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2.1. issues of authorship

“. . . it is language which speaks, not the author . . .” — Roland Barthes 1

I remember the moment I was first told about the existence of the auteur theory. I listened and listened as the explanation went on, and all I could think was this: ‘What’s the punch line?'” — William Goldman2

2.1.1. Overview.

It is common for students of literature to take a course in Shakespeare or Hemingway. Likewise, film students are familiar with courses that focus on the works of a single director, such as Hitchcock or Kubrick. Such curricular offerings seem to suggest that, despite postmodern challenges to its legitimacy, authorship is still a treasured concept in academia. Consider this: a lost Hemingway manuscript rediscovered, even if decidedly lacking in artistic merit, would surely draw more attention and study than a better novel from a new, unknown author. Conversely, we might wonder how long The Sun Also Rises would remain in the literary canon should we discover it to be the collaborative work of nine different authors, none of them Hemingway. Academics sometimes admire authors more than art, and indeed, often confuse the two.

“It is generally acknowledged that established literary genres have a single, known author,” writes Claudia Sternberg. “This is not the case with the screenplay, however. As a result, the screenplay as ‘text’ and particularly as ‘artistic text’ has not been given due consideration.”3

A second authorship problem in acknowledging the screenplay as literature is this: such acknowledgment threatens the privileged position of the director as author of the film. If the script is a work of art in its own right, the vaulted position of the director would seem to be diminished. Together, these two positions — that art must have a singular, attributable author, and that authorship in film studies has already been assigned to the director — have posed a serious roadblock for those who wish to advance the discipline of screenplay studies. Here we will seek to poke holes in these positions and frame the problem of authorship as an opportunity for future research into the screenplay text.

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2.1.2. Who Wrote This Screenplay? [Back to Page Topics]

In 2010, when the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Adapted Screenplay went to Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air,

They both came to the stage but, in what could only be described as an awkward moment for Turner — who trailed Reitman by about five seconds in coming to the podium — only Reitman spoke, thanking several people but failing to acknowledge the credited writer standing next to him. Turner looked like he wanted to speak, but Reitman finished and began walking off the stage, the exit music began playing and Turner again trailed behind Reitman, not having said anything.”4

What, one might ask, would prompt Reitman to treat his co-writer so poorly? The answer boils down to one word: credit. Reitman and Turner were not collaborators, but subsequent writers. Turner wrote an earlier draft of the script, which Reitman later rewrote, but “when it came time to allot credit, Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit.”5

This story illustrates the trouble with assigning authorship to a screenplay. Often (perhaps even in most cases) multiple writers will work on a single script. The writers themselves do not determine whether they will receive credit for their work. That decision lies with the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA). If there is no source material (novel, play, article, etc.) and the same writers receive credit for both the story and screenplay, the credit is “written by.” The “story by” credit is used when the basic narrative structure was originally written with intent to be used for a movie (as opposed to some other literary medium) and the actual screenplay had different authors. A shared “story by” credit is the minimum credit awarded to the author of an original screenplay. If there was previously existing source material but the writer creates a substantially new and different story from the source, then the “screen story by” credit is used. The “screenplay by” credit is used to denote authorship if the story credit has been separated as noted above. Collaborators are credited with ampersand (&) between their names, while successive writers are credited with “and.”6

There is a limit to the number of writers who may receive credit. An original writer must contribute at least one-third to receive credit, while an assigned writer, director, or production executive must rewrite one-half of the script to receive credit. When disputes arise, they are handled by the WGA in arbitration. This system is far from perfect but an improvement over the studio era practices. As Marc Norman is quick to point out:

During the 1930s the granting of those credits was corrupt and arbitrary, utterly up to the studio. At times they correctly went to those who’d written the picture, sometimes to writers who hadn’t worked on it at all (W.R. Burnett got several of those), sometimes to the producer who fancied himself a creative sort, sometimes, as an inducement, to a writer the studio was hoping to hire, and at various times to someone’s wife or brother.”7

