I am going to avoid the temptation of checking but this must be a post that I have written several times already. This time the inspiration comes from screenwriter Marta González de Vega whose work I did not know and whom I saw presenting the most recent programme of Días de Cine (La 2). I recommend that you see the complete interview with her, which is really very juicy, informative and entertaining (https://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/dias-de-cine/dias-cine-entrevista-completa-marta-gonzalez-vega/5614593/). De le Vega specialises in stand-up comedy, is herself an actor, and this shows. What she said to inspire me is very simple but requires an immense change of mentality: films belong to screenwriters even more than they belong to directors for without a screenplay there is no film (with very few exceptions, I must add). Besides, she added, when you ask spectators what they like about films, they always refer to the story and secondarily to actors’ performance, hardly ever to the technical aspects of directing.
I wrote my master’s dissertation on this very same topic twenty-eight years ago, but that bee in my bonnet is still buzzing hard because I see no change whatsoever in how we understand and discuss films. In the case of the MA dissertation my thesis was that Harold Pinter’s adaptations had received scholarly attention because he was a prestige playwright (he became later a Nobel Prize winner) but there was really no reason to treat other screen playwrights differently. All his screenplays, mostly adaptations like the one that interested me (of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman for a film directed by Karel Reisz) had been published, by Faber & Faber no less!, and studied, so why shouldn’t we do the same for all screen writing? Since 1992 when I started worrying about this a few things have changed and many more screenplays are published than ever, but the core of the matter, which is reviewing, remains stagnant.
The arguments are well known but I’ll repeat (rehash?) them again. If you look at the Oscars, the ones acknowledged as the main authors are the producers: they are the ones that collect the Oscar for Best Picture, not the director. This comes from old Hollywood. The Oscars, first awarded in May 1929, a few months before the October Crash that made moviegoing a cure for collective D/depression , were organized on the assumption that the producer is the film’s originator. It is his or her job to hire the director and the screenwriter, much as a theatre producer hires a director and a playwright. Directors used to see themselves as, basically, craftsmen, at the service of the producer’s vision, though, of course, individuals like Orson Welles broke the rule book by acting as jacks-of-all-trades and beginning to put the director’s name before the producer’s.
This however, did not happen for good until François Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinéma staff decreed in the early 1960s that the real author of the film was the director, and no wonder about it since Truffaut, by then also a critic, had become one the enfants terrible of the Nouvelle Vague. His first film was Les quatre cents coups (1959) but the funny thing is that whereas Truffaut has 28 credits as a director he has 38 as a writer… Most serious reviewers all over the world fell under the charmant spell of Cahiers and started eulogizing the work of the director at the expense of everyone else. Film Studies became consolidated around the same period on the false assumption of the equivalence in authorship between the literary author and the film director, which would certainly have surprised Shakespeare. He, the equivalent of the modern screenwriter in a commercial theatrical business not so unlike the studio system, would have been miffed. The popular movie magazines continued their adoration of film stars (this was the reason why most had been founded: star saleability) but nobody cared to interview the poor screen writers. The last one I saw interviewed all over the place was Scott Z. Burns, and that was because he wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderberg’s film Contagion (2011), the movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays patient zero in a plague similar but far more lethal than Covid-19.
When I was a little girl and finally grasped that movies were not real, I assumed that actors were the authors of films. Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston were God to me because they seemed to have the best ideas. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound for, surprise, surprise, stage directors did not exist until the 20th century: the habitual practice was for the main star to make all decisions eventually assumed by this figure. I must have been 12 when I finally realized that directors existed, still having no idea about what they did except for what I saw in films (like Truffaut’s La nuit américane, 1973). I owe my discovery to the great film critic Alfonso Sánchez Martínez (1911-1981), who from 1959 onward educated Spaniards on the art of reviewing. I must have seen him on Buenas Tardes (1970-1974), Revistero (1975) or, most likely, Revista de cine (1976-1979); incidentally, Días de Cine started in 1991. Later, I read the magazine Fotogramas and the movie reviews in El País and La Vanguardia, until I tired of the impenetrable language of the classic Spanish cinéfilo. At least, Carlos Boyero is transparent.
