There’s an old Hollywood story I’d heard about Earnest Lehman, famed screenwriter of The Sound of Music. He was asked about what exactly it was that a screenwriter wrote. I’m obviously paraphrasing here:

“Have you seen my movie?” Lehman asked.

The Sound of Music? Why yes?”

“Did you see the opening? Where Julie Andrews appears as Maria, running and singing across a Swiss mountainside and singing ‘The hills are alive, yadda yadda.”

“Yes.”

“I wrote those hills. I wrote Maria running. I wrote her singing.”

Thus is the essence of writing a movie. And the answer for those who wonder what exactly a screenwriter does, considering so many civilians think pictures are mostly visualized by a director and that the actors pretty much make up their dialogue.

The truth is the polar opposite. Screenplays are like an architect’s schematic, without which the general contractor and his many sub-contractors wouldn’t know how many two-by-fours to order from the lumberyard. Imagine building a house without design? Without knowing the time it would take to construct, how much it would cost, or the materials required.

Without a screenplay UPM’s couldn’t budget, first assistant director’s couldn’t schedule, casting directors wouldn’t know who to… Okay, you get it. But to sum it up, the screenplay is the fountain from which the rest of the movie flows.

That said, there still are these sticky individuals called directors the writers need to be careful of. Their primary job is to turn the screenplay into a cohesive mélange of seamless visuals and performances. That’s when the screenwriter’s job turns from chief creative into handyman.

“Look at me as Mr. Fixit,” I’ve said to many a director, hoping they’d relax and see me as neither a creative threat nor an obstacle. “You’re the director. It’s now my job to assist you in whatever way I can.”

Now, in the situation described it may sound like I paint myself as overly humble in the face of a man or woman who might be gearing up to lobotomize my child. After all. He or she is just the director and I’m the guy who birthed the picture from my overtaxed imagination. But hey. I’m a realist. If I wanted to direct I would. I’ve chosen to toil as a writer, building movies from the peace and quiet of my backyard office.

Still. Production happens. And into the breach we must go.

Most directors understand that writers have different styles. Some have a terse, narrative style. Others lean on visuals. Mine, if I have any particular writer joie de vivre, has evolved into giving the reader a sense that they are watching a movie. If it serves the scene, I will sometimes keep my words to mere dialogue and stage direction. Or in other cases, I’ll be specific in my description, tossing in a camera move as a flourish.

“But that’s just writing,” I’d warn some directors. “To give you a sense that we’re in a movie. Where and why you place a camera is entirely up to you. I don’t wanna dictate how you plan to visualize any particular scene.”

And thusly any discussions between my vision and the director’s normally ends. This is usually confirmed when looking at dailies or actual cuts of the final product. How I saw it and how the work ended up on film is usually significant in contrast. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes not so much. But that’s the collaborative process. Once again. I’m just the writer.

Then there was this day in January of 2004. We were only seventy-two hours from the start of photography on Hostage. I’d had a fleeting chance to peruse the schedule. Day one involved a mere half-day’s work on a Friday.

What the hell, I thought? I knew productions often started on a Thursday or Friday, giving the filmmakers a weekend to make adjustments after just a quick couple days of grinding. But starting on a mere half-day?

“Did I read that right?” I asked assistant director, Mark Catone. “First day is just a half-day?”

“That’s how long we figure it’s gonna take to get the shot,” said Mark.

“The shot?” I repeated quizzically. “As in one shot? That’s the day?”

“Yup.”

“What shot is it?”

“First shot of the movie,” said Mark. “It’s in the script. You should know. You wrote it.”

“I didn’t write any shots specifically,” I said. “I’ve seen some of Dom’s storyboards but, yeah. Which shot?”

“The first shot.”

With that, Mark grabbed his script binder, flipped it open and read aloud to me the opening words in my screenplay:

“The frozen image of a man we’ll call Joe Mack, who screams, ‘I WANNA TALK TO THE MOTHERFUCKER.’ Along with the words, the CAMERA appears to have been shouted out of the distraught mouth of Joe Mack himself. He’s sweat drenched and waving a ten dollar revolver.”

“Yeah, I wrote that,” I conceded. “But seriously? Half a day for that?”

