Crosstalk: Do screenwriters really matter?

Crosstalk: Do screenwriters really matter?

Scott Tobias: The conflict between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga—who ended their collaboration after the acclaimed triptych of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and the new Babel—is good jumping-off point for a subject that's been simmering in Hollywood and critical circles lately. Namely, are screenwriters getting enough credit for their work? Critics generally talk about films in terms of the director, which of course denies any contribution the writer could have made, as does the "a film by" credit, which basically posits the director as the author of the film. I'm going to argue, perhaps quixotically, that screenwriters are currently not getting the credit they don't deserve. And since Babel illustrates—and to some degree refutes—my point pretty nicely, let's start there.

First, a little more on the Iñárritu/Arriaga feud. The rift was first reported in the "Scriptland" column in the Los Angeles Times, which has received some (well-deserved) knocks for reviewing screenplays before they go into production. According to the Times, Iñárritu was ticked that Arriaga had claimed too much credit for 21 Grams, and he banned the writer from appearing at Cannes 2006 for the world première of Babel. (Iñárritu would go on to take the Best Director prize.) The L.A. Times piece was followed by a more detailed think-piece in The New York Times by Terrence Rafferty, which in turn led to Babel's producers buying an ad damning both articles for getting the story wrong. They claim that the collaboration between the two men had just "run its course," though they also acknowledge certain "philosophical differences."

Here's the money quote from Arriaga: "When they say it's an auteur film, I say auteurs film. I have always been against the 'film by' credit on a movie. It's a collaborative process and it deserves several authors."

In Arriaga's case, I think the "auteurs" label is appropriate, because he's one of the few screenwriters with a distinctive voice and a continuity to his work. Yet along with credit comes blame, too. I'd argue that much of what is good about the Iñárritu/Arriaga collaborations—and everything that's good about Babel—is Iñárritu's dynamic, texturally rich direction and not so much the humorless machinations of Arriaga's scripts. The best passages by far in Babel are the wordless sequences, like the disorienting pulse of sound and image in the Japanese discotheque, or the plaintive guitar that strums as an entire Moroccan village takes a wounded Cate Blanchett into its collective care. With a lesser director, I think you've got Crash 2, an inelegant, deeply contrived narrative about the ripple effects of violence across the globe, or some such pretentious nonsense. Noel Murray's review of the film declared "Hallelujah" at the news that the two were parting ways, and to that I can only add an "Amen, brother," though I'm not entirely convinced that the prudish Iñárritu will choose material best-suited to his undeniable skills as a pure filmmaker.

But again, Arriaga really does deserve credit—maybe "co-auteur" credit at that—though I can't see much evidence that he's being denied it, either. I haven't read a single review of Babel that doesn't bring up his name, because elements like the interlocking multi-story structure and the subtle achronology are obviously his to claim. Yet I'd say that a good 95 percent of the time, directors are either wholly responsible for a film's success or failure, or the issues of attribution are so murky that giving the screenwriter credit is extremely problematic. And by making this claim, I'm discounting all films by writer-directors, who are of course free to bask in all the glory or infamy that's thrown at them.

Those two main points—that directors are responsible for a film's success or failure, and that attribution problems make it hard to give writers credit—require a lot of explanation on my end, so I'll lob it back to you for now and get into more detail later on. What do you think? Are screenwriters getting the short end of the stick, or should they quit their complaining?

Keith Phipps: Well, to my eyes at least, the Arriaga/Iñárritu case illustrates just how crucial screenwriters are, although my proof of this depends a lot on my own personal taste. For me, the pairing has been a case of diminishing returns tied to the quality of the scripts. Amores Perros had three gripping narratives, but the follow-ups lost a lot of the urgency and nuance of that debut. There's a lot I respect about 21 Grams, particularly the performances and Iñárritu's always-compelling eye, but I also think it devolves into one miserable slog after a while. I liked Babel better, but it ran into some of the same problems, and some new ones tied to some weird failures in logic. (Do Moroccan police really just open fire whenever they see suspects?) I could get into some more specific problems with the film, but overall, for me, the partnership has illustrated that the better the script, the better the film.

