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When Ben Affleck began adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone” for Miramax with writing partner Aaron Stockard, he thought the project might be something he would act in — just like his Academy Award-winning “Good Will Hunting” (1997). But as the script developed, Affleck started to see the project differently.
“I got to care about it more and more, and simultaneously I was becoming more and more interested in becoming a director,” he says. “Then those two tracks converged.”
As collaborative as film can be, only one person gets to be in charge. Most of the time it’s the director. So it’s no wonder that many top screenwriters want to direct their own material.
This awards season features a robust crop of films directed by their writers. Ethan and Joel Coen with “No Country for Old Men” (Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson with “There Will Be Blood” (Paramount Vantage) and Sean Penn with “Into the Wild” (Paramount Vantage) are just a few examples of writers who know that unless they sit in the director’s chair, they’re likely not going to be able to control what happens to their words.
Tamara Jenkins (Fox Searchlight’s “The Savages”) and Noah Baumbach (Paramount Vantage’s “Margot at the Wedding”) have been lauded for their sharp dialogue and compelling scenes, but it’s telling that neither thinks of him or herself primarily as a writer.
Jenkins says she couldn’t imagine spending years sweating over one of her scripts only to turn it over to someone else to direct. “It’s giving away something that’s too hard-won,” she says.
Baumbach concurs: “I don’t think of myself as a writer who directs; I see myself as a filmmaker. For me, it’s always been one process of writing and then directing and then cutting.”
But how do those skills work together? Being a writer is generally a solitary act, while directing requires social interaction and leadership.
Jenkins says “The Savages” “was directed on the page. It wasn’t open and loose at all. I worked on the script for a very long time, and it was really tight. Any changes I made during shooting were mainly inspired by my own sense of what could be cut for scheduling.”
Baumbach says he comes to the set with his movie nearly completely planned out. “There is some space between what I hear in my head and what the actors bring where the character is invented,” he says, but his dialogue is too precise for much tinkering.
By the time he finished the script for “Margot,” Baumbach had a good sense of how the film would look and feel. “When I’m writing, I sort of keep it open,” he says. “I wouldn’t describe a character as ‘handsome but in an accessible way’ or anything like that, because I don’t know who’s going to play it, and they may not be handsome. Or accessible. But I’m always thinking about the tone and the style. I’m imagining these people existing on the planet, and I’m kind of acting it out in my head. Then, after the script is done, I’ll start thinking about how I’m going to shoot all this. And at that point, the writer in me starts to disappear.”
Sometimes writers who don’t direct their scripts can exert control over the finished product. Other times they can’t. In his 40-plus years of screenwriting, Ronald Harwood (Miramax’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) has actively collaborated with some directors, and others he never heard a word from.
“With Roman Polanski, Mike Newell, Istvan Szabo, Norman Jewison, we worked very closely,” Harwood says. “With Julian Schnabel (on “Diving Bell”), very little. Hardly at all. Directors are a law unto themselves, but I’ve been fortunate in that many of the directors I’ve worked with have a theater background and are therefore more loyal to the text. But you hand it over and hope for the best, really.”
Even so, Harwood isn’t clamoring to direct. “I have no technical knowledge of film and cameras and lights and no interest in it,” he says. He thinks even writers who have been in the business as long as he has might not fully grasp the difference between words on a page and images on a screen. “There’s a very important element in all this that’s often neglected, and that’s the editing,” he says. “Editors have an insight that we as writers often don’t have, that maybe we can cut straight to something and the audience will buy it. But you can’t know that until you’ve actually seen the thing shot and seen the visual effect of it. I don’t know why that is, but it’s so.”
Writer Kelly Masterson sold his first script with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (ThinkFilm), so he knew there wasn’t much he could do to make sure his words ended up on the screen the way he conceived them.
“All you can do is really try to control what you’re doing,” he says. “I’d concentrate on character and make sure that the people you’re putting on the page are who you want them to be. And then pray to God to get a director like Sidney Lumet, who understands it and does the great work he can do.”
Masterson had zero input on what Lumet did with the film, which he admits was a little nerve-racking. And as it turned out, Lumet made some significant changes.
“At the time, when I heard that Sidney made some revisions, I thought, ‘Well, I wish he would’ve asked me to do them and given me his ideas,'” Masterson says. “I felt that I had let go of my baby way too early. But I feel now that he did exactly what the film needed.”
With the success of “Devil,” Masterson could well become one of those screenwriters — like Charlie Kaufman or Paul Haggis — whose name in the credits is almost as much a calling card as the director’s. But it’s worth noting that Haggis now spends as much time directing as he does writing, and Kaufman will release his directorial debut this year. Masterson says he now dreams of emulating Tony Gilroy, who transitioned from writing hits like Universal’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” to writing and directing Warner Bros.’ “Michael Clayton.”
“I want to be Tony Gilroy now,” Masterson jokes. “Once you get bitten, it makes you start to think.”
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