Thursday, January 21, 2010

Are You Ready to Rumble? - Writers vs. Directors

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Andrew Sarris, in his Introduction to Interviews with Film Directors, Avon Books, 1967, p. 12, wrote:

...screenwriting involves more than mere dialogue and plot. The choice between a close-up and a long-shot, for example, may quite often transcend the plot. If the story of Little Red Riding Hood is told with the Wolf in close-up and Little Red Riding Hood in long-shot, the director is concerned primarily with the emotional problems of a wolf with a compulsion to eat little girls. If Little Red Riding Hood is in close-up and the wolf in long–shot, the emphasis is shifted to the emotional problems of vestigial virginity in a wicked world. Thus, two different stories are being told with the same basic anecdotal material. What is at stake in the two different versions of Little Red Riding Hood are two contrasting directorial attitudes toward life. One director identifies more with the Wolf—the male, the compulsive, the corrupted, even evil itself. The second director identifies with the little girl - the innocence, the illusion, the ideal and hope of the race.
Okay, wait a minute. Did he say “two contrasting directorial attitudes toward life”? So, if you make a film it isn’t about the story in the film, it’s actually your take on LIFE? This may have more to do with Sarris’s own private predilections than any accurate interpretations of the story. After all, there is an interpretation in between his two examples that has to do with a hungry and wily predator trying to hunt and eat defenseless prey as is its nature. This, rather than some kind of twisted and corrupt expression of pure, yet sexually perverse evil, or contrarily, some innocent expression of racial hope. You know he is over-thinking this when he employs P.C. buzz words like “sexually perverse” and “racial hope.” It’s all too politically self-conscious, pandering as it does, to his “choir” full of cineastes, for my taste. Perhaps Sarris has been reading too much Freud. Perhaps it’s the ‘60’s. And perhaps, as are we all, Sarris is a product of his times. The trick is to recognize it and transcend them.

But the reality is that before there can be a close-up or a long-shot, there must be a subject to be shot. And the assumption that the narrative left an interpretation of the subject to some neutral medium-shot until a director could come along and take a position one way or another is actually ignorance of an emphasis that is almost always already present in the narrative, placed there by the writer, and ignored by the director in favor of wresting control of the narrative for his own reasons.

For example, one can describe an action in several ways: as pure and focused (close-up), as within its immediate location (medium-shot), or as within and against its surroundings or environment (long-shot and extreme long-shot). It can even be described in such a way as to evoke a mind’s-eye view suggesting an up-angle to yield a powerful or dominating subject, a straight-on angle to yield a power-neutral subject, or a downward angle, suggesting a subordinate and helpless subject. The lighting influencing that mind’s-eye view can be (and often is) adjusted in the writing.  When a writer describes characters and action in any of these ways, the writer is influencing the reader’s interpretation of the story in service to a vision that precedes the coming collaboration. This is to specify that vision toward production of a film that serves it. The fact that the director comes along and changes it doesn’t necessarily indicate a superior vision, it merely indicates, for good or ill, a superior control of the result.

Sarris, again, p. 14:

It is fashionable to say that the screen is a director’s medium and the stage is a writer’s medium, but it is difficult to say that a Broadway-to-Hollywood-and-back director like Elia Kazan is any less in command in one medium than in another.
Why is it difficult? It’s because every production, stage and film, both, is a unique case when it comes to collaboration involving who did what, and how much. Sorting out film credit is worse than herding cats. It’s closer to herding herds of cats after particularly difficult negotiations with each of the various and sundry Cat Guilds. Better to accept the collaboration for its own strengths and dispense with what amounts to aesthetic idolatry at the expense of facts. Produced narrative works don’t demand some kind of religious “leap of faith” to enable one’s deepest appreciation.

The stage is a writer’s medium because plays are re-produced, and survive any given director. Therefore, the writer’s vision is the only constant. Meanwhile, films are rarely re-produced, so the director’s version is generally the sole version. Add to that the writer exits thing, willingly or not, early. The implication, then, is that the writer will lose control of his/her vision because, by the production process alone, he/she is not the “last man standing.” The director is.