I'm not even sure you'd argue with that. So here's something for you to argue with: Screenwriters regularly get screwed. It has a lot to do with the sausage-factory way movies get made and scripts get rewritten, and I'm not averse to thinking in "a film by" terms, but if there's no script, there's no movie. (Most of the time, at least.) The prominence of writer-directors has made it even harder not to think this way. But I'd argue that most directors work by carefully choosing the right scripts for their sensibilities.

Let's look at Steven Soderbergh, for an example. He's indisputably a distinctive director, but one who, best I can tell, seeks out interesting screenplays and creates his films around them. Nothing ever feels like it was pounded into a Soderbergh-friendly shape, even if there's no mistaking one of Soderbergh's films for anyone else's. Or consider Scorsese, who works very closely with screenwriters developing films. I'm not saying that, say, The Limey should read "a film by Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs." I don't even want to upset the primacy of a director. But I think the whole "a film by" notion is a kind of pernicious. You can't build a house without blueprints, and you can't make a movie without words.

Or am I spreading the credit around too generously?

ST: You're right that screenwriters get screwed in Hollywood—says I, one of the screwers—because many scripts are subject to rewrites, and the arbitration process can lead to some truly mysterious rulings. There have been cases when a screenplay has been thrown out and entirely rewritten from scratch, and the original writer has received full credit for that work. Just doing a Google search right now (keywords: "script," "thrown out," "arbitration"), I find a photo of Terry Gilliam burning his Writers Guild of America card over the WGA's ruling on Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. The WGA initially decided to credit the screenplay to Alex Cox and Tod Davies, even though Gilliam and his screenwriting partner Tony Grisoni asserted that they wrote one directly from Hunter Thompson's book. The WGA eventually gave in and credited all four of them, but there have been circumstances when they haven't been so generous or just.

But setting aside the problems that sometimes occur when you try to attribute a screenplay to a particular writer, you can make some generalizations about what a script is responsible for doing. As you say, "you can't build a house without blueprints," and that's exactly right, though I'd hesitate to call screenwriters architects. To switch metaphors abruptly, they provide the narrative backbone—the story, the structure, the characters, the dialogue (though that last one can get a bit tricky, given how much the process can alter it)—but it's up to the director to provide the flesh and blood. To me, how a script is executed is so much more crucial than the quality of the script itself, especially within the last half-century, when film has moved away from its stage roots and become a director-driven medium.

You mention Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs. Their contentious commentary track for The Limey is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Dobbs complains that Soderbergh, in his decision to shoot the film in an elliptical style, cut out a lot of elements of the script that he feels would have made for a better movie. Soderbergh, for his part, absorbs the abuse in good humor and tells Dobbs something to the effect of "hey, why don't you try directing, hotshot?" To me, this is solid evidence of the hierarchy at work: Ultimately, the key decisions on a film are made by a director, and when that director has Soderbergh's vision, it's his fingerprints that are all over the movie. Not to take too much away from Dobbs, whose reputedly excellent screenplay for Kafka Soderbergh botched eight years earlier, but this was definitely a case of a director having his way with the material.

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To me, the most important issue is continuity. Directors like Soderbergh or Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman have teamed up with certain screenwriters on occasion—Scorsese and Schrader for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation Of Christ; Altman and Joan Tewkesbury for Thieves Like Us and Nashville—but they've all worked with many different writers throughout their careers while maintaining singularity as filmmakers. Even if it weren't immediately clear who's behind the camera, as it certainly is with Scorsese and Altman, you can find thematic concerns and stylistic signatures that run through everything they've done. Their work is connected in ways that the vast, vast majority of screenwriters are not.

In fact, I can count on one finger the number of contemporary screenwriters whose voices frequently supercede those of the director: Charlie Kaufman. Only in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind has the director's imagination been nearly as forceful as the writer's, and even then, the ingenuity of Kaufman's conceit shines through brightest. And yet there's a case of a writer who gets credit from every single critic who talks about his work, because to ignore it would be completely irrational. Kaufman is finally preparing to direct one of his own screenplays, which should be an interesting test. Will he be able to wrangle the troops behind a cohesive vision, or will he be one of those screenwriters who try their hand at directing and display zero visual imagination?

