Ask anyone to name their favourite directors and many people could reel off at least one or two names, probably including Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone or even Michael Bay. In the world of movie-making, the director is the key and quite rightly so. The director is responsible for the overall vision of the movie. The director puts together the movie, giving literal direction and taking full responsibility (most of the time) for the final product.
What is strange is that there is at least another key ingredient to the whole movie-making process which often gets overlooked. Ask anyone who their favourite screenwriter is and they may struggle to even name one, let alone have an actual favourite. This seems strange to me though.
The screenwriter is the person who produced the script which inspires the movie. It is the initial, original text of which the whole movie begins and is built upon. The director will help the film find it’s location but often the script is that location and the person responsible for it is often sorely overlooked.
A little experiment. Take five films that are considered which some of the greatest of all time with well-known directors; Schindler’s List, Citizen Kane, Alien, Fight Club and Goodfellas. Ask somebody in the street who directed these and you could assume that most would get at least two, maybe three as an average. Some would even get all five. The directors like Steven Spielberg, Orson Wells, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott are well known enough.
If I actually gave you the names of the screenwriters who wrote the scripts for these movies, I assume most would get it wrong or at least their correct answers would be guesses. Have a guess; Dan O’Bannon, Herman J Mankiewicz, Nicholas Pileggi, Steven Zaillian and Jim Uhls. (The answers are at the bottom of the post).
This goes further than just simple recognition of contribution by the general audience. When awards season begins, all people care about is who is going to win best director rather than best screenplay. People will know who won this year’s best movie Oscar but won’t know who got best screenplay. In fact, best screenplay goes to the movie rather than the writer and is recognised completely differently to how director’s are awarded.
What seems strange is that in television this works the opposite way. In TV, people care about who is writing the episodes. Many people will cite who the writer of their favourite episode was rather than the director. Steven Moffat takes credit for his Doctor Who scripts, Frank Darabont for episodes of The Walking Dead and Lena Dunham is credited with the success of Girls while many people seem to overlook the ten or so directors who have helmed the episodes. It goes one step further when a director of a TV series will make the move to movies, this is when their work is recognised, example Alan Taylor’s work on Game of Thrones being heralded but only when he directed Thor: The Dark World.
It is the fault of the marketing of these movies. You can tell a film is desperate for people to see it when the marketing says “from the writers of…” but ironically doesn’t tell us who that writer is. A director will have their name at the top of the movie but the writer may be well after the actors names have hit the screen.
I’m not saying that the writer should get more credit than anyone else, just that they should get more credit. We should have a movie-watching culture where people don’t just make their movie choices based on favourite director but also based on favourite writer, the same way you would a book or seemingly a TV show.
Overall, screenwriters don’t get the top-level recognition they deserve compared to directors. Directors become household names and take full credit for a movie’s success when a screenwriter has usually started that journey and provided the initial vision. Maybe it is time to start recognising the screenwriter and promote their work further rather than just making the director and actors the stars of the show.
Nicholas Pileggi = Goodfellas
Steven Zaillian = Schindler’s List
Dan O’Bannon = Alien
Herman J Mankiewicz = Citizen Kane
Jim Uhls = Fight Club