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A big year for on-screen dual citizenship

March 18, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

LIKE the stages of grief, there are four steps to accepting one's fate as a top screenwriter.

1. Excitement: You get your first movie made.

2. Validation: You get your movie made by a top director.

3. Frustration-cum-rage: You get a movie made badly and are cut out of the process.

4. Liberation: You opt to direct your own movie.

That's how one of the town's top literary agents dryly describes the writer's typical evolution.

Consider Mike White, the droll, white-haired scribe behind "The Good Girl" and "School of Rock," who says he used to be a "really bad backseat driver" on the sets of the movies he wrote. "You're completely stressed in each situation trying to figure out how to manipulate everyone into doing what you want them to do." But directing -- that's a charm, says White. "You can actually say what you want."

White just helmed his first film -- "Year of the Dog," the tale of a woman (Molly Shannon) who really, no, really, loves animals. In fact, he joins a bumper crop of brand-name writers making directorial debuts in 2007. They include Oscar nominees Scott Frank ("Out of Sight") and Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"), John August ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), Oscar winner Alan Ball ("American Beauty), Zach Helm ("Stranger Than Fiction"), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies), Robin Swicord ("Little Women") and perhaps the most singular screenwriter of his generation, Charlie Kaufman, an Oscar winner for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Almost since the beginning of Hollywood, writers have written themselves into becoming directors -- the long list includes Billy Wilder, Barry Levinson and Oliver Stone. What's changed is the number of opportunities available in the form of billionaires and quasi-billionaires eager to take a chance on proven names who want to direct. Indeed, almost everyone listed above -- even those such as Frank and August, whose films earned billions for the studios -- was financed independently.

In the studio world, the concept has become king, but in the indie realm, the writer-director has become God. As Rich Klubeck, a packaging agent at United Talent Agency notes, "At least today, the writer-director-written movies are working in the marketplace." Listing films such as "Crash" and "Sideways," Klubeck says, "These movies are so much more emotionally satisfying than traditional studio movies."

Joys of a work in progress

FOR the dazzlingly original Kaufman, the impulse to direct is less about the need to protect his material (which was more than ably served by directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry) than the desire to continue his own creative exploration. His scripts don't leap from his brain fully formed but rather evolve, sometimes over years. "When I'm writing, I tend not to know where things are going," he explains. "I like that process. It just seems like a natural progression to directing."

Kaufman is in New York prepping his directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York." Last year, when he directed Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage in a set of radio plays, he noticed that directing allowed him to further his idiosyncratic development process. "I was able to change a line and change the play and add things and take away things. The product felt more finished by being able to do that. I'm imagining that will be part of the process here."

Unlike many screenwriters, the brand-name writers do not appear to be an aggrieved lot. They've largely felt Hollywood's warm glow -- and its financial embrace. Top studio screenwriters generally earn $2 million to $3 million for a script and $250,000 to $300,000 a week for polishing other people's films.

But like almost everyone who works in the industry, even they have felt the chill of the new soullessness that comes with making industrial pop-culture products. Many writers discuss how marketing has superseded storytelling in the moviemaking equation. Studios routinely ask for less complexity, says Frank. "Think about how many people and names there are in 'The Godfather.' They'd never let you do that today: 'It's too confusing.' "

And studios, even art-house divisions, rarely allow writers to make their directorial debuts. As producer Mark Gill explains, "Studios are nervous that in a world where eye candy pops at the box office, writers aren't the people who can deliver eye candy. My argument would be that the writers are the people who know about storytelling."

"There's no shortage of untalented people passing themselves off as directors," adds writer-director Gilroy, pointing out that not every hot video director turns out to be a Scorsese. "Writers have a huge advantage when it comes to directing," he says. "You're probably coming in with a pretty tidy script. You can answer the actors' questions and can change on the spot because you're not precious about the material."

Still it's notoriously hard to gauge which writer will make a good director.

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