March 02, 2007

Playback, Screenwriters, and the Elephant in the Room

Where are our screenwriting stars? asks Marcus Robinson in Canada’s Playback Magazine. Where indeed. The reason there aren’t any should be clear to any who read the Canadian Film Insider and put two and two together. Mr Robinson hasn’t done that, as is obvious in his article and his subsequent list: Playback picks 10 screenwriting stars working in Canada

Please, read the initial article and then go through it with me:

Robinson begins by noting that Scorsese acknowledged the writer first off when accepting his Oscar for THE DEPARTED. Please keep that in mind for later. Then Robinson does something which completely reveals to any person who knows anything about film, that he is answering his own question as to why we have no screenwriting stars -- he quotes from Dennis Heaton who has a film called FIDO (bombing soon at a theatre near you). Now why does this give away Robinson’s cluelessness on this issue? Why, it’s because Heaton wrote Fido as part of a team with a writer-director named Andrew Currie (and a third writer by the name of Chomiak). What’s wrong with that? Well I’ll tell you in a minute -- keep this in mind for later, too. And then Robinson goes on to promote a Sundance-type lab for screenwriters, and later a Fujifilm/Greenberg development deal. Once again, missing the elephant in the room.

So what is this elephant in the room that nobody is talking about? Well, it is the Auteur Writer-Director model which is so deeply ingrained in Canadian film decision makers and, apparently, writers reporting on Canadian film, that they can’t see it. Scorsese didn’t co-write the script for THE DEPARTED and takes no credit for it. He rarely has any writing credits, and functions as a Director, not a writer-director. Then look at Dennis Heaton. He’s just one of the crowd in the FIDO thing. Andrew Currie is the standard Canadian writer-director type. Like most writers in Canada, Heaton is going to have to attach himself lamprey-like to Currie or another writer-director to get another feature film made in this country. That’s the model expected of screenwriters who aren’t writer-directors in Canada. And the Sundance-type lab for screenwriters? Doesn’t Robinson realize that’s an incubation model for writer-directors? Obviously not.

Then Robinson makes the obvious observation that 25% of the WGC makes their living in the US. The solutions to fix this problem is more dramatic TV and more movies made, those interviewed say. So the answer to the lack of star screenwriters is that there isn’t enough work to keep talent in the country? Maybe, but that’s only half the problem -- and it’s the half that would be solved in due course if you fixed the other half of the problem.

The solution is to change the failed philosophy of the Writer-Director Auteur Model built into English Telefilm’s decision-making and their staff. You have to make Canadian film project driven, not director driven. To tell you what’s wrong just consider this: Where’s the spec script market in Canada? Answer: There is none! And what chance do writers writing only have to see their work end up on screen anything like they wrote it, if they must attach themselves to a writer-director who has disproportionate power to make anything they want of the finished film? This is how you pretty much stomp out any spec script industry in Canada. Why do they suppose Telefilm’s Screenwriting Assistance Programme has been such a failure? Between the writer-director auteur promotion by Telefilm over the years, and the indifference by producers who recognized that Telefilm backed directors over projects, while having their own “great ideas”, it had no chance of developing home grown Canadian screenwriting stars.

Now look at Robinson’s list of “Canadian screenwriting stars” and reflect on his choices. How many of his idea of “screenwriting stars” are Writer-Directors? Well, Arcand, Polley, Kwan, Virgo, McGowan -- damn, that’s 5 out of the 10 as pure Writer-Director Auteur. So who’s left? Heaton is a co-writer lackey with a writer-director auteur like many Canadian screenwriters, while Gullucio had his play written into a movie by some writer-director auteur. So we’re left with 3 out of 10 actual Screenwriters -- who are not Writer-Directors or had their work adapted by one, or are functioning as lampreys attached to one, on Robinson’s list: Morais, Zmak, and Scott.

So, here is the problem, brought into focus by examining critically the writing of somebody who appears to be on the side of the Screenwriter with his heart in the right place, and recognizes the importance to increased Canadian films success