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Lip Service

They Are Courted and Seduced and Lavished With Money. But Will Hollywood Ever Respect Writers?

March 25, 2001|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell's last story for the magazine was a profile of musician Dave Alvin

The first screenwriter I ever met was Richard Matheson, who wrote Steven Spielberg's memorable early TV movie, "Duel," about a malevolent semitruck, and who, in 1983, was one of the authors--if that is the correct term--of "Jaws 3-D." That year an editor sent me to interview him at his very nice home in the West Valley to talk about "Jaws 3-D" and his adventures in the screen trade going back to 1957, when he adapted "The Incredible Shrinking Man" from his own novel.

I arrived in the late afternoon, just as Matheson was finishing his daily pages, and he greeted me dressed in a jumpsuit like the ones worn by garage mechanics and Pete Townshend of The Who. He was 57, a man of many interests and talents, in manner both genial and grave and, somewhat to my surprise (since he had written it, along with others), completely dismissive of "Jaws 3-D." The movie was about to open and he hadn't even seen it. Nor did he plan to.

What writer, with a movie poster on his wall signed by Spielberg, could be so alienated from his work that he didn't care to see how it turned out? But Matheson, I would learn, was not so unusual in this regard. Most screenwriters took assignments, some better than others, and were used to having their work rewritten or rewriting others, then waiting for an arbitration committee of the Writers Guild of America to decide who would get screen credit. It was all in the game, somewhat demeaning but well-paying--and almost invisible to millions who went to the movies.

"If it hadn't been for the money I was getting for the scripts I wrote," he said, "I would have stayed with novels because they are very much more satisfying. And I would have written a hell of a lot of very interesting books by now and I would be really good at it. I've written some marvelous scripts, most of which were not done well and a lot of them that weren't made at all."

Such could be literary success in Hollywood.

Eighteen years later, a young writer named Stephen Gaghan, a few weeks before he would win a Golden Globe for his screenplay adaptation of "Traffic" and be nominated for an Oscar, tells me he's not going to write any more screenplays because of the difficulty he's having on his new picture, where he's been asked repeatedly to rewrite the ending. "I'm going to write short stories or plays," he says.

A month later, he takes this back and says he has figured out the ending, and all is going well. He is also directing the picture now. "It's tough, but it's a great form," he says, meaning the screenplay. We believe him.

*

IT'S ALMOST THREE QUARTERS OF A CENTURY since "The Jazz Singer," the first "talkie," sent out a siren song, luring playwrights, novelists and newspapermen west to draft high-paying scenarios for Hollywood. In all that time the image of the writer in the image factory has not fundamentally changed even if the reality has, a bit.

"Writers are the women of the film industry," the late screenwriter and novelist Eleanor Perry once reported overhearing at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The first needed and the last consulted, it is said, writers are courted, seduced and lavished with money, but in the end, are they respected? Do they even respect themselves in a film society that demands they trade in their rights as authors for a new Porsche and a house in the hills?

Whether screenwriters are respected or not, and by whom, might seem like a precious or navel-gazing question, until you come around to sharing the view offered by more than a few members of the Writers Guild that the answer has a lot to do with the quality of the movies that end up in your local cineplex. Lamenting the writers' lack of clout in Hollywood is not necessarily just group therapy for

an ego-damaged elite but an invocation for people who care about movies to see more clearly how they get made and why many of them are not better.

"Writers usually have a special knowledge that comes from working with the material for months, even years, before production," says screenwriter Nicholas Kazan ("Reversal of Fortune"), addressing the oft-heard complaint (which must sound bizarre to the layman) from writers that they are not welcome on the set. "They are a resource that is vastly underutilized. A writer often has the answer to a problem, an answer that would help everyone, yet the writer is usually not called, not consulted. And so mistakes creep into films."

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