The disappearing writer

February 11, 2008

Looks like the writers are coming back to work. Amazing that the executives thought they could just do without them. It must have come as some shock to see everything slow to a stop. How could these scribbling nobodies have so much power?

In fact, writers should be flattered to be taken for granted. It means they’re doing their job properly. After all, it is only when you cease to sense a guiding hand behind a work of fiction that the fiction suddenly takes on life. ‘Characters’ become ‘people’, ‘scenes’ become ‘events’, and when something bad happens, you feel it at a gut level… none of this is possible if you sense that the writer is manipulating every last thing that happens (which he is). So you could say that the job of the writer is to disappear.

But to disappear from a script is one thing, to disappear from film history, or from the regard of those who hold the purse strings, is quite another. In ‘Adventures In The Screen Trade’, William Goldman blames the auteur theory for removing the writer from the picture. So Frank Capra is a God but Robert Riskin is…what? A technician of some sort; a typist, maybe. Certainly not someone worthy of attention or study. Gore Vidal pointed out that in David Thomson’s supposedly definitive ‘Biographical Dictionary of Film’, there is not a single writer in the book. Not a one. (Update: Shane points out that I’m wrong here. There are two writers in his book, Ben Hecht and Ernest Lehmann. However, I don’t count Garson Kanin because he was also a director). So Clint Eastwood is a genius for directing ‘Unforgiven’, but David Webb Peoples, who conjured the whole thing out of thin air, who created living, breathing, characters where hitherto there was, precisely, nothing, is, again, what? Certainly not someone who deserved an Oscar in the same year that the film received four.

What’s doubly strange is that it’s generally writers who participate in this removal process. Film critics fell for the auteur theory hook line and sinker and for years you never heard word one about the screenplay in a review (especially if it involved a name director who gave the author a jolly). When I was a film critic, I was as guilty of this as anyone else, and it’s only when I started writing scripts myself that I bothered to learn who wrote some of my favourite films.

Another writer, Joe Queenan, recently berated sitcom writers, stating that the sitcom hadn’t moved on since “I Love Lucy” (which I guess is true if you just completely ignore about thirty shows since, from ‘Bilko’ through to ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Curb’). Of course, there are a lot of hacks out there, lazy writers who have a one-size-fits-all approach to writing sitcoms, but the least of them is still creating Something Where Before There Was Nothing, which is a Brazilian times more valuable than one of Joe Queenan’s never-quite-interesting- enough-to-make-you-think think-pieces.

That Queenan could have such contempt for creative writers speaks volumes as to his understanding of the process. That is to say, he has no understanding of the process, because if he did, he’d be a lot more humble. But again, it’s almost not his fault, because good writers are disguising their efforts so expertly that even the idea that there was a process disappears.

Draining the well was a valuable lesson for everyone involved, not least the writers themselves. Sure enough, Hollywood went 404 in no time at all, and at last the writers proved that they were actually an important part of the picture. Look what happens when the people who turn nothing into something aren’t working. Nothing happens. But nothing happens in a big, big way.


  1. great piece graham..

  2. Nice piece Graham but surely you don’t really mean “Brazilian times more valuable”?? Unless you’ve started a numbering system based on countries…..”I’ll have a Brazilian packets of crisps, a Belgian of cola and, oh, give me a Latvian of peanuts while I’m here”. ;)

  3. This is so true. Our culture is crazy – rewarding hockey players more than physicists, actors more than prime ministers, etc. Think about David Letterman, for example – somehow, he’s become a famous talk show host, the repulsive, slow-witted, offensive old blowhard. I was stunned to learn he’s NOT EVEN WRITING HIS OWN MATERIAL. sorry – didn’t mean to start shouting, there

    And try getting credit if you’re a dead SF writer. I recently watched the movie Idiocracy and I don’t recall seeing C.M. Kornbluth’s name anywhere in the Idiocracy credits, yet the film is clearly inspired by his story ‘the Marching Morons'(a far better treatmetn of the topic). I also seem to recall that The Terminator also rips off a dead SF writer (might have been Dick) for the opening and general concept.

