Welcome to Day Two of Re:Print‘s tribute to screwed over Hollywood writers. It’s another day I’ve had to listen while a co-worker complains there’s no Office to download. I know—I miss The Office, too. But I can wait ... as long as I have to.
I wasn’t planning to post this much of it, but Raymond Chandler’s letter to Charles Morton of The Atlantic Monthly, but I felt I had to. It is such a rare document, so raw, honest, and representative of the wall today’s screenwriters continue to thrash their heads against. This is an except, albeit a long one, that outlines Chandler’s reasons why he could not complete a piece for the Atlantic on the very art of screenwriting. “I have no honesty about it,” he wrote. Remember, too, this letter was composed in 1944:
1. There is no mature art of the screenplay, and by mature I don’t mean intellectual or postgraduate or intelligentsia-little magazine writing. I mean an art which knows what it is doing and has the techniques necessary to do it.
2. An adult, that is dirty or plain-spoken art of the screen, could exist at any moment the Hays Office (Title for an Essay on same: Dirtymindedness As a Career) and the local censorship boards would let it, but it would be no more mature than Going My Way is.
3. There is no available body of screenplay literature, because it belongs to the studios, not to the writers, and they won’t show it. For instance, I tried to borrow a script of The Maltese Falcon from Warners; they would not lend it to me. All the writer can do is look at pictures. If he is working in a studio, he can get the scripts of that studio, but his time is not his own. He can make no leisurely study and reconstruction of the problems.
4. There is no teaching in the art of the screenplay because there is nothing to teach; if you do not know how pictures are made, you cannot possibly know how to write them. No outsider knows that, and no writer would be bothered, unless he was an out-of-work or manqué writer.
5. The screenplay as it exists is the result of a bitter and prolonged struggle between the writer (or writers) and the people whose aim is to exploit his talent without giving it the freedom to be a talent.
6. It is only a little over three years since the major (and only this very year the minor) studios were forced after prolonged and bitter struggle to agree to treat the writer with a reasonable standard of business ethics. In this struggle the writers were not really fighting the motion picture industry at all; they were fighting those powerful elements in it that had hitherto glommed off all the glory and prestige and who could only continue to do so by selling themselves to the world as the makers of pictures. This struggle is still going on, and the writers are winning it, and they are winning it in the wrong way: by becoming producers and directors, that is, by becoming showmen instead of creative artists. This will do nothing for the art of the screenplay and will actually harm those writers who are temperamentally unfitted for showmanship (and this will include always the best of them.)
7. The writer is still very far from winning the right to create a screenplay without interference from his studio. Why? Because he does not know how, and it is to the interest of the producers and directors to prevent him from learning how. If even a quarter of the highly-paid screenwriters of Hollywood (leaving out all the people who work on program pictures) could produce a completely integrated and thoroughly photographable screenplay, with only the amount of interference and discussion necessary to protect the studio’s investment in actors and freedom from libel and censorship troubles, then the producer would become a business co-ordinator and the director would become the interpreter of a completed work, instead of, as at present, the maker of the picture. They will fight to the death against it.