A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: March, 2007
Myths abound in our myth-making movie biz. There’s the myth of director as God – addressed by screenwriter Robert Riskin when he thrust a sheaf of blank screenplay pages at Frank Capra and said, “Put the ‘Capra touch’ on this!” There’s the myth of starlets discovered in coffee shops, of producers who move their lips when they read; there’s the William Goldman-penned myth of Nobody knows anything (actually, a number of people know a hell of a lot; a more accurate credo would have been ‘Nobody knows everything’).
But there’s one pervasive myth in the industry that I’ve yet to see addressed in print, and I’ve had enough of its dogged perpetuation. It’s the one that goes: Writer good, executives bad.
You’ve heard it countless times – the gifted but beleaguered writer whose work has been unaccountably butchered by the stupid, philistine studio executives (always the insidious plural). The writer, in white hat, doing his best for the cause of cinematic artistry is an underdog rugged individualist hero who’s being unjustly repressed (and rewritten) by heinous, mercenary corporate studio thugs who lack only black hats and mustaches to twirl to complete the mythic scenario.
I know I’m going to catch hell for this, but sorry, as a professional writer who also works for a studio as a story analyst and thus sees both sides of the equation on a daily basis, I gotta say that this perception of writer as saint and executive as Satan-incarnate is just a crock.
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a bad writer. There is such a thing as a good and helpful studio executive. And to retire this bogus good/bad dichotomy altogether, let me put it another way: sometimes an uncooperative or unskilled writer does more harm to a movie in development than the useful, smart execs who are trying to make a better movie in spite of the writer’s failings.
Blasphemy, I know. And yes, of course there are horrible, useless executives who mess with material just to piss on it, there are execs who know nothing about writing who make ridiculous suggestions; there are writers a-plenty who do know better about what works and what doesn’t but get unduly constrained by the powers-that-be; there are writers who are fired on projects, only to be re-hired by the same studio after three other writers have gotten nowhere with the material. Yes, yes, happens all the time.
But what also happens all the time is that writers screw up. Since I don’t want to lose my day gig (while I’m losing all my screenwriting friends), I can’t name names and tell tales out of studio school here, so you’ll have to take the following on faith. But here’s the deal from inside the belly of the studio beast: quite often writers are hired for gargantuan sums of money to pen a studio project, and what we have, as they say, is a failure to communicate.
The writer has one idea of what the movie should be, the studio has another… and nothing but headaches follow. I write up notes on the project, an executive follows suit, a document goes to the writer, and… what comes back is nothing like what’s been discussed. For example, last year I did exhaustive notes on a movie, recommending some fairly serious overhauls of characterizations and plot trajectories… and what the next draft delivered was the equivalent of rearranging deck furniture on the Titanic. None of the more important issues cited – not a one – had been addressed, for whatever reasons, by the writer.
Most probably this writer will be fired. And the studio’s just wasted a lot of time and money. And the project is in jeopardy. So who wins?
Studio story departments' known if well-kept secret is that nine times out of ten, if you pull coverage of a movie out of the files and set it beside the reviews that the released film has received, the critique is virtually identical (especially when the movie’s not so good) down to the specific language. Reader and critic alike speak of “contrived plot developments” and a “lack of credibility in the character’s motivations,” etc. So if the studio was wrong, if all the critics are wrong, and if the audience is wrong (i.e. the movie’s tanking)… how right can the writer be? Chances are (after decades of complaining that these guys take all the credit), he’ll blame the director.
I’ve seen one Big Name Writer hired by the studio to do a rewrite hand in a draft that read, as my story editor reported, as if said Name had been paid a little under a million dollars to take the last draft out of its box, retype the title page and then put the draft back inside the box again. And I’ve seen a head of production at the studio badger a writer-director into shooting an ending that everyone, award-nabbing helmer included, later agreed had turned a potential turkey into a trophy-winner.
Another awful truth: There’s maybe all of about a dozen or so screenwriters who the studios trust to be dependably solid and skilled, even inspired, on all craft levels. These closers (as in “they can close the deal”) form an amazingly small, select club. Used to be Towne and Goldman; these days Richard LaGravanese, Steve Zaillan, Scott Frank and Paul Attanasio are among the elite who get serious money thrown at them to get the job done when there’s a lot at stake. So what does that tell you about the craft of screenwriting and the business of movies getting made? Evidently your average screenwriter sometimes needs a little help.
Here’s a couple of screenwriters sitting around talking, in this case 2007 Oscar-nominees Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), from [an L.A. Times Calendar article, link no longer available]:
MORGAN: ...People concerned with the marketing of the film said, "Well, it's a hell of a movie. And right now, hers [Helen Mirren's] is a good performance, but it's not an Oscar performance. So, Pete, would you write an argument, or a scene where she's angry, in the first act?" I said to Stephen [Frears], "I don't think that's the problem. I think the problem is, there isn't enough Tony Blair." ... Stephen put his foot down, and we shot four extra days of Tony Blair. The net effect was that by putting in counterpoints, his part feels no bigger, but her part feels enormous, without shooting a single extra frame of Helen Mirren.
ARNDT: I just want to jump in and say that everything that got added to the original script of Little Miss Sunshine was an improvement. There was nothing that I was forced to put in that I didn't think was better, and there was nothing taken out that I wanted to be in there.
Check it out: Morgan’s saying he got a note that he didn’t entirely agree with, but he found a way to arrive at a proper solution. The specifics of the Stupid Studio Exec note might have been off the mark, but apparently the executives were right, in that something did need to be adjusted (a common phenomenon, see this post on “looking beneath the note”). So why didn’t the execs give a smarter note? Um, maybe because they’re not writers. It was the writer’s job to solve the problem, which he did, ingeniously, without disturbing the integrity of the piece. And everybody won, including the audience.
And Michael Arndt’s response is kind of astonishing. I mean, I’ve experienced this myself – shrewd, thinking development people helping a writer to more fully realize what he hadn’t got exactly right from the get. But the astounding thing is that Arndt was big enough to admit it. Man, you’ll never succeed in Hollywood if you voluntarily give other people credit for their contributions to your work, right?!
As of this past Oscar night, another myth busted.*
[*Arndt won Best Screenplay Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine.]