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Directed by an overpaid tool
Opening credits to Deadpool
Sometimes I am quite concerned for the wellbeing and psychological equilibrium of my fellow screenwriters. The more I interact with them, the more I feel that, though they like writing for film, they tend to walk around with something of an inferiority complex, especially when there is a director, or even more unfortunate perhaps, a film critic nearby.
I fully understand this. I’m the same way. And there are logical reasons for this that this essay will attempt to address.
But to begin, I not only ask this of my fellow screenwriters, but of everyone in the entertainment industry: does anyone really know exactly what a director does? Does anyone really have a specific and concrete idea as to what they bring to the table? What areas of the film they contribute that we see up there on the screen?
I often get vague answers to this question. It’s something generally to the tune of, they are ultimately responsible for what we see on the screen, i.e., theoretically, and only theoretically, the buck stops with them.
Fair enough. But what does that really mean? Taken at face value, all that genuinely suggests is that the director is a manager, or as wiser minds than I have opined, someone who does none of the real work, but takes all the credit.
That’s an extreme exaggeration, of course. But I still suspect there is some truth to it.
I began thinking about this as I was watching the two seasons of the Amazon series, Red Oaks. If one looks at the credits, you will find a veritable who’s who of directors who are, or were, part of the new wave in independent film: Hal Hartley, Amy Heckerling, Gregg Araki, Andrew Fleming, Nisha Ganatra, and David Gordon Green.
But in watching the series, one can’t tell anything particular, or anything of their own style, that each director brings to the individual sections they directed.
Now this is understandable. The show’s creators would hardly want a series in which each episode was widely divergent in style. And I’m not saying these directors didn’t do a good job. In fact, I think they did an excellent job. After all, Red Oaks is one of the best comedies on Hulu.
But if the quality of the series is not dependent on the director, who or what then is it dependent on?
Could it be the writing?
And most of these directors, when not working on the series, write their own screenplays for the films they create. So, in film, why is the directing half of these directors getting all the credit, while the writing side is often being treated as just one aspect of the movie as good as any other, like set design, editing and cinematography?
There is another art form where the role of the director is much, much clearer and that is live theater. It’s usually quite easy to tell the difference between what a playwright brings and what a director brings to the proceedings.
This is true as well for concerts. Does anyone really have any difficulty understanding what Beethoven brings to his Ninth and what the conductor does? Well, the only area they might have trouble here is really understanding what the conductor does.
I sometimes think that directors would prefer to keep this nebulous. if no one knows exactly what they do, then that helps keep them more in control as well as receive credit for what someone else might have contributed.
So how did it come to this sad turn of events in film when it comes to the screenwriter?
I have a couple of unproven and unverifiable theories. In the early years of motion pictures, in Hollywood at least, the director was often not much more that a kind of stager manager. He was usually assigned projects by the studio; the screenplay was usually finished, often the product of several writers under the supervision of, again, the studios; he usually didn’t have final edit; and other areas of the production (sets, music, costumes) were also done by people assigned by the powers that be. His job was to bring all the various aspects of the project into some sort of unified whole which the studio would then oversee and revise into a releasable product.
There is also a saying that in the early days of film, all the director did was yell “action” and “cut”.
As time went on, directors would finagle a lot more control, especially if their films were successful. Directors like Capra, Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks, became names in themselves (while, with rare exception, no one knew who the writer(s) were). And there was a logic to this. They already oversaw, and more and more gained control of, various aspects of the production. So it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t a natural progression.
And then in the 1950’s, as studios were losing more control over the film itself, the French created the auteur theory and the 60’s revolution in U.S. film was set.
When it comes to writers, though, what did we do while the directors were consolidating their control over the art form?
Not much, if truth be told. Writers always tended to be a little late to the banquet and while no one was looking, the directors pushed us out to the kitchen where all the servants were fed.
I have two, also extremely unproven, theories as to why we were a little slow on the uptake. One is that in the early days of Hollywood, writers came from the background usually of the stage, sometimes the novel. They didn’t consider film to be an art form, or if they did, it was vastly inferior to the ones where they originally honed their craft. They were pretty much in it for the money. They didn’t see the potential that directors did.