The current system still leaves many writers unsatisfied. In 2007, George Clooney famously resigned his full membership in the WGA when they refused to credit his work in rewriting Leatherheads.8 Aaron Sorkin has even questioned the necessity of a screenwriter’s union in the present environment, arguing that “a union makes sense when people have more power as a group than they do as individuals. I have considerably more power as an individual than I do as a member of that group.”9 Sorkin also blames the Guild’s credit system for weakening the screenwriter’s claim to authorship, “Which ultimately gives the impression that the director was the author of the movie, because [movie audiences] see one name at the end.”

The Guild’s rules also make it difficult for scholars to determine who wrote what. For example, the 8/28/88 shooting script of Harry, This is Sally (later renamed When Harry Met Sally) credits screenwriter Nora Ephron, director Rob Reiner, and producer Andrew Scheinman as the authors, but only Nora Ephron receives screen credit for her efforts since WGA rules require a director or producer to write one-half of the script to receive mention in the credits. In an opposite situation, Charlie Kaufman shares screen credit for Adaptation with Donald Kaufman, even though Donald Kaufman does not actually exist.

The sense that the screenplay is art by committee lessens its value in the eyes of some, but this view seems absurd when the screenplay is compared to the feature film, a far more collaborative art form.

2.1.3. Auteur Theory. [Back to Page Topics]

In short form, auteur theory states that the director is the author of a film. In critique of this suggestion, William Goldman offers an example from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws:

Peter Benchley reads an article in a newspaper about a fisherman who captures a forty-five-hundred-pound shark off the coast of Long Island and he thinks, ‘What if the shark became territorial, what if it wouldn’t go away?’ And eventually he writes a novel on that notion and Zanuck-Brown buy the movie rights, and Benchley and Carl Gottlieb write a screenplay, and Bill Butler is hired to shoot the movie, and Joseph Alves, Jr., designs it, and Verna Fields is brought in to edit, and, maybe most importantly of all, Bob Mattey is brought out of retirement to make the monster. And John Williams composes perhaps his most memorable score. How in the world is Steven Spielberg the ‘author’ of that?”10

Motion pictures result from the collaborative contributions of dozens, often hundreds of artists, artisans, and technicians, and the director’s role in the process varies from picture to picture. Some directors are writer/directors. Some, like Steven Soderbergh are cinematographer/directors, choosing to operate the camera themselves. Some powerful directors wield a strong hand in every aspect of production, micro-managing nearly every detail of production, while others prefer to delegate responsibility (or are forced to due to their limited experience and stature in Hollywood). Some directors are very hands-on with their actors, while others prefer to stand back and make adjustments only when they are unhappy with the performance. While some directors edit their own films, most work with editors who do the heavy lifting of constructing the film in post. To truly author a feature film, a director would have to be a veritable dictator with skills in lighting, construction, interior design, camera work, music composition, etc. Most directors fall short of this description.

None of this is to deny the importance of good directing. A great director guides the vision of a feature film by incorporating the contributions of numerous individual minds into a cohesive design. They deserve much of the credit for a great motion picture (and much of the blame for a bad one), but their status as author is no more clear than for the writer on any given screenplay. Why, then, have they been handed this status, and in turn, why has this status resulted in the reduction of the screenwriter’s contribution to authorship?

