If you’re a screenwriter these days, it really helps to also be a director —if you plan on taking home one of the Academy Awards for either original or adapted screenplay, that is.
Since 2010, only one non-directing solo writer has won an original screenplay Oscar, and the last time a non-directing solo writer won an adapted Oscar was in 2014. Expressed another way, 53% of the names that won original screenplay Oscars since 2010 were the films’ directors; 31% of the names that won adapted screenplay Oscars were the directors.
Whether this is a problem or not, however, depends on whom you speak to.
“It’s revealing,” says Anthony McCarten, three-time Oscar nominee and sole (non-directing) screenwriter of “The Two Popes” when presented with the statistics. “There’s a real misunderstanding of what a writer does on a script. It is the invisible art, and proper respect is not paid. It’s an overdue discussion.”
The Writers Guild of America West, however, sees it differently.
“These are writers in most of these situations,” says Lesley Mackey, senior director of credits at the WGAW. “These are people who were employed to perform writing services, and often they’re the writers who were there from the very first blank page. A good portion of them — like Woody Allen or Jordan Peele — have a larger number of writing credits than they do directing.”
Writers and directors have collaborated since the invention of film; it’s well understood that directors contribute a number of ideas to any given script in order to end up with a polished, fluid project. But collaboration can take many forms — and increasingly, the films recognized at Hollywood’s biggest annual event are the ones where the two jobs have blended most seamlessly.
“I became a director because I knew that was the best way to protect the writing,” says “The Farewell’s” Lulu Wang, who always intended to both write and direct a story based on her life.
It also meant she didn’t have to be too rigorous with her script. “I’m lazier than writers who don’t direct,” she adds. “For them to make clear what’s in their vision they have to be very specific with the writing. I have a shorthand — I’ll just say, ‘They walk in an epic style’ on the page, and I know it’ll take place in slow motion at magic hour. But a producer is not in my head, and I have to expand with them about why it’s such a big moment.”
Similarly, “Jojo Rabbit” writer-director Taika Waititi includes stage directions and camera moves in his spare scripts since he knows he’ll be the one directing later. “On set, I’m rewriting things as I go, shaping the whole thing and trying to keep it on track,” he says. “You’re writing without using your fingers. It’s very rare for the words on the page to be the film that you see.”
Writers usually come to the table knowing that their screenplay is far from the actual finished draft. “The way we see it, the script is the sales document to get the director — then, to get the producer, then to get the cast,” says Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who co-wrote “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Noah Harpster. “All of these things make the script a living document in the prep process — and it’s that process that’s intensely collaborative between the writer and the director, as you try to accommodate what is possible.”
“Between the screenwriting, the production and the edit, a film takes different forms each step of the way,” says “Waves” writer-director Trey Edward Shults. “When I write a screenplay it’s the first time anyone has seen the movie — it’s just the first step on the path.”
Scott Z. Burns has collaborated frequently with director Steven Soderbergh (including their latest, “The Laundromat”), and is debuting as a writer-director with “The Report.” Yet over their four films (and counting) pairings, the writer-director division has remained intact.
“Steven believes his job is the director and mine is the writer,” says Burns. “Inherent in those descriptions are that the collaboration is between us. I can’t imagine him ever pursuing a credit with me.”
Burns has also been expected to be on the set every day while working with Soderbergh, a privilege many screenwriters aren’t extended. “On other films, I haven’t felt the same level of engagement, especially once filming starts,” he says. “In development there’s engagement with the director, but there seems to be a hard line that once you’re finished there, your participation is not needed.”
All of which can paint an image of the writer as discardable, toiling to produce a script that is ultimately co-opted by a director. But Mackey doesn’t see it that way. “Professional screenplay writers want to … have an opportunity to direct their own pictures,” she says. “If you talk to some of our members, you’ll find more opportunities for writers to direct their own materials. That’s the trend.”
A trend that points squarely at the auteurs, the writer-directors who keep the process strictly in-house — and who Academy voters have preferred to the exclusion of nearly all others in the originals category for nearly a decade. McCarten says, in part, it has to do with branding.
“We lived in the cult of the producer in the ’20s, then the cult of the actor in the ’40s and ’50s, and we’re currently living in the cult of the director,” he says. “We’ll never have a cult of the screenwriter, because we’re not fighting. We’re too modest, and we do all our work in solitary spaces.”
Burns agrees. “Studios have turned directors into brands,” he says. “When voters see those names, they’re more familiar with them than the writers — so that may account for it, in part. But I understand [McCarten’s] agitation; you feel when you toil with the [script] for years, and you bring it to a director and they change it and you end up with shared credit, it can be frustrating.”
Mackey sees it differently: “There are maybe more directors put out there as a brand, but that’s nothing new. [Alfred] Hitchcock was a brand. Charlie Kaufman is a brand. Aaron Sorkin is a brand. Studios promote what’s going to give them the most recognition. Sometimes it’s the writer, sometimes a director, sometimes
In the end, auteurs may also have more than name recognition going for them when it comes to ticking off the boxes on ballots; voters may simply appreciate the unified vision a writer-director can put into a final project more than a lone writer who hands it off to a director.
“Directors who write their own screenplays have a consistent voice,” says Larry Karaszewski, who scripted “Dolemite Is My Name” with writing partner Scott Alexander. “As a writer, you have a ton of notes from a lot of people — and then a director gets involved and it’s a huge process. Whereas when Jordan Peele follows his script from start to finish, he knows when it’s done.”
And perhaps the direction those voters have been heading in for the better part of a decade is convincing some writers to take up the “opportunity” to direct — if they can persuade someone to let them. “The Report” is Burns’ first foray as a helmer, but now he jokes about altering his relationship with Soderbergh in the future.
“Maybe I should just ask Steven to add his name [to my scripts],” laughs Burns. “If that’s what catches voters’ eyes, maybe that’s what we have to start doing.”