Giving credit where it’s due

questionmarkMy question is not about screenwriting per se, but rather about writing about films. Screenwriters, myself included, are not fond of essays about movies that ignore the contributions of writers. Do you have a stylistic preference for attributing authorship when writing about a movie, when each person’s individual contributions are not known? As an example, here’s a sentence from an essay I wrote about Armageddon:

In the real world, [a mission briefing] would probably happen in a briefing room. Michael Bay decided he wanted it to happen in the shuttle assembly building with a B-2 and 2 SR-71 Blackbirds.

Now I don’t know that this was Michael Bay’s decision — it may have been in one of the drafts of the script — or it may have been decided by Jerry Bruckheimer. But if I wanted to cover my bases, I would have to say:

Michael Bay, Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, Robert Roy Pool, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Jerry Bruckheimer decided they wanted it to happen…

This seems incorrect. Alternatively, I could recast the sentence as:

“In the film, this happens in the shuttle assembly room…”
“In Armageddon, this happens in…”

But doing this consistently means treating the film as essentially authorless. This is probably truer of Armageddon than of most movies, but I don’t like it stylistically. What’s your preference? Say I was writing about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and specifically about something that happens in the film. Furthermore, assume I know nothing about the differences between the book, the script, and the finished film (which is usually the case when writing about a film). Would you prefer:

“Dahl, August, and Burton’s characters,”
“Dahl and August’s characters,”
“August’s characters,”
“Burton’s characters,”
“The characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,”

Or some formulation I’m not seeing?

This isn’t entirely an academic question — I write about movies at Criterion Collection, and recently someone in the comments criticised me for saying things like “Scorsese’s version of Jesus” when writing about The Last Temptation of Christ. So I revised the essay to be more precise — but that meant a lot of sentences that read “the film’s version of Jesus,” and I’m hoping you can think of something more elegant.

Thanks for your time. I enjoy your blog immensely. My little sister recently graduated from Trinity, and hearing you deliver your “Professional Writing and the Rise of the Amateur” lecture was one of the highlights of her college career.

– Matt
Los Angeles

Normally, I lop off these thanks-for-your-blog comments, but I was feeling a little down, so that perked me up. Now, on to your question.

I don’t think there’s a perfect way to address authorship of a movie, but you’re right to be sensitive to the ambiguities. The characters in Charlie and the Chocolate factory are mine, and Dahl’s, and Tim’s, and the actors’. At every step in the process, choices were made by many people for many reasons. The same can be said for the sets, the music, the wardrobe, and the choreography.

If you’re writing about Tim Burton’s body of work, I think it’s absolutely fair to use a phrase like, “Burton’s characters tend to…”, since you’re pointing out a consistency across many different films. (You could do the same for characters in the films I’ve written, or the characters Johnny Depp has played.) Even if the person you’re talking about didn’t create these characters, the fact that there’s similarity between them indicates a certain mindset. An actor or a director might be consistently drawn towards artistic outsiders, for example.

It’s only when you’re looking at one specific film that you need to be careful not to hand out credit indiscriminately. Constructions like, “The characters in Burton’s film,” make it clear you’re not talking about the 1970 version.

I have no issue with the attributive apostrophe. It’s Tim Burton’s film; it’s Richard Zanuck’s film; it’s Warner Bros.’s film. Nor do I mind “A Joe Schmo Film” — it’s including the film in the director’s (or a star’s) canon. The only credit that sets my teeth on edge is “A Film By Some Director.” Both on-screen and in print, the “by” feels like an unwarranted grab for authorship. Even a writer-director is working with a crew of talented professionals to make the movie you’re seeing. That’s why I refused the credit on The Nines. But I know a lot of smart and good people who do use the credit, so I’m not slamming them for it.

In a previous post, I’d mentioned that the screenwriter’s name seems to be much more likely to show up in a negative review than a positive one. No one’s taken me up on the challenge to see if that’s really true, but the offer’s still out there. If anyone wants to do a statistical study of a few films on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, I’d love to publish what you find.

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