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Auteur vs. Schreiber Theory, Tales From the Script, and the Filmmaking Process

By Dustin Rowles | Film Reviews | June 22, 2010 | Comments ()


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I wanted very badly to believe in the Schreiber theory -- the belief that the principal author of a film is generally the screenwriter rather than the director -- because I come from a writer-ly background (the use of the word writer-ly notwithstanding). It makes the most sense to me. But after watching Tales From the Script, processing yesterday's exercise, and poring over the comments, I can't subscribe to a theory which holds that the surest predictor of the quality of a film lies in the screenwriter. There are too many examples of well-thought-of directors making good films based on the scripts of mediocre screenwriters, and not enough examples of bad directors making good movies based on the scripts of well-thought-of screenwriters. Filmmaking is a process, and there are a great many factors that influence the outcome of a film -- talent, editing, casting, production -- but if any one factor has to be weighed the heaviest, the overwhelming evidence suggest it's the job of the director.

As many have suggested (and as was mentioned in the comments yesterday), film is a director's medium and television is a writer's medium. Aaron Sorkin is a solid indicator of that rule. When you watch a Sorkin television show -- "Sports Night," "West Wing," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" -- you know it's a Sorkin show. When I read the script for The Social Network (the "Facebook Movie") last year, I knew it was a Sorkin script. But outside of a few flourishes (Michael Douglas' big speech), neither The American President nor A Few Good Men felt like Sorkin films. And my guess is that The Social Network will feel more like a David Fincher film than a Sorkin one (Charlie Wilson's War provides a decent counter-illustration, however. That did feel more like a Sorkin movie than a Mike Nichols movie).

Perhaps inadvertently, the brilliant documentary Tales from the Script -- a must watch for any aspiring screenwriter or, really, anyone interested in the filmmaking process -- does an excellent job of ironically demonstrating the auteur theory. In interviewing a slew of well-known to obscure (but oftentimes prolific) screenwriters, Tales from the Script highlights just what a crapshoot the screenwriting profession can be. It explores the script writing process, as well as the screenwriter's relationship with the producer, director, and talent. The genesis for yesterday's exercise came from the documentary, specifically the realization that William Goldman -- one of the most consistently fantastic screenwriters in the history of Hollywood -- did a significant re-write on The Last Action Hero at the request of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wanted Goldman to bring in an emotional element to the story, one that I presume director John McTiernan -- who doesn't have a lot of experience with emotional depth -- couldn't bring from the page to the screen. That notion brought home just how powerful the role of director is, and Guinevere Turner -- who wrote American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page (both Mary Harron efforts) -- further illustrated the point when she spoke about her efforts with Bloodrayne, claiming that Uwe Boll snatched an incomplete first draft away from her, and even then, only 20 percent of what she wrote made it from the page to the screen. That was most certainly a Uwe Boll film and not a Guinevere Turner one.

Indeed, there's simply too much standing between the screenwriting process and the final product for a screenwriter to have too much influence. There are countless rewrites, tons of producer input; actors ad-lib, directors install their own vision, and editors set the pace and piece together the story. There are exceptions, of course. Sorkin could be one; Kevin Smith might be one if someone else -- a weak auteur -- directed his work; and Diablo Cody's voice might be strong enough to survive the process (although, so far, the quality of her two efforts has been consistent with the quality of those directors). Indeed, while you could posit plenty of exceptions, in the end, I think that's what they are: exceptions. Ultimately, it's the director's vision that trumps or, if the studio gets too involved, it's the editor's vision that survives. There really aren't a lot of films that carry a screenwriter's imprimatur.

Indeed, for a writer's style to really break through, he or she either needs to also direct the movie -- Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc. -- or have a relationship with the director that allows writer input well into the process -- Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer, Shane Black and Richard Donner, etc. (You'd think that John August and Tim Burton might fit into that category, but in Script, August revealed that -- over the entire course of their working relationship -- they've only spent a total of 24 hours or so together). But in all of those cases, it's still difficult to determine whether the ultimate vision was that of the writer or director (or in the case where it's the same person, whether his role as director or his role as writer made the biggest impact).

Of course, that's just my opinion, and both the Schreiber and auteur theories are theories; they're unproven, and I doubt -- given all the elements involved -- that they can be proven. There are simply no real control factors in filmmaking.

In either respect, yesterday's exercise brought out the very best in the folks around here: There were a lot of intelligent, well-thought-out comments. I think I could spend hours back-and-forthing with a lot of the comments (and contemplated pulling an all-nighter to do just that). It was a fascinating discussion of film theory that never felt like a discussion of film theory. Odnon captured the spirit of the point succinctly ("The pen is, indeed, not mightier than the Pork Sword"); Kyle properly expressed much of it; Yossarian, as always, was eloquent in his opinions; I liked Theresa's blueprint theory (and agree with it, for the most part); pausner deftly rebutted the blueprint theory; Reba had some nice thoughts about the influence of the director; DoctorControversy noted that writers may not be best suited to direct their own material (given the many examples of great writer/directors, I'm not sure I agree with that, however); I think chewster was right about the fact that a bad director can't make a good movie out of even the best script; screenwriters are at the mercy of the director, as Tammy suggested; I think yocean and others were right about the ultimate lack of influence a screenwriter has; while Slash appropriately noted that no one person can truly be at fault. Brenton is totally right about True Romance (but I think that's another exception to the rule); C. Robert Dimitri was very much right about the importance of not devaluing the importance of a screenwriter; and Gamal pointed out a potential flaw in the auteur theory as it concerns animated films; I definitely think there's something to bluejayone's point about a screenplay of a scribe's own making versus one they are assigned to write; ThingOfThings was right that a good script is useless without a good director; and CptCrckpot was also right about the importance of a director's selection process. .

Like I said, a lot of really well thought out points, many of them contradictory but seemingly no less true. However, the cake is not a lie (as GLaD0s suggested, nor is it a fruitcake, as jM suggested). It is real, and I think that -- in the end -- the cake goes to Barnes78, who best expressed what I was trying to say at the outset (even if what I was trying to say was not necessarily right).

So, Barnes78, send me your address, and I'll make you a cake. Unless you live outside of the United States -- I can't send cake overseas, not unless you like moldy cake. Otherwise, I do hope that the conversation might continue today, and I strongly recommend watching Tales From the Script, which will go a long way toward informing your opinion (it's available on Netflix Instant).



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