). Could voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences talk themselves into giving Taylor Sheridan the trophy for Best Original Screenplay?

With a little more than a week to go before ballots are due, the annual Oscar race has officially entered the stage where voters can grow bored with the sure bets - repeated for months by prognostication outfits such as GoldDerby.com - and look for smaller ways to reward films that have little chance of winning bigger prizes. Fitting that bill this time may be Sheridan, a nominee for Hell Or High Water.

The square-jawed Sheridan, 46, who quit his journeyman acting career in 2011 and moved to Wyoming, is not the front-runner in his category. Better positioned are establishment favourite Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote Manchester By The Sea and has been nominated by the academy for his writing twice before; and Damien Chazelle, the prodigy behind La La Land who took home the writing prize at the Golden Globes.

But Lonergan and Chazelle are vulnerable. Some voters find Lonergan's script overlong. Manchester By The Sea is also likely to be honoured in other categories, including Best Actor, where Casey Affleck is a favourite.

As for Chazelle, his screenplay has been overshadowed by his La La Land directing (collecting the top prize at the bellwether Directors Guild of America Awards) and the strong likelihood that La La Land will win Best Picture.

Hell Or High Water, a meditation on failure disguised as a cops- and-robbers chase movie, has its own disadvantages. It was released by CBS Films and Lionsgate in August, outside the traditional awards corridor. Some dislike its ambiguous ending. And it took in only US$27 million (S$38 million) at the box office - a feat for an art film that cost a lean US$12 million to make, but a niche sum all the same.

The final two films vying for the Original Screenplay Oscar have taken in even less. The Lobster, a dystopian story dreamt up by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, collected US$9.1 million. Written by Mike Mills, 20th Century Women has managed US$5 million.

But Sheridan has a shot, partly because giving him a little gold man is a way for voters to sneak some love to the film. Directed by David Mackenzie and starring Jeff Bridges as a twangy Texas marshal, Hell Or High Water is nominated for Best Picture but would not win. Sure, Bridges could triumph in the Supporting Actor contest. But Mahershala Ali seems to have that one in the bag for his tender portrayal of a drug dealer in Moonlight - especially after that emotional speech he gave at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

That leaves Sheridan.

Last Monday, at the annual Oscar nominee luncheon in Beverly Hills, he said he was still struggling to comprehend his nomination.

A win? "You feel so presumptuous to even think about it," he said quietly. He was wearing a dark suit, but he would probably have been more comfortable in a pair of mud-caked cowboy boots. Rather than flying to Los Angeles, he drove from Wyoming - a 10-hour trip - in his two-tonne truck.

Hell Or High Water is the story of brothers - one younger (Chris Pine) with "a kind face marked by years of sun and disappointment", as Sheridan described the character in his script, and one older (Ben Foster), with "an air of danger that attracts as many women as it repels". They rob West Texas banks in the throes of the Great Recession to pay back predatory bank loans and save the family homestead.

A casually racist lawman (Bridges) and his part Comanche, part Hispanic deputy (Gil Birmingham) investigate, passing through one dying town after another and meeting various characters, including one of the orneriest waitresses put on film. ("That weren't a question," she snaps, taking their T-bone steak lunch order.)

Sheridan wrote Hell Or High Water in less than three weeks.

"I don't outline," he said. "I sit down to write and I take the ride. If something starts to not feel right, I go back to the last place that felt like jazz to me."

He wrote what he knew. He grew up on a ranch near Cranfills Gap, Texas, population 277. It was a spare existence: His family had no stereo, he said, but they did have Bess, a yellow station wagon with an eight-track player. His parents sometimes sat in the car with a six-pack of beer and listened to Waylon Jennings.

The Sheridans lost their property in the early-1990s economic downturn. "Otherwise I would still be living there," Sheridan said.

Instead, he wound up in Austin after flunking out of Texas State University. One day, he was approached by a Hollywood talent scout who offered to fly him to Los Angeles.

"I figured I might as well take the free trip," he recalled. To his surprise, he began booking small roles on series such as Walker, Texas Ranger (1993 - 2001). By 2011, he had landed a regular part on Sons Of Anarchy (2008 - 2014), but he was still struggling to support his family. Conceding that his acting career had peaked, he sat down in his cramped Hollywood apartment and started writing Sicario, a dark, morally ambiguous drug-war drama with shifting protagonists.

Sicario rode strong reviews to US$85 million in worldwide ticket sales. A sequel, Soldado, may arrive later this year, as may Wind River, a thriller about a manhunt on an Indian reservation that Sheridan wrote and directed. "I had read enough scripts to know what not to do," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Former actor has a shot at winning screenplay Oscar'. Print Edition | Subscribe