There's a great scene in The Player, where Peter Gallagher, playing a hotshot up-and-coming movie exec, suggests eliminating the writer from the creative process. He picks up a newspaper and has the other execs find a story, that he turns with alarming ease into high-concept pitches complete with lead actors attached. The whole rest of the movie is full of other examples of writers being mistreated and disrespected (which made it especially funny that Robert Altman, who was famous for fucking over the writers on his pictures—claiming Ring Lardner Jr. didn't write MASH when he totally did, taking a co-writing credit on McCabe and Mrs. Miller for sheer dick-size purposes, etc—was now coming to their aid). The point, that in the modern movie industry, concerned with the bottom line above all else, the screenwriter's job is to follow a formula rather than create art, thus debasing the screenplay, is made quite well, and we are if anything experiencing a greater debasement of screenwriting today. I recently had the mild pleasure of seeing Tron: Legacy, which while pretty to look at, induced aching marijuana cravings, less to necessarily enhance the visuals and soundtrack than to make the endless “people talking” stretches where neon laserbots weren't having swordfights endurable.
Shitty scripts are often blamed on Hollywood's tendency to turn the writing process into an assembly line. Between the labyrinthine WGA rules about credit, and the seeming attitude that the next writer can always fix what the original stubborn/incompetent shithead can't/won't leading to a zillion (Ed. Note: official figure) different writers working on the average script, it's impossible to even figure out who to blame for the script sucking, most times.
I've had a few writing teachers in my life (I'll let them remain anonymous because I know none of them wants to take the blame for my cortex-busting run-on sentences or tendency to curse more than a longshoreman with his dick stuck under a forklift) and the prose ones are adamant on the point that the best writing is done by one writer. The playwriting and screenwriting teachers were all like, “One writer, maybe two, working in concert with a director who makes suggestions.” Their point: with each additional writer the probability of aesthetic, tonal, and other sorts of clashes increases. Which is true, and do note they phrased it in terms of probability rather than certainty.
The discussion would then shift to a discussion of specific scripts that demonstrated the truth of this assertion. This is where things get interesting. Almost without exception, their examples would be from the modern era of cinema (generally agreed to have been inaugurated in 1967 by either Bonnie & Clyde or The Graduate), but not too recently, because again almost without exception this topic would arise because said teacher was bellyaching about how everything sucks nowadays. The most notable and frequent examples were the following:
ChinatownIt's a weird list. The first four pictures on there are legit all-time classics, though the playwriting teacher who used Jaws as an example took me aback because it was just about the only thing she ever praised that wasn't by a gay leftist woman of color (she was straight and white; I used to do a pretty funny imitation of her stoned, breathy classroom voice). And Witness is a real head-scratcher: everyone fapped about how important it was in 1985 when it came out but it hasn't really stood the test of time all that well. The point is, though, that all five of these scripts were held up, by the teacher in question, as being written only by the credited writer or one of the credited writers, with no interference from any studio yuppies or anyone. However, because of that cool foreshadowing shit I learned from these teachers, you might be getting the impression that I'm implying that these teachers' attributions of authorship was faulty on these scripts. And oh my God you guys . . . they're wrong in all five cases!
All The President's Men
Credited author: Robert Towne
Uncredited collaborators: Roman Polanski and (I'm pretty sure) Jack Nicholson
Robert Towne took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this one, and has been lionized ever since for writing one of the greatest scripts of all time. Chinatown's awesome, and it's got some righteously badass dialogue. Robert Towne's reputation isn't baseless, the guy can write his fuckin ass off. But the script for Chinatown, to which Towne made any changes at all under extreme duress, was this massive, digressive 250 page thing with no ending. Legendary Paramount head Bob Evans had the script for like ever, utterly convinced that it was a work of genius but nonetheless cognizant that it was un-fucking-filmable. So he brought in Roman Polanski to try and make some sense of it.
