Film Fund-amentals: The Necessary Weasel

The screenwriter is one of the most important figures in the creative process. Any screenwriter will tell you this tidbit. They are also treated as the most disposable member of the production team. Any experienced screenwriter will also admit this.

Without the script, there would be no movie. OK, I suspect you could do a Transformers movie without a script. But almost everything else requires the structure provided by a screenplay — all the little things like plot, characters and dialog. So the position of the screenwriter should be pretty sacrosanct.

But not exactly. Gore Vidal has long insisted that the screenwriter is the true auteur of a movie. Ironically, Vidal’s occasional journeys into the trade have usually resulted in him suing to have his name removed. Allegedly, Harry Cohen of Columbia Pictures once referred to screenwriters as “a necessary weasel.” In the old days of Hollywood, a group of studio screenwriters were caught throwing notes out of a window to passersby, claiming they were being held prisoner in a Chinese laundry.

So what is the function of a screenwriter? At best, the screenwriter produces the actual platform from which the rest of the movie can be extrapolated and developed. Notice the words I just used, with the emphasis on “developed.” Many young would-be screenwriters mistakenly think of this process as being similar to a theater play. It isn’t (though the modern Broadway theater seems strangely headed in this direction).

If anything, the screenplay is closer to an architectural drawing. It is the initial draft (or vision – if you are into the vision thing) of what the movie can be like. It is the basic concept of the film before the other collaborative elements begin to pile in with their own unique revisions, changes and numerous alterations. It is the beginning concept of the movie, not the final form.

Depending upon your attitude, film-making is either a collaborative art or a riotous collision of egos. Either way, any movie has various chefs working hard to stir the pot. With luck, the various players will play fair with each other. In reality, the back-stabbing comes fast and furious. If the effort is successful, the movie will have more fathers than Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. But if it’s a failure, everybody blames the screenwriter.

With any large budget movie, the screenwriter is basically screwed before the first production meeting is over. Often the producers will have a long list of major changes (most of them based upon whatever their assistants told them about the script – most producers don’t read scripts, they hear about them). The director will have several writers at hand to rewrite the screenplay to their “satisfaction.” Despite what they might claim, a lot of directors don’t read scripts either. They have people who tell them about it. That’s one of the reasons why they have no qualms about altering a script to an unrecognizable degree. Then you have the star. Many major stars now have their own writers in tow and will insist on letting them take a crack at the script with the single-minded focus of making the star look good (much like John Wayne, who, despite being 6’4″, wore lifts just to keep people Waynified).

What producers, directors and stars mostly want is the gimmick, not the plot. At the height of his career, Joe Eszterhas was not hired for his writing skills. He was hired for his concepts. Nobody had to read the script for Basic Instinct to get the point. The same was true of Shane Black during his 15 minutes of fame somewhere between Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. Black basically viewed the script as a primer for the marketing department (he actually included demographic notes in his script for The Last Boy Scout).

Which means that major movies are only ideal for screenwriters who have a very low sense of self-esteem. Also a strong need to mindlessly suck up (OK, Eszterhas’s career admittedly flies in the face of this point, but he’s a Hungarian and therefore contrary by nature). By the way, this is one of the reasons most major movies are badly written (or should I say, badly rewritten).

This also means that if you want to be a screenwriter, and you have some sort of picky issue about integrity, you’d better stay in the low budget world of the indies. It is the one place where the screenplay actually counts for something. In many respects, it is still viewable as a platform, but it is an incredibly vital platform. A small budget movie has almost nothing to offer except plot, characters and dialog. So yes, the script is very important. Often it is the only thing that the filmmaker has to present in order to raise money for the movie.

An old Hungarian film school technique was to pair students in director/cinematographer teams. The idea was to get the two most crucial elements for making a film to evolve together as interlinked artists and thereby further the necessary collaboration essential to movies. In the American independent process, directors and writers need to team together for many of the same reasons. In indie filmmaking, they have more to share than to lose.