I’ve nothing against directors. The men and women who make magic with movie cameras have much to offer the civilized world. Skill, talent, vision. Some have an uncanny knack with those sometimes prickly artists we like to call actors. Others are technical wizards who find their primal purpose standing at the center of production chaos. I appreciate and applaud them.
But are they authors? Or auteurs as the French so impolitely coined? Deserving of a possessory credit? Name before the title. A Scooby-Doo Film or a Film by Scooby-Doo or if Scooby-Doo were to follow Spike Lee’s example – A Scooby-Doo Joint.
The fight over that damned credit is age-old. Tired even. Argued time and again, litigated in countless articles and argued across collective bargaining tables. So why am I writing about it? Well, I’m not going to bore you with my opinion. I can though illuminate the subject with a couple of encounters I’ve had with directors who’ve been willing to cross barbs on the thorny issue.
A director friend and I were on our way to lunch when the issue bubbled up while I was parked at a stoplight.
“I like the ‘film by’ credit,” argued my director friend. “If you think about the process of making a film it makes total sense.”
“What part of it makes sense?” I asked.
“I’m not taking anything away from writers,” said my director friend. “But a writer writes the film only once. A director writes it three times.”
“Yes. A director writes the film when he storyboards it. He writes it again when he shoots it. He writes it a third time when he edits it.”
“So that’s why a director’s job can seem more important than the writer’s. Considering all a director does.”
“And deserving of an additional film credit.”
“The ‘film by’ credit isn’t an extra credit. It’s another credit that says what the director did is has more value. It’s film. It’s about the medium.”
“Well, not withstanding the part where a writer often writes and rewrites and retools his script over and over again, he’s written it many times more than the director can claim.”
“But he’s also writing for the director.”
“Or the producer or the studio or the star,” I added.
“You’re not hearing me,” said my director friend.
“I’m hearing that you want the ‘film by’ credit because you want to assume some form of authorship.”
“It says that I’m the man who made this film,” confirmed the director.
“And what did I do?”
“You wrote the film. But writers write on paper. That’s their medium. A director paints with film.”
“I might argue that you didn’t paint the film,” I said. “But that you indeed directed the film.
“But sometimes a director does more than just stand on the set and direct.”
“Which is why in your opinion you deserve the additional credit?”
“Hear me out,” I said. “A director gives notes to the writer because that’s part of his job. A director storyboards the film because that’s part of his job. A director shoots the film because that’s part of his job. A director edits the film because that’s part of his job. It’s called directing. That’s why the director gets a directing credit.”
Thinking I’d handed my friend enough rope, I wondered if he was ready to hang himself. Then came the following humdinger:
“You still don’t understand,” said my director friend. “It’s more than all that. And very personal to me.”
“Oh, I think I understand just fine,” I teased.
“It’s not about authorship as much as the ‘film by’ credit says… I’m proud of the film.”
“So when I’m watching the movie. And the titles come on. And I see ‘A (director’s name here) Film’ I should read it as the director’s proud of his work.”
“Yes. I’m presenting my film.”
“As something you’re very proud of.”
“So why not take that credit. Instead of ‘a film by’ it says ‘by the way (director’s name here) is really proud of this movie.’”
“That would look stupid,” laughed my director friend.
“Thus, my sharply pointed point,” I jabbed.
“Are we really having this argument?” said my director friend, wanting to change the subject. “And where are we going for lunch again?”
“I’m not done,” I said.
“Of course you’re not done. You’re a writer. You’re never done.”
“If the ‘film by’ credit says you’re proud of the film. What if the film didn’t turn out so well?”
“What if the movie sucks?”
“Yeah. Your movie and it blows chunks.”
“Then I don’t want the ‘film by’ credit.”
“But it’s still your film.”
“You said the film sucks.”
“Yes. Your film. And let’s say it sucks. It’s still your film. Based on your criteria, you made it three times. Storyboards. Production. Editing. Yours, yours, and yours again. But you still reserve the right to remove your precious ‘film by’ credit because the movie didn’t turn out as planned?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Are you serious? What about the writer? If the film sucks do you think I should be able to take my name off the film?”
“Not talking about the writing credit or the directing credit. We’re talking about the ‘film by’ credit.”
“You’re proud of the film?” I confirmed. “You should get the ‘film by’ credit. Not so proud? You should be able to turn it down.”
“I think that sounds fair,” he said.
“Never mind that you’re only getting the credit because it’s something a lawyer negotiated for you.”
The discussion ended because we’d arrived at our destination. Waiting inside was another writer pal with whom the director had asked for an introduction. I’m sure his instincts were to sever the argument before he had two word jockeys ganging up on him. That and I felt it wasn’t worth endeavoring further into his thinly-veiled ego masquerading as weak rationalization.
Now mind you. I don’t want to come off as a whining writer who finds it easy sport to bitch about narcissistic filmmakers. If I don’t care for the game I don’t have to play. And what keeps me from directing a film in order to hoist my own good name before the picture’s title? Aside from good sense, not a thing.
As for authorship of a film I subscribe to a simple axiom. The writer who first pens the tale is the author. Everything after, including work by subsequent writers, is interpretive. Equally valuable. Artful even. Hell, I’m as much of a fan of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans as anybody else.
Aside from ego, the only true value of the ‘film by’ credit is in marketing. If that name before the title drives box office, then by all means print it large and loud.
My aforementioned director pal isn’t the only filmmaker I’ve parried with. There was once a particular A-Lister with whom I’d been developing a film. He was a nice enough guy. Decent with story. And a closet germaphobe. How in Hades we got about discussing the idiotic ‘film by’ credit I haven’t a glimmer. The A-Lister’s Mr. Nice Guy act faded quickly, revealing his megalomaniacal bite.
“What a director does when making his film far outweighs the work of the writer,” said the A-Lister. “The directing credit isn’t enough, thus making the ‘film by’ credit not only necessary, but righteous.”
I did my usual marketing, seeing how much rope I could sell the A-List snob before he had enough to fashion a noose to fit his snap-worthy neck. Once our argument ended, I asked if I could use his private bathroom. And though I made sure to wash my hands after I’d done my business, I waited to flush until the moment I was ready to step back into the meeting. With the unmistakable sound of toilet water swirling behind me, I made sure to give a friendly pat to the A-Lister as I returned to my seat. His eyebrows furrowed. Then before I could count to five, he stood and excused himself in order to secretly scrub off whatever bacteria he feared I’d deposited on him.
I did this again and again, three meetings in a row, inciting the same phobic reaction from the arrogant S.O.B. I wonder if it was the smirk on my face that tipped my act to the director’s producing partner.
“That’s really really mean,” chuckled the producing partner.
“My way of protesting the ‘film by’ credit,” I said.
The producer howled with laughter, eliciting a response from the A-Lister, still closeted in his private bathroom.
“What’s so damn funny?” he shouted from behind the door.
Had I been frank enough to tell him, it might’ve ended the painful studio pitch meetings that followed. But that’s for another blog.
I’ve had great working experiences with directors who were respectful to what the writer brought to the party. Then there’s the obvious other side of that coin. The big time filmmakers who look at the writer as some kind of disposable wipe, easily replaced with a flick of a thin wrist. Like I said before, much has been written about that kind of relationship. It’s tired.
But here’s a little thought nugget. I’ve shared barstools with screenwriters who’ve compared the importance of directors with that of those famed monkeys utilized in the Mercury space program. I don’t entirely agree. But I wouldn’t be surprised if someday in the future the monkeys organize and demand that NASA erect a monument in the name of monkey pride.