  4. Ernest Lehmann, Ben Hecht And Garson Kanin all appear in Thomsons Book

  5. Good post Graham.

    I expect you know this but there’s that fanous story of Robert Riskin, fed up with his lack of credit, sending a 90 page screenplay to Capra, that was bound and covered, but inside was nothing but blank pages. On the back cover was a note saying, “Put the Capra Touch on this.”

  6. Reminded me of a funny brazilian joke:

    Donald Rumsfeld is giving the president his daily briefing. He concludes by saying: “Yesterday, 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed.”

    “OH NO!” the President exclaims. “That’s terrible!”

    His staff sits stunned at this display of emotion, nervously watching as the President sits, head in hands.

    Finally, the President looks up and asks, “How many is a brazillion?”

  7. As the cliche goes, you can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script.

  8. That’s where I got the Brazilian thing, that joke. I thought it was more commonly known than it is.

  9. One of 2 times I can remember in recent times when the writer of a major Hollywood film was wheeled out in front of the press as something to behold was when, I can barely bring myself to type it, Matt Damon and Jaw-Features Affleck were used to market and receive oscars for Good Will Hunting. The irony being, as William Goldman points out in ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’, they didn’t write it. Goldman did. (Can’t recommend Goldman’s books highly enough)

    The second time is happening as we speak. By all accounts the script for Juno is a cracker, but I can’t help but think that the back story, fantastic stage name and pretty face of its once-upon-a-stripper author went some way to encouraging the studio execs to let the writer out of her cave and front the media campaign.

    It seems that unless the writer is a writer-director, a former stripper or a hexagon faced holywood skin bag pretending to be a writer then he or she is destined to be unsung hero.

    (Having said that Mr Arts Lives, I think a lot of people know and acknowledge your name as the talent behind a whole farmload of top shows…Perhaps you’ve broken through the glass screen play ceiling?)

  10. The first time I remember seeing a ‘From the Writer of…’ credit on a film poster may have been The Faculty it was certainly a Kevin Williamson penned film, ‘From the Writer of Scream’. I remember thinking how unusual it was that marketing would presume that folk cared who wrote a film. Though nowadays you see ‘By the Producer of’ or my favourite ‘In the Tradition of’.

    The writer’s previous career may be a nice publicity hook, but the screenplay for Juno is terrific. It’s one of the sharpest films I’ve seen in a long time.

  11. Joe Queenan always strikes me as being something of a arsehole

  12. Also, William Goldman actually said the opposite in his book, sbrugby, maybe you should read it again…page 333.

    I believe the ‘confession’ was laced with sarasm, as he follows it up with the line ‘it was also my idea for Jim Cameron to crash the boat into that iceberg’.

  13. Absolutely fantastic article Graham. So good that it has inspired me to step out of my perpetual position of lurking in the shadows and actually comment. Your blog is a wonderful read and I don’t think anybody’s ever shouted “fockin’ hell” in a gazebo quite as well as you did, and lord knows people have tried.

  14. Hear, hear. And thanks for outing Queenan as dreary.

    The moment I took against him was in this 2002 review of David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’:

    Betty and Lady X now engage in one of the most intense love-making scenes ever seen in a mainstream film.

    As soon as the scene was over, some of the male patrons at the theatre I attended got up and left. They didn’t ask for their money back. Neither did I.

    Which is offensive on many levels. (There may be unique circumstances where forcing that image into my mind is warranted, but this review was not one of them… the lipstick lesbianism is the laziest aspect of that film, if you ask me, and Lynch shouldn’t be encouraged…)

    Mainly, it isn’t sufficiently offensive to make me angry or affronted. It’s merely wearisome.

    I think he puts on a special Hunter S Thompson hat and swings a golf club around to get in the mood (to write).

