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Tales From the Script (DVD Review)

19 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/20/10
First Run
Box Office $0.008 million
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

“Talking heads documentary” can be a pejorative term, but when the subject is screenwriters discussing their craft and, too often, their heartbreak, the talk is likely to be on a very high level. Like Gerard Peary’s recent nonfiction portrait of film critics and their profession’s history (For the Love of Movies), Tales is the most telling screen portrait on its subject that we’re likely to have.

It isn’t all talk, in that there are well-chosen clips from many of the movies that matter on the subject: In a Lonely Place, Barton Fink, Adaptation, The Way We Were, The Last Tycoon, The Muse, Bowfinger and more. But even if there weren’t, this would be a real fly-on-the-wall look at one of the more rarefied ways of making a living, in which getting re-written is the norm, as is (in the words of one writer) wanting to go live in Finland over what has shown up on screen under your name.

Whatever you do, don’t skip the DVD’s bonus section. The supplemental interviews have some of the juiciest anecdotes – including a hilarious description by one interviewee who was asked to return a Christmas gift he mistakenly got that was intended for ‘A’-list writers. Or another one where the co-writers of a big hit had to fight their way into its preview screening, even though the film’s dog trainer had no such problems.

Some of the names here will be familiar even to casual moviegoers: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s William Goldman (who says he still feels responsibility for a movie someone else may have botched); Halloween’s John Carpenter (who says it’s good to be young and green going into the trade because if you knew more about it, you wouldn’t do it); and Frank Darabont (who concedes the difficulty in delivering a Shawshank Redemption every time out — or even more than once). But the swath of interviewees is long and deep, from the writer of Big Fish (a big production directed by Tim Burton) to the frugally budgeted Go Fish.

Just about all the subjects you’d want to see covered are — including the influence of individual stars on the overall script; story conferences with producers (who, notes one veteran, will invariably be physically shorter than the writer); story conferences in which all the various string-pullers may have separate agendas or be working at cross-purposes; and the pain of rewrites, which someone compares to the scene in The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart, having just had those hated leeches purged from his body, must go back into the same mucky water where the leeches are. And yet, notes another, even a script as revered as Chinatown’s had 17 rewrites, while Amadeus had 46. You begin to understand the description of screenwriters, quoted here, as “egomaniacs with low self-esteem.”

One of the most entertaining interviewed writers throughout is Billy Ray, whose own experience crystallizes the ups-and-downs endemic to the craft. How can the person who wrote a movie as intelligent as 2003’s Shattered Glass also have his name on the Bruce Willis howler Color of Night? Well, maybe because his concept for Night got ditched — while he ended up being the person who directed Glass as well.

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