It’s the year of the hyphenate for the Writers Guild Awards for film.
Of the 10 features nominated, eight were authored or co-authored by the movie’s director.
The noms underscore the belief of many screenwriters that outstanding films are the product of a unified vision. Scribes argue that writer-directors produce better films because they are able to protect a script from production rewrites that blur its focus, muddy its characters and demolish point of view.
“Big studio pictures utilize the assembly-line approach,” says one prominent hyphenate. “Different writers are brought in like hair and makeup people. I’ve had very little success with scripts that I wrote and other people directed. Every one of them has been butchered or mangled beyond recognition.”
Hyphenates don’t just play defense. They are able to respond to the realities of shooting.
“When the director is also the screenwriter, he can make revisions to meet the demands of production,” says Ron Shelton (writer-director, “Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup”), “but they stay within the spirit of the original script.”
During filming, most discover that lines of dialogue can be pared because actors are able to convey the same thoughts through a look or gesture.
“It’s very hard to imagine, if you’re a writer alone in front of a computer screen, the power of the human face,” says Jim Sheridan. “Emotions are invisible. To capture them you’ve got to be very careful of not putting too much dialogue in the way. A lot of the time I’m on the set saying to my actors, ‘This is too much,’ and I pare the dialogue down.”
On “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and director Peter Jackson also enjoyed pruning their dialogue during shooting. “Oh, it’s such a joy, all those bad lines hitting the floor,” says Walsh.
But hyphenates also add dialogue and bits of business when a run-through makes it clear that a scene is stilted, unclear or just plain dreadful.
“I was constantly rewriting on set,” says Tom McCarthy, writer-director of “The Station Agent,” nominated for original screenplay. “I would rewrite scenes we had to adjust due to our tight budget and time constraints.”
Hyphenates can also draw upon the improv skills of actors. Sofia Coppola, writer-director of “Lost in Translation,” also nominated for original screenplay, recalls filming a scene in which Bill Murray attends a photo shoot for a Japanese whiskey ad: “A lot of that was improvised. I would whisper something in the photographer’s ear, then he shouted it at Bill Murray and Bill would react. Then I would whisper something else to the photographer and Bill would react again. There’s a lot more in that scene than was on the page.”
The process continues in editing where dialogue is pared or reshuffled and the order of scenes altered, and in looping where dialogue is added to fill gaps in continuity or give nuance to characters.
“All of these things change what was originally on the page,” says Walsh. “The film is always re-creating itself and becoming something else. You have to always be thinking: ‘How can I improve it? Or is it fine the way it is?’ The key is being able to adjust to the evolving nature of the film you’re making. If you’re there through the entire process it’s such an advantage because you can keep developing with it.”
The two nominated films that weren’t penned by hyphenates were authored by screenwriters who enjoyed close collaborations with their directors.
“Stephen Frears is a writer’s director,” says Steven Knight, who wrote “Dirty Pretty Things.” “I was on the set at all times. It was great to work with someone who was so committed to the script.”
“My relationship with Clint Eastwood was the best I’ve ever had with a director,” says Brian Helgeland, who adapted “Mystic River” from Dennis Lehane’s novel.
“Clint gave me a chance to do everything that I wanted to do. He doesn’t want to sit on you because he’s afraid that some great thing will come out of your freedom, and it will be squashed if he has the reins too tight.”
Get me rewrite
Just the same, “there are a lot of really lousy screenplays out there with good concepts that do need to be rewritten,” says Jane Anderson, writer-director of WGA-nominee “Normal.”
The assembly-line method is used because it often works. On “Casablanca,” considered one of the best films of all time, different writers fashioned different elements of the script, credited to Jules and Philip Epstein and three other scribes.
“A lot of good movies have been made that way,” observes Robert Towne, who has profited handsomely by serving as one of Hollywood’s premier rewriters.
“You’d like to say there’s just one pure way of doing it. But some movies that are a hell of a lot of fun have had a hell of a lot of people contributing to them.”