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Oscar? It's All in the Screenwriting

SUSAN STAMBERG, Host:

Welcome to you.

DAVID KIPEN: Thank you.

STAMBERG: Why do you think screenwriters are more important than directors?

KIPEN: They write the damn pictures. I mean, directors perform a necessary function, for heaven's sake. But it all starts on the page, and the directors frequently breeze in at a very late stage in the proceedings. But if not for the screenplay, the movie isn't made. And frankly, if you look at the screenwriters' movies as a whole, as opposed to the filmographies of the directors, they hang together much better. They make more thematic sense.

STAMBERG: So let's look at this year's nominees for Best Screenplay. Divide them into two categories; one is original, the other is adaptation from something else. So in the original screenplay category, the movies are: Good Night and Good Luck, Crash, The Squid and the Whale, Match Point. In the Best Adapted Screen...

KIPEN: You left out Syriana.

STAMBERG: Syriana, thank you very much. In the Best Adapted Screenplay category: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, The Constant Gardner, A History of Violence, Munich. Now, there are some great writers in there, but most of us can't tell who wrote what. So does that make your point?

KIPEN: Well, it helps to make my point. I mean, we think of Brokeback Mountain as an Ang Lee film. We think of Munich as a Steven Spielberg film.

STAMBERG: The directors.

KIPEN: Yes, of course. And yet Munich is written, or at least co-written by Tony Kushner, the playwright of Angels in America. Brokeback Mountain is adapted from the Annie Proulx novel by Larry McMurtry, who wrote Lonesome Dove. These are fully autonomous, creative, imaginative individuals whose works deserver to be recognized every bit as much, if not more, than that of the directors.

STAMBERG: So of those nominated screenplays, which do you think are the best written?

KIPEN: I would kind of like to see The Constant Gardner win.

STAMBERG: Well, let's just listen to a little bit of A Constant Gardner then.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CONSTANT GARDENER)

RACHEL WEISS: I'm safe home now, sweetheart.

RALPH FIENNES: No, you're drenched. Look, take those wet things off, Tess, and come to bed with me, please.

WEISS: I will, but there's something I have to do first. It's important.

FIENNES: Whatever it is that you and Arnold are doing, I'd like it to stop.

WEISS: Wow. Who've you been talking to?

FIENNES: No one. These are my concerns, all right? I'm thinking of your health.

WEISS: No. No you're not. They've asked you to rein me in and you're doing it.

KIPEN: This is Jeffrey Caine's script from John Le Carre's novel. Caine's only previous script of note, I think, was the first James Bond movie...

STAMBERG: Yeah, Golden Eye, right.

KIPEN: ...to kind of revive the franchise. Yeah, Golden Eye, which was, of its kind, a very sturdy James Bond film.

STAMBERG: Uh-huh.

KIPEN: And it had something interesting things in common with The Constant Gardner, notwithstanding the fact that these are adapted from different underlying material. I mean I think it's a better paid and more sought after art in Hollywood nowadays than original screenplays, because it's easier to get a picture made if people know that it was a best-selling best Le Carre novel or an award-winning Annie Proulx story.

STAMBERG: Yeah. Well, let's take a look at a particular adaptation, you mentioned it already, Brokeback Mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN)

HEATH LEDGER: You got your wife and baby in Texas. And you know, I got my life in Riverton.

JAKE GYLLENHALL: Is that so? You and Alma, that's a life.

LEDGER: Now you shut up about Alma. This ain't her fault. The bottom-line is we're around each other, and this thing grabs hold of us again in the wrong place and the wrong time, and we're dead.

STAMBERG: I bet you, if you picked up that screenplay, it'd be 15 pages long, because there's almost no dialogue. There's some gorgeous shots of long mountains and some meaningful exchanges between eyes, but...

KIPEN: Well, you're assuming that every, that the screenplay only consists of the dialogue. In fact, the screenplay is 120 pages long, give or take, like most other screenplays, because part of the adapter's job is to make it visual, to make it live on the screen.

STAMBERG: The director doesn't do that? The cinematographer...

KIPEN: The director helps. The cinematographer helps. Nobody does any of this alone. And you'd be a fool to pretend that they do.

STAMBERG: There's the film, A History of Violence.

KIPEN: Mm-Hmm.

STAMBERG: How is it, it would get nominated in the Best Adapted screenplay category, but not for Best Picture or Best Director?

KIPEN: Well, that might be fun to talk about because the last scene is complete, have you seen it?

STAMBERG: No.

KIPEN: The last scene is completely wordless, completely devastating. Everybody assumes because it's wordless...

STAMBERG: Yeah.

KIPEN: ...that it was David Cronenberg's, the director's idea. And in fact...

STAMBERG: But in fact it was the writer.

KIPEN: But in fact it was in the script all along.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

KIPEN: People say how on earth could Driving Miss Daisy have won Best Picture when Bruce Beresford, the director, wasn't even nominated?

STAMBERG: What's the answer?

KIPEN: Well, in this case, because there are ten nominated screenplays, five adopted and five original, they can't all be nominated for Best Picture, but I think if the Schreiber Theory were to gain a little traction, you know, you might also start to see some better pictures made because screenwriters would have the power that directors have taken onto themselves for so long.

STAMBERG: I noticed you did a very nice little bit of product placement there, David Kipen, naming a recent book you wrote called The Schreiber Theory. Now who is Schreiber?

KIPEN: Schreiber isn't a person. Schreiber is the Yiddish word for writer. It's a parody of the Auteur Theory, which is the French word for author and that has come to describe director-centered film criticism.

STAMBERG: So you're saying that what's important now is to elevate the writer, but you also, in this book, do a kind of a quick history of the film...

KIPEN: Yes.

STAMBERG: ...medium.

KIPEN: For the first 50 years of the film industry, film was not a director's medium anymore than it was a writer's medium. It was thought to be a producer's medium. You had David O. Selznick and Hal Wallace and Irving Thalberg. Then when the auteurists came along in the 50s and started to seep into American film criticism in the 1960s, film was thought to be a director's medium, and weirdly enough, movies got better. Directors got more power at the expense of the producers and better movies got made. Most of them got made because the smart directors held out for the Best Screenplays. I think directors have had their 50 years and now it's time for a new ascendancy, and for my money that's the ascendancy of the Schreibers, of the screenwriters.

STAMBERG: Okay, last question. Your Best Original Screenplay winner.

KIPEN: Crash. The writer/director Paul Haggis came out of 30-Something, so this is sort of Paul Haggis' fingerprint, these multi-character pieces that cut back and forth between multiple stories. This is his stylistic stamp.

STAMBERG: And for Best Adaptation Screenplay?

KIPEN: For best adaptation screenplay I think Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough to beat. I mean, it's almost like what you hear about John Houston adapting to Maltese Falcon, where he took a copy of the novel, tossed it to his secretary at the end of the day Friday night and said, Change the margins on this and bring it in Monday morning, and that was the script he shot. It's that's respectful.

STAMBERG: Thank you so much. David Kipen is Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts. His book, The Schreiber Theory, is subtitled, A Radical Rewrite of American Film History. Thanks.

KIPEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.