The Vocation of Hollywood Writers

I am taking no position on the writers’ strike that is sending late-night comedy shows into re-runs and halting some Hollywood productions. I will just draw your attention to a group that usually receives no attention, though they are the creative source of what makes money for the famous people.

Jay Leno is not funny of himself. He does not make up his jokes. He delivers them well, which is to his credit, but his jokes are made-up by writers.

As has been said elsewhere, many people seem to assume that actors make up their dialogue as they go and are responsible for the movies they star in. No, actors recite lines from a script that someone had to write.

People go to movies because their favorite movie star is in it. More sophisticated folks go to movies because of their favorite director. But almost no one goes to a movie because it was written by their favorite screenwriter. In fact, the screenwriter’s name can hardly be found, unless you are patient enough to sit through the credits at the end, where a sharp eye can note the screenwriters, along with the key grip, the gaffer, and the caterer.

Yes, movie and television scripts are usually the product of many writers working together and rewriting each other’s contributions. And the director does have the final say, often re-working the lines and the story as the movie is being made. This, of course, adds to the indignity of the writers’ position, since their original intention is seldom honored or even respected. Still, whenever you come across funny lines, plot twists, clever dialogue, and profound themes, thank the writer.

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  • It seems to me the whole dysfunctional Hollywood process bears some comparison to the life of the Church. Everybody does something, and it all goes into the big mix, and sometimes what comes out is pathetic and sometimes it’s wonderful. I think the great directors utilize a pastoral hand, distributing work according to the workers’ gifts, mollifying egos, encouraging the discouraged and keeping the final goal always in mind. In the end nobody is sure who accomplished exactly what, but if it works it’s everyone’s success, and if it doesn’t… well, somebody gets blamed, though there’s usually plenty of blame to go around.

  • Perhaps I am a rare bird in that I will go to see a film because its script is written by an identifiably good screenwriter. Milius, Mamet, Hecht, Allen (Woody), Wilder et aliud. It is true, however, that the screenwriter is often unsung. For a glimpse of that life, I’d recommend you read any of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby short stories (they reflect F.Scott’s own frustrations as an unacknowledged screenwright).

  • Joe

    I really don’t care about this strike but I don’t think it is accurate to say that they don’t write their own stuff. Surely it is a team effort but they are on the team.

    Conan O’brian is a former SNL and Simpons writter. Leno was a terribly successful stand up comic. These guys participate in the writing.

  • My question is, given the number of sequels, TV/video game adaptations, and recycled ideas present in Hollywood films of late, how will we be able to tell when the writers strike has impacted the spate of movies in theaters? (Kidding … sort of)

    I will agree with Joe (@3) that Leno was at least once funny to some people. And like Wrigley (@2), I don’t always pay attention to the screenwriter, but there area few writers I really enjoy and pay attention to, for example Charlie Kaufman. (If you want to see an interesting movie about screenwriting (!) that gets very meta very quickly, see Adaptation, which is both an adaptation of The Orchid Thief and a movie about how hard it is to make an adaptation of The Orchid Thief.)

  • I have occasionally seen movies on account of the screen writer. When I discovered Paddy Chayefsky I rented both Network and Altered States. On the other hand, when I decided to give Heaven’s Gate a try since I had liked Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, I could see why it bombed. Though portions of it, almost all in the first hour, did sparkle. (The good parts are too good for this to be the worst movie of all time, as some have labeled it. But I don’t recommend it, either. You want its best scenes to exist, only in another movie.)

    Speaking of adaptations, people should look up The Last of the Mohicans (1992). The book was written by James Fenimore Cooper. Then there was a 1936 screenplay by Philip Dunne. Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe are credited for the 1992 screenplay. But three other writers are also credited with the adaptation. This was quite a collaboration. I’ve read the beginning of the screenplay online, and that first scene of the deer hunt is some beautiful writing.

  • I’m not thrilled that my favorite shows (The Office, 24, LOST) will be affected by the strike, but I’m in full support of the writers. They deserve to be sufficiently compensated for their work. For an entertaining explanation of the strike, see what the screenwriters from The Office say here:

    It’s interesting to note that the crewmembers from The Office (who are going to be laid off because the production of the show is shutting down) are in full support of the strike.

  • Joe

    I really don’t think it is that surprising that the actors are supporting the writers. Think Screen Actors Guild. The two unions stick together in that industry so that neither one of them can every be replaced.