To explore this we need to backtrack a bit and trace the origins of auteur theory. First proposed by Francios Truffaut in his 1954 essay for Cahiers du cinéma, “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema,” la politique des auteurs should be understood in its proper context.11 In Cahiers, Traffaut writes in defense of the director as part of a larger debate with the predominant French critics of the time, for whom the director was merely metteur en scene (stage manager). For these critics, the film was all but complete when the screenplay was written. All that was left for the director was to supervise the production, to “shoot as written.”12 Truffaut is reacting against a point-of-view that robs the director of all authorial expression. “In the approach Truffaut criticises,” writes Steven Maras, “‘execution’ (the work of directing, shooting, editing) is reduced to a mere ‘illustration’ of the script.”13

In its origin, then, la politique des auteurs was not intended as a critique of the importance of screenwriters in the conception of the motion pictures but a defense of film language as a kind of writing, a writing in images, bodies, and light. The director, as auteur, creates meaning through a grammar that is distinct from the meaning created by the screenwriter, and this cinematic expression establishes him as an artist in his own right. This position does not seem all that threatening to screenwriters, but this is also not the auteur theory as it has come to be known in America. For that formulation, we have mostly American critic Andrew Sarris to thank.

Writing in 1962, Sarris endorses Ian Cameron’s view that, “the director is the author of a film, the person who gives it any distinctive quality.”14 He then outlines the three premises of auteur theory as follows: (1) “the technical competence of the director as a criterion of value,” (2) “the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value,” and (3) the director as the source of “interior meaning.”15 Sarris further states that these premises “may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.”16 Not all directors, then, are auteurs, but all auteurs are solely responsible for the “distinctive quality” of their films.

Between Truffaut and Sarris, we have experienced a theoretical leap, from director as legitimate artist to director as sole author. Indeed, fellow critic John Hess calls Sarris to task for this:

It is common knowledge today that [Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Francois Truffaut’s] main insight and assertion was that great film directors were great artists or auteurs (a word which, for them, was synonymous with artist) in the same way that great novelists, poets, painters, and composers were artists. While it is true that they thought this, the narrow minded acceptance of this idea as the most important and unqualified tenet of French auteur criticism (see Andrew Sarris, THE AMERICAN CINEMA, New York, 1968) has led to incredible distortions and abject silliness on the part of many contemporary U.S. critics.”17

Even Sarris admits that “Truffaut has recently gone to great pains to emphasize that the auteur theory was merely a polemical weapon for a given time and a given place,”18 but he doesn’t seem to care. He’s found a critical methodology that fits for him, and he’s sticking with it. The question for us, however, is given the obvious critical limits of auteur theory, why does it continue to hold such prominence and reduce the screenplay to, in Claudia Sternberg’s words, “nothing more than malleable raw material that is to be handed over to the director, who gives it a concrete form”?19

Three factors may contribute to this problem:

  1. The screenplay form itself. The script isn’t reader-ready. It’s intended for an audience of insiders, not outsiders.
  2. The screenplay points beyond itself to another form: the feature film.
  3. The screenwriter is the author of a script that needs a director to fully realize its potential.

These three factors will be explored in the Privilege of Permanence section of this site. For now, let us turn to a constructive path forward in considering the authorship issues of the motion picture screenplay.

2.1.4. A Path Forward. [Back to Page Topics]

Scholars in other disciplines must look on with some amusement at the debates within film studies about the problem of determining authorship. Literary criticism grew up in a sense when it moved beyond this question with Roland Barthes’ seminal essay, “The Death of the Author.”

To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic.”20

In other words, Barthes argues that authorial intention, while irrelevant to the purpose of literature, justifies the existence of criticism. This perhaps explains why film studies has yet to kill one of its pet theories — auteurism — in favor of developing of comprehensive theory of audience perception. As Barthes observes, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”21

If this demonstrates a weakness in film theory, it also outlines an opportunity for the emergent discipline of screenplay theory, one that Nathaniel Kohn has pin-pointed in his essay, “Disappearing Authors: A Postmodern Perspective on the Practice of Writing for the Screen.”22 For Kohn, “screenplays are other (and more) than [unfinished works]; they are unique and uniquely (post)modern works, in part because authorship is neither privileged nor commonly shared and is often uncredited.” Because of their collaborative and often uncredited development, screenplays have become “models for a new way of writing that somehow just happens, always mutating works that are created in myriad ways that are beyond prediction.” Each screenwriter works with the understanding that almost anyone — the director, the cast, other writers, a studio head’s niece — may come along and alter what has been written. In this way they willingly disappear into their texts, abdicating the throne of authorship along with their copyright (which is owned by the studio).

Through their disappearances, Hollywood screenwriters are making texts in ways that no longer afford useful strategies of resistance. Rather, they are participating in processes that somehow move beyond strategy and resistance, participating in ways of working that exemplify new ways of writing that make meaning through polyphony, juxtaposition, and dialogic interaction.”23

One might even argue that the screenplay is the original antecedent of the wiki, an inherently collaborative, anonymous system of text construction. The site of meaning shifts from the author to the reader. As Kohn cites Pier Paulo Pasolini observing, reading a screenplay requires “a particular collaboration: namely, that of lending to the text a `visual’ completeness which it does not have, but at which it hints. The reader is an accomplice immediately.”24 Pasolini’s thinking echoes Barthes’, that “a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.”25

However far one runs with Kohn’s thesis, it at least suggests some interesting questions for screenplay studies. Clear authorship needn’t be a criterion of value. Indeed, a script with murky authorial lineage may instill a greater sense of freedom in the critic. Likewise, the artistic standing of the director needn’t come at the expense of the writer. Ultimately, it is not authors we intend to study but works of art. The interactivity of writing and reading that defines the screenplay marks it as a uniquely post-modern art form worthy of its own field of study.

2.1.5. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • WGA
  • Story By
  • Screen Story By
  • Screenplay By
  • Written By
  • “and” Credits
  • “&” Credits
  • Auteur Theory
  • Death of the Author

Questions:

  • How has the difficulty of establishing authorship for the screenplay often contributed to its marginalization?
  • Why is it sometimes difficult to identify the author of a particular screenplay text?
  • How has auteur theory reduced the importance of the writer in film studies, and was that the original purpose of the theory?
  • Why is authorship itself a problematic concept?
  • Why does the disappearance of the screenwriter present an opportunity for screenplay studies?

2.1.6. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes06.htm
  2. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 100.
  3. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 7.
  4. Zeitchik, Steven. “Screenwriting Credits, Floating Up in the Air.” 24 Frames. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2010/01/james-cameron-jason-reitman-anthony-minghella-avatar.html
  5. Zeitchik, Steven. “Screenwriting Credits, Floating Up in the Air.” 24 Frames. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2010/01/james-cameron-jason-reitman-anthony-minghella-avatar.html
  6. http://www.wga.org/subpage_writersresources.aspx?id=171
  7. Norman, Marc. What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting. New York: Three Rivers, 2007. Pg. 141.
  8. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117983462
  9. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/blogs/risky-business/todd-phillips-aaron-sorkin-slam-43369
  10. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 101.
  11. Truffaut, Francios. “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema.” Reprinted in Auteurs and Authorship: a Film Reader. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008. Pgs. 9-17.
  12. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 106.
  13. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 106.
  14. Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. Pg. 515.
  15. Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. Pg. 516.
  16. Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. Pg. 517.
  17. Hess, John. “La politique des auteurs.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. No. 1, 1974, Pgs. 19-22. Reprinted online at http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC01folder/auturism1.html
  18. Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. Pg. 515.
  19. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pgs. 15-16.
  20. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes06.htm
  21. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes06.htm
  22. Kohn, Nathaniel. “Disappearing Authors: A Postmodern Perspective on the Practice of Writing for the Screen.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 43.3 (Summer 1999): Pg. 443.
  23. Kohn, Nathaniel. “Disappearing Authors: A Postmodern Perspective on the Practice of Writing for the Screen.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 43.3 (Summer 1999): Pg. 443.
  24. Kohn, Nathaniel. “Disappearing Authors: A Postmodern Perspective on the Practice of Writing for the Screen.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 43.3 (Summer 1999): Pg. 443.
  25. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes06.htm

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