Straying from the usual script: Screenwriters are finally becoming a valued commodity in Hollywood
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 January 2006)

If we believe the people who write movies, every good script that gets filmed represents a triumph of hope and ingenuity over the anxiety and greed of ignorant studio executives. Screenwriting sounds like the impossible profession. Yet original and satisfying stories somehow keep appearing, with words brilliantly arranged and scenes cleverly shaped.

The multiplexes are, of course, dominated by noisy blockbusters and films peddling cheap sentiment. And certain movies make a strong "serious" impression with unimpressive scripts. Brokeback Mountain, for instance, demonstrates how a "courageous" theme (gay love between cowboys) hides lazy, slow-witted writing. In Match Point, Woody Allen gets away with a derivative story (drawn from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and his own Crimes and Misdemeanors) simply by changing locale from New York to London and eliminating the usual Allen-like character.

Nevertheless, it's clear that talented if largely anonymous writers can still circumvent the armies of boneheaded executives. When we see something as good as Crash, written by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, it's like witnessing a small miracle: An intricate and stirring script about racism in Los Angeles has made its way onto the screen. Capote, written by Dan Futterman, operates on the same level, and so (despite its political hyperbole) does Stephen Gaghan's script for Syriana. A couple of years ago, in Sideways, a slender and unlikely story was held triumphantly aloft by the charm of Alexander Payne's and Jim Taylor's dialogue.

In ancient days, writers were considered the dispensable peons of moviemaking. There was an old joke around movie studios about the starlet so dumb that she tried to get a part by sleeping with the writer. Outside the business, judgements were even harsher. As Edmund Wilson, a great critic, put it long ago, Hollywood in its handling of writers had an "appalling record of talent depraved and wasted."

But in recent years, academic attention and a flood of expert writing consultants have changed, slightly, the atmosphere around screenwriting. Charlie Kaufman affirmed its new stature in 2002 when he wrote Adaptation, his screen version of Susan Orlean's book, The Orchid Thief, as a comedy about the pain of writing screenplays. He adroitly exploited two of the curious developments in this field, the growth of instruction and the attempt to define movie structure so that novices can copy it.

The appearance in 1979 of Screenplay, a manual by a script consultant named Syd Field, launched this saga. Pre-Field, movies had nothing but humble beginnings, middles and ends. Field told his readers to write scripts in three parts, Act I (set-up), Act II (confrontation) and Act III (resolution).

His book sold 100,000 copies and changed the industry's language. "You have a first-act problem," people started saying. It made them feel better. Well-chosen terminology enhances self-esteem, as Moliere demonstrated in The Bourgeois Gentleman, when M. Jourdain learns that all his life, without knowing it, he has been speaking a form of literature, prose.

Field paved the way for Robert McKee, who makes a fortune giving weekend-long seminars to would-be scriptwriters. He's famous for his astounding confidence, his blunt way with students and his adroit mixture of cliches ("Writers are people with stories to tell") and technique. Kaufman had an actor play McKee in Adaptation, then broke every rule McKee champions. Patrick McGilligan, who teaches film at Marquette University and writes biographies of directors and stars, has for some years studied screenwriters. His 1986 collection of interviews with writers, Backstory, proved so interesting that it became a series. His new book, Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s (University Of California Press) offers the reminiscences of 13 writers or writer-directors, including Robert Benton, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Elmore Leonard and Frederic Raphael.

The writers are rueful, articulate and anxious to assert their superiority to their surroundings. They see themselves as sane craftsmen employed in a madhouse. Anxiety deranges studio executives because they have no idea how to do what they are supposed to do, which is make money from movies. William Goldman, a talented scriptwriter who has written two books about his profession, says one rule always applies in Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." Movies that couldn't possibly fail nevertheless fail. Movies that couldn't possibly succeed nevertheless succeed.

So insecurity spreads a quiet madness through the industry. In the late 1960s, Frederic Raphael talked with the 20th-Century Fox production manager about resources for a film, set in Africa, that Raphael was to direct. The production guy had just finished Tora! Tora! Tora!, about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He asked Raphael, "Can you use any Zero fighters in your movie? Because I got 30. I could let you have them for like nothing. In fact, you would be doing me a service." Raphael said his movie was to take place in Africa. "Maybe they could fly over or something," the Fox man said. Raphael's film was never made.

Elmore Leonard confesses that when writing his early stories about the Old West he knew nothing about the subject; while working for an ad agency in Detroit, writing copy about trucks, he subscribed to Arizona Highways magazine so that he could tell one cactus from another. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, discussing her adaptations of novels by Henry James and E.M. Forster, among others, says: "First, you must have reverence for the material you are doing. Then, you have to be quite irreverent about it in order to make something else out of it." John Milius, aware that script-teachers believe voice-over narration demonstrates a failed imagination, comes up with a truly pretentious defence: "Nothing's as good as somebody telling you a story. What I do goes back to the Homeric epic of telling the tale of the Trojan wars again and again, until finally it's written down by somebody."

Elmore Leonard discovered his own status in Hollywood through his agent, the famous H.N. Swanson. When Leonard began selling stories to the movies he visited Los Angeles. Swanson showed him around "and drove me past his house," pointing out its 3.5 acres, with orange trees. A few years later Swanson did the same thing. In 1984 he finally invited Leonard in. Leonard said, "Do you realized you've represented me for 30 years, and this is the first time you've invited me into your house." Swanson said, "Well, kiddo, you weren't making any money to speak of, until recently."

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