As an aspiring screenwriter (not sure if I’m in a minority there) this got me thinking. While trying to remain as impartial as possible, to me the screenplay provides the basis of the entire production, and without it, there’s simply no narrative. The dialogue is the obvious feature of a script, but it also establishes the major themes, setting, action, often the pace, as well as other fundamental information needed in order to create the film. In this online discussion, I was therefore surprised to see people arguing that if the scriptwriter should be given a higher billing, then so too should the set designer, sound designer, costume designer, and so on. As crucial and important as these roles are, they’re all built upon the foundations of the writing and directing.
However, that brings us to the question of whether the screenwriter should receive as much recognition as the director; I want to avoid using the word “importance”, because every role in the film’s production is essential to the film’s quality. In my mind, the most influential positions behind the camera would be the director, writer, cinematographer and editor.
Film is a visual medium instead of written, and the director inevitably has more influence as a result. They’re responsible for every element on screen seen in the end result, and out of a single screenplay can come endless amounts of interpretation. A further extension of this idea is otherwise known as Auteur Theory, which came about during the French New Wave and advocates that a film reflects the director’s personal vision above the collective creative process. This view is subject to a lot of criticism, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Essentially, a director’s job is concerned with how a story is told, and not just what happens; it’s their job to translate the screenwriter’s ideas into a visual format. Using Shakespeare as a parallel (in terms of adapted ideas, not writer recognition – that would be a bit of an unfair comparison), his plays have been adapted in vastly different ways on both stage and in film, brought about by the separate visions and intentions of the director, yet the fundamental stories remains the same. Ultimately, the director decides how a scene plays out through their communication with the actors, set designer, cinematographer, etc, and if they don’t do this well, even the best screenplays will be hugely undermined.
Of course, the opposite is true, in that a good director can’t do much with a crappy script. Take Ridley Scott, a director I rate highly, who couldn't get a good film out of the script for Prometheus despite his best efforts. Interestingly, the backlash against Prometheus was largely aimed at the script, yet the opposite doesn't seem to be as common; few scripts are lauded as much as bad scripts seem to be hated. The same discussion can be made in relation to the film’s editor, where editing can easily make or break a film.
We’ll see how it pans out, but it’s often noticeable in the final product when there have been script difficulties during the production; Men in Black 3 notoriously began shooting without a third act, and its quality suffered as a result. Like any form of narrative, a story needs to know where it’s going, although there are cases where a film has turned out fine despite script problems, such as the first Iron Man.
Of course, there are examples of the writer being acknowledged; although it was also directed by him, Her was marketed as “A Spike Jonze love story’, implicitly placing as much value on the writing as directing. In other cases, the most marketable name is naturally attributed to the film, even if they had little to do with it. The Nightmare Before Christmas promoted itself as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but Burton had no hands-on involvement in either the production or screenplay.
Aside from the writers maybe feeling better about themselves, would there be any actual benefit for the audience to know who wrote a film’s screenplay? Like those who have favourite directors or actors, it would be easier to distinguish writers with a certain style or ones who explores certain themes, so audiences to choose and categorise films if they've liked a writer’s previous work. A positive aspect of the upcoming Star Wars film is that it’s being co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Empire Strikes Back, providing a new hope to the now cynical fans. Then again, unlike a certain director’s style, it’s much more difficult for a script to be distinctive. Another point is that directors are essentially the ‘face’ of the filmmaking process, and therefore most of what goes on behind the cameras is attributed to him or her.
All in all, I do think screenwriters often deserve more credit, although perhaps not equal to the director. The process of creating new and original narrative ideas, as well as successful character and plot development, is certainly one which shouldn’t be overlooked. Although the director fully deserves the highest billing for interpreting these ideas and coordinating pretty much everything that goes into the film, the ability to invent something from nothing is a skill which shouldn’t be undervalued. However, as we've seen, there are many factors which need to be taken into account. For an interesting list of the 100 films deemed to have the best screenplays, have a look at this.
I think that’s about it, but thank you for reading what is hopefully the first of many blog posts. Share your thoughts in the comments below!