- Tales from the Script
Tales from the Script is a fascinating film, not only for what it says about the role of the screenwriter in Hollywood, but also in the way screenwriters like to represent themselves on screen.
The format is a simple one: director Peter Hanson talks to screenwriters old and new about their experiences, and films them talking direct to camera. Those interviewed include Paul Schrader, Ron Shusett (Alien), John August (Big Fish), William Goldman, John Carpenter, the late Melville Shavelson, Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), and James L. White (Ray). The film is divided into several sections, each focusing on a different aspect of the screenwriter’s life – their lack of any real voice in [End Page 64] Hollywood, their relationships with producers, directors and stars, their hand-to-mouth existence, their lack of creative control once a screenplay has been completed, and the difficulties of producing original work in a cinematic climate dedicated to making money. Each section is prefaced with a quotation from one of the interviewees that appears on screen (“Nobody Wants Your Stuff,” “Chopped and Mashed,” “Always Sit on the Couch,” and “You’ll do Another One”), and ends with another quotation appearing at the bottom of the screen (“the other side of the terrace is not all that pretty either.”) By such means director Hansen emphasizes that the script for his film – such as it is – comprises everything that the interviewees have said, with little or no intervention from the filmmakers.
The film paints a vivid portrait of contemporary Hollywood, where money talks: while many scripts are placed in development, very few of them get transformed into films. At Warner, for instance, only 10 out of a total of 360 properties were actually filmed. The screenwriter is very much at the beck and call of studio executives – even if they know nothing about film, their comments can often significantly transform the way in which a screenplay appears on screen. More often than not a screenwriter spends considerable time and energy pitching a story, only to be greeted by “soft passes,” “hard passes,” or “cold passes” from producers. In an industry where films can cost $150 million or more, it is easier to go to lunch, rather than greenlight a potentially risky project. In this kind of climate, screenwriters learn to “go with the flow” – to accept that their properties are more likely to be refused than accepted, and even when they are greenlighted, they are likely to be rewritten ad nauseam. Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown (1974) went through seventeen drafts, while Peter Shaffer rewrote his stage play Amadeus (1983) forty-seven times before it was eventually filmed by Milos Forman.
Most screenwriters experience difficult relationships with producers, stars and directors, the majority of whom seem to regard the script as a working document, to be rewritten at will with very little input from the screenwriters themselves. Even when they do retain some measure of creative control, screenwriters have to cope with contradictory demands - if one executive demands more romance, and another more violence, the screenwriter has to take note of their comments. Or perhaps they can adopt a strategy recommended by the British writer P. G. Wodehouse and play the “nodder” – nod in assent to everything the executives tell them, and continue writing their own work. More often than not, however, the finished script for a film ends up as a mish-mash, bearing very little relationship to the initial text.
Although the film focuses on contemporary Hollywood, its links with the past are obvious: while screenwriters are no longer forced to spend their days cooped up in rabbit-hutch-like offices, churning out a certain number of words per day (as in the studio era), they still occupy a lowly place in the chain of command. Despite the fact that some of them live affluent lifestyles (Hansen photographs some of the interviewees in their homes, with gorgeous [End Page 65] views of palm-tress and the sea in the background), they have to cope...