Sunday, 4 September 2011

Screenplays and screenwriters

I've written short stories, poems, a theatre play and I've been working on film scripts, not least together with Lisa James Larsson, so I know that scripts are important and meaningful. But I'm still sceptical about the primacy often given to the script. It is sometimes said, not least by writers, that it is impossible to make a good film without a good script, but I'd like to challenge that. For one thing how do you compare, say, the script and the casting? The quality of the acting has nothing to do with the script and theatre actors have been known to move the audience to tears just by reading from the phone book. (For what it is worth I have publicly read bus timetables as poetry.)

A more interesting question though is what constitutes a good script. Is it enough that it has a witty dialogue or does it have to have rich and complex characters and a multi-layered story to be considered a good script? And what is the script? On many films some of the great scenes, and great lines of dialogue, were improvised on the set. Should that be retroactively considered part of the script?

But even if we could agree upon a definition of a good script, are they still essential to make a good film? To take a specific example we can look at Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps (1935). The script by Charles Bennett, which is based on the novel by John Buchan (from which it is rather different), can easily be regarded as nothing more than sketches of various set-pieces and there's not much plausibility, nuance or complexity. But I think it is a great film, and so do a lot of other people, as it is sometimes voted as among the best British films ever made. To me it is a great film because it is amusing and inventive and much of this comes from the actors, the editing and the visual style. How much of that is in the script? 

A modern example could be The Tree of Life (2011). It has admittedly confused and bored many, and they may find that what the film lacks is a good script. But those that do like it, perhaps even think it is great, isn't that primarily for the way Malick visually expresses ideas, age-old ideas, more than the actual words and the story (which would be the script)? I don't know.

This is not meant to belittle the work of the writers, it is merely to point out that a film is different from the script, and it is not possible to single out one thing as being generally the most important part. To quote Nicholas Ray: "But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?". Sometimes it is the script that is most important, sometimes it is not. And it should also be said that many great scripts have been damaged or destroyed by bad direction and/or bad acting. I think that Mike Leigh and Sam Mendes are two directors who almost always manhandles their scripts, even though in Leigh's case he writes the scripts as well. The King's Speech (2010) is another example when I feel inappropriate direction (by Tom Hooper) diminishes a script (by David Seidler), as I explained here

With those words as an introduction, I'd like to add a translated, and slightly amended, version of a blog post I wrote a few years ago in Swedish about scriptwriters (the Swedish original is here

Sometimes you hear disgruntled scriptwriters, and critics, blame French film critics in the 1950s for starting the trend of claiming the director as a film's true creator, leading to a disrespectful approach to writers and to directors getting uppity. But blaming the French for this is not really fair. To take one example: when Billy Wilder came to the US in the 1930s he quickly established himself as a sought-after scriptwriter, working  with Charles Brackett, but he became frustrated by how the directors changed and, to his eyes, made his script worse. He was perhaps particularly upset with Mitchell Leisen. So Wilder began directing his own scripts, to get more control over the process. (It could be argued though that his greatest strengths are as writer rather than director.)

Film is a collective artform, that is inevitable. But the director has, pretty much since the beginning of cinema, been given the most elevated position, by ad men and critics alike. Usually out of convenience, or because you are of the opinion that the director really is the true auteur of the film. But it is not only convenient but often also proper to highlight the director. Obviously so if the director is also the scriptwriter and/or the producer, as the above mentioned Wilder, alone or with Charles Brackett or I.A.L. Diamond. But sometimes a film can have five, six screenwriters while hardly ever has it got more than one director. Sergio Leone's films for example usually have a staggering number of screenwriters but that doesn't make them any less Leone's films, perhaps the opposite.

When I wrote about Ernest Lehman [I'll perhaps published a translated version of that article soon] I said that North by Northwest (1959) feels very Hitchcock-esque, you might even say that it is a copy of The 39 Steps, just 30 minutes longer without anything new added. Before he wrote it, and during the writing process, Lehman watched most of Hitchcock's best films to be able to capture the right Hitchcock mood, and before Lehman wrote it Hitchcock gave him specific ideas of what he wanted, such as the sequence with the crop dusting plane. As Dan Auiler put it once: "It is Hitchcock's sequence - but it is his sequence as realized by Lehman and Huebner [the storyboard illustrator]."

But having said all that, when talking about films it is only proper to consider the scriptwriters, if for no other reason than respect. When people criticise Hollywood they usual say that directors are being controlled and hampered and that the producers and studios call all the shots, but that has always been ahistorical, and the reality was always more nuanced and complex. Andrew Sarris for one has argued that it was actually the writers that suffered the most in the studio system, not the directors. Thelma and Louise (1991) is directed by Ridley Scott, but it is Callie Khouri's script, and she work long and hard on it, not only when writing but during the shooting of the film as well. It is therefore most unfair that Scott got all the praise and glory, whereas Khouri was forgotten almost instantly. That might partly be because of gender discrimination, Scott being a man and Khouri a woman, but even male scriptwriters are diminished or forgotten. Bend of the River (1952) is a typical Anthony Mann film, and Red River (1948) a typical Howard Hawks, and the respective filmmaker's themes and styles are easy to see, and keeps the film apart. But they have the same writer, Borden Chase, and the two films share many things such as structure, character development and even lines of dialogue. Some of Mann's other films were written by Philip Yordan and it is therefore worthwhile to compare those to Bend of the River and also to other films Yordan has written but that have not been directed by Mann, for a deeper understanding of the complex authorial situation, without there being any need to question those films as being the very essence of Mann's art. Or take Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, how important were they for the films of Akira Kurosawa? Or Kogo Noda's scripts for Yasujiro Ozu's films?

A more modern example is the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. They've been writing together since the 1970s, and have both a theme and a style, without getting much attention. The feel of the films, and the quality of them, changes depending upon who directed them, but you can still feel the Ganz/Mandel touch. Some good examples are Splash (1984), Parenthood (1989) and Multiplicity (1996) and a few others.

Some screenwriters become famous. Garson Kanin in the 1950s for example and Charlie Kaufman is a modern example, as is Aaron Sorkin. But more of them deserve a place in the sun. (A quick test, Theodore Dreiser wrote the novel A Place in the Sun (1951) is based on, a film George Stevens directed, but who wrote the script?)

Mitchell Leisen directed three scripts from the writing team Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett: Midnight (1939), Arise My Love (1940) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941). They're great, as are many others of Mitchell's films, written by less known writers.

Babaloo is surely the coolest name in show business. Unfortunately not his birth name but a name borrowed from Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint. Incidentally, the only film Ernest Lehman directed, in 1972, was based on that novel.

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