By Scott Ross
The cover of the June 1980 Esquire famously asked, “Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?” While I admit to once collaborating on just such an animal — a crazy-quilt, Python/Ernie Kovacs-inspired series of blackout sketches written with my then best friend during our early high school years — and while I further admit to being very much besotted with movies (of the 20th century, anyway) and to having a reasonably impressive inventory of published screenplays in my personal library, the form is not one I find especially alluring. Even in 1980, when Esquire was posing the question, I had a tendency to roll my eyes, figuratively if not literally*, whenever someone said that he (and it was always “he”) was “working on a screenplay.” By the mid-’70s the phrase had become as much a cultural cliché as “But what I really want to do is direct.” Indeed, if the truth be known, “But what I really want to do is direct” is the second clause of the statement that begins, “I’m working on a screenplay.”
Robert McKee, maintainer of something called “Story Seminar” in which he imparts to the credulous the secrets of screenwriting success (and, as always with these types, has never had a screenwriting success) is somewhat notorious for having noted, “Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century.” So — quick! — name me the recognized great storytellers. I’ll wait.
Give up? You might have said William Goldman. Or Robert Towne. Or Arthur Laurents, Paddy Chayefsky, Paul Schrader, or — if you’re especially au courant in these matters — John Logan, Dustin Lance Black, John Ridley, Nora Ephron, Tony Kushner or, just possibly, maybe, Aaron Sorkin. You might even have gone as far back as Ernest Lehman, Betty Comden Adolph and Green, Frank Nugent, Ben Hecht, Phillip Dunne, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Leigh Brackett and Herman J. Mankiewciz. But I’m willing to bet few, if any, of those names occurred to you. Because, McKee’s overly optimistic wishful thinking to the contrary, movie writers are never, ever recognized as great storytellers. Movie producers made sure that never happened during the studio era, and movie directors (abetted by know-nothing critics) have made even more certain it wouldn’t in the decades since. And even if you came up with Woody Allen, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Preston Sturges — or even George Lucas — I can almost guarantee you thought of them as directors first, screenwriters second… if you remembered they were scenarists at all. Despite which, Welles for one preferred the term writer-director. “With,” he said, “an emphasis on the former.”
Screenwriters have nearly always been the lowliest men and women on the proverbial totem pole; the bastard-children of the movie biz. Jack Warner may have been speaking for the entire industry (Darryl Zanuck possibly excepted) when he referred to his studio’s scenarists as “schmucks with Underwoods.” Even today, the notion of the screenwriter being available for consultation or (Good God!) actually on the set while his or her script is being filmed is one that places eyebrows just under the hairline and sets mouths to permanent sneers. And, as with directors, screenwriters, however successful, never own their own work.
Although Billy Wilder maintained that “In the beginning was the Word” the word, in movie circles, is worth little, if not actually worthless. Indeed, one waits in vain for a modern-day Robert Riskind to drop a ream of 20-pound bond on the desk of some self-aggrandizing director with the modern equivalent of “Give that The Capra Touch!” Had it not been for one meddling director interfering with, and usually demeaning, their words and stories, Wilder and Sturges would never have become directors in the first place. It is surely no accident that Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter, becomes a gigolo and ends up floating face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. That’s a Wilderian metaphor if ever there was one. Screenwriter: Screw, and discard.
William Goldman says that no one tells the composer how to compose or the cinematographer how to photograph, since no one except a composer understands music and no one other than a DP fully comprehends cinematography. But everyone uses words and believes he or she knows how to write. Or at least, knows better than the writer. I think his axiom is, in the first clause, faulty, as the Hollywoods are full of the bodies of DPs and composers (and art directors, and set designers, and film editors and, for all I know, grips and best-boys) some director or producer or studio functionary thought he knew better than. But his second clause seems absolutely spot-on to me. In the theatre, there is a little thing called The Dramatists Guild, which entity exists to protect the playwright (and the composer or lyricist) from actors seeking to make up their own lines, directors cutting scripts wholesale and producers gutting entire plays that are, suddenly and well into rehearsal, no longer to their liking. In Hollywood, there is only the Writers Guild of America, West. This body can settle disputes between screenwriters assigned to the same project, and arbitrate generally for the overall protection of scenarists. But it is virtually powerless against studios, or producers, or directors, or even actors, doing pretty much whatever the hell they want to a given script before it reaches production, during the filming, and well into post-production. Screenwriters know this. They don’t like it, but they cannot change it. They are gadflies merely, at best annoying, at worst able, during periodic contract negotiations, to shut down anything not already before the cameras. The result of which is the occasional gain for screenwriters, a loss for the culture; the last time we went through that upheaval we ended up with allegedly script-less, alleged “reality” television. We are still suffering from the fallout of that one.
Show me a screenwriter with power, and I will show you a Screenwriter/Producer. There’ve been few of them. Damn few. Carl Foreman, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and William Peter Blatty come to mind, in the past, the Coen brothers in the present. Paddy Chayefsky did not produce his movies, but they bore a possessive that marked them as clearly his. But then, Chayefsky was the exception to just about every rule. And the Coens write, produce and direct their own work, which puts them in an unheard-of category anyway. A playwright has the power, through his guild, to shut down a production if he feels his work is being betrayed by it. A screenwriter is paid, dismissed, and likely never heard from again — unless the screenplay wins an award — which the director will likely claim was really due to him anyway — or brings suit of some kind, which is also rare. If he wins it (cf., Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Harlan Ellison) it’s even rarer. And a self-appointed auteur will almost never bring up the screenwriter in conversation, other than to denounce or deride him.
