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May 2, 2004

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The Truth About Film Directors
I Alone Escaped to Tell Thee

There's a famous scene in the 1970s movie Klute.  Jane Fonda is making passionate love with a man  who we assume must be her heart's desire. But then, while they are embracing, the illusion is shattered when Fonda sneaks a peak at her watch.  We realize to our horror -- she is a prostitute.  He is just another john to her.

I know that feeling.  Every once in a while, just when you least expect it, the world sneaks a peak at its watch and you realize that your worst fears are real.  You realize that you really are being screwed and there's nothing you can do about it.

Er, metaphorically speaking, that is.

Anyway, if you chance to be visiting the Internet Movie Database, you will find I am credited as co-writer on a little time-waster called Forgive Me Father.  I like to think my experience with the film business has given me a certain insight into its dark heart.  Picture me as an explorer who has journeyed into dangerous, uncharted territory, all so that I might return to tell you... The Truth.  What Truth?  The Truth about the battle between writers and directors.  And therein lies a tale...

You see, we are, every last one of us, taught from birth that a film is the realization of a DIRECTOR'S VISION.  On the film set, the director isn't just God, he is The Guy Who Gave God All His Great Ideas.  Deny it as you will, you know I'm right.  Everyone credits the director with everything, from the breathtaking cinematography to the witty dialogue to the clever bit of business with the guacamole.  Everything.  It doesn't matter that the film is based on a best selling novel, turned into a stage play, which was adapted for the screen by....  You can bet there will be countless articles chronicling how the themes of said film were "inspired" by the director's childhood, how the hero and heroine were "based on" his Aunt Bea and Uncle Jim Bob.  How his whole career was a prelude to the realization of this one shining cinematic achievement.  It was a "VERY PERSONAL STORY".

Don't you believe a word of it.

Unless the director happens to have been the fellow who wrote the screenplay, that film was not the DIRECTOR'S VISION.  It was the WRITER'S VISION.  It was inspired by his childhood, his Aunt Bea and Uncle Jim Bob.  His personal story.  If you want to know where that clever bit of dialogue came from, here's a radical thought.  Why not ask...the guy who wrote the damn thing!  Instead, we get interviews with the director huming and hawing, and modestly explaining how he doesn't know where he gets these brilliant ideas but he's glad you liked them, uh huh.  Of course he doesn't know.  Because they weren't his ideas!

Now, I'm not denying that a director plays an integral role in the making of a film.  Good for him.  But here is something to consider.  Without the screenplay, the director has nothing he can film.  But eliminate the director and the screenwriter could still publish his screenplay.  People would still read it and enjoy it just as if it had been made into a movie.  All the witty banter, the character arcs, even the clever bit of business with the guacamole -- all there.  In fact, screenplays are published all the time.  It's just that they are normally either screenplays which have already been made into movies, or else they were written by a writer/director.  And who do you think makes sure that that is the case?  Hm? Take your time.

This present rant was provoked by the recent fuss involving director Robert Rodriguez, the Director's Guild of America (DGA) and Paramount's proposed version of Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars.  What happened was Rodriguez resigned from the DGA because he wanted to direct a movie based on the comic book Sin City, which was done by comic artist Frank Miller (and if you don't know who that is...we'll talk after class).  Paramount is not permitted to use directors who are not members of the DGA, so this has put a serious crimp in their plans for John Carter of Mars, since they had hoped to have Rodriguez direct it.  But here's the really interesting thing.  The reason Rodriguez resigned from the DGA was that he planned to "co-direct" Sin City with Frank Miller.  He felt that he could not reasonably take sole credit for directing while Miller was stuck with the writer's credit. This, I might add, was a very laudable attitude.  If only more directors would be so honest.

The DGA, however, said "As if!"  You see, it turns out they have a strict policy against allowing such co-director credits.  Only one director may be acknowledged per film. 

To explain this strict policy, the DGA flakcatcher said: "When it comes to creative judgment, vision, leadership and decisionmaking ... co-directing generally does not work."

Huh?  Does not workAy Carumba, since when was the DGA made responsible for making sure that no one makes a bad movie!?!  (If so, someone sure has fallen asleep at the wheel, don't you think?)  If a couple of directors want to get together, don't you think that's their business?  Of course it is.  The DGA is just blowing smoke in our eyes.  Which is why we should be asking ourselves: what is the real reason they won't allow co-director credits?

(prolonged pause)


*Sigh*...Tell us, Supreme Plasmate: what is the real reason they won't allow co-director credits?

Glad you asked.

The Director's Guild has one overriding purpose.  To maintain the illusion that every movie is the realization of a DIRECTOR'S VISION.  Nothing would prove a greater threat to that illusion than co-director credits.  Nothing.  It is a simple question of practicality.

Suppose you have two directors credited on a movie.  Say, James Cameron and Tim Burton.  If you want to discuss that movie, say in a review, whom do you talk about?  If there's a theme at work, how can you analyze that theme in the context of a filmmaker's past films when you don't know which director came up with what?  The answer is: you can't.  And that's just with two directors.  What if you had three credited directors, or four, or five?  Obviously, it wouldn't be practical to analyze such a film as the product of a single director's vision.

