The Screenwriter as . . . Screenwriter

One of the criticisms of my book The Screenplay as Literature was that it appeared to be more about filmmaking than screenwriting.  And there was a good reason for that.  You see, at the time when I wrote the book, although there were a great  many screenwriters lucratively plying their trade (in Hollywood, especially), there were none that I knew of in America (nor in Europe either) that were predominantly writing screenplays to express themselves in this new literary medium–if to express themselves at all.  There were no screenwriters that you could compare to playwrights such as a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams:  playwrights who had chosen to devote themselves almost exclusively to the stage and were most comfortable in doing so.  Oh, yes, there was the occasional noteworthy original screenplay written by a writer best known for his or her work in another medium (e.g. playwright  Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits), but that was hardly enough to inspire me to write a book entitled The Screenplay as Literature.  What did inspire me was the work of men who had chosen to express themselves exclusively in the making of films.  These men, whose names include Bergman, Godard, Fellini and Antonioni, not only made films, but they either wrote their own scripts or collaborated on their writing; thus my use of the term filmmaker to describe them.  Furthermore, although the aforementioned filmmakers were accomplished writers, especially Ingmar Bergman, they appeared to be more at home behind the camera than sitting behind a desk, writing.  In fact, most of them confessed that they found the literary (writing) process rather  frustrating–an inadequate means of expressing their cinematic ideas; however, they did admit that the screenplay was a necessary first step, if only to prove on paper the validity of their film ideas.

This brings us to the central problem in advocating for “the screenplay as literature”:  It is difficult to make the argument without the screenwriters to go with it.  That is not to say that there are no screenwriters:  hundreds of screenplays are being written and produced each year.  However, are they being written by writers who have chosen to express themselves almost exclusively via the screenplay?  For the most part, they are not.   Why is this important?  Because just as it is difficult to think of the great novelists and playwrights of world literature of not wanting anything more than to pursue their art in their chosen form of writing, it is difficult to take seriously writers of screenplays  who do not consider screenwriting as their main literary pursuit—no matter how good they are at it.  This problem is further compounded by the fact that virtually all directors who write their own scripts want to be considered directors first and writers second, if at all.  And let us also not forget the frequent characterization of the majority of screenwriters as aspiring (if not frustrated) directors.  Now let us look at why this state of affairs exists, and how it undermines the proposition of “the screenplay as literature.”

The lack of what I call real screenwriters can be attributed to two appalling  conditions: the first is that screenwriters get very little recognition for their work and are, for the most part, virtually unknown to the public; The second is that screenplays, by themselves, receive little respect—and  particularly from the people who turn them into films. Let us examine the first condition:  the anonymity of the screenwriter.

Many would trace this problem to the popularity of Francois Truffaut’s “La Politique des Auteurs,” a position that Truffaut took in the late 1950’s (and expounded in the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema), which endeavored to give the credit of “author” to certain directors who did not write their own scripts.  This gave rise to the elevation of the status of the director—and usually at the expense of the screenwriter.  However, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the marginalization of the screenwriter predates considerably “La Politique des Auteurs” and the ascendency of the director.  There (Hollywood) the producers (and even the distributors, too) have long taken credit for the films they have produced.

Why is this such a detriment to screenwriters?  Because if individual screenwriters are virtually unknown to the public, it is almost impossible for them to develop an audience—a following, that is.     Filmmakers such as Woody Allen and the late Ingmar Bergman developed followings for their films (for which they usually wrote the screenplays); and this, indeed, allowed them to grow as artists, to experiment.  However, since I have written The Screenplay as Literature, I can think of only a few American screenwriters whose work is or was known to the public for films which they were not also the director.  The most notable are the late Paddy Chayevsky and Charles Kaufman; the first was the author of Network (1976), arguably the best American screenplay of the second half of the Twentieth century; the second is best known for comic films that make substantial use of fantasy, such as Being John Malkovich (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

You might very well ask why is it important that there be writers who are not the directors of the screenplays they write when so many directors do write their own screenplays—and do so very well?  And it is worth noting that the renaissance in cinema that I wrote about in The Screenplay as Literature took its inspiration (in part)  from an article written in 1948 by French critic (and subsequently film director) Alexandre Astruc, entitled “La Camera-Stylo.”  Here Astruc argued for scriptwriters to direct their own scripts; “or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.”

What then is the need for the autonomous screenwriter?  The need exists because the talent and temperament to be both a writer and a director may not necessarily reside in a single individual: one may excel in one endeavor but not the other.  In the theater, playwrights who direct their own plays are rare.  And few novelists long to be editors (or publishers, too).  At one time we revered writers (e.g. novelists and playwrights) as simply writers, not as hyphenates as well (e.g. writer-directors).  We have romanticized writers who spend many months (or years) writing in isolation—away from the glitter and distractions of Los Angeles or New York: writers who no sooner than they hand off their just completed work to their agent or publisher, plunge into their next project.  These are writers who have so much to write, but so little time to do so.  And certainly little time to spend on the onerous details of production—and film production, in particular.  In a perfect world, producers, directors and film companies would be beating a path to the doors of screenwriters to get a first look at what they are working on, not the other way around.  And if it is not enough that screenwriters themselves get little respect, it is far more egregious that the screenplay itself, and particularly the original screenplay, gets even less—the second impediment to “the screenplay as literature.”

 Dances with Wolves (1990) was an American film that won Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (even though the novel it was based on started out as an original screenplay).  Yet when the author of the screenplay initially attempted to have it produced, he was told to turn it into a novel first—which he did.  How insulting!   If a painter approached an art gallery to have his work exhibited (and, hopefully, sold), would he be told to turn his paintings into sculptures first?  I think not.  The sad fact is that the film industry—and particularly in the United States—has always had an enormous distrust and disdain for the original screenplay.

 If today I were to arrive in Hollywood with a trunk full of worthy scripts, written by writers who have seen every film, read every screenplay, and even possess university degrees in film and screenwriting, I would be laughed out of town—assuming that I actually got in to see anyone of importance. “Bring me playwrights!  Bring me novelists,” they would tell me.  “But don’t bring me screenplays or screenwriters!  We are surfeited with them.”  Been there!  Done that!  That is not to say that original screenplays are not, and cannot, be sold.  However, if you do not have strong industry connections (and representation, too), you have a better chance of winning the lottery than of selling an original screenplay.

We have not yet reached the center of “the screenplay as literature;” in fact, we are not even close to itAnd we never will be–until cinema fully embraces the concept of   “the Screenwriter as  . . . Screenwriter.”