Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 5th, 2017

The screenwriter paradox

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A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss “Time Risk,” a huge blog post—it’s the length of a short book—by the screenwriter Terry Rossio. It’s endlessly quotable, and I encourage you to skim it yourself, although you might come away with the impression that the greatest form of time risk is trying to write movies at all. Rossio spends much of the piece encouraging you to write a novel or make an animated short instead, and his most convincing argument is basically unanswerable:

Let’s examine the careers of several brand-name feature screenwriters, to see how they did it. In the same way we can speak of a Stephen King novel, or a Neil Simon play, we can talk about the unique qualities of a Woody Allen screenplay—Whoops, wait. Allen is best known as a director. Okay, how about a Lawrence Kasdan script—Whoops, same thing. Kasdan gained fame, even for his screenwriting, through directing his own work. Let’s see, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Nora Ephron, Coen Brothers, John Milius, Cameron Crowe, hmn—

Wait! A Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Thank goodness for Charlie Kaufman, or I wouldn’t be able to think of a single brand-name screenwriter working today, who didn’t make their name primarily through directing. Okay, perhaps Aaron Sorkin, but he made his main fame in plays and television. Why so few? Because—screenwriters do the bulk of their work prior to the green light. Cameras not rolling. Trying to get films made. They toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve, taking on time risk in a myriad of forms.

As Rossio memorably explains a little later on: “It’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” I found myself thinking about this while reading Vulture’s recent list of the hundred best screenwriters of all time, as determined by forty of their fellow writers, including Diablo Cody, Zak Penn, Wesley Strick, Terence Winter, and a bunch of others who have achieved critical acclaim and name recognition without being known predominantly for directing. And who did they pick? The top ten are Billy Wilder, Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Goldman, Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Ernest Lehman. Of the ten, only Goldman has never directed a movie, and of the others, only Kaufman, Towne, and Lehman are primarily known for their screenwriting. That’s forty percent. And the rest of the list consists mostly of directors who write. Glancing over it, I find the following who are renowned mostly as writers: Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky, Frances Marion, Buck Henry, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bo Goldman, Eric Roth, Steven Zaillian, Callie Khouri, Richard Curtis, Dalton Trumbo, Frank Pierson, Cesare Zavattini, Norman Wexler, Waldo Salt, Melissa Mathison, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Alvin Sargent, Ben Hecht, Scott Frank, Jay Presson Allen, John Logan, Guillermo Arriaga, Horton Foote, Leigh Brackett, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, David Webb Peoples, Burt Kennedy, Charles Lederer, John Ridley, Diablo Cody, and Mike White. Borderline cases include Paul Schrader, David Mamet, Elaine May, Robert Benton, Christopher McQuarrie, and Shane Black. Even when you throw these names back into the hopper, the “pure” screenwriters number maybe four in ten. And this is a list compiled from the votes of writers who have every reason to highlight the work of their underappreciated colleagues.

So why do directors dominate? I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most likely, is that in a poll like this, a voter’s mind is more likely to turn to a more famous name at the expense of equally deserving candidates. Hence the otherwise inexplicable presence on the list of Steven Spielberg, whose only two credits as a screenwriter, Close Encounters and A.I., owe a lot more, respectively, to Paul Schrader and Stanley Kubrick. Another possibility is that Hollywood is structured to reward writers by turning them into directors, which implies that many of the names here are just screenwriters who ascended. This would be a tempting theory, if it weren’t for the presence of so many auteurs—Welles, Tarantino, the Coens—who started out directing their own screenplays and never looked back. And the third explanation is the one that Rossio offers: “[Screenwriters] toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve.” Invisibility, fungibility, and the ability to do competent work while keeping one’s head down are qualities that the system encourages, and it’s only in exceptional cases, after a screenwriter directs a movie or wins an Oscar, that he or she is given permission to be noticed. (Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t simply some glaring omissions. I’m a little stunned by the absence of Emeric Pressburger, who I think can be plausibly set forth as the finest screenwriter of all time. It’s possible that his contributions have been obscured by the fact that he and Michael Powell were credited as writer, producer, and director of the movies that they made as the Archers, but the division of labor seems fairly clear. And I don’t think any other writer on this list has three scripts as good as those for The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale, along with your choice of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, and I Know Where I’m Going!)

The one glaring exception is Joe Eszterhas, who became a household name, along with his rival Shane Black, as the two men traded records throughout the nineties for the highest price ever paid for a script. As he tells it in his weirdly riveting book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:

I read about Shane’s sale [for The Last Boy Scout]—and my record being broken—on the front page of the Los Angeles Times while I was vacationing at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. Shane’s sale pissed me off. I wanted my record back. I wanted to see an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about me setting a new record. I flew home from Hawaii and sat down immediately and stated writing the most commercial script I could think of. Twelve days later, I had my record back. I had the article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about my new record. And I had my $3 million.

The script was Basic Instinct. Would it have been enough to make Eszterhas famous if he hadn’t been paid so much for it? I don’t know—although it’s worth noting that he had previously held the record for City Hall, which was never made, and Big Shots, which nobody remembers, and he sold millions of dollars’ worth of other screenplays that never got produced. And the moment that made it all possible has passed. Eszterhas didn’t make the Vulture list; studios are no longer throwing money at untested properties; and even a monster sale doesn’t guarantee anything. The current record is still held by the script for Déjà Vu, which sold for $3 million against $5 million over a decade ago, and it serves as a sort of A/B test to remind us how much of success in Hollywood is out of anyone’s hands. There were two writers on Déjà Vu. One was Bill Marsilii, who hasn’t been credited on a movie since. The other was Terry Rossio.

Quote of the Day

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[Criticism] used to be one way a young writer made it in New York. He would attack, in a small obscure publication, someone very strong, highly regarded, whom a few people may already have hated. Then the young writer might gain a small following. When he looked for a job, an assignment, and an editor asked, “What have you published?” he could reply, “Well, this piece.” The editor might say, “Oh, yeah, that was met with a lot of consternation.” And a portfolio began. This isn’t the way it goes now. More like a race to join the herd of received ideas and agreement.

Renata Adler, to The Believer

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

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