In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on March 4, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. Each weekday between now and Oscar night, nominated writers will break down a single scene that was essential to the stories they were telling and explain how the pages came together.
Though Mudbound, the World War II-era epic nominated for four Oscars, is essentially an ensemble film, one relationship beats at the heart of the story. It’s the one between Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), two veterans — one white and one black — who form an unlikely friendship that unites and divides various members of the community.
For co-writers Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, who also directed, selling that relationship and its taboo elements were central to the story they were telling. “This is not a straight-ahead relationship,” Rees said. “It’s kind of a queer relationship for me. It’s subversive. It’s not supposed to be.”
Below, the writers break down an important scene of bonding between Ronsel and Jamie.
VIRGIL WILLIAMS: “This scene is decidedly not in the book [by Hillary Jordan]. I need an answer to that question: What happened to Jamie when he was at war? Within that scene, those guys have a forbidden friendship. If you go back and watch it, tracking their scenes, they’re not close at all physically. In that barn, they start to get closer and closer to each other.”
DEE REES: “In the first moment, I liked that there’s a calling out of dishonesty, where Jamie in the bad version of the story could become this white savior and Ronsel is not taking this friends on his head. So I like the questioning and calling out of dishonesty.”
WILLIAMS: “I’d rather show, not tell. It’s an old cliche, but that’s a movie moment. One of my tasks in adapting this novel, which is super novelistic, and make it a film. I needed movie scenes to do this, moments that make your eyes big and make you lean forward.”
REES: “They’re both broken, and I think because they’re both broken, they’re able to connect with each other differently. But it’s still kind of fragile, and it’s still in a way self medicating. Jamie is falling into Ronsel because he needs an ear. If he weren’t, I don’t think he’d give Ronsel a second thought. It’s playing on the edge of that.”
WILLIAMS: “I write TV primarily, and I do so much hand-holding in my TV writing. Audiences are really sophisticated. The truth is that whether or not you know the Tuskegee Airmen had red tails on their plane, you’re still going to get it. You’re still going to see that pilot.”
REES: “It goes further with the next time in the barn with these guys. Jamie asks that deadly question, ‘Have you ever been with a white girl?’ For me, that felt like a trust fall in a way. If you’re uncertain about their friendship, that is the moment where it becomes real, and these guys are keeping each other’s secrets in a way.”