Television is alleged to be a writer’s medium, and perhaps it is. In England. There the play, movie or series episode bears the title “Written by” or just “By.” An Englishman Abroad is not “A film by John Schlesinger.” It is “By Alan Bennett.” In America, no one notices who wrote anything on television. The writer’s (or writers’) credit appears very much as it does in movies — usually, in episodic shows, followed by an interminable list of “Associate Producers,” “Executive Producers” and even “Associate Executive Producers.” † Then, finally, “Directed by.” Writer? What writer?
The fact is if you are a dramatist, there is only one venue in this country that allows you to be the author of your work: Theatre. And the ultimate irony is that theatre — dramatic theatre — is now as dead as Marley. Musicals, yes. Musicals by (you should pardon the expression) the score. Yes, some playwright usually takes home a Pulitzer every year for drama, but his or her plays don’t run. Even Off-Broadway. The working playwright in America now is the writer whose plays are usually done outside New York. And he or she is usually not making a living at it. A working playwright, if he’s lucky and has the requisite education, teaches at a prestigious university. Gone, seemingly forever, is the notion of an American whose sole employment is as a playwright. There are exceptions, but they usually make their real living as screenwriters (Tony Kushner comes to mind.) The days when a young Neil Simon wakes up one morning, sees lines at the Broadway box-office and knows he has made it, are over, presumably for good. There are times when a playwright — this playwright, anyway — wishes he’d never typed his first play-script.
For good or ill, however, those scripts are mine. They do not belong to CBS, or HBO, or AMC, or Universal, or Warners. I decide who can mount them (virtually no one past the initial production, but that’s more or less beside the point.) I decide when a line may be re-written, or a scene re-configured, and I alone will write, or revise, or re-configure. In consultation with the director and with input from the actors, certainly, but unilateral, wholesale revision of my work is not going to happen, unless I’m hundreds of miles away from the production and can only trust that the people who cared enough about my script to actually produce it will respect it, and me as the author, enough to refrain from “creative” meddling.
Would I like to make screenwriters’ wages? Damn skippy I would. Would I trade my autonomy, poor thing though it be, for the monetary compensation of an Arthur Laurents, knowing that both his biggest and most respected hits (The Way We Were and The Turning Point) are going to be utterly emasculated by their directors and their stars? I would not.
Yet one often reads amateur play-scripts whose writers would not only prefer to be writing screenplays, but who actually are. I’m not talking about the use of so-called cinematic techniques. My own preference as a dramatist is to keep the stage, and the action, as fluid as possible, without recourse to cumbersome scene changes and boring inter-act blackouts. This allows not only for ease of staging and design (which, among other felicities, might actually help get your work mounted by cost-conscious companies and producers) but for surprise and dramatic effect. The use of these techniques is debatable, of course; I only know that they work for me, and excite me, as a writer and as a spectator. But that, for good or ill, is deliberate intent, on my part, as a dramatist. What I’m referring to are stage plays that read like screen plays, replete with impossible effects, and equally impossible stage direction. In the otherwise admirable A Shayna Maidel the playwright, Barbara Lebow, includes two scenes, back-to-back, in which the leading character goes from one full costume at the end of the first scene to another, completely new, ensemble at the beginning of the next. No backstage dresser alive could get that woman changed with sufficient rapidity to avert boring the entire audience, and one is left scratching one’s head in perplexity that no one connected with the original production informed the playwright that this was simply not good stagecraft. Or — and this seems somehow worse to me — that Lebow herself did not know better.
The impulse to write screenplays when one is supposedly crafting a play is rampant. One such script I read in college contained not one but several full-scale historical ground and air battles. I’m not joking — or exaggerating. Another alleged “play” by an amateur I encountered a few years ago began with several women convening at a beach cottage (already a hoary device in itself, but let that pass.) At the end of this opener, the women — who are still in their everyday togs, please remember, as they’ve just arrived — decide to go for a swim. The next scene discovers the entire cast, in bikini bathing suits, painfully examining their collective, total-body sunburn. As Jerome Robbins once said to Stephen Sondheim about a static verse, “All right, then — you stage it!” Either the “playwright” knows nothing about stagecraft (in which case, why is he or she writing a play?) or holds the theatre itself in some sort of secret contempt. “But what I really want to do is write a screenplay.”
A personal anecdote that is to the point. When I met the critic David Denby at a local signing for his 1996 Great Books, the owner of the bookstore introduced me to him as a critic and a playwright who had recently won an award and a production for his play The Dogs of Foo. I appreciated her boost, but I knew something she didn’t: Namely, that Denby, whom I admire more than nearly any other contemporary movie critic, despises the stage. He once wrote a long, magnificently pig-headed and astonishingly spurious piece for The Atlantic (“Theatrephobia,” January 1985; look it up) in which, juxtaposing current movies and Broadway shows of the time, he came down fourscore for the worst movie over the finest play. He is a man who, despite his reverence for the plays of Shakespeare (Lear in particular) absolutely loathes theatre.
Denby asked me what the play was about. I replied that it centered on a 1930s movie director very much like George Cukor.
He responded, “Sounds like it might be a good movie.”
Like the prophet, the playwright has no honor in his own country. But he still has more than the screenwriter.
Billy Wilder’s epithet reads, “I’m a writer. But then, nobody’s perfect.” In 1986, while accepting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award as a filmmaker, he defended his primary profession (screenwriting) and, criticizing the bottom-line perfidy of the Hollywood Suits, noted, “Theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power, and the glory.”
Who would ever have thought that Billy Wilder was an optimist?
*And no, Virginia, these two words are not inter-changeable.
†All of which means someone is getting a credit who pretty much did nothing.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross
Post-Script, February 2017
Anent my comments on “reality” television: Without it, would there — could there — have been a President Trump? I rest my case.