Backstories from the Film Industry

The Screenwriters Speak Out

Feb. 1, 2010
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The long migration of storytelling from the printed page into motion pictures began at the turn of the last century. Within a few decades film became the most pervasive form of storytelling—until the cinema was challenged by the smaller, upstart medium called television. A century later, movies remain among the most important sources of fiction narratives. Without screenwriters, they would have no stories to tell.

Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s (published by University of California Press) collects conversations with 13 writers prominent a decade ago in Hollywood and its outskirts. Backstory’s editor, Milwaukee film historian Patrick McGilligan, has authored biographies of prominent figures such as Alfred Hitchcock and Jack Nicholso. He began editing the Backstory series in the 1980s when with an eye to presenting a fuller understanding of the creative process in filmmaking. The spotlight usually falls on directors or actors; the authors of the stories they enact often remain in the shadows their names flashing past in the credits without explanation.

The writers chosen for Backstory 5 are a mixed lot. Luis Bunuel’s screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere brushes against teen king John Hughes in these pages. The familiar actor-director-writer Albert Brooks keeps company with the relatively obscure Rudy Wurlitzer. The thread connecting the chapters is intelligent talk on writing, filmmaking and the movie industry.

Many of the screenwriters in Backstory 5 have also written literature or directed films; many earned money as well-paid script doctors or other odd Hollywood jobs that allow them to fund projects closer to their hearts. Although he received an Oscar nomination, writer-director John Sayles has had trouble funding his recent films and offers some revealing thoughts on the effect of slender budgets on indie filmmaking. “Right now,” he says, talking about pitching a script, “I’m likely to say, to start with, ‘OK, I’ve got a bunch of ideas for things to write that I’d like to make into a movie. What’s one we can make cheaply?’” Lack of money an determine how a scene is shot—a waist up perspective on a brigade of soldiers means fewer boots to purchase.

Milwaukeean and onetime Shepherd Express contributor Tom Matthews (himself a screenwriter for Costa-Gavaras’ Mad City) contributed an interview with Richard LaGravenese, whose resume includes The Fisher King and The Horse Whisperer. “The best movies are the ones where everybody is making the same movie,” he told Matthews. It may seem an obvious point, but judging by the patchy scripts being filmed in Hollywood nowadays, the lesson seems to have been lost on many filmmakers.


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