Every once in a while, a film critic comes out of the woodwork and tries to pose the idea that the auteur theory is bunk and that film authorship should be based on the work of the writer, and not the director. Currently, auteur critics consider the director the author of a picture (and it has to be a picture with personality, otherwise, the director isn't really an author, but rather a technician).
Recently the San Francisco International Film Festival started paying tribute to writers. Last year the recipient was Paul Haggis, about whom I think we've heard quite enough. He's worked on just about every movie that came out in the last couple of years: Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Casino Royale, The Last Kiss, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. I guess I don't need to point out that the only good movies on that list were directed by Clint Eastwood, and that the other good one, Casino Royale, depended on a good deal more than just its script. And if you take away the directors of those films, there's not much connecting them thematically or otherwise.
This year, the recipient will be Peter Morgan, who currently has two movies in the less than 400 screen zone: The Last King of Scotland (43 screens) and The Queen (87 screens). Now, interestingly enough, these two films actually have a lot in common. Both are based on real people, and each nabbed an Oscar in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories. Not to mention that the words "king" and "queen" go hand in hand. Also, the movies don't entirely focus on the famous real people that drew all the attention; other, supposedly "secondary" characters get all the focus.
In The Last King of Scotland, we see Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) through the eyes of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who becomes his personal physician. And in The Queen, the main focus is actually on Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), and not Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren). We come to understand and appreciate her through his eyes. This is actually a fascinating and effective approach, since it avoids the usual biopic formula that so many movies have lately fallen into (Walk the Line, Ray, Kinsey, De-Lovely, The Notorious Bettie Page, etc.). But also, by creating an outside gaze, Morgan has allowed his historical figures to retain their sense of majesty and mystery. We still get to meet them without going through that whole biopic tactic of exposing the warts and making the character "human."
In fact, Morgan's work reminds me of two other screenwriters, the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who for a number of years were the "quirky biopic guys." They wrote Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999), all unusual subjects and interesting movies. They're also credited as producers, but not writers on Auto Focus (2002), which would fit perfectly with that theme. (It's possible they wrote a draft at some point, but found their names removed due to complicated and obscure Writers' Guild rules.)
But here's the problem. Alexander and Karaszewski's biopic phase didn't last long; before it they wrote a series of awful kids' films, including That Darn Cat (1997) and three Problem Child movies. Afterward they wrote Agent Cody Banks (2003). Now they have two Stephen King adaptations in the pipeline. If someone can find the connection between all these things, I'd be very interested to hear it.
Going back to Morgan's two films, we have one that doesn't really work (The Last King of Scotland) and one that works well (The Queen). I can chalk it up to two reasons: the two directors. Stephen Frears is a gifted, intelligent director who works well with character pieces (as long as there isn't too much action; see The Hi-Lo Country) and has a good sense for place and physical detail. Kevin Macdonald, on the other hand, is a documentary filmmaker (a pretty good one at that) who made his feature fiction debut with King and clearly didn't know how to balance all the angles. He threw together a biopic, a thriller and a (flawed) historical epic without any idea how to make them fit.Sorry writers, but it all comes down to the director. Actually, I think any Hollywood writer would agree with me. The lucky ones hit a hot patch when they can get their work produced, but unless they turn director, they get sucked into a cruel and vicious system that ranks writers lower than craft services. Personality or touches of genius usually get smoothed over by subsequent writers. Only a crafty director (Tim Burton, Spike Jonze, etc.) can insist on filming a screenplay as written. But 99 times out of 100, the refrain is, "It's great! We love it! We just want to suggest one or two little changes..."