If you’re anything like me, when you are deciding which films you might like to see at the cinema or hire at home, the scriptwriter is not high on the list of things you factor in.
Perhaps you pay attention to the director, or you look at the actors, or maybe you just go on the premise or genre alone. Maybe you even factor in the studio (personally, I know I’ll watch anything Pixar brings out).
And that’s not surprising, seeing that the director’s name is plastered all over the screen, and the actors’ faces are unmissable. Very occasionally a poster or trailer will say “brought to you by the writers of…” but it’s not common to feature a scriptwriter.
This is odd if you think about it, because while the director no doubt has a huge input into the film, the scriptwriter does too. The story and premise, usually the main thing you are going to see, is the domain of the scriptwriter.
It’s true that directors also often write their own scripts, but the fact remains that there are a lot of good scriptwriters out there who don’t necessarily direct the films they write. And the general public probably has no clue who they are.
I became aware of this invisible scriptwriter phenomenon when I was tutoring a scriptwriting course at uni. Suddenly, I was spending more time looking up scriptwriters and reading the scripts of good films, and I noticed a pattern. Some of my favourite films, films with memorable scenes and lines of dialogue and great stories, were written by the same person.
Andrew Niccol. He’s a New-Zealand born screenwriter and director. He’s directed most of the films he’s written, but what I find so striking about his movies – what makes them stand out – is the writing itself. He’s got great premises, great dialogue, great characters.
As far as I know, he’s responsible for the classic Truman Show line “In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”
And amazing scenes like this one:
And this one:
(spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Gattaca this pretty much gives away the ending)
It’s not that directors aren’t important, but unlike novel writing, filmmaking is highly collaborative. To pull off a great film, you need a team of hundreds, sometimes thousands, to bring it to life on screen. I think the scriptwriter is a very important part of that team, a part that seems often ignored.
Perhaps we are still clinging to the notion of the auteur… this one writer-director that creates their own unique vision and is responsible for everything. Focussing on the scriptwriter, or the cinematographer, or the team that puts it together, doesn’t fit with that notion.
I know when I saw The Terminal, for example, I attributed the great storytelling almost wholly to Steven Spielberg (and maybe a little to Tom Hanks too). I had no idea, until much later, that Andrew Niccol has a story credit on this, and Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson are credited as writing the screenplay. Not trying to diminish Spielberg’s greatness here, but there was obviously a lot of talent on the team for this one.
Another screenwriter, Stuart Beattie (an Australian), is responsible for the Pirates of the Caribbean scripts, among many others, and he wrote the screenplay for (and directed) Tomorrow When the War Began, which is based on a favourite book of mine by Australian writer John Marsden. I really enjoyed these films, but until some IMDb surfing today, I wasn’t aware he wrote the scripts. I’ll admit, he also wrote Australia, which has to be one of my least favourite films… but you can’t win them all.
When the Credits Roll
I’m not a scriptwriter by trade, but I’ve written and read quite a few scripts in the past, and a good one really makes or breaks a film. It’s possible to make a terrible film out of a great script, but I don’t think it’s possible to make a great film out of a terrible script. You need a great script and a great team to work with it and bring it to life on screen. And that magical recipe is not an easy one to get right.
So if you’re trying to decide whether you’re going to go see a film or not, it might be worth not only taking note of the directors and the actors, but looking up the screenwriter too to see what else they’ve worked on. If you like their work, maybe that’s another reason you’ll like their new film.
And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a screenwriter who has written a bunch of your favourites. I know I’ll be keeping my eye out for any new films Andrew Niccol has a hand in.