Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood

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.

A choice of tools

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The poet Ted Hughes once told a wonderful story to The Paris Review about judging the W.H. Smith children’s writing competition. In the early years of the contest, the stories were fairly short—just a page or two—but in the eighties, they started to balloon, until the judges were seeing stories of seventy pages or more, usually in the genre that Hughes charmingly calls “space fiction.” The culprit? Word processors:

What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

The result, according to Hughes, were stories that were “always very inventive and always extraordinary fluent—[with] a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring.”

I believe it, mostly because I could easily have been one of these kids. When I was thirteen, I wrote a 70,000-word novel using WordStar and an ancient dot matrix printer that probably would have given Hughes an aneurysm, and there’s no question that the available technology is what allowed me to write it. Most of my earlier stories—and by “earlier,” I mean written when I was nine or ten—were almost graphomaniacally compressed, with tiny lines squeezed together on a little square of paper, mostly because I liked the way it looked. Later, when I got my hands on a series of electric typewriters, I began to compose longer pieces, but even then, they were rarely longer than a few pages, and I almost never finished what I started. It was only the combination of a word processor and a printer that freed me to plunge into longer projects, and by the time I was in high school, I was regularly writing stories that were hundreds of pages long. (And although I haven’t gone back to read many of them since, I’m pretty sure that they were very inventive, extraordinarily fluent, and without exception strangely boring.)

Joe Eszterhas

Tools matter. They liberate us, but they can also trap us and lead us into dangerous habits, and the choices we make early on can shape our work in ways that we can’t expect. Joe Eszterhas, who can be a bit of a tool himself, but surprisingly compelling on the subject of craft, wrote all of his screenplays on a manual typewriter—which makes a cameo appearance as a crucial piece of evidence in his script for Jagged Edge—and he claims to be terrified of learning how to use a computer. In The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, he writes that he has a closet at home filled with the same model of typewriter, still in their original boxes, but since he can wear out a machine in a matter of months with his aggressive two-fingered typing, he’s always worried about running out. And yes, it would be a loss: it’s easy to imagine that the mood of his scripts—which are short, punchy, with minimal filler—stems at least in part from the medium on which they were composed. I’ve dabbled a little in screenwriting, mostly as a source of insights into story structure, but I’ve resisted switching over to Final Draft, preferring to format the page manually in Word. It’s less efficient, but it forces me to think about every choice I make, and I’d like to think that the finished product is a little more textured as a result.

And this isn’t just true for writers. Recently, I’ve begun to learn Lisp, the strangest and most powerful of all programming languages, and although there are a handful of convenient development environments available, like LispWorks, I spent the better part of a day setting up Slime, the Lisp development mode for Emacs. For those who haven’t experienced it directly, Emacs is a venerable text editor primarily used by coders, and for anyone used to working with polished graphical interfaces, it’s enough to make you break out in a cold sweat: it’s text only, controlled solely through keyboard commands, with an initially bewildering labyrinth of key combinations you need to memorize just to navigate through a document. Yet it’s also enormously powerful, flexible, and customizable, and it affects the way coders think. They can live in a wall of text for years, and the commands become wired into their fingers to an almost musical degree: it’s no accident that the key combinations in Emacs are called chords. It subtly influences the way they feel about formatting and syntax, which filters up imperceptibly into decisions involving the design of larger structures, up to the level of the program itself. And it all starts, as with most other things in art and life, with the choice of tools.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

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