Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

Directors And Their Screenwriters

The relationships between directors and their screenwriters are often complicated.  Ranging from the contempt of Alfred Hitchcock, who often refered to his writers as “stooges”, to the more respectful attitude of Arthur Hiller, who once said, “I get on my knees to a good writer.” 

Film, of course, is a collaborative art and debate over which creative artist is most responsible for a film’s quality has been on going since the dawn of cinema.  Out of dozens of people involved in the production of any film, the field of contenders was whittled down to the director and the screenwriter.  Those siding with the former argued that the director is the main contributor to pictorial design in a medium that is, after all, visual.  The supporters of the latter maintained that the writer was most responsible for a film’s themes, which are found in plot, character development etc.  The belief that the director was the principal creator of a film production was given greater impetus in the 50’s with the introduction of the “auteur theory” as presented by the critics of the French film magazine “Cahiers du Cinema.”  The theory’s tenets, first formulated by Francois Truffaut, himself destined for superstar director status, stated that certain directors had not only an overwhelming technique as displayed in their mise-en scène, but were most responsible for their film’s overall qualities, including development of theme.  The theory has its detractors, especially among screenwriters and other creative artists involved in film.  An industry wag once suggested that those who believed in the “auteur theory” were partaking in the art of making the screenwriter, cinematographer, production designer, editor and countless others disappear. 

Among the most prominent of the above implied magicians was Alfred Hitchcock.  One of his most frequent collaborators was John Michael Hayes who in the 1950’s scripted some of Hitchcock’s most famous and successful films, including REAR WINDOW (1954) and TO CATCH A THIEF (1955).  A good example of Hitchcock’s dismissive attitude can be found in an incident where Hayes proudly showed the director a ceramic statuette he had won for writing REAR WINDOW.  “They make toilet bowls out of the same thing,” was Hitchcock’s crude response to the Edgar Allan Poe award. 

Despite such attitudes, several directors have forged relationships with writers that are very different.  Even though he became one of the most respected directors in Hollywood history, Billy Wilder always considered himself primarily a screenwriter.  Unusual in an industry and town that, to put it mildly, always looked down on writers.  Wilder began a writing partnership with Charles Brackett in the 1930’s and within a few years was directing such Wilder/Brackett screenplays as THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and the terrifyingly cynical SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950, with D.M. Marshman).  The latter was a bitter story of a defeated Hollywood screenwriter.  He later began writing with I.A.L. Diamond, directing their works SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT(1960) among others.  The partnership lasted untill the 1980’s.  Perhaps because he continued as a writer, Wilder never took on airs as the great director.  After all, the films he directed were always distinguished by their smart dialogue and characterizations-hallmarks of good screenplays-and not by anything inherent in Wilder’s mise-en scène.  Wilder poked fun at the film world’s attitude toward writers with his gently mocking tombstone epitaph, “I’m a writer.  But then nobody’s perfect.” A joke, of course, but also a clever reminder of the final line from SOME LIKE IT HOT, one of Wilder’s and Diamond’s greatest achievements. 

In 1976 Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader made TAXI DRIVER , the most important of their frequent collaborations.  A close examination reveals Schrader as the primary creative force behind the film.  Scorsese’s camera pyrotechnics are impressive, but it is a piece driven by character and shocking acts of violence, and Schrader wrote the whole thing with a gun next to his typewriter.  Of course, much of the film is improvised by the cast, which adds yet another dimension to the idea of film as a meeting of minds. 

There are frequent examples of usually terrible directors clicking with a talented writer and providing audiences with an unusually good film.  Such a lucky fellow was Brian de Palma with THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987).  David Mamet was responsible for the script. 

Ironically, the French, who gave birth to the “auteur theory”, also placed a premium on dialogue writers like Henri Jeanson.  Also of note is the major role writers played in one of the most important movements in French film history.  Jacques Prévert working with director Marcel Carné created films like PORT OF SHADOWS (1938) and DAYBREAK (1939), both bolstered by Prévert’s poetic voice.  The latter about a murderer cornered in his attic by police, was a masterpiece of the school of “poetic realism.”   The movement was characterized by romanticism tempered by a profound pessimism about the human condition, but with a deeply felt optimism about the power of film art.

Other famous and fruitful director/writer collaborations through the years include purveyors of sophisticated sex comedies Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson (THE MERRY WIDOW, TROUBLE IN PARADISE), grand experts of social satire Frank Capra and Robert Riskin (YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MEET JOHN DOE), western masters John Ford and Frank Nugent (FORT APACHE, THE SEARCHERS), legendary Italians Federico Fellini and Tullio Pinelli (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, EIGHT AND A HALF), and latter day British masters Danny Boyle and John Hodge (SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING).

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October 30, 2009 - Posted by | film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , ,

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