We have plunged into the season of back-to-back awards and acceptance speeches, when every winner reminds us that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor. In these recitations of all the collaborators, however, I’ve noticed that screenwriters are rarely if ever mentioned, which is ironic since the speeches usually are in need of a rewrite.
Such omissions have become increasingly apparent lately, since more and more films have either been written by the director or perhaps not written at all. I’m convinced that no director named Anderson has ever hired a writer. Further, “Birdman,” with all its frenetic energy, plays like it was created scene-by-scene by its hyper-caffeinated cast (the director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, takes screenplay credit along with three other scribes, including two friends).
Arguably, the visually arresting “Interstellar” would have been a far more satisfying film had a talented writer worked on its dialogue and plot (Chris Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, are listed as the writers). I admired “Boyhood,” but, again, it plays as if the actors, year after year, invented scenes as they slowly aged.
The obsolescence of the screenwriter also is apparent in the trend toward what some critics call the “post-plot” movie. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a prime example of a movie that offered great shtick and a wisecracking raccoon but no true narrative. “The movie encourages you to enjoy yourself even though you’re not sure what’s going on,” observed Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan (he’s a traditionalist, to be sure).
To the contemporary filmmaker-writer, panache and camera movement are more important than compelling dialogue. Author Stephen Farber (another traditionalist) reminded me of Billy Wilder’s declaration: “I like to believe that narrative movement can be achieved eloquently and elegantly without shooting from a hole in the ground, without hanging the camera from a chandelier and without the camera dolly dancing a polka.”
The argument about writers and writers’ credits dates back at least to Andrew Sarris’ pronouncements in the ’60s about “auteur” filmmaking. Sarris venerated directors like Alfred Hitchcock, who distrusted both writers and actors. Pauline Kael then came along to advance the cause of Sidney Lumet, who ranged from “Network” to “Serpico,” and who closely worked with prominent screenwriters.
The painful truth is that many of the films of Hollywood’s vintage years, despite their often pedestrian, studio-driven structure, were exceptionally well written in terms of plot and dialogue. I once took a week off and read my way through some old studio scripts crafted by the likes of Nunnally Johnson and Dalton Trumbo, who labored in the old studio writers buildings, and I was enormously impressed by their craftsmanship and richness of dialogue. I even read unproduced scripts written by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht — it was clear why they were never made, but they deserved to be published.
My late friend Roddy McDowell, a keen student of studio history, once advised me to read some screenplays he’d collected that had been developed by studio chiefs explicitly as starring vehicles for their favored mistresses. It was a unique collection — superbly written scripts by top screenwriters that were never made (the relationships usually blew up before the films got their greenlights).
I realize that good writing doesn’t necessarily create good filmmaking. It’s more important today to capture the “big scene” than the elegant moment between characters. Superheroes don’t have to talk pretty. Raccoons in an outer galaxy are not expected to be eloquent.
But I can see why there’s discussion in at least one agency to change the title “motion picture lit agent” simply to “lit agent.” That way, they can remove the movie stigma.