All that said, I want to go on record as saying I'm not an auteurist. While I'm obviously inclined to assert the director's primacy, I'm not one of those critics who glom onto a certain filmmaker with a certain set of thematic or stylistic markers, and proceeds to rubber-stamp everything they do. I'm also not inclined to dismiss craftsmen like John Huston or William Wyler or Michael Winterbottom or Stephen Frears, who don't have a signature, but bring a degree of intelligence, versatility, and good taste to most of what they do. Frears' new film The Queen, for example, yields the floor to a terrific screenplay by Peter Morgan, and allows two fine lead actors the space to execute it. Credit needs to be given when it's due, but I'm finding cases like these to be more the exception than the rule.

KP: "How a script is executed is so much more crucial than the quality of the script itself": You confound me with your logic, Scott. You're right: I'd rather see a bad script well-executed than a great script botched. I'm glad, for instance, that the trend of dull Shakespeare adaptations has played itself out. But have you brought me around to agreeing with you, or have we simply decided that the medium has come to devalue script-y virtues like sharp dialogue in favor of director-ly virtues like visual style? Maybe it's no coincidence that creators who begin as writers heavily invested in conveying a total vision end up directing, whether they're dependent on visual style (like Quentin Tarantino) or remain rooted in dialogue (like Whit Stillman and Kevin Smith). Or they go into television, like Joss Whedon. It's as much about security as egomania.

Still, I don't think the greatest director can make a great film from a terrible script, or even a mediocre one, and I challenge you to find one example. Just one.

ST: How about Million Dollar Baby? There's a Paul Haggis screenplay packed to the gills with stock characters and hoary boxing-movie clichés, yet completely elevated by Clint Eastwood's gentle understatement and his wonderfully expressive chiaroscuro lighting scheme. Or to keep with the boxing theme, how about Undisputed, which is the crudest B-movie material imaginable—dudes in jail fighting other dudes—but was raised to an iconic battle of the titans by Walter Hill? Perhaps it's a shame that script-y virtues (dialogue, et. al.) have been replaced by director-ly virtues (style, et. al.), but I think that's the world we're living in now. And as you say, writers with really strong voices have generally gotten around to directing their own material, whether they know what to do with the camera, or their name is Kevin Smith.

Let me address my apparent lapse in logic: "How a script is executed is so much more crucial than the quality of the script itself." I guess what I mean is simpler: Execution is all. It seems odd to assert that the writer—who provides the story, the characters, the dialogue, and all these essential elements—should be devalued at all. But could anyone make the case of the screenwriter's primacy without me giggling? No. As I said before, Charlie Kaufman is the only contemporary American screenwriter who doesn't direct (yet) whose voice is stronger than the directors who have take on his work. There are a handful of other writers who can generally be relied on for intelligent work, but Kaufman's is the only name that gets me anticipating a film for the screenwriter's credit instead of the director's. Can you really think of any more? (That's a rhetorical question, by the way.)

KP: Another screenwriter who doesn't direct whose name alone is reason to get excited about a project… Is Ben Hecht still working?

I think I'd go see anything with James Schamus' name on it, although his scripts are inextricable from Ang Lee's direction. To return to Clint Eastwood, I think Unforgiven benefits from a screenplay by David Webb Peoples that's just about perfect, but it's not like everything with his name on turns out great. (And, now that I look him up, looks like he did direct a movie.) So, um, well…

Okay, so what have we concluded? That it sucks to be a screenwriter even if screenwriters don't suck? That if you really have a voice and vision, you'd better pick up a camera? That screenwriters may be underappreciated, but they're ultimately craftsmen? I turn to you to sum this up.

ST: Good call on David Webb Peoples and James Schamus, who have written some really intelligent screenplays without getting a chance to direct. Talk about screenwriters getting screwed: In Peoples' case, I can't imagine that Soldier came out the way he'd hoped—you're an unlucky man when your material gets turned over to the director of Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon—but I'm betting a Walter Hill or John Carpenter type could have done wonders with Kurt Russell in a lead role where he's given fewer than 100 words of dialogue.

And yes, if you've concluded that it sucks to be a screenwriter even if screenwriters don't suck, that you need to pick up a camera if you have a voice, and that writers are ultimately craftsmen whose work is given over to someone else's vision, then I guess you're agreeing with me, right? What do I win?

Filed Under: Film

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