For years, critics have defined films in terms of their directors, but every so often someone comes out with a book or an article in defense of screenwriters. And a recent book argues for a brand new auteur theory putting screenwriters in the spotlight. Considered one of the world's greatest screenwriters, Jean-Claude Carrière's name appears on one current film, Goya's Ghosts (13 screens). It's one of over 100 produced screenplays he has written, and what's more, he has never had to turn director to protect the integrity of his work (he has one directorial credit, shared, for a 1986 film L'Unique that didn't exactly make or break his career). This is a guy who will never have to worry about his name in the history books. But let's take a closer look.
For one thing, Goya's Ghosts is messy and uneven. Then there's the fact that most of Carrière's films never find United States distribution. On top of that, the vast majority of his work is adaptations of novels. Finally, I think it's safe to say that his reputation rests on the fact that he generally works with acclaimed directors. To go one more, it's probably fair to say that the majority of his entire reputation rests on the six films he wrote with Luis Buñuel from 1967 to 1977. This is not to say that Carrière is a bad writer: on the contrary. Some of his films since Buñuel have been very good, notably Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Jonathan Glazer's misunderstood Birth (2004). I'm using this case to point out the trickiness of ranking and cataloging screenwriters and their films. Certainly they deserve much more credit and respect than they get. But where do we start?
Of the many drawbacks to being a screenwriter, it's virtually impossible to establish a creative voice throughout a career. For example, Ben Hecht is often considered one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters. A good number of his 140-odd scripts were written without credit, on top of someone else's work. One of his major contributions is the play The Front Page, which was adapted into three movies, including Howard Hawks' immortal His Girl Friday (1940), and although he wrote the source material, he did not write the screenplay. Other times he contributed a story, or shared credit with other writers. Perhaps his only solo credit is Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), but even then, there was a source story and perhaps a couple of other uncredited writers.
Screenwriters are notoriously the lowest paid of anyone in the cast and crew, with the possible exception of extras (or "background artists"), and they're the only crew member generally not allowed on the set. If you're a screenwriter, you have only a tiny fraction of a chance to actually sell a script. Only a tiny fraction of scripts sold actually get made, and most of those are re-written by other writers. Those other, uncredited writers can make a decent living re-writing other scripts, but without screen credits your star can tumble very quickly. The only hope that keeps anyone going is getting a good paycheck and getting your name on a good movie, like one of those lucky ten that wind up with Oscar nominations each year. (Incidentally, one can even be a terrible, terrible writer, like Akiva Goldsman or John Logan, and still wind up on the "A" list.)
Paul Haggis, whose current movie is In the Valley of Elah (317 screens), is one of the few screenwriters whose name has risen to the elusive screenwriter "A" list. But this is mainly because he has taken the same route as many other writers before him. Like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Samuel Fuller and even Ben Hecht, he turned director. And by making a "message" movie with Crash, he won an Oscar. But his list of produced scripts can be easily deconstructed. After his television years, and beginning in 2004, he has seven produced screenplays, and four of them are good. The American master Clint Eastwood directed three (Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima); and his old school style of low-key filmmaking easily tones down Haggis' preaching. And Haggis' new adaptation of Casino Royale -- co-written with two others -- adds an adult layer to an otherwise juvenile series. But when weaker directors, including Haggis himself, tackle his material, the soapbox issues come out too strongly.
Considering all this, it's a happy accident -- or perhaps even an absolute miracle -- when a good movie gets made at all. Very often even if a good movie gets made, the screenwriter may not approve (I've heard that writer Lem Dobbs frowned upon Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, as did Paul Schrader of Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead). Scott Frank turned director earlier this year with The Lookout because he was dead tired of watching other people make films (this from the guy who wrote Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Minority Report). Currently, one of the stronger screenplays on the chart is Richard Shepard's badly reviewed, but energetic and entertaining The Hunting Party (329 screens). He is the sole credited writer, and also the director. In a perfect world, screenplays would be considered, like plays, as gospel: only the original writer is allowed to change even one word. Until that happens, writers can either turn director, or perhaps write a novel and hope that Jean-Claude Carrière gets hold of it.