An Imperfect Science

The narration over the wonderfully absurd opening* of Sunset Boulevard, where we learn that the man talking to us is the dead guy floating in the pool – includes every screenwriter’s favourite observation: that no regular moviegoer knows or cares what screenwriters do because ‘they think the actors make it up as they go along.’

If a screenwriter does their job right, all the artifice – setting up the story and introducing the characters and moving the narrative forward – disappears.  The viewers suspend their disbelief, ignore the contrivances and the coincidences that hold the story together, and let themselves imagine they are watching something real. The impression of spontaneity – that the ‘actors make it up as they go along’ is pretty much the effect every writer is trying to achieve. At the same time we’re also trying to make viewers forget they are watching actors at all, and convince them that that bloke who resembles Tom Hanks might just die horribly before the end of the movie.

Of course these days critics and audiences are much more sophisticated.  They understand that in movies today it’s the director who makes the story up as he or she goes along.  (Joke! LOLZ, etc.)

A lot of other screenwriters have made this point much better than I ever could – notably William Goldman in Which Lie Did I Tell? where he slams his head repeatedly into the great stone edifice that is ‘The Auteur Alfred Hitchcock’ to no avail whatsoever.

But to this day we still get critics who will analyse everything about a movie in terms of what the director was trying to achieve, or how this work fits into that director’s oeuvre, ignoring the fact that much of the time it’s the writer who has shaped the story. Sometimes the director is only driven to ‘explore’ this subject matter because he has two mistresses, a coke habit and a condo in Malibu to support.

Some producers are under this impression as well – that only the stars and the directors matter, and that writers are disposable and interchangeable; if one writer doesn’t fit or gets awkward, hire another.  Two writers must be twice as good as one, and six must be… hold on, the maths is too hard. And if the script these six writers produce, by some amazing misfortune, lacks all coherence, and the star complains, hire yet another writer to hold the star’s hand.  That writer can always wedge a few lines in somewhere to make it look like the star’s opinions are being listened to.

Of course, we writers don’t help matters by going along with this idiocy. All writers need high levels of self-belief to produce anything, which naturally leads to the conclusion that you are at least as talented, if not infinitely more talented, than any of those hack losers your respected colleagues.  You are therefore doing them a favour by dropping in like a merciful angel and rescuing your bastard scumbag rivals friends from their own lack of talent the impossible situation the producers have put them in.  Screenwriters are especially liable to believe this if they need the money – and the vast majority of screenwriters, at any given moment, desperately need the money.

At this point I was going to neatly conclude that a good script by a good writer whose work is treated with respect will always result in a good movie that audiences will enjoy, and that the ‘hire more cooks’ approach creates inane sprawling patchwork movies that waste vast percentages of their budget by shooting material that makes no sense and cannot ever be used.  But I can’t, because film making is an art, not a science.  In science, results can be replicated by following a formula; in moviemaking, it’s never that simple. As Goldman said in his other brilliant book Adventures in the Screen Trade, no-one knows anything.

One of my favourite blockbuster movies ever was the original Pirates of the Caribbean. The script, the cast, the direction, the effects – everything about it was superb. For the sequels they dispensed with the original pair of writers and brought in a new, less distinguished team who, among other things, frequently changed the proposed plot to suit the whims of the stars.  The result, in my opinion, was an utterly incoherent mess – compared to the first movie, a debâcle.  Yet the second movie made more money than the first, and the same team went on to make a third and fourth movies that made even less sense and even more money.

The truth is that many witty polished beautifully crafted movies with great scripts sometimes sink like rocks, while some overblown incoherent buckets of drivel that deserve to die a miserable lonely death fill the multiplexes for weeks.

I’m going to stop writing this blog to go and drink Beer.

*There is of course nothing intrinsically absurd about a dead man narrating the story, since the whole idea of narration is a contrivance anyway…