Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Shane Black

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.

Beyond setup and payoff

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Shane Black

I do think the challenge, in a way for me, is to write a narrative film and when you finish watching it you feel like it’s a collage. You tell the narrative, you tell the story, but you feel like you’ve created this tapestry. But it also has a shape, a story. So I think there’s a middle ground that I try to strike…It’s certainly in that direction—and away from where everyone else seems ready to go, which is, setup, payoff. You know, He’s afraid of water, oh, and at the end he’s swimming in water—oh, my God. I hate that stuff…

The worst of the action films are the ones where everything is one shout from beginning to finish. And there’s no differentiation between beats, like small or big, or quiet or expansive. It’s all just one loud shout. And by the end, the audience has been beaten in the face so many times, you could blow up the Taj Mahal and they’d go, “Okay, that’s nice.” Because they’ve seen so much. They’re just dead. We’re in a culture where people want to be deafened, apparently…And that’s what I don’t like. But my films are bombastic enough.

Shane Black, to the New York Times

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

The likability fallacy

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Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m at a point in my life—it’s called “fatherhood”—in which I can see maybe three or four films in theaters every year. My wife and I saw The Hobbit the week before our daughter was born, and since then, our moviegoing has been restricted to a handful of big event movies: Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Gravity. In general, my criteria for whether a movie is worth catching on the big screen are fairly simple. It needs to be something that would be considerably reduced on television, which applies particularly to a film like Gravity: I loved it, and I plan to watch it again and again, but its impact won’t be nearly the same at home. Reviews count, as well as my own intangible excitement over a franchise, and beyond that, I tend to go with directors whose work has impressed in the past, which is why I know that the one movie I’ll definitely be seeing next year is Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. In other words, after a lifetime of seeking out strange and challenging movies in theaters, I’ve turned into something like a studio’s idea of the mainstream moviegoer, who tends to prefer known quantities to interesting gambles, and is happy to catch the rest on video. You can complain all you like about Hollywood’s reliance on sequels, remakes, and established properties, but when I look at my own choices as a movie lover with a limited amount of time, I can’t say it’s entirely wrong.

But if there’s a bright side to all this, it’s that it allows me to treat myself as a kind of guinea pig: I can take a hard look at my newfound conservatism as a moviegoer with what remains of my old analytical eye. So much of how Hollywood operates is based on a few basic premises about what audiences want, and as I’ve become less adventurous as a viewer, I’ve gotten a better sense of how accurate those assumptions—presumably based on endless focus group testing and box office analysis—really are. And I’ve come to some surprising conclusions. I’ve found, for instance, that star power alone isn’t enough to get me out of the house: I’m an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, but I still waited for Oblivion to arrive at Redbox. I don’t need a happy ending to feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth, as long as a darker conclusion is honestly earned. And the one that I can’t repeat often enough is this: I’m not worried about whether I’m going to “like” the characters. Studios are famously concerned about how likable their characters are, and they get nervous about any project in which the lead comes off as unsympathetic. Industry observers tend to think in the same way. As a writer for Time Out recently said of the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street: “Why should we give a damn about these self-absorbed, money-grubbing Armani-clad cretins and spend our money and time learning about their lives?”

Martin Scorsese

Well, to put it mildly, I can think of a few reasons why, and they’re strong enough that The Wolf of Wall Street is the next, and probably last, movie this year that I expect will get me into theaters. Spending three hours in the company of an Armani-clad cretin seen through the eyes of Martin Scorsese strikes me as a great use of my money and time, and while I can’t speak for the rest of the world, the movie we’ve glimpsed so far looks sensational. Part of this, of course, is because Scorsese has proven himself so capable of engaging us in the lives of unlikable characters. I don’t think there’s a sympathetic face to be seen throughout all of Casino, one of the most compulsively watchable movies of all time, and Scorsese has always seemed more comfortable in the heads of the flawed and unredeemable: it’s the difference between Goodfellas and Kundun, or Raging Bull and Hugo, and even a sleek machine like Cape Fear comes off as an experiment in how thoroughly he can grip us without a likable figure in sight. But there’s a larger principle at work here, too. Scorsese, by consensus, operates at a consistently higher level than any other filmmaker of his generation, and if he’s drawn to such flawed characters, this probably tells us less about him personally than about the fact that his craft is powerful enough to get away with it. Likability wouldn’t be a factor if all movies were this good.

In other words, any fears over the protagonist’s likability are really an admission that something else is going wrong, either in story or execution: the audience doesn’t care about the characters not because they aren’t sympathetic enough, but because it hasn’t been given a reason to be invested on a deeper level. Trying to imbue the hero in a meaningless story with more likable qualities is like changing the drapes while the house is on fire, but unfortunately, it’s often all the studio can understand. As Shane Black notes in the excellent interview collection Tales From the Script:

Movie stars are gonna give you your best ideas, because they’re the opposite of development people. Development people are always saying, “How can the character be more likable?” Meanwhile, the actor’s saying, “I don’t want to be likable.” You know, they give you crazy things like, “I wanna eat spaghetti with my hands.” Crazy’s great. Anything but this sort of likable guy that everyone at the studio insists they should play.

“Make him more likable,” like “raising the stakes,” is a development executive’s dream note: it doesn’t require any knowledge of the craft of storytelling, and you won’t get fired for suggesting it. But let’s not mistake it for anything more. I don’t want my characters to be likable; I want them to be interesting. And if the characters, or the story around them, are interesting enough, it might even get me out of the house.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

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