Or as Herman J. Mankiewicz supposedly telegraphed to Ben Hecht in 1925: WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES? ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.
So in many ways, we got what we asked for.
And then as the director gained power, it was too late for us. We lost the battler before it began. So writers gained power usually in one of two ways: ally themselves with a particular director, or, as most did beginning with Preston Sturges and John Huston, become directors themselves in order to protect their vision.
And so the die was cast.
Another possibility that also might have helped is that in the post war movie making process, as studios were losing control over the product, actors and directors formed their own production companies. I can’t think of any screenwriters who did this, unless they were also directors.
So the answer to the question as to how directors came out top dog? They were smart enough to make a power grab.
Well, let’s start with what a screenwriter does. They provide the screenplay, the storyline, the characters, the dialog, the themes, the ideas, often the concept, and no matter what many critics will have you believe, a lot of the visuals.
What a director brings has changed a bit. If the director is not the screenwriter, he brings supervision to the various aspects of production and tries to create a unified whole. In this way he has taken a lot of the responsibilities the studio once had.
Many directors also bring the concept, sort of, maybe. Again, if they are not also the screenwriter, they decide what the movie is to be about. But look closely at the movies non-screenwriting directors make. How many of them are based on pre-existing material?
In other words, they don’t come up with their own ideas. They often have to go out and find them.
Take the films of directors that aren’t writers like Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Spielberg, and compare them to directors who began as writers like Chaplin, Sturges, Allen, Bergman, Tarantino and see who depends more on original ideas (there are exceptions; Huston usually adapted and Michael Hanake tends to create original concepts). Still, I think if you did this, you quite possibly find it a real eye opener.
And yet in spite of this, the director gets all the glory for a film…unless it’s a flop, and then the writer, who originally was considered little more than a craftsman on the film by the critics, is the sole reason a movie turned out so badly.
I remember Gene Siskel, the Chicago film critic who with Roger Ebert created the At the Movies thumbs up/thumbs down series, when he told the story about a film he had heavily criticized, totally blaming the writer. The writer then sent Siskel the original screenplay. The original screenplay was vastly superior to the end product and suddenly Siskel had an epiphany as to why some films are so bad and why we shouldn’t be automatically blaming the writer.
Screenwriters are even treated far worse than the designers. No one ever attributes costume design, art decoration, music, etc., to the director. It would never enter one’s head to do so.
But the screenplay? For that they’ll go out of their way to give credit to any Martin, Steven or Alfred.
I’ve even been in seminars where the lecturer was giving credit for something to the director that was obviously part or the screenplay.
I’m not sure what can really be done about this. In many ways the ship has sailed and I’m not sure we’ll ever get the real credit we deserve. About the only way we can regain control is by becoming directors, or, as is happening more often these days, becoming producers.
Or go to television where the writer is held in higher esteem than the director. This has been happening ever since the recession and the writers’ strike. And as a result, television has gotten better while film has become less and less interesting (at least in the U.S.), until we have directors complaining that they aren’t being treated with the same respect they are in film.
And when they do, my response is, Oh, so now you’re finally being treated like writers were in film. Oh, boo hoo hoo, cry me a river.
As a final note for this part: to screenwriters who are not given enough credit for their part of a film, remember, anyone can direct. This has been proven over and over again in film history. Actors can direct, editors can direct, cinematographers can direct, producers can direct, photographers can direct.
And screenwriters can direct.
But very few can write.
Okay, I’ve had a lot of fun here going after directors. But this brings us to the second part of my essay.
As in any other art form, directors are indispensable. And if a screenwriter can collaborate with a great director, it can result in some incredible works of art. It’s not that they are a necessary evil (as many directors consider screenwriters). They are inherent to the success of a film.
So what exactly do they do?
And that I will explore in part two.
Throughout the essay, I posted photos of various screenwriters that were indispensable to the success of several motion pictures? How many can you identify? None? What does that tell you.