  15. I read it differently oftroad, I must revisit it. I thought his sarcasm was for legal reasons in that if he came right out and said it he could get sued. I’ll whip it off the shelf tomorrow and have another run through. Either way, it was still a film where the writers (admittedly also the stars) were put centre stage to talk about their writing methods etc to market the film.

  16. […] The disappearing writer « Why, That’s Delightful! ‘Looks like the writers are coming back to work. Amazing that the executives thought they could just do without them.’ (tags: writing film) daily links | 12 February 2008 at 9:23 am | RSS « Hay fever and climate change […]

  17. I noticed that during the recent BAFTA awards ceremony in the slew of awards announced for them, nobody saw fit to thank either Ian McEwan (for Atonement) or Cormac McCarthy (for No Country for Old Men).

    Obviously Joe Wright and the Coen Brothers must have plucked their stories out of thin air. How clever of them.

  18. Oftroad is right. Sadly Damon and Affleck did do the needful on Good Will. I hadn’t realised there had been persistent rumours about his ghost writing of it and it was these he was addressing in Which Lie Did I Tell. Apologies. He has some interesting things to say about why these writers-turned-actors didn’t return to writing…

    “I would love to say that I wrote it. Here is the truth. In my obit it will say that I wrote it. People don’t want to think those two cute guys wrote it….. And they did. I think people refuse to admit it because their careers have been so far from writing, and I think it’s too bad. I’ll tell you who wrote a marvelous script once, Sylvester Stallone. Rocky’s a marvelous script. God, read it, it’s wonderful. It’s just got marvelous stuff. And then he stopped suddenly because it’s easier being a movie star and making all that money than going in your pit and writing a script.

  19. Okay. April 1995. Oscars. Gump. The Screenwriter. Three Producers. The director. The star. They all win. They all make speeches. NOBODY even mutters the name Winston Groom. I was hopping mad at the time and thought I was the only one who noticed. Then I came across an article mentioning the fact by, well, guess who. Yep, the patron saint of screenwriters again, Bill Goldman.

  20. Ben Hecht also directed films. But he’s known for his writing, not his directing. Kanin is maybe a 50-50 split.
    David Thomson is incredibly lazy these days, but he used to be OK. I do think that the moment he decided to include movie stars as well as directors in his book, he should have made short lists of writers, cinematographers, composers, production designers… If he called it a dictionary of directors, nobody would mind. But it’s supposedly a Dictionary of FILM.

  21. I agree with you but I think the wholesale adoption of the auteur theory affects everyone who is not the director pretty much equally. Who, apart from hardcore cineastes, can name even one writer, cinematographer, editor or visual effects supervisor? People apparently like to feel that a single mind is responsible for a piece of art, it’s easier to understand in those terms, whereas in film it is very much a team effort from the writer to the editor.

  22. While we’re give Joe Queenan a kicking, could we also give Jim Shelley a sharp job in the eye. You know him; he’s the “funny” TV critic whose entire schtick is phonetically spelling out the regional pronunciation in soap dialogue.

  23. I really enjoyed this piece. Too often writers are neglected, more so now with the “film by” credit (taken and displayed prominently by most directors even though they would not have a film to follow that credit if someone hadn’t put it on the pages in front of them). And I did the exact same thing as you, Graham: I didn’t pay attention to the names of the glorious people who conjured up my favorite films until I began to write screenplays. It’s high time the people who really entertain us get some recognition.

  24. Great piece.

    I work the games industry, but similar issues about auteur theory are true there. Despite games coming together as a result of design, writing, programming, art, animation, sound engineer, voice acting, PR, tech support, HR etc. etc. many games end up with figure heads – a public face to put credit to.

    It’s slightly annoying for those in the trenches to be disregarded, but at the same time, being thrust around endless PR meetings and interviews, having to be a “surprisingly nice guy!” in front of a slew of (sometimes quite inept, but occasionally smart) games journos, is, as it turns out, pretty close to a full time job.

