The view from the front row
Essential to the failure – or shortcomings – of so many films is the quality of the film director or producer's influence on the film script. Some developmental film producers wield substantial power. Unless they have exceptional screenplay concept, story, plot and structure instincts, that can be a problem. A film director is the god of his or her universe. What the directors says, goes. And keeps on going. This authority extends to the film screenplay. But imagine for a moment the screenwriter interfering in a film’s direction. It’s unthinkable – and for good reason: it’s 100% absurd. It’s as absurd as the director making final decisions about the film script.
The words ‘auteur’ and ‘authority’ share a common etymological root. But that’s all.
In many instances the film director is also the screenwriter. This is of course, the same input/interference. It’s just that the input/interfering goes on inside the screenwriter-director’s head, rather than in a meeting. James Cameron is one of the rare screenwriter-directors who can pull this off because he has such a profound ability to manipulate readers and audiences alike. If you are affronted by my use of the word ‘manipulate’ here, make no mistake: writers manipulate their readers and film directors manipulate their audiences.
People (many of them professionals) lampooned AVATAR. Some called it ‘smurfs in space.’ I think subjectivity is conditioning, and conditioning everything. And I wish to hell I was talking about hair products. I think that in AVATAR, Cameron brilliantly used character and story archetypes to create a fable deeply relevant to modernity. People certainly bought into in a big way. (In my opinion and experience, it was also the most visually stunning film ever made). I think THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, and other James Cameron directed films also adduce Cameron’s mastery of the form. Cameron makes films – and writes them – from an audience’s point of view. That’s in part why they tend to work. So many film makers make films from their (hair conditioned) POV. This is a mistake. Market objectivity is required.
Some say screenwriter-director Christopher Nolan is rather less accomplished at this hyphenate. He is capable of moments of brilliance. BATMAN BEGINS is a benchmark film, but Nolan shares screenwriting credits with David S Goyer and Bob Kane. I have no idea who was responsible for what aspects of the screenplay as a percentage because I wasn’t involved. MEMENTO obviously broke new ground. In MEMENTO, Nolan explored his passion for juxtaposing timelines - and to good effect. Unfortunately, he let this passion continue in the occasionally brilliant DUNKIRK. For me, the multiple timeline aspect of DUNKIRK is one of the film’s failings. Other shortcomings include emotion-free acting from certain leads, and an embarrassing absence of boats when we finally see the Dunkirk rescue armada up close. Even Kenneth Brannagh’s tears could not negate the bathos of this moment.
Screenwriting is a separate creative skill-set from film direction. They overlap of course. Both require deep understanding of story and structure, and how you manifest these understandings in ways others can appreciate. But screenwriting is screenwriting and film directing is what it is. Both very are hard to do well. I am made all too aware of this when I cover screenplays. I struggle to understand how screenwriters fail to observe what works in other films scripts and apply this to their scripts. I then remember my first three or four screenplays. They were terrible. I, therefore, failed to observe what worked and apply it to the screenplays I either chose or was hired to write.
It takes a huge (I mean at least ten years/scripts) amount of practice to become a good screenwriter. Some can practice forever and never get good at screenwriting, however. Why? Many reasons. A lack of innate talent, distractions – even, perhaps, shortfalls in literacy: some of the scripts I cover are very badly written at the level of basic syntax.
I think that, perversely, praise – and probably money - may also serve to limit some screenwriters’ potential. If a screenwriter finds success early on – either as a screenwriter, or as a screenwriter-director - being praised may be a problem for obvious reasons. Power. People get star-struck. The star’s opinion is valued, but the star might well be wrong.
Fame and fortune, we should all be grateful then, are rarely problems for screenwriters. These delicious, terrible things are more often a problem for directors, some of whom write the films they direct.
Until directors leave screenwriting decisions to profoundly talented screenwriters who have spent many years learning, honing, and applying their screenwriting skills, film lovers will always pay the price. Worse, they will think mediocrity is quality. And that’s a sin.
As to how profoundly talented screenwriters are identified as such – that’s another story (blog). The film industry’s gatekeepers (as if the business needed them) must be as adept as superb screenwriters at the art and craft of screenwriting – junior agents and PAs included. Does that sound likely? Does it even sound possible? It doesn’t matter. It must happen.
The alternative is that the screenwriters who get produced, and find a modicum of that deadly fame and fortune, aren’t better at writing screenplays than all those thousands of starving wannabe screenwriters locked out there on Greek Street in the rain. That would not be a solid basis for a profitable industry recognised as an art form equal to any other. Why? Because in film, story is all, and how you tell the story is everything else. The rest is silence.