"When I'm sitting down and start typing, I don't feel I'm writing an invitation for collaboration. I am transcribing a film that only I am watching. It's the whole film, all the images, the sounds, the music, but only very dimly seen. The script is just an attempt to capture a film that one person saw once." - Peter Straughan, Screenwriters' Lecture 2012
Very few people know what screenwriters actually do. We won't read anything they've ever written (unless we're a student of film) and we'll never see them on TV promoting their movies. We kind of get that they write stuff, but what exactly, we're not sure. The dialogue, maybe? Or maybe they write some of the action, like when Superman fights Zod in Man Of Steel. But doesn't the stuntman do that stuff? And do we even care?
Well, we should. Because for every finished movie, there was once a screenwriter (or several screenwriters) imagining the entire film into life. Peter Straughan's beautiful description of the process says it all. For, whether they're adapting a novel to the screen or writing an original screenplay, screenwriters, alone, deal in infinite choice. From the moment the screenplay is complete, everyone else on set, including the director, is interpreting their prima facie document.
When I came up with the idea for the BAFTA/BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series, it was partly an attempt to explain the screenwriter's art and partly an attempt to explore the screenwriter's complex relationship to a completed movie. When their work is done, screenwriters tend to vanish, literally and figuratively. But, in truth, they are always there, invisible in every frame of the finished film.
With Lucy Guard, the inspirational head of the JJ Charitable Trust, I set up the first series in 2010. Now in its fourth year, it has embraced such luminaries as Charlie Kaufman, Abi Morgan, David Hare, Simon Beaufoy, Brian Helgeland, John Logan, Christopher Hampton and, opening this year's series, the writer behind the Dark Knight Trilogy, David S Goyer.
The idea behind the series was simple: to give a platform to the best and brightest screenwriters in the world; to celebrate their talent and, by a kind of osmosis, to inspire their audience. In the often ultra-competitive world of film-making, the series acts as a kind of collective expiation. The atmosphere is collegiate, each writer reflecting the experiences of the other through the prism of their own story. It was always the plan that the lectures would be filmed and available as a permanent resource on the BAFTA Guru website. This is crucial. As the series continues, it builds up a library of insights that engage the public in what it means to attempt this odd, hybrid art form: solitary yet intensely collaborative, crucial to the genesis of every film, yet invisible to the touch.
There was something else. I wanted to kill off the misconception that screenwriters are not true authors. The lazy view, still prevalent, is that they are crafts-people; semi-industrial wordsmiths who hammer out their movie-templates, before handing them over to a film crew for re-modelling. The Realpolitik of the film industry can be brutal. Screenwriters are often sacked. They sometimes re-write each other's work. Often, they have to collaborate with an army of executives and directors, adapting and re-adapting their original drafts as budgets change and actors move on. But none of this alters the primary creative pulse that begins the process. None of it reduces the artistic merit of what they first imagined.
Occasionally, our series is accused of being too militant about the issue of film authorship. You cannot be too militant about this issue. The idea that a film is authored by a single vision is ridiculous, yet more and more directors take the possessory credit...."a film by". In so doing, they demean the efforts of all who engaged in that collective effort with them. Directors direct. This credit correctly describes what they do: conducting an ensemble of talents towards a single end. Why is this not enough for them? Why must they own the notion of creativity? The answer is partly that all human beings like to feel special (directors are no different) and partly that the film business likes simple paradigms. When the French invented auteur theory, Hollywood was quick to appropriate the idea as a marketing tool. Writers author books, directors author films. That is so much easier to pitch, on the TV couch, than the complex and difficult truth.
But the complex and difficult truth is worth fighting for. That, I suspect, is one of the reasons why our series has been so successful. For, along with celebrating great writers, we offer a refreshingly abrasive antidote to the absurdly reductionist notion of 'un film de'.
Long live screenwriters.
Podcasts and other resources from this year's BAFTA/BFI Screenwriters' Lecture series are available on the BAFTA Guru website.