Awards Watch: Writers/Directors II

Billy Wilder examines screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond through binoculars in 1960.


Leading filmmakers discuss writing, directing challenges

When screenwriter Nick Hornby watched the rough cut of his film "An Education," he was struck by one scene when Carey Mulligan retreats to her bedroom as her father stands outside her door, trying to console her. This was the emotional climax of the movie, and the writer was struck by what director Lone Scherfig had done.

"There was a bit where Carey starts to cry, because she recognizes a lot of it is her own fault, and it's the first time in the movie she stops pointing the finger at other people and turns on herself," he notes. "I don't know if that was (in the screenplay). That was something Lone saw. (She) really wrung out everything in that scene I hadn't been able to see."

Screenwriters are often not as complimentary about their directors as Hornby, while directors can have choice words about their writers. Their relationships have become more complicated over the years, as writers have evolved from being part of the studio factory system to being independent agents with a strong guild that has argued for greater participation in the production process.

But what is notable about this year's writer-director collaborations is how rich they have been and how much each side acknowledges the other has brought to the picture.

Nick Hornby and Lone Scherfig on the set of "An Education"
Scherfig, who herself recently wrote a screenplay for director Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror"), is struck by an analogy Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico made about working with directors like Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.

She described the writer "as a dark knight in a big, black velvet cape, like a Zorro character," and spoke of a screenwriter as "getting into the director's head almost like a coat," then slipping away unnoticed.

"That is a humble writer," Scherfig marvels.

It is also a writer who was very much a secondary player to two of the world's greatest auteurs, who came from a tradition where the director is everything, a tradition that was only amplified when the post-New Wave idea of the director as "auteur" began to prevail. And even Scherfig acknowledges, "writers shouldn't necessarily be that humble."

But she herself is humble in terms of what she brought to Hornby's script. The project started when Hornby, a well-known novelist, adapted Lynn Barber's original story. Arguably, he had more clout than many writers, given that the material was his to begin with and his wife, Amanda Posey, produced the film. But Scherfig's approach was respectful from the beginning.

"With this film, it wasn't about being over-pretentious or over-protective or trying to prove anything," she says. "It was about getting it right, getting the lightness and the complexity and Nick's touch and layered qualities."

It is those "layered qualities" that most writers fear a director will destroy. When Alan Ball wrote his Oscar-winning "American Beauty" and saw the first cut from director Sam Mendes, he erupted, arguing that Mendes had changed the meaning of his entire work by removing "bookends" that framed the work as a courtroom drama in which innocents were found guilty of murder. It was only later that he acknowledged Mendes had in fact made the right call.

Roman Polanski and Robert Towne fought equally passionately over the ending of "Chinatown," the movie that in many ways made both their names, whose ending Towne still resists. Towne was so unhappy about what another director, Hugh Hudson, did to his screenplay for "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," that he removed his name from the credits and replaced it with that of his dog, P.H. Vazak, who thus became the only dog in movie history to be nominated for an Oscar.

But Geoffrey Fletcher, the writer of "Precious," argues that those layers will actually protect a screenplay from being decimated by the director. He advises screenwriters to "add as many layers to the storytelling as possible, because it is uncertain what will ultimately stay or go."

In television, writers have a power to decide what stays and go that, mysteriously, they don't in film -- though that is somewhat different in England, where writers have not quite become the cogs in the system that they are here. It is even more different in France, where laws about "droits d'auteur" (writers' rights) give their scripts a degree of protection almost unimaginable in Hollywood.

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But even in the U.K., there's a difference between how writers and directors are perceived in the two media, which flummoxes "The Damned United" helmer Tom Hooper.

"If you're directing a TV miniseries written by Andrew Davies, the brand name is Andrew Davies and the director in reviews is almost entirely irrelevant," he says. "And yet, if you take Andrew Davies' screenplay and make it as a film, it's going to be talked about as a director's film, not an Andrew Davies film."

For Hooper, the balance between screenwriter and director is as different from project to project as it is in any personal relationship. On "United," the biography of 1970s soccer club manager Brian Clough, Hooper was reunited with screenwriter Peter Morgan, his partner on the 2006 HBO TV movie "Longford."

"I would probably always let him have final say on script issues, but I would expect to have final say on directorial issues," he says, without quite defining the difference between the two.

While Morgan is not involved in shooting or staging scenes, Hooper says he "wouldn't ride roughshod" over him if there were something Morgan were truly passionate about. (Morgan had added power given that he was also a producer on the film.) "At the same time, I wouldn't just do something if he said, 'I feel it to be right.' "

But Hooper notes not all screenwriters should get that benefit of the doubt. "There are other writers (where), if they disagree, I don't have that same level of confidence in their judgment to defer in those situations. It's very case-by-case. It's very personal."

