MY FAVOURITE SCREEN PLAYWRIGHT IS… : CONSIDERING OUR COLLECTIVE NEGLECT OF SCREENWRITING

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…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

LIKE WRITING A MUSICAL SCORE: THE UNACKNOWLEDGED TASK OF THE SCREENWRITER

I came across the name Lola Salvador Maldonado in a recent episode of Días de Cine, the weekly report on cinema that TVE maintains since 1991 on La2 (https://www.rtve.es/television/dias-cine/). The occasion was her 81st birthday and the celebration of her extensive career in Spanish cinema, for which she was awarded the Premio Nacional de Cinematografía in 2014, and which she still continues. Surprised by Lola Salvador’s many activities in this art and, above all, by her immense achievement as a screenwriter, I sought bibliography about her. I soon came across Susana Díaz’s Modos de Mostrar: Encuentros con Lola Salvador (2012, https://tecmerin.es/no-2-lola-salvador/), a delicious publication which sums up many hours of interviews with this exceptional woman. It is hard to say what is more singular about Lola Salvador: that she managed to build a solid career in cinema at a time when relatively few women worked in that area in Spain (excepting actresses), or that she did so leading besides a peculiar life as a separated mother in a long relationship with a married man (producer Alfredo Matas) while enjoying a friendship with his wife (actress Amparo Soler Leal) and collaborating with both professionally. Reading Díaz’s juicy text, it seems that Lola Salvador has lived not one but several lives simultaneously.

On the Días de Cine report, Lola Maldonado described the screenplay as a text quite similar to a play or, even better, to a musical score. She seems to prefer this second description, repeated in the interview with Díaz. Following that analogy, the film director works, Lola notes, like an orchestra director adding harmony to the performance of the diverse musicians. By the way: if my reader does not mind, I’d rather refer to Lola by her first name, since using the surname Salvador makes her appear to be a man. In fact, she has used the penname Salvador Maldonado to publish autobiographical novels (the trilogy El Olivar de Atocha adapted by TVE is based on her family) and others based on her scripts (see below).

That a screenwriter like Lola needs to highlight the similarities between screenplays and stage plays may be baffling, but it needs to be noted that the Spanish word ‘guión’ (or ‘guion’ as RAE prefers since 2010) has nothing to do with ‘obra’ (stage play). I have been unable to determine why ‘guión’ became the preferred word in Spanish, beyond the obvious fact that early producers must have regarded the ‘script’ as a ‘guide’, hence ‘guión’ (but why not ‘guía’?). At any rate the semantic confusion is also notable in English: the texts on which films are based are called ‘scripts’ and ‘screenplays’ and those who write them are ‘scriptwriters’, ‘screen playwrights’, ‘screenplay writers’, or ‘screenwriters’. At least in English, there is a clear suggestion that those who build the scripts are writers working on something rather similar to plays. Incidentally, American silent film produced Thomas Harper Ince (1880-1924), founder of the first studio that can be described as such, Inceville, is credited with being the inventor of the screenplay. If I interpret his many writing credits at IMDB correctly, the word scenario, imported from French, was used before script or screenplay appeared.

Back to Lola, you might be familiar with the enormous scandal caused by El Crimen de Cuenca (1979), the film directed by Pilar Miró, and based on a serious miscarriage of justice back in 1910. Two peasants in a village of the province of Cuenca were sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of a shepherd, who had gone missing. As the film explained in all its gory detail, the two accused had been tortured by the Guardia Civil and produced in this way false confessions. Even though the real-life events depicted in the film had happened 70 years before, the then Minister of Culture Ricardo de la Cierva left the film in the hands of military justice, which processed Miró for offenses to the Guardia Civil (a military body) and retained her film for 18 months until the Tribunal Supremo decreed it should be shown in cinemas. The case against Miró was dropped and her film, the only one censored in this away after the end of Franco’s regime in supposedly democratic times, was released to great critical acclaim and notable box-office success, just the opposite of what the authorities had tried to prevent.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because even though Miró bore the brunt of the scandal and endured much personal suffering, she also reaped merits that were not hers: producer Alfredo Matas had hired Miró to work on a script by Lola, also the author as Salvador Maldonado of the 1979 best-selling novel based on the Cuenca crime (Ramon J. Sender had published in 1939 on the same case El Lugar de un Hombre). Miró got a script credit as well for the film, to increase her earnings (a habitual practice, it seems), but the whole idea was from the beginning Lola’s (see Díaz 72-84). You might say that she and Matas, and not Miró, should have indicted by military justice, but this is not my point: everyone came to know Miró por her boldness in dealing with torture on the screen, but few connect Lola with El Crimen de Cuenca. This is like attributing the whole merit of, say, the film Hamlet (1996) to director Kenneth Branagh, without mentioning Shakespeare (he does appear in the credits as screenwriter…).