Mark continued reading my own script opener back to me:

“Exterior. Joe Mack’s house, scene continues. Where the CAMERA SOARS BACKWARD, over the wooden steps and gate, across the street, and onto a warehouse rooftop-slash-parking lot loaded with LAPD squad cars, the black-clad SWAT SQUAD already deployed, and LAPD Command and Control van, the slow whup-whup of an LAPD helicopter…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I played along. “Them’s is my words.”

“Big fuckin’ crane shot,” said Mark. “Actually, not even a crane. To make that work we gotta build a wire rig for a four-hundred-foot camera fly.”

“Camera fly?”

“Yeah. So the camera can pull back that far outta Joe Mack’s mouth, we gotta fly the thing on a wire from the window of Joe’s little house all the way and above a four-story parking structure. Takes days to rig that shit.”

“Sounds like money,” I muttered, feeling an odd pang of guilt.

“Three hundred grand worth,” said Mark. “Better be worth it.”

I had more questions. But I chose to leave them there and pick up the conversation with Florent Siri, my esteemed director. I hunted down the Frenchman, finding him in the production office break room brewing his hourly thimble of espresso.

“So Florent,” I said. “Mark just told me about Friday’s set up. The whole wire rig.”

“Wait till you see it,” said Florent. “To set the wire, they have to bring in this mammoth construction crane. Ten stories high. Beautiful.”

“You’re doing the shot the way I wrote it?” I confirmed.

“Of course, I am. It’s in the script.”

“But I told you. Just because I wrote it that way doesn’t mean you have to shoot it that way.”

“I know.”

“Then why all the fuss? You know, the flying camera? It’s a half day for one shot.”

“But a beautiful shot.”

“Yeah. It’s cool. But c’mon. That’s some serious money,” I said. A compilation of stuff I had to cut out of the script for budgetary concerns played in my brain. Scenes lost to the scheduling axe began to prioritize themselves, queuing up like ghosts wishing they could be reincarnated.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Florent. “But it’s a beautiful shot you envisioned. And I want it to start our movie.”

“Kind of you, but–“

“You’re going to be there to see it, yes? On Friday? You’re going to see your shot?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be there.”

And so it came to pass that I was there that very Friday to witness one very expensive shot, conceived and written by yours truly. And true to what I’d carefully put to paper, a camera rig began close on the face of actor Jamie McShane. He screamed my words, then with a high-pitched whine, the wire-rigged camera-reverse flew out the window of the tiny house, up into the sky, and far above a parking lot crammed with extras and stuntmen garbed in the requisite uniforms. The aforementioned helicopters would be CGI’d.

Despite the experience, when every so often I’m asked what exactly a screenwriter writes, I still like to refer to the Earnest Lehman story. It’s simple, quotable, and who the hell doesn’t remember Maria in that convent dress running across those green hills of Switzerland?

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Kristine Smith

    ::envisions Doug watching his Monster totter down the hill toward the village::

    • Doug Richardson

      There are comments Kristine. Then there’s yours. Hmmm.

      • Kristine Smith

        Just the idea of watching your creation take off in unexpected ways, and feeling a bit trepidatious.

  • Emily Blake

    That’s really nice. We hear so many negative stories in this business; this was a great reminder of what we’re all chasing.

    • Doug Richardson

      Gotta own the good with the bad. Thanks Emily.

  • NICHOLAS HORWOOD

    Didn’t you think to say “For $50,000 I’ll write you a cheaper shot.”? You could make a LOT of money that way!

    (Great story. Great Blog. Continued success.)

    • Doug Richardson

      That’s an evil UPM trick where the money somehow stays below the line. Thanks Nicholas.

  • ChRiS

    A great shot!
    Loved the way the movie looked. If only a writer could have a say in the color grading ^^

    naw…I’m not even trying

    • Doug Richardson

      If only. Though I couldn’t have done better that Gianni Coltellacci p’s color noir work.

  • John Thomas

    Thanks for the hidden caution in the story, Doug. One expensive shot, for sure (and the director has the perfect person to blame – it’s right there in writing).

    Judging from my memory of some of your past escapades, you seem to have had some good collaborative relationships with directors from far away places. Do you find that directors from across the pond (either one) tend to be easier to work with and/or more respectful of the writer’s work than those closer to home – or are the sometimes tragic symptoms of the mysterious auteur affliction simply random in their choice of victims?

