LONDON — In the U.S., when screenwriters and movie directors collaborate, the partnership is rarely an equal one — or anything close to it. The writer is often regarded as disposable and is easily fired by the director.
In Europe, though, writers get more respect from the directors they collaborate with.
Many of the year’s Oscar hopefuls hailing from Europe, especially from Blighty, feature a strong director-writer team.
One example is “Black Book.” Dutch helmer Paul Verhoeven and writer Gerard Soeteman spent more than two decades thrashing out the script of the World War II drama.
“We just couldn’t get the structure right. It was Gerard who cracked the problem by hitting upon the idea of changing the main protagonist from a boy to a girl,” Verhoeven says.
Pic, Holland’s foreign-language Oscar entry, revolves around a German Jewish cabaret singer who joins the Dutch resistance after the Nazis murder her family.
Verhoeven and Soeteman first met on the 1960s swashbuckling TV drama “Floris” and went on to collaborate on Dutch classics such as “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange.”
“Black Book” marks their first collaboration in two decades.
“Gerard will write the first draft, mapping out the characters and general structure. Then, he’ll hand it over to me, and I’ll write a second draft. Then he’ll take it back and write a third … It’s a true collaboration,” Verhoeven explains.
Likewise, indie Brit contenders “Notes on a Scandal,” “The Queen” and “Venus” were all born out of strong director-writer partnerships in which the director and the writer had equal stakes. “Venus,” for example, is the fruit of the long-standing relationship between novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi, director Roger Michell and producer Kevin Loader. Their previous joint projects include the feature “The Mother” and the TV series “The Buddha of Suburbia.”
Kureishi’s writing, says Loader, lies at the heart of their work together.
“Hanif’s vision of the world is very different from the way we view the world” Loader says. “We’ve all known one another for a long time. Hanif often tries ideas out on us. Sometimes, the ideas go somewhere, sometimes they don’t.” Starring veteran thesp Peter O’Toole as an octogenarian actor who falls for a younger woman, “Venus” took just six months to pull together.
“Hanif delivered a few sketchy pages in June 2005. By November, he and Roger had thrashed out a script,” says Loader.
“The Queen” helmer Stephen Frears says the strong director-writer relationships found in Blighty are part and parcel of the incestuous relationship between theater, television and film in the country. He adds that the ethos of writers’ theaters such as the influential Royal Court in London and the BBC’s drama department in the 1970s and ’80s also helped foster many such collaborative relationships. “When I first started working at the BBC, it was all about the writer’s vision. The directors were brought in last to bring to life what had been created by the producer and writer,” he recalls.
Royal family saga “The Queen” reunited Frears with writer Peter Morgan. The pair had previously collaborated on “The Deal,” a TV drama about Brit Prime Minister Tony Blair, his erstwhile sidekick Gordon Brown and the birth of New Labor.
Both projects were driven by Producer Christine Langan and Andy Harries, controller of drama, comedy and film at British broadcaster Granada.
“It was essential that the film get as close to reality as possible,” says Harries. “Peter is very gifted at negotiating that fine line between what we know happened and what we imagine happened.”
Armed with a legion of researchers, Morgan got to work.
Frears comments: “Peter wrote. I nagged.” For his part, Morgan describes Frears as “writer’s director.” “He would be constantly asking me what I thought was going on in a scene. I’d say X, Y and Z, and he’d say that I hadn’t written that. There was an endless sifting of tone and emphasis and clarification,” he says.
“Notes on a Scandal” reunited theater helmer Richard Eyre with former protege Patrick Marber. “You could say I’m responsible for getting Patrick into writing,” says Eyre. In the mid 1990s, Eyre invited Marber — then a successful TV comedy sketch writer with a hankering to break into theater — to develop and direct his first play at the prestigious National Theater, where he was then artistic director.
It was Marber’s lucky break. The play, “Dealer’s Choice,” was a critical success. He followed it up with “Closer.”
A decade later, the pair were brought together again by writer-centric U.S. producer Scott Rudin.
“Scott likes to give the writer a prominent role in the making of a film,” Eyre says. “This was fine by me — coming from the theater, the notion that the writer has equivalent status is hardwired into me.”