But that is precisely the situation which screenwriters find themselves in.  Most films have several writers credited.  The result is that reviewers ignore them all.  Even if you want to praise the writers, what more can you say except that, as a group, they did a swell job.  But you're damned if you know who did what.  And so the reviewer does the only thing he can do...praises the director.  At least, there's only one of those per film.

Isn't there?

The irony is, even that is part of the illusion.  Most modern big budget movies have several directors anyway.  It's just that the DGA will do handsprings rather than admit that fact.  Instead of listing several directors, we have such credits as Second Unit or Third Unit Director or Director in Charge of Special Visual Effects.  If you doubt these people should be considered co-directors, you haven't been watching movies lately.  With some of the more special effects heavy blockbusters, the Director in Charge of Visual Effects can easily end up directing nearly as many scenes as the offically credited director.  And many of those scenes are the ones that the audience best remembers.

Why do you think James Cameron started out as a Director of Visual Effects?  Or, you can even go way back to the granddaddy of all special effects movies, the original King Kong.  Kong's "performance" stole the show, but it has long been recognized that that "performance" was the product of Willis O'Brien, who animated the 18 inch Kong puppet.  If the rules used when crediting screenwriters were applied to directors, Willis O'Brien would have been listed as co-director, no question.  Why wasn't he?  Because directors understand that their power (and the substantial paycheck which goes with that power) in Hollywood is very tenuous.  They recognize that it would take very little for that power to pass to the screenwriters and that that power would pass to the screenwriters if the illusion of the DIRECTOR'S VISION should be shattered.  And it would be shattered if more than one director were to be credited.

Director Orson Welles once admitted that he had done everything he could to convince the public that he had written the script for the famous 1938 radio drama, War of the Worlds.  In fact, it was written by Howard Koch (based, of course, on the novel by H.G. Wells).  But Welles explained that he didn't want to confuse the audience and felt it was best if they believed it was entirely one man's vision.  Why that "one man" couldn't have been Koch himself, Welles neglected to say.

Then, too, look at what may be the most famous scene in movie history -- the shower scene from Psycho.  We credit that movie to Alfred Hitchcock, but that scene was actually directed by someone else.  Yes, I know.  It was based on Alfred Hitchcock's storyboards.  But I think director Gus Van Sant has conclusively proven that storyboards are not enough, don't you?  Who knows how many other scenes in Psycho may have been directed by other directors?  I certainly don't.  Which, of course, is the whole flaming point.

(I first recognized the existence of uncredited directors when I read of a second unit director filming shots of a Mark Hamill stand-in gazing at the sky of the desert planet Tatooine for Star Wars.  Because the scene didn't involve directing Mark Hamill himself, George Lucas left it to someone else.  But who knows how much emotional punch that final shot may have carried?  And then there's all those space battles to consider.  Why wasn't John Dykstra listed as co-director?)

I used to think the myth of the DIRECTOR'S VISION was nobody's fault.  But then I began to notice how everything in Hollywood is set-up to sideline the screenwriters.  During the pre-release hoopla, you can see interviews with just about everyone involved in a film from the director to the actors to the special effects wizards to the cinematographer.  But the screenwriters?  They quite literally were not invited.  Everyone is being asked the same damn question over and over: Where did you get all those great ideas?  And everyone hums and haws and says, Gee, I dunno.  And the one person who would know?  Is watching it all at home on Entertainment Tonight and wondering whether he should shoot himself or just get stoked to the gills.

Eventually it occurred to me how much could be blamed on the problem of co-writer credits.  Which led me to notice that directors don't have that problem because they never admit to having co-directors.  Still, I thought perhaps it was just a fluke of circumstance.  Nobody's fault.  Right?

But then the world looked at its watch.  I found out the DGA actually has a strict policy forbidding co-director credits.  And I realized -- those sneaky little bastards knew all along what they were doing!  They knew that nothing was a greater threat to their power in Hollywood than co-director credits.  Nothing.  And they knew that nothing would keep screenwriters from receiving the kudos they deserve than co-screenwriter credits.  Which is why they hand those suckers out like hardrock candy. 

So, what's to be done?  How can we learn to think of a screenwriter as the one responsible for a film?  The very word "filmmaker" is used to refer to a director, not a screenwriter.  And yet, no such confusion exists in theater.  There, a play is the brainchild of a playwright.  He is the play's "author".  The director is merely the one who prepares that vision for the stage.  Well, here's one suggestion.

Do me a favour. Drop by Screenplays For You, a site that publishes (for free) screenplays from blockbuster movies.  Pick one.  Something big and gaudy, with loads of special effects. (I recommend Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.)  Read at least a few scenes.  Then tell me I'm wrong about what I said.  Without a screenwriter, the director has Jack and Shit (altogether now..."and Jack just left town!").  But without a director, the screenwriter still has his screenplay.  He still has the memorable characters, the plot, the sub-plots, the dialogue, the special effects, the stunts, the jokes, the badinage, the tender moments, the action scenes, the breathless escapes, the heroes, the villains, the love interest...

And, yes, even the clever bit of business with the guacamole.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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