Morgan and Hooper both note their collaboration went well on "United" because they began working together soon after Morgan wrote the first draft. When director Stephen Frears fell out of the project, it was Morgan who lobbied Hooper to sign up for the job. "With Tom, it is an alpha-to-omega process," Morgan explains. "It is very much a partnership all the way through. He was involved with the script, and then I would visit the set regularly and we would work together in the cutting room."

But Morgan cautions any new writer not to expect that with all directors. "Clint Eastwood, for example, makes the movie without any consultation or indeed involvement with the writer," he says, while "Frears makes a movie with the writer's involvement at literally every stage, including location scouting."

Hooper notes that not all decisions were arrived at easily or quickly. Early drafts ended with Clough heading off to reconcile with his coaching partner, Peter Taylor, but the scene of reconciliation itself was not in the script. In the finished version, that scene is there. "I felt they needed reconciliation," Hooper explains. "The film in some ways was a love story."

According to Hooper there were "weeks, if not months, of discussion" about the scene, with Morgan resisting the change. Finally, Morgan came and asked him to give the "bad version" of the scene. The director sketched it out and "a light bulb went off in his head," Hooper says, after which "he wrote that brilliant scene in no time."

By contrast, Morgan says, "I think Tom would have preferred (if) the movie had been a little darker and a bit more aggressive in tone. I was worried that if it was darker we would lose the comedy."

Like Morgan, screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo were producers on "Me and Orson Welles," their recent collaboration with director Richard Linklater. Longtime friends, the Palmos brought him a novel about Welles' stage production of "Julius Caesar" and were attached as producers from the start.

Richard Linklater
"There is a process where we figure things out together," Holly Gent Palmo explains. "I don't remember anyone saying, 'No! I think this, I think that,' and having a big difference of opinion. I remember us talking and saying, 'Let's figure this out, see what happens.' "

Because Linklater and the Palmo were shooting a film that had an established play embedded within the story, there was an ongoing discussion from the beginning of the writing process about what parts of "Julius Caesar" needed to be shown, a process that required the three of them to constantly define and redefine what would make it into the final cut. "That was something really talked about all throughout right up through shooting," Linklater says, with Vince Palmo quickly adding, "through editing!"

Linklater says they spent time in post cutting down to exactly how much of "Julius Caesar" they needed to show in the film, but notes "some things you really cant decide on paper. All you can do is your best. But the reality on the ground and pacing, all these other things, will have their own say."

Ultimately, Linklater argues, the onus is on the screenwriter to make sure his or her specific intentions come through in the script. "If a director doesn't fundamentally understand the intention, there's no way it will work in the final film. If you can't make it clear to the director, you can't just say, 'Oh trust me, this is going to be funny.' I don't think a director could direct that scene and have it actually work."

And, he notes, things can change as soon as casting starts. "You might have to reconceptualize your entire character based on who you cast, what they can and can't do, what would be believable for them," he explains. "I like to think of films as living, breathing organism, not set in stone."

When it comes to the industry-old dilemma of whether it is productive to have the writer on the set, Palmo notes there can be a dilemma for everyone involved if too many points of view are bouncing around the production. "Being on set and just being around the process as a screenwriter, sometimes people would come to me with questions, and that can be dangerous," she says. "I remember a day player coming up to me and saying, 'why am I doing this?' I said, 'let's go talk to Rick.'"

Still, adapting to things on the fly is essential, as Lee Daniels, the director and producer of "Precious," points out.

"Oftentimes, what's on the page may not work, no matter how much science you put into it -- whether it's the right cast, or the right room, and the right cinematography and the right production design," he explains. "When you're in that moment and you're trying to bring to light what's on that page, if you can't bring the honesty to that moment, you've got to change on the spot."

He adds, "No matter how brilliantly the writing is executed, if you're in the moment and it's not honest, you have to rearrange (things) to make it happen."

Watching that "rearranging" can be a humbling experience for a writer. Some, like David Mamet, prefer to step away if they are not directing and leave the script with the studio, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Others get embroiled with who-did-what, like Marc Norman, who waged a virtual campaign to be recognized for his contribution to "Shakespeare in Love."

No matter what heartache it may cause, Morgan advises his fellow writers to stay as involved as they can.

"You have less gray hair, and it might mean you suffer from less ulcers and stress-related conditions, but in the end it's like going through life without having risked anything," he says. "On the occasions where it does work out -- and in my experience it has worked on a number of occasions -- you are then left with something that you love very deeply, that you are very attached to. And I would wish that for any writer."
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