“Did you hear the one about the blonde who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter…”
As industry jokes go, that one is top of the pile. It proves quite succinctly that the life of a screenwriter is not a happy one. With so many amateur writers submitting literally thousands of scripts every day, an aspiring writer may never get theirs read. If it is read and doesn’t meet all the criteria needed by about page 10, it will almost certainly be binned. If it isn’t binned but completely read through and liked, but doesn’t fit in with the current climate it won’t be bought. If it is bought, it still may never get made. If it is made it’s quite likely that other writers will be drafted in to re-write. If the re-write leaves any of your original characters and themes remaining and the film is a success, finally the credit will go to… the directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, best boys, grips, frankly anyone but you.
Unless of course you’re Aaron Sorkin. With the exception of Charlie Kaufman (although he, like many writers, has chosen to direct his latest projects) Sorkin is a ‘name’ in screenwriting terms. Now The West Wing creators script for The Social Network is gaining as much praise as David Fincher’s direction, being hyperbolied, as “smart and canny”, “absorbing and nuanced” and that it “boasts enough great dialogue to fuel a half dozen Oscar-bait movies”. He’s the closest thing to a screenwriter as celebrity as you can get.
Yet regardless of fame, wealth or respect if you were the screenwriter of one the films listed below, creator of one of the following characters or even conjuror of just one line of dialogue in the preceeding cinematic delights, nothing would compare to that honour, that knowledge that you, above anyone else, were the true creator.
Still wouldn’t help you get laid though.
Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch.
Any wannabe screenwriter will have at least one (probably unthumbed) copy of Robert McKee’s ‘Story’. Despite never having written a succesful film of his own McKee is seen as the Godfather of the principles of Screenwriting, and say what you will, he nows his movies. The two key examples that he cites over and over again, when hunting for what makes a quality movie, are Chinatown and Casablanca. While you won’t find a bad word written by me about the former, it’s the latter that I beleive deserves inclusion. My reason; it’s every genre ever made (save SciFi) rolled into one. It’s got drama, romance, comedy. It’s got action, politics, music. It’s got great structure, characters and plot. It is, in a word, perfect.
Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Sunset Boulevard by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.
If you were still wondering how low the screenwriter is regarded just take a look at how they see themselves. Adaptation; racked with self doubt, Barton Fink; whiny and mean, The Player; sleazy and murdered. In Sunset Boulevard, lead hack Joe Gillis is all of the above and more. Luckily for him he has death to give him subjectivity. The intricate script uses a wonderfully inventive narrative of ‘Dead Man Talking’ that still gets used today in eveything from American Beauty to Desperate Housewives.
Norma Desmond: “You are… writing words, words, more words! Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business! But there’ll be a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!”
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid by William Goldman
“Nobody Knows Anything”. That is except the man whose words I just quoted. Writer of such scripts as All The President’s Men, The Princess Bride and Marathon Man, Goldman become infamous with his memoirs on life as a film writer, Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? That anybody gave a crap what he thought was mainly thanks to him putting out material like the Butch and Sundance script. Witty, clever and brave enough to give a fun film ‘that ending’, Mr. Goldman we salute you.
Butch Cassidy: Alright. I’ll jump first.
Sundance Kid: No.
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What’s the matter with you?
Sundance Kid: I can’t swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
Sundance Kid: Oh, shit…
Se7en by Andrew Kevin Walker
As pitches go, “Retiring cop tracks serial killer” is as cliche as they come, but Se7en was anything but. Way back in 1995, Andrew Kevin Walker whilst working at Tower Records, wrote a script on those lines so good that he’d never have to alphabatise CD’s again. The hook was of course, ‘Serial killer works his way through the Seven Deadly Sins’ but the reason why the film has lasted so long is the dynamic it draws up between Detectives Mill and Somerset. Add to that a gut punch of an ending that would floor Kimbo Slice and you have easily one of the best, darkest scripts ever written.
William Somerset: This guy’s methodical, exacting, and worst of all, patient.
David Mills: He’s a nut-bag! Just because the fucker’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda!
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman
Every once in a while someone original, fresh and more than a little batshit crazy makes Hollywood sit up and take note. In the late 90′s, with Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman was that man. Yet it wasn’t until 2004′s Eternal Sunshine… that Kaufman wrote a truly great screenplay. A meditation on life, love and memory he finally (even after admitting so much with Adaptation) managed to nail an ending.
Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.
Clementine: [pauses] Okay.
Then there’s A Matter Of Life And Death, Network, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Chinatown, The Godfather, to name but a few. As the saying goes, “You can make a bad film out of a good script but you can’t make a good film out of a bad one”.
What say you?