Director Arthur Penn has gone on record in The Director’s Event, by Eric Sherman & Martin Rubin, Atheneum, 1970, p. 120 – 1, taking an unabashed writer-be-damned view:

In the theater, the script is embalmed. It is The Text, a revered work. A man’s written it, and it’s meant to be delivered as such. In the cinema, the dialogue is only a guide. My writer friends are often offended by the literary level of the scripts of my films. On the other hand, I keep thinking it doesn’t matter a great deal, and I’m sort of offended sometimes by the look of their plays.
An awful lot of vanity is inherent in the movie-making event. It’s a seductive event. Seldom in one’s fantasies can one achieve the kind of power that you have on a movie set. Power corrupts; movie power corrupts absolutely. Dialogue in the cinema only serves as a guide to a kind of visualization, and if this be megalomania, so be it. There is only one event in making movies, and that’s the director’s event. It’s not anybody else’s. I don’t care how well written the script is. You can get into a motel room in Texas, and the dialogue can be exquisite, but what you choose to look at and how you look at it is everything.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a number of Penn’s films.(1) His “writer friends” must be novelists or those exalted playwrights, because they surely aren’t screenwriters. Penn, though, has become “hoist by his own petard.” He admits to the corrupting influence of the role of the director, and then exercises that corruption when he says, “...what you choose to look at and how you look at it is everything.” The key word there, however, is “what.” Without the script, there is no “what.”

This ain’t a small thing, folks.

And by its presence, script having been read, that “what” has been “viewed,” so a view-point is established: the writer’s viewpoint.

The maximum that the director can bring to the film is an interpretation of what was already there or a forced re-write to that director’s specification. In his “corruption,” and because of his theater-based notion of screenwriting as merely dialogue, and “suggested” dialogue, at that, he believes direction isThe Text.’ Perhaps this is all really sour grapes, and like his single screenwriting experience trying to make a two-hour movie from a twenty minute song - remember Alice's Restaurant? - it is based on his experience directing those playwrights’ untouchable words for the stage. With his elevation of the “what” and “how” one chooses to “look” with the camera, he implies that all screenwriting only exhibits a neutral point-of-view; that other than scene transitions, it implies no cutting; that screenwriting is actually mis-named and really amounts to just suggestive dialogue-writing, the action ignored; and that dialogue doesn’t compare to camera placement, the use of which is “everything.” Let him shoot that motel room in Texas with no script: with just the improvising actors, without those characters saying those written lines; and without that story (in fact, without that motel room or even Texas!). He may find himself without that audience. I wonder how different it would be from the Penn family’s home movies. “Slick shit,” to borrow a phrase.(2)

Credit standing, career development, guild wars, and ego, are all at the heart of this controversy. Though a fantasy, it would be a step forward to combine the various above-the-line guilds into a single union that could internally arbitrate such internecine issues. It might also have an effect on controlling costs. But, we’re on our own when it comes to the latter, ego. And as for the former causes, we all know the horse is out of the barn. As we thread our way through that barnyard, we’ll be stepping gingerly for the indefinite future.

So, let me leave you with another point-of-view:

Philip Dunne, interviewed in Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p. 166-7, was asked:

You said in your book that writing is more important than directing.
And he replied:

Directing is a lot more fun, but, of course, the writing is more important. The architect is more important than the contractor. I’m not saying the writer is more important than the director,  I’m saying the writing is more important than the directing. Directing is only interpretation (my emphasis). If the director is also the writer, obviously he can call himself an auteur.
‘Nuff said. #

End Note:

(1) Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks, Dead of Winter, to name them. The only film he actually wrote, Alice’s Restaurant, is, though, right down there with Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, in my opinion. And his experience trying to write it may account for his attitude toward screenwriting.

(2) Screenwriter Julius Epstein’s description of his script for Casablanca.


Lee A. Matthias

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