' ' Cinema Romantico: Cheer for the Scribes!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Cheer for the Scribes!

Robert Towne. David Newman. Robert Benton.

Any of those names ring a bell? I didn’t think so. And I’ll tell you why. They’re screenwriters. Towne wrote “Chinatown” and Newman and Benton penned “Bonnie and Clyde”. Consensus will tell you these are two of the greatest movies ever made but consensus wouldn’t have a clue who authored them.

I suppose that’s fine. Writers are usually an introverted bunch, understanding they will toil in obscurity and not really minding it. As Charlie Kaufman – last years recipient of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – said during his acceptance speech, “I don’t want to take my time. I want to get off the stage.” That was his moment of glory and all he wanted to do was flee. I respect that.

But deep down – way down there – all writers wish to be acknowledged, a little bit more than usual. Everyone who leaves a good movie will often go on and on about the wonderful acting or that really cool tracking shot they remember but they rarely wind up rejoicing at how masterfully the script was structured. People do often revel in a particular line of dialogue but I would wager the common movie-goer is unaware all dialogue is not invented by the actors on the spot. You may think I’m joking but ask some random theater patron the next time you attend a film.

I mention all this because a new book authored by David Kipen has come to my attention. The book argues that the so-called “Auteur Theory” (which basically stipulates the director is always the most integral part of a film’s creation and that knowing who the director is determines whether or not a movie is any good) is wrong. Instead Kipen gives us “The Schreiber Theory”. He states the screenwriter is the most integral part of a film’s creation and knowing who the screenwriter is the correct barometer of a film’s worth.

I’m sure most people disagree. Once a script is turned over to a director it ceases to be the writer’s project anymore. And that’s true – up to a point. The movie’s spine is still a product of that script. The lines the actors speak are still a product of that script.

“Casablanca” is generally considered one of the finest films ever made, and what does everyone remember about it? How quotable it is, that’s what. I’m not just talking about the famous lines like, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and the like. Re-watching it on the big screen a couple weeks ago allowed me to re-visit some of the most blistering dialogue ever written. Examples:

Yvonne: “Where were you last night?”
Rick: “That’s so long ago I don’t remember.”
Yvonne: “Will I see you tonight?”
Rick: “I never make plans that far ahead.”


Ilsa: “….that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.”
Rick: “Not an easy day to forget.”
Ilsa: “No.”
Rick: “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray. You wore blue.”


Renault: “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?”
Rick: “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
Renault: “Waters? What waters? You’re in the middle of the desert.”
Rick: “I was misinformed.”

God Almighty! What I would give just to have written one of those exchanges! Now I’m well aware the actors had to deliver the lines and the director had to properly set up the angles but none of that would have existed if not for the writer’s pen. And even if you take “Casblanca” and remove all of the crackling dialogue you would still have an unbreakable screenplay structure. Michael Curtiz did a wonderful job directing this classic but it’s not as if he just showed up on set and started filming blind. It’s not like Martin Scorsese went out on the streets of NYC with Robert DeNiro, a taxi, a camera, and said “okay, let’s make a movie”. No, Paul Schraeder’s script made that happen and allowed for both a brilliant piece of directing and acting.

On the flip side, it wasn’t special effects or shoddy direction that doomed “War of the Worlds”. It was the story deciding to veer off into a cellar lorded over by a crazed Tim Robbins. And for an in depth example of how (in this case) a duo of directors can take a solid script and muck it up look no further than the 2nd edition of Project Greenlight ("Battle of Shaker Heights" being the winner). Read the script, watch the movie, view the documentary in its entirety, and you'll find yourself in the screenwriter's corner.

Granted, I’m irrefutably biased. In any war that may erupt between director and screenwriter, I will fall squarely on the side of the scribe. Maybe “The Schreiber Theory” will rub some cinemaphiles the wrong way. So be it, I say. This Sunday a few screenwriters will experience their utmost triumph at the Academy Awards. It will be wedged between more “important” awards like Supporting Actor and Director. Many people will probably even miss its presentation because they’ve switched over to an episode of “Cold Case”. And if people are tuned in, they’ll probably scratch their heads in confusion at the winners and ask, “Who?” That’s why I won’t necessarily be concerned with any auteurs upset with “The Schreiber Theory”. Screenwriters deserve their moment in the sun, by God. They’re just as important of a cog in the machine as the directors, actors and producers.

Remember this - last year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture “Million Dollar Baby” had not a single re-write. Coincidence? I think not.


Wretched Genius said...

A screenwriter credit is just as inaccurate of a barometer for a film's quality as the director's credit. After all, William Goldman wrote the magnificent script for "All the President's Men," but he was also the man who wrote "Dreamcatcher." Likewise, David Mamet's name is attached to the atrocious "Hannibal." And you mentioned Robert Towne. Watch the opening credits of "Mission: Impossible 2" again and then get back to me.

I do agree that they deserve more recognition, but I do not think they need to be held up on high as the underappreciated champians of cinema. I know many people who are capable of writing fine works (including yourself), but it is rare to find someone with a true mastery of directing. And when I mention "directing," I am not talking about the set-the-camera-down-and-film-the-words style of directing. I'm talking about the ability to invoke mood and tone through the use of visual angles, color compositions, and the way an audience's view can be oriented to enhance the effect of the script. That is the art of the director, and that is why we go to movies. If it wasn't, we'd be reading instead of watching.

I think we have come to recognize directors because they possess the talent that is more rare.

Anonymous said...

In defense of Robert Towne (one of my idols), let me note two things. 1.) If you write "Chinatown", you get a free pass for life. 2.) Before writing even a single word for the "Mission: Impossible 2" script, director John Woo ordered Towne he had to include two expansive action sequences in the script no matter what. If your character motivation is based entirely on getting from Action Setpiece A to Action Setpiece B, your script will suffer through no fault of your own.

Wretched Genius said...

Call me shallow, but I actually give Robert Towne a lifetime pass, too. But not because of "Chinatown." I give him credit because he fathered Katherine Towne, and I quite fancy her.

Rory Larry said...

Robert Rodat was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in my opinion completely undeservedly. What little that movie had was coming from the man himself, Mr. Spielberg. He proved just how bad a writer he was when he penned "The Patriot" which only had Roland Emmerich which was not enough to save his horrible prose.