    • Doug Richardson

      I haven’t found foreign directors to be any less egotistical than those of our own domestic making. In my non-clinical experience, the foreign directors were making their first English language film. Their dependence on the writer stemmed more from needing a partner to trust and assist them in bridging language and cultural gaps. Though a great question, John.

      • GM52246

        Good clarification–I was thinking the same thing as John (directors who’ve directed theatre tend to be more respectful of writers, bc in a professional stage situation, you can’t change *anything* without the writer’s authorization). And foreign countries tend to have more paying theatre.

  • fbluhm

    Even as you say, “The screenplay is the fountain from which the rest of the movie flows,” we still hear, occasionally, that screenwriters are thought of as being pretty low in the pecking order. Sounds like it’s quite a complement these days that a director would shoot the scene exactly the way you envisioned it, Doug? Are we seeing a whole new generation in the business that’s giving more credit to the writer? Fred

    • Doug Richardson

      A writer’s contribution is less valued than ever. Witness the constant writer-rewrite shuffles on movies. The writer, though, remains king in TV, where most of the best work is being down nowadays.

  • Steven Axelrod

    Lehman was asked about some of the more arresting visuals in the Hitchcock movies he wrote, many of which Lehman came up with. “I write director’s touches,” he said. Brilliant guy,

    • Doug Richardson

      Perfectly put, Steven. Agreed.

  • clive

    I suppose the question to Lehman was really some ones written the music and the book, it’s a broadway hit, so whats your job?
    He could have said you know that bit where the planes are flying at cary grant so you think they are going to hit him in North by North West, and the bits on mount rushmore,some one had to think all that up.
    Liked the blogg

    • Doug Richardson

      Lehman was stating a common lament by screenwriters where their actual job is misunderstood. The idea being that despite there having already been a book and music written for the musical, somebody had to sit down at a typewriter and choose how to adapt it for the screen.

  • Phyllis K Twombly

    When I find someone who doesn’t know what a screenwriter does I bring them up to speed. If they’re interested enough I turn them into readers. All part of my diabolical plan… It’s a good way to get feedback.

    What about authors, Doug? In a previous post you mentioned one who felt his name should be on the screenplay instead of yours. Is this a common problem?

    • Doug Richardson

      Common only if said author worked on the adaptation in question. Despite that the author’s name is on the movie no matter what as the source.

  • Waves of Gray

    Does the willingness to budget and shoot something as written have anything to do with the writer’s credentials? Or does perceived quality trump everything else (i.e. would a veteran writer with a perhaps mediocre script get preference over a new writer with a “great” script)?

    • Doug Richardson

      Look at current pictures, Waves. They are rife with mediocrity. Because it’s a fear based biz where execs have little clue what a writer actually does, they tend to go to the same well over and over out of sheer safety. The last writer who delivered that last hit gets the first call. Perception is everything unless you go indie and fund yourself.

      • BlackDogClan

        That’s the problem in a nutshell. Execs fear losing a job they will not have forever, anyway. If you’re going to go down, go down in flames!

        There’s much too much bad “business” in show business. And much too much manipulated perception. I fear, too. I fear that America is circling the drain..

      • Andrea Snider

        “The last writer who delivered that last hit gets the first call. Perception is everything unless you go indie and fund yourself.”

        You just gave me the answer I needed and have been feeling all along. Reading your blog posts has actually been an education! The more I read… the more I’m starting to feel like I want to go the indie route and pull together the funding to make one of my own movies happen. I figure it’s probably the best way to show people what I’m capable of and then maybe I’ll be the last writer who gets the first call. Time to make a path where there is none…

        • Doug Richardson

          Indie funding is a slog. But it’s the only way to make your picture your way and, indeed, show the world what you are made of. Good luck, Andrea.

          • Andrea Snider

            Slog indeed!!! I’m currently in pre-production on a film short that I wrote which I’m funding all out of pocket (thank fuck for the day job). Thankfully I have enough interest that people are offering their services to help get it done. But I’m just getting my feet wet. After that it’s onto a full length where the real slogging will begin. 🙂 Thanks, Doug. You are a jem.

  • Ernie told me once that Hitch wanted a tornado in “North by Northwest” – he didn’t know how he was going to shoot it, so Ernie said let me think on it, and went home and came up with the cropduster. I wonder how memorable Sound of Music would’ve been without Ernie’s opening?

    • Doug Richardson

      Good point, Skip.