Polanski, to be diplomatic, wasn't. He sat down with Towne to try and streamline Towne's definitive statement about life, Los Angeles, and everything into a movie of non-ass-deadening length. With both of them convinced of their own genius, these talks eventually devolved into Polanski chirping heavily-accented suggestions that Towne go fuck himself, and Towne parrying with Polish jokes and countersuggestions that Polanski's whole “go fuck yourself” idea had legs, and maybe Polanski should give it a try.
With amiable collaboration not in the stars, Polanski sat down and edited a bunch of stuff and (reportedly) wrote an actual ending. His contributions to the script were widely considered to have been sufficient to win a WGA arbitration for co-writing credit with ease, but Polanski either didn't give a fuck or didn't want to spend any more time in the same room as Towne. Leading actor Jack Nicholson, who himself had considerable screenwriting experience, apparently wrote or improvised some of the best dialogue in the picture as well. Then, on top of everything else, even the pared-down Polanski/Nicholson draft that Polanski ended up shooting was altered as all scripts are once the picture was shot and the footage was being edited. So, yes, Towne's script was pretty fuckin good, but holding it up as a model script is kind of funny considering.
Credited writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Uncredited: Howard Sackley, John Milius, Robert Shaw, etc etc.
To be fair, I only had the one writing teacher tout Jaws as being the bomb shiznittle bing-bang greatest-ever achievement in narrative structure. She did, however, claim that Benchley wrote the whole thing himself, which is especially funny considering that there's another dude listed in the actual credits, not to mention the forty katrillion (Ed. Note: actual figure) other motherfuckers who worked on it at one point or other.
It's fitting that Jaws, the first modern summer blockbuster, also established the template of having massive numbers of dudes working on the script. Benchley was hired, at first, to adapt his novel himself, it being a massive best-seller, but the producers and director Steven Spielberg got impatient and brought in help. Spielberg claims to have done a whole bunch of writing himself as well.
Robert Shaw's legendary monologue about the USS Indianapolis has been attributed, variously and collectively, to Shaw, John Milius, and playwright Howard Sackler, with Shaw himself (a playwright as well as one of the 70s' towering on-screen badasses) most frequently credited. Rumors that Spielberg had at least half a dozen other writers work on the script have abounded ever since, which may be because it was such a hit everyone wanted to take credit, but still.
Not only was the script itself stitched together from the efforts of so many different writers, the finished movie was the result of other factors, most notably the fact that Spielberg, while showing off how cool the mechanical shark was to Milius and George Lucas, accidentally broke the fucking thing messing around, leading to the famous—and extremely effective—choice to imply the shark rather than show it too early. Cinema is a collaborative medium, and fate is the biggest script doctor in the business.
All The President's Men (1976)
Credited writer: William Goldman
Uncredited: Carl Bernstein, Nora Ephron, Robert Redford, Alan J. Pakula
William Goldman, gentleman, scholar, Knicks fan, was hired to adapt Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book about their Watergate investigation, because he's William Goldman, and he was already Oscar-winner William Goldman. He took the gig, and wrote like hell to end up with a script that did the subject matter (and the two massively famous movie stars, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, playing the leads) justice.
Unfortunately, no one actually liked the script he ended up with, Woodward and Bernstein especially. Redford, a meticulous and exacting coughcoughcontrolfreakcoughcough (scuse me), decided to bring in a wonderfully strange pair of writers to do up a new draft: Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron. (“So Liddy walks in wearing a t-shirt that says 'Don't fuck with Mr. Zero . . .'”, Pat Nixon faking an orgasm in the Oval Office, followed by Kissinger saying “I'll have what she's having,” and all the other When Harry Met Sally jokes in the universe.)
Bernstein and Ephron—I still can't get over that duo—fixed a lot of what Redford and Pakula didn't like about Goldman's draft, and Redford and Pakula worked on it a bunch more, and eventually the movie was absolutely rad. Seriously, do not fuck with All The President's Men, that fucking movie fucking rocks. Goldman received sole credit and his second Oscar, and why the hell not. A man should have a pair. But take thou this, anonymous screenwriting teacher: it wasn't a solo flight.
