May 2, 2004
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
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
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".
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
against allowing such co-director credits. Only one director may
be acknowledged per
To explain this strict policy, the DGA flakcatcher said: "When it
comes to creative judgment,
vision, leadership and decisionmaking ... co-directing generally does
Huh? Does not work?
Ay 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?
*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.
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
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
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
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
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
storyboards. But I think director Gus Van Sant has conclusively
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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