Features and Columns

Talking Heads: Giving More Credit to Writers as the Authors of Film

By  · Published on April 8th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as SecretWindowNotSoSecret and iDuddits in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the question of who exactly made the movie gets front and center treatment. Why do we treat directors with authorial authority when it comes to assigning ownership to a film? Why not the writers? Why not the gaffers?

Who really is the true author of a movie and has the auteur theory ruined everything?

Landon: So we all know writers are underappreciated in Hollywood, and directors often get an obscene amount of credit for decisions made by writers. So my question for you is, have we misplaced the author? Can we go so far as to say that writers, not directors, are the real auteurs of Hollywood cinema?

Cole: I think that it takes a village.

Landon: A village of writers?

Cole: A village of PAs and gaffers with pitchforks.

I don’t even know what a director does.

Kidding, obviously, but not by much. The job of the director changes so much from production to production. It’s no doubt that he/she shapes the movie (as well as the editor), but they get the clay from the writer. Without the writer, there would be nothing to shape.

Unless you’re making mumblecore, and I don’t want to even imagine more people are doing that.

Landon: But aren’t there cases where a writer’s film somehow becomes “owned” by a director, either because they put a stamp on it or because it fits into their body of work? Would it feel inaccurate to say Laeta Kalogridis’s Shutter Island, even though that individual is responsible for everything on the page?

Cole: Definitely, because it takes a village. And I guess the director is the “chief” of that village. Plus, we do give more authorial credit to directors. I blame Cannes.

Why so concerned about writers?

Landon: That’s the interesting thing. The auteur theory has long been deemed inadequate and problematic, but its influence is still in play as a rhetorical device, even to say Dennis Dugan’s Grown Ups.

This could be a convenient shorthand, as it’s difficult to speculate and list all probable credit as “possessing” a certain film, but even as a shorthand it reduces our sense of who the film’s most important creative team is.

Cole: I completely agree. But there’s another problem, too. The process itself hides the writer from the audience. For example, Seth Lochhead gets a story and screenplay credit for Hanna alongside David Farr. We as an audience don’t really know how that divides up. Or who also took an uncredited look. Or a script doctor.

Not to imply that any of that happened with that script. But we just don’t know.

Landon: Good point. Credit really does determine how authorship is examined in film in a way that might not exist in any other art form. Even beyond ghost writers, who gets credit is often a political, legal, and/or business matter, so who gets credit may be someone who wrote an original (and now unrecognizable) first draft. We take for granted that many successful screenwriters make the majority of their living off ghostwriting and revisions (Stuart Beattie, for example)

Cole: And we may never know it.

Landon: Exactly. So to answer your earlier question that I totally avoided, the “visual” components of cinema seem to privilege certain individuals as being deemed authors, from the director to the editor to the cinematographer (what movie nerd can’t recognize a Roger Deakins shot, after all?). With the majority of film writers it seems a lot more difficult to locate their contribution, their “voice,” even though their work and words are everywhere.

Cole: That’s because their words are used as the ingredients in the recipe. Dialogue gets filtered through actors (and directors). Scene description gets turned into production design. Action and scene concepts get handed over to the DP. Finding the writer in the end product would be like naming which farmer provided the produce for a big home-cooked dinner.

The question is this: do writers need more recognition as authors of the film? If so, how do we make that shift?

Landon: I’d like to find ways of being able to infer the writer’s contribution from the finished product the same way we do the director. Not blanketly ascribing primary authorship, because that falls into the same trap as the auteur theory, but being able to talk about their contribution to the collaborative creative process like we would Deakins’s framing or Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing

The problem is, I have no idea how the fuck one would do that.

Good thing writer/directors like Woody Allen make this process easier. We know the exact person to blame for Whatever Works.

Cole: The convenience granted to us by Woody Allen. Well, that’s a good point too. We can name a few editors and cinematographers, but the bulk of those working don’t have a definitive style either.

Landon: It’s true. That’s why Charlie Kaufman is the only screenwriter people can name off the top of their head.

Cole: And Brian Helgeland. And Shane Black. And Truman Capote.

Landon: Good point, but on your last, is Black’s name better known because he was a director also? Like David Koepp?

Cole: Who’s David Koepp?

Just kidding.

I loved Spider-Man.

Landon: He’s why my iChat name is SecretWindowNotSoSecret.

Cole: I could spot Black’s writing before he made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I think others could too.


He’s why mine is iDuddits.

Now I say something about Snake Eyes.

Landon: Ok, ok, I was obviously exaggerating, but it’s true that directors are more easily recognized for the work. Can you name the screenwriters of Black Swan off the top of your head?

Cole: Wait for it.

Natalie Portman?

I honestly couldn’t. I am a massive, utter failure.

Now I make an actual Snake Eyes joke to take your mind off my failure though. You made your point incredibly well.

Landon: The answer was Natalie Portman’s body double. Apparently she did literally everything.

Cole: Makes sense, and Mark Heyman would be ashamed of us.

Landon: Whoever that guy is

Cole: The real question is: can you name the best boy on Black Swan?

Landon: Not sure. Did he impregnate Natalie Portman?

Cole: People say “there would be no movie without the writer,” and I appreciate the sentiment. I understand it and relate to it. It’s absolutely true. But without the lighting crew, there’d be no lights. Which, I hear, cameras need (unless your in a Bela Tarr movie). Without the boom mic, sound wouldn’t be recorded.

If we’re going to give writers more credit, shouldn’t we all be trying to recognize the true team-based nature of filmmaking and getting Natalie Portman pregnant?

Landon: My answer and yes, and I won’t say to which question.

Cole: Mysterious. I guess the point is, Tony Arnaud, Best Boy Grip on Black Swan, we salute you!

Landon: And Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin. But of course, the list hardly ends there And I guess that’s the point.

This discussion reminded me of that moment during the end credits of The Simpsons Movie where Homer says, “All these people worked hard on this movie, and all they ask for is that you memorize every single one of their names”

Cole: So we’ve finally discovered why IMDB exists.

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