Credited writers: Larry Gelbart, Don McGuire, Murray Schisgal
Uncredited: Barry Levinson, Elaine May, Robert Garland
One screenwriting teacher I heard lecture once insisted until he was blue in the face that Tootsie was the perfect script, and furthermore that Larry Gelbart wrote the whole thing himself. He went on to call McGuire and Schisgal hacks. I don't know who either of those guys are, so that might be true or it might not be. But still, they must have done something. Then, a while later, after watching Tootsie again—it does rule—I was reading this thing where it was like, “Hey, a lot of the good zingers up in that piece were total Elaine May joints, muhfugga.” (Ed. Note: paraphrase) And there were a few other cooks stirring that particular pot.
Now, this next is going out on a bit of a limb, and might be bullshit, so rim your margarita glass with some grains of your finest salt before continuing. Hal Ashby, of Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Bound For Glory, Being There, and Coming Home fame, was originally attached to direct (that part's verifiably true). Ashby, though, like the earlier-mentioned Robert Altman, liked to downplay the writer's contributions and play up his own authorial imprint over his own pictures, often starting principal photography with only notes, not a full script, and he'd put stuff together in the editing room (this was how Coming Home was constructed; a fucktillion writers worked on that script, each scene was practically written by someone different). And I heard—keep in mind again this might be bullshit—that Ashby started out with the idea for Tootsie based on someone else's idea, not Larry Gelbart. It was only, apparently, after the studio had to fire Ashby for freebasing himself into psychosis (both of which actually did happen), that they brought in Gelbart to make coherent sense out of Ashby's idea, and brought in Sydney Pollack because Sydney Pollack didn't freebase.
Point being, whether or not it all shook out exactly like that, once again, Tootsie was a team effort.
Credited writers: William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, Earl W. Wallace
Uncredited: unknown, but it's a fair bet there were a few
I find fewer things more tiresome than being told, condescendingly, that a movie is “important” strictly because it's about some culture that isn't mainstream white American. Sure, by all means, make movies about shit other than normal, run-of-the-mill middle class white people. But here's the catch: ya gotta make a good movie. A look at a foreign culture isn't an end in itself. And nothing is less important than the typical Hollywood tendency to take, say, the Amish, and hold them up as these pure exemplars of perfection on the sole basis of their otherness, and not only that, get all the fucking details of their culture wrong in the process.
Witness started life, like Chinatown if Chinatown vaguely sucked, as a massive doorstop of a script by a couple TV writers. It was whittled down to a manageable length and ended up being made almost entirely because Peter Weir needed to kill time waiting for The Mosquito Coast (the picture he actually wanted to make) to be ready. The critics all happily lined up to suck the movie's dick, and screenwriting “experts” who neither read actual scripts nor pay attention to anything like, ya know, development histories, all started touting Witness as a model for aspiring writers to follow.
This is especially odd because the movie, as made, is a fucking structural mess. It all looks really cool and the actors all kick ass left and right because Peter Weir's awesome, but the story lurches around all over the place, abruptly and disruptively shifts tone, and all the Amish shit falls flat (people who actually know about Amish culture pointed out so many fuckups the picture might as well have been about the people in M. Night Shyamalan's village). But hey, it was about a non-mainstream culture. It must be great, right?
A movie's script is a funny thing. It's a very important part of making a good movie, but so much of what appears to be writing is in fact directing and editing. This leads people like the execs in The Player to conclude that the writer is extraneous to the process, and you can almost see how someone could come to that conclusion, especially with cases like the above, where good movies happened almost by accident, or no thanks to the writer, or through a lot of lucky creative synergy. But really, none of the above successes could have happened without someone doing some writing. It may not just be one writer, the resultant script may not match the original writer's original intent, but at some point someone has to sit down and write. And, more often than not, watch helplessly as someone else coldly draws red lines through their hard work. If there's any point to this whole thing, it's that writing by committee is as it was, is, and probably ever shall be. Good movies aren't always accidents, but more often than not, they are. Kind of like most of life. Funny, that.