To put it plainly, neither films nor TV series can be made without a screenplay but both directors and producers tend to downplay as much as they can the role of the writer. I include myself among the film lovers who are totally unable to mention a favourite screen writer, even though I can certainly mention favourite authors in all other literary genres. Yes: literary genres. As theatre specialist Martin Esslin has explained, the script is a branch of the tree of drama, with the peculiarity that whereas plays are written to be staged as many times as possible the screenplay is used in just one production, for this is filmed. To those who object that screenplays can hardly be read as plays, I would reply that this is not true: the conventions may be different (there are all kinds of technical regulations about the look of screenplays on the page) but the essence is the same one –both are dramatic texts to be performed by actors. And if the screenplay is still struggling for literary recognition, this is because it is a type of writing open to constant interference by studio executives, producers, directors and actors for control of the final film. When a writer sells a screenplay, s/he does sell that right to interfere, which no other writer is forced to sell. Just imagine!

Logically, the best way to guarantee the control over your screenplays is to be also the film director but this is not a road all writers can take or care to take. In the theatre, few playwrights also work as directors, for there is a clear understanding of what each job consists of. Not so in movies, or in series (or in videogames and documentaries, which also use scripts). Check, as an example of the situation I am describing, Vulture’s list “The 100 Best Screenwriters of All Time, As Chosen by Working Screenwriters” (2017, https://www.vulture.com/2017/10/100-greatest-screenwriters-of-all-time-ranked.html), edited by Stacey Wilson Hunt, and you will see that most names correspond to film directors.

At this point whenever I write or lecture about this issue I like to run a little test: a) who wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, adapted from Thomas Kenneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark?; b) who wrote the script for Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise? Answer a) Steve Zaillian (currently a film director) and answer b) Callie Khouri (with also some credits as director). In case a) Spielberg got all the merit, being who he is (well, Zaillian got an Oscar); and in case b) that was even worse, for Scott was credited with showing a fine understanding of the dynamics of female friendship and few recalled in the ensuing feminist debate about his film the name of Callie Khouri (at least she got and Oscar for her efforts, and is among the few women included in the Vulture list). Arguably, the cases of Callie Khouri and Lola Salvador Maldonado suggest that there is something even worse than being a screen playwright to be acknowledged as a talented writer: being a woman screen playwright (or a non-white male heterosexual screenwriter…).

Julia Sabina Gutiérrez argues in her article “El guión cinematográfico: su escritura y su estatuto artístico” (SIGNA, 27, 2018, 523-539) that “El estatuto artístico del guion todavía no ha sido bien definido ni por los teóricos ni por los propios profesionales del audiovisual” (524), hinting at a certain failure on the side of the writers themselves to defend their work. She also notes that the tasks contributing to the creation of the screenplay have been increasingly fragmented, a fact which is possibly most visible (I would add) in animated cinema. Thus, writing recently on Trolls (2016), I could not determine at all what aspects of the plot had been the invention of Erica Rivinoja, credited on IMDB for the story (the script is credited to Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger). Besides, as the beautiful volume about the artwork in this film notes, some interesting turns had been contributed by the animators. As Gutiérrez points out, even in the cases in which the screenplay has been published, there may be differences with what appears on the film which are impossible to account for.

It appears, then, that the question at stake is authorship, or, rather, the extremely questionable application of this literary concept to audiovisual work, which is by nature a collaborative effort. As the author of the novel called El Crimen de Cuenca Lola Salvador can be certainly called a writer, but as the author of the eponymous script, what is she? For all purposes, including censorship, the author of the film El Crimen de Cuenca is the late Pilar Miró, even though the idea for the film did not originate with her at all but with Lola, who developed it together with the producer. In fact, producers are acknowledged above anyone else when the awards to the main films are given, whether these are the Oscars or any other. That there is a separate category for the director should be sufficient evidence for audiences to understand that directing a film is, as Lola stresses, like directing an orchestra but by no means like composing the music. I very much doubt that Zubin Mehta or any other outstanding director feels that s/he is above the composers whose work the orchestra plays.

So, to sum up, and once again: do try to remember the writers behind the films that you love, and let’s change for good their status as unacknowledged authors.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/