    As a result, I don’t envy the people who get the most of the credit. In a way, I’m sorry that they spend so much time being a figurehead that they can’t focus on the fun (and anguish) of the creative process as much. But they’re playing a role, and doing their part in the grand scheme of things, so it’s ultimately all okay by me… just a shame that more people don’t read between the lines.

    I think the guy who pulls off the role best is probably Warren Spector. It’s clear from interviews that he’s very savvy (not the sort of auteur who would irritate an employee with demanding, half baked ideas), but apparently really hates being considered a figure-head – treated as though he made his games all by himself as a result of some unrestrained fanboy-ism. He’s a genuinely nice chap and often publicly recognizes all the work his team does with him.

  25. “In a way, I’m sorry that they spend so much time being a figurehead that they can’t focus on the fun (and anguish) of the creative process as much.”

    Then again, I can’t feel too sorry if they’re commiserating themselves in a giant vat of money.

  26. I found it interesting that my (college age) film course students share the same neglect of writers. They’re reading about films as well as watching some, but they expressed surprise at the fact that they knew no screenwriters names, but could name stars and some directors. They noticed that the films themselves often betray a dismissive attitude toward writers in general (which is the topic of the course — er, writers, not their dismissal).

    On the other hand, one student asked why they illustrated points in our text with stills from movies “nobody’s ever heard of” — like Stagecoach. I suppose being alive only since 1990 has its limitations in terms of experience, but many of these students describe themselves as film buffs. Still figuring out what that means to them.

  27. Not to defend Joe Queenan but he did write and direct a film in 1995 (Twelve Steps to Death) which he recounts in his book The Unkindest Cut. From that experience I’d say he does have ‘some understanding of the creative process,’ although judging from the quality of that film, not a great understanding…

  28. I bet he felt more at home writing the book about how he sucked at it. In fact, I bet he wrote the film just so he could write a book about sucking at it. Win/win!

  29. Dear Graham

    I attended a WGGB panel event tonight called ‘The Revival of the Audience Sitcom’. The panel consisted of: Lucy Lumsden; Beryl Vertue; Charlie Hanson; James Hendrie and Ian Brown.

    Following on from a brief discussion about why it wasn’t safe to offer new comedy to ITV, they then all agreed, surprisingly, that neither was C4 a good option. Charlie Hanson said that Channel 4 just “doesn’t understand comedy anymore” and, as such, it would be very risky to offer them a new sitcom. This was met by a panel of nodding heads.

    Firstly, considering your extreme relevance to the genre, were you even asked to participate?

    Secondly, how do you feel about their thoughts on C4 comedy?

    Charlie is a veteran comedy producer, Beryl is a legend, Lucy Lumsden is the BBC Comedy Controller, and James and Ian are two of the UK’s more successful comedy writers. Quite an impressive panel CV, and all in agreement about C4’s poor form, yet I can’t help wonder if their public opinions were influenced by the presence of a BBC cheque book called Lucy. It staggers me to think there might be some truth to their words, as not only am I a huge fan of your writing and work, but C4 quite clearly is too, and that’s hardly the actions of a channel that is apparently losing it’s comedic way.

    Apologies for the slight deviation from this thread, but I was keen to hear your thoughts, especially since I am in the process of signing over rights to my own sitcom and have been suddenly filled with dread…

    Kindest rear guards,


  30. Hey,

    I’ve just recently started writing a sit-comesque script – but once I’m happy enough with it to show to others, how the hell do you go about getting it made? Do you just go to tv / production companies or do you need an agent before you even think of that?

  31. Jared, C4 have always been very supportive of ‘The IT Crowd’, so I have no complaints. Julio, you just send it in–it’s as simple as that. Get a show you like, find out who produced it, send that person the script along with a flattering (or at least knowledgeable) and amusing letter. The producer, so surprised to be written to at all, will definitely give it a read, and you’ll have your ‘in’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: