USA Today, Written By Stephen Schaefer
March 15, 2000
Telling Their Stories Their Way
When Oscar put the spotlight on 1999's best Hollywood writing talent, the motion picture academy found itself saluting not just writers, but writers who direct. Of the 10 nominated screenplays, seven are directed by their writers.
By any measure, writer-directors have found a cheering section in the industry.
"For years, writers have said they've become directors to protect their material," says Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin, the Entertainment Tonight correspondent and Playboy magazine film critic. "That's what got Preston Sturges into directing - and Billy Wilder and many others - right to the present day."
Sturges (Sullivan's Travels, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek) and Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) reside in the pantheon of Hollywood hyphenates alongside Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve), Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock.
Says Maltin: "What I like best about the writer-director in today's movie-making arena is it says to me, 'This is a film by someone who has a story to tell and isn't just a cog in the Hollywood machine.' So many movies today seem manufactured or contrived. At least if you have a storyteller making the film, you hope there is some passion in wanting to tell that story and not just make a deal."
For a studio chief such as New Line Cinema's Michael De Luca, working with writer-directors is "one-stop shopping."
"If you have anything to say," he points out, "you're literally talking to the person who is the two most important aspects of the production. You mention just one thing to one person, and it's done. And if it's good, you're dealing with a vision, and they're on top of all the decisions."
And if they're not good? "It's the writer part who can't take off that hat," he says . "They won't cut scenes or deal with budget issues. If, as a writer-director, you can't deal with actors and like to sit in a room all day, you're in trouble."
New Line is known as a safe place in the industry for hyphenates, a studio that has given chances to people such as Paul Thomas Anderson, nominated for Magnolia. "We're seeing a return of the maverick filmmaker who has a vision and can convey that vision through writing and directing and even marketing and distribution," De Luca says. "Usually they have brilliant ideas."
Yet the genesis of a great movie begins when the words hit the page. As director Alexander Payne (nominated for writing Election with partner Jim Taylor) told Texas' Austin American-Statesman: "When I direct, all I'm doing is executing what Jim and I have written. Sure, I can get performances and fool around with the camera. But, really, it's all in the script."
Like Payne, several of the other nominated writer-directors started out writing. The directing part evolved as a reaction to the ugly realities of the Hollywood process.
"You've heard the horror stories of what the director did to their beautiful script, and I'm no different; I have plenty of stories," says Frank Darabont, nominated for writing The Green Mile, which also is up for best picture. "That's the most compelling reason to direct if you're a writer. It validates what I've been saying for years - that oftentimes nobody understands the script better than the writer does. When the director has a totally different idea, that can create problems."
Darabont has directed only one previous film, the Oscar-nominated The Shawshank Redemption, which, like Mile, he adapted from a Stephen King tale. He has written such movie scripts as A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Fly II, The Blob and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
He says the sometimes disappointing path of a screenwriter is exemplified by his experience with Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh. "Kenneth did a lot of rewriting," Darabont says. "It was a terrible movie - and one of the best scripts I wrote. It was equal to Shawshank or Green Mile. And that's the risk you run working just as a screenwriter."
M. (for Manoj) Night Shyamalan has horror stories, too, but says he doesn't see directing "as an agenda to protect my work. It seems more organic and natural."
Shyamalan (pronounced SHAH-ma-lan) dreamed up The Sixth Sense, a phenomenon that grossed more than $285 million. Among the film's six nominations: picture, director and original screenplay.
Yet he learned early how low a screenwriter can stand in the power structure. He sold his screenplay for Labor of Love ("a real tear-jerker") to 20th Century Fox several years ago with the understanding he would direct. But "they took me off (the project) as soon as they bought it. It was a shock to my system."
He directed his next screenplay, the little-seen Wide Awake with Rosie O'Donnell as a nun, but it was troubled. "They wanted to change the tone and things," he says. "After Wide Awake, I didn't want to direct; I was upset and tired and wanted to do something that was fun, something I didn't want to put my blood in." That turned out to be the original draft for Stuart Little, the talking-mouse movie that was 1999's other sleeper phenomenon.
But with Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's self-image changed. "I used to think of myself as a writer. On Wide Awake, I was a writer who got a chance to direct. On Sixth Sense, there was a balance between the words and visuals. Now I feel I'm a director interpreting a screenplay."
Anthony Minghella, nominated for his version of Patricia Highsmith's thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley and an Oscar winner for The English Patient, also found himself in the director's chair after a series of gradual steps. The writer-director started out as a playwright.
"I have to pinch myself sometimes, realizing what I'm doing," he told Boxoffice Magazine. "My father was an ice-cream man. I made myself up to do the things I wanted to do - to write, to work with other people, to practice an art. I've found them all in one job. It happened by a series of lucky accidents."
But for other writer-directors, the job is the furthest thing from an accident. And the idea of helming another writer's vision seems absurd - if for no other reason than that they have plenty to say. "I have writer's block in reverse," jokes Magnolia's Anderson. "Seriously, I get to direct movies only because I write them."
Hollywood, he says, is desperate for good scripts, and that makes writers some of the most powerful people in town. "Most people don't see that if you write, you're the king, you're the gold mine. You have the power to bribe anyone and say, 'I know it's good, and I want these people in it.'"
And he knows what he's talking about. Magnolia is only his third picture (he also wrote and directed Hard Eight and Boogie Nights), yet he exerted enough artistic control to not only attract Tom Cruise to his relatively low-budget ensemble piece, but also to ensure that it would be seen in its entire three-hour, nine-minute running time.
Artistic control is everything for people like writer-producer-director Mike Leigh. But for him, it's a control exercised by the entire cast. The creator of this year's Topsy-Turvy and previous Oscar nominee Secrets & Lies crafts his films in improvisational sessions with actors, and the process can take months.
For Leigh, there's no distinction between writing and directing. "To tell you the absolute truth, they're part of the same job for me. I don't write a screenplay that I turn into a film; the screenplay and film come together simultaneously as part of an elaborate creative process. It's not an entrenched ideological position; it's a practical thing of how I like to work."
Leigh's idea of practical must seem downright strange to a Hollywood regular like Michael Mann, nominated for director as well as screenplay (with Eric Roth) for The Insider, also up for best picture.
Mann, who has been making movies (including The Last of the Mohicans and Heat) for two decades, has long been known as a filmmaker whose style accents visuals over words. And he feels no compulsion to write his movies. "It's different in every case," he says. "I'd prefer to direct more films I don't write. I don't feel I have the breadth as a writer that I have as a director."
On Insider, Eric Roth was hired to script the story of tobacco-industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, "and it became a team," Mann explains. "He didn't write first and I second. We wrote together. But there is no set formula. It's more organic. On Mohicans there was another writer first, and I started over."
Though his approach to writing and directing is more fluid than what the others use, Mann expresses what they all must feel when they sit behind the camera: "The bottom line is, as a filmmaker, a hands-on filmmaker, I have to make it mine."
Behind the lens and script
The writer-director nominees:
Alexander Payne (with Jim Taylor) for Election
Frank Darabont for The Green Mile
Michael Mann (with Eric Roth) for The Insider
Anthony Minghella for The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Also nominated: John Irving for The Cider House Rules)
Paul Thomas Anderson for Magnolia
M. Night Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense
Mike Leigh for Topsy-Turvy
(Also: Alan Ball for American Beauty and Charlie Kaufman for Being John Malkovich)