Tales from the Script

Paul Schrader

“A movie set is like the military, and as a writer you really have no place in the chain of command."

Tales from the Script

Rated: Not rated
Director: Peter Hanson
Cast: Allison Anders, Shane Black, John Carpenter, Naomi Foner, William Goldman, Billy Ray, Bruce Joel Rubin, Paul Schrader
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2009
Distributor: First Run Features
US Release Date: 2010-04-20

All the writers interviewed for Tales from the Script, a documentary about screenwriters, seem to be living in a screenplay by a scribe conspicuously absent from the film: the interview-averse Charlie Kaufman. Self-absorbed, self-deprecating, by turns bitter and hopeful—like the protagonists of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—they have resigned themselves to a profession that often makes them miserable. These “egomaniacs with low self-esteem”, as Dennis Palumbo (My Favorite Year) describes his peer group, instruct as well as entertain, and anyone with an interest in an insider’s view of Hollywood should watch this film.

If Tales from the Script has a refrain, it’s the favorite line of the godfather of screenwriters William Goldman (who, by the way, passed on the chance to script The Godfather): “nobody knows anything”. Writer after writer expresses the same sentiment—about themselves, about other screenwriters, about directors, and especially about studio executives, the villains of Tales. Of course it’s a lie. These writers know a lot, and aren’t afraid to share, even when the memories are painful and embarrassing—perhaps even especially then. (They make a convincing case about the executives, though).

The film begins with a brief story by Bruce Joel Rubin that he offers as a clue to how Hollywood works. After a meeting with studio executives who told him that his script for Ghost was “the best script we have ever read”, Rubin leaves the studio euphoric, buoyed by having been singled out for such high praise. A week later he overhears the same executives say the same words to another screenwriter. Tales from the Script is full of such stories that describe the professional heights screenwriters achieve, and the depths to which they plummet, sometimes even in the same day.

The film is organized the film into short sections, each devoted to a topic—“Anyone Can Do That (The underappreciated Hollywood screenwriter)”, “Nobody Wants Your Stuff (Breaking into the Business)”, “Chopped and Mashed (Navigating the Development Process)”. A short clip from a film that illustrates the topic introduces each section: Get Shorty, Barton Fink, and Bowfinger, among others. As a result, Tales covers a lot of ground, and also reminds us through the clips that most films that touch on screenwriting are, appropriately, dark comedies.

Because they write for a living, interviewees frequently turn to metaphors and analogies, usually to great effect. Screenplays are mathematical, formulaic. Or scripts are like architecture, and a story outline is a blueprint. Joe Forte (Firewall) likens obstacles that beset writers to a brick wall that you have to climb over. Being fired from a project, Mark D. Rosenthal (Legend of Billie Jean) observes, is like being set upon by demons and zombies.

Naomi Foner (Bee Season) gives the section “Visitation Rights (Dealing with Directors)” its title with her confession that she tries to keep a “respectful dialogue going” with the director filming her script, because she wants to continue to see her “baby”. Foner offers another gendered metaphor when she describes directors unraveling and restitching a script until it resembles a garment missing a sleeve.

The most popular metaphors, though, are military, and the writer is always a grunt. For Kris Young (Learning to Fly), screenwriters are like the soldiers mown down by machine gun fire on the Normandy beaches at beginning of Saving Private Ryan; very few are left standing at the end. Of haggling over scenes with directors, Josh Friedman (The Black Dahlia) admits, “you may win the battle, but you aren’t winning the war”. “A movie set is like the military”, according to Mark O’Keefe (who wrote Click and Bruce Almighty with Steve Koren); “and as a writer you really have no place in the chain of command”.

There are only a few unalloyed happy stories here. Justin Zackham’s experience with his script for The Bucket List sounds like the kind of too-good-to-be-true story that no self-respecting author would include in a screenplay. After initially striking out with the script, he tells his agent he’d really like Rob Reiner to make the film. A few days later Reiner calls. He wants to make the movie! Zackham tells Reiner he wrote with Morgan Freeman in mind. Freeman agrees to do the movie! Freeman tells Reiner and Zackham he’s always wanted to work with Jack Nicholson. Jack wants to do the movie!

In one 24-hour period, Zackham marries the love of his life, and attends a read-through of the script with Freeman, Nicholson, and Reiner at Nicholson’s house. Luckily no other screenwriters from Tales are present during the telling of this story, because they most likely would have fallen upon Zackham and torn him apart.

More representative are Andrew W. Marlowe’s (Air Force One) story of losing a movie deal because he had the bad luck of pitching the script to an executive who’d just thrown out his back, or Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) saying, “I always feel that when a movie sucks it’s my fault”, or Gerald Di Pego (Message in a Bottle) admitting that he’s pleased when a film based on a script he’s written only makes him cringe twice during a viewing.

The last section of Tales, “A Last Laugh Business (Going the Distance)”, shows why screenwriters stay in the business, despite all the frustrations and anxieties. John D. Brancato (The Net) describes the joy he feels when he sees his ideas on screen, as if magically generated by a “projector from your brain”, while Adam Rifkin (The Chase) discusses how “there’s no better feeling” than watching an audience react to a scene he’s written. These rare moments get writers through the tough stretches.

Finally, though, it’s John Carpenter (Halloween) who reveals the key to survival for a screenwriter: “Stop bitching, stop whining, and move on”.

DVD extras include “More Tales from the Script”, an extension of the documentary with the same structure. Section headings include “The Other Fifty Percent (Why Scripts Get Rewritten)” and “An Ugly Freak (The Unexpected Indignities of Screenwriting)”. “More Tales” begins with a great story from Billy Ray (Breach) about holiday gifts and just how coldly calculating studio executives are in their relationships with writers. A short free-standing interview with William Goldman and a segment featuring interviewees giving advice for aspiring screenwriters fill out the extras (according to the latter: prepare for rejection, find your own voice, get an objective point of view on your writing, realize that it takes ten years to establish yourself).

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