A constant in this training as an amateur film critic, what everyone is and no doubt about it, is that we have got used to the figure of he director by constant exposure but still know nothing about the screen writer. Meryl Streep would be nothing with no lines to say and the best director and producer in the world, but, still, nobody cares for the poor writer. If, happily, director and writer are the same person then matters are at least more or less justified, which possibly explain the, for me, inexplicable popularity of Woody Allen. I am, however, sick and tired of seeing guys like Ridley Scott or Clint Eastwood praised for ideas they never had. Scott has 140 credits as a producer, 52 as director and only 4 as writer, all for short films. When the screenplay is good his films work beautifully; when they are not, his films are unendurable. Gladiator (2000) from a storyline by David Franzoni was written by Franzoni himself, with additional work by John Logan and William Nicholson. Franzoni had written previously Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). Clint Eastwood has 50 credits as producer, 41 as director and none as a writer. Million Dollar Baby (2004) was written by Paul Haggis from stories by F.X. Toole and Gran Torino (2008) by Nick Schenk, from his own storyline with Dave Johannson.
Now let’s play a game. I’ll make a list of the Oscar-Award winners for Best Original Screenplay of the last 10 years and you try to guess what they wrote (sorry, there is no reward for guessing right). Here we go: 2010 David Seidler, 2011 Woody Allen, 2012 Quentin Tarantino, 2013 Spike Jonze, 2014 Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Nicolás Giacobone & Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015 Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, 2016 Kenneth Lonergan, 2017 Jordan Peele, 2018 Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly & Nick Vallelonga and 2019 Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin-won… Ready yet? The answer: 2010, The King’s Speech; 2011, Midnight in Paris; 2012, Django Unchained; 2013 Her; 2014 Birdman; 2015 Spotlight; 2016 Manchester by the Sea; 2017 Get Out; 2018 Green Book and 2019 Parasites. No women on this list… In six cases the writer was also the director.
Now the other way round. Here are ten Oscar award winners for Best Picture– who wrote them? What! You’ve forgotten about Gladiator already? Shame on you… Here we go: 1990 Dances with Wolves, 1993 Schindler’s List, 1994 Forrest Gump, 1995 Braveheart, 1998 Shakespeare in Love, 2000 Gladiator, 2001 A Beautiful Mind, 2005 Crash, 2007 No Country for Old Men, 2009 The Hurt Locker. Of course, here I am trusting that you know the names of the directors and of the actors, because we do, right? It’s like when we read a book: we make sure to recall the title and the name of the author, correct? Anyway, the solution: 1990 Dances with Wolves: Michael Blake, from his own novel; 1993 Schindler’s List: Steve Zaillian, from the novel by Thomas Kenneally Schindler’s Ark; 1994 Forrest Gump: Eric Roth from the novel by Winston Groom; 1995 Braveheart: Randall Wallace; 1998 Shakespeare in Love: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard; 2000 Gladiator: David Franzoni; 2001 A Beautiful Mind: Akiva Goldsman from Sylvia Nasar’s book; 2005 Crash: Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco; 2007 No Country for Old Men: Joel and Ethan Cohen, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy; 2009 The Hurt Locker: Mark Boal.
Of course, I have cheated for I don’t know any of this by heart. I make a point of recalling that Steven Zaillian wrote Schindler’s List as a sort of party trick for the classroom. Everyone knows Steven Spielberg directed this stark black and white portrait of the Holocaust (beautifully photographed by Janusz Kaminski) and that Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes played major roles, but who remembers Zaillian? He is, by the way, the author of the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) based on Charles Brandt book. Perhaps he would be better remembered if the three films he has directed, among them All the King’s Men (2006), which he scripted from Robert Penn Warren’s novel, had been the box-office hit Zaillian needed to be known as a writer-director but, alas!, that did not happen.
Not all screenwriters dream of becoming movie directors just as not all playwrights dream of becoming stage directors. Indeed, why should they? The problem is that stage playwrights need not dream of being someone else because their work is respected. A play by Tom Stoppard is a play by Tom Stoppard no matter who directs it, whereas a screenplay by Steve Zaillian is… nothing for him (except a fat playcheck, since he has big credits to his name) and the world for the director in question, whether this is Spielberg or Scorsese. This is simple to explain: a play by a playwright will be hopefully staged many times in different productions along the years, even in different languages, whereas a screenplay is a prop consumed by one single production. Nobody will come along and make ten different films of the same screenplay (only two at the most) and in different languages. The ‘To Be or not to Be’ monologue has been recited thousands of times; the screenplay written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer for Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi comedy To Be or not to Be has been recited once for the film (if there is a play based on it, that’s another matter). The screenplay, I insist, is devoured by the film, whereas no production can wholly eat up a stage play. Look at Shakespeare…
Now, tell me… Your favourite screen playwright is…
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