Virgil Williams: An Oscar Tonight?





Hollywood and Chicago collide tonight as an odds-on favorite and terrific writer awaits what follows when he hears: “And the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay is. . . .”

Chicago’s Virgil Williams, co-author of the script for Mudbound and Latin School Class of ’88, spoke with us three days ago in Los Angeles. Virgil, who knows how write with power behind each word, reflects his blend of kindness and humor in each smile.


Virgil Williams.

He told us that it was the recent luncheon for Academy Award nominees that dramatically underscored his Chicago connection.

“Since we premiered Mudbound at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, it has been a tremendous time of affirmation, but it was when I talked with John Landis, director of The Blues Brothers, that I started crying. As an eight-year-old I was an actor in that movie and to talk to him about that face-to-face was very moving.

“And then I met Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back. This has been an incredibly humbling experience.”

Virgil described his schedule for today:

The hair and makeup people arrive at 10:30 for my wife, Stephanie, and I think we have to be there at 2 if we are going to walk the red carpet. I don’t know where we sit, but I am assuming I will be with our Mudbound team. Mary J. Blige is up for Best Supporting Actress as well as Best Original Song, Rachel Morrison for Cinematography, and our director, Dee Rees, for co-authoring the screenplay.”

The list of past recipients of the Best Adapted Screenplay includes literary and film legends such as Billy Wilder, Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, Horton Foote, the Coen brothers, Paddy Chayefsky, and Larry McMurtry. In 1930 Frances Marion became the first woman to win the award, and Emma Thompson is also a recipient. This year’s honorees include James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name, considered by some to be the slight favorite, and Aaron Sorkin for Molly’s Game.

Compared by critics to Giant as an epic story about race relations and To Kill A Mockingbird for its poetic beauty, Mudbound tells the story of two World War II veterans who return to rural Mississippi and how they each deal with racial conflicts. It is adapted from the book of the same name by Hilary Jordan.

It was Virgil who changed the ending, which was enigmatic in the book. Following great violence comes honor against all odds, making the character of Ronsel, the black soldier played by Jason Mitchell, a true hero. His ending is not to be forgotten.

I am so respectful of Hilary and her work, but I called her to say that I would like to write a different ending. I am half-black half-Puerto Rican, and I wanted to pay attention to the fact that many black children do not have fathers. Without divulging the ending, I think I have allowed the hero to occupy that space. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is a landmark movie and to have your work compared to that story is a tremendous honor.”

We asked Virgil if he studied Harper Lee’s novel while at Latin School:

“I don’t think I studied it there, but what I learned at Latin was how to learn and how to work. With those two things, I built a skill with something that was there. I do feel that the ability to write is God given, but sometimes you wish you didn’t have it because it can be painful.”

Vigil maintains a disciplined writing schedule.

“The first year I was writing and directing the TV show Criminal Minds, I was also writing Mudbound. I worked on the show all day, came home to have dinner with Stephanie and my daughters, Isabel and Sophia, and then wrote the movie—an exhausting routine.”


On the red carpet.

Sony Pictures hired Virgil two months ago to write the screenplay for Pulitzer Prize-winning black journalist Dana Canedy’s 2008 book, A Journal for Jordan. To be produced by another of this year’s Oscar nominees—Denzel Washington and Escape Artists’ Todd Black—it is rumored that Washington may also direct.

“It is the true story of a very independent New York Times senior editor who fell in love with a soldier around the time of 9/11. She tells him that she, at age 40, wants to have his child. When he first goes off to battle, his whole battalion returns home safely. When he must go back to fight in Iraq, she is so angry and tells him he must write a journal for his son.  

“What he did before he was blown up was to write and write about how to be humble, how to do your best at work, and many other themes to help the boy. You see the mother going from being closed, focused solely on her journalism career, to being open and hurt but surviving, thanks to the journal for her son.

“Dana was recently named Administrator of the Pulitzer Prize. Best-case scenario, the movie will come out in 2019. I love working for TV and hope to get back to that as well.”

Virgil’s great respect for family, parenting, and the power of friendship comes through in both films. Many Chicago friends will be watching and rooting for him tonight. Virgil’s best friend from his Latin School days, Jodi Wolf, CEO of Paulette Wolf Events, was the “best person” in his wedding to Stephanie. Classic Chicago’s team will be among the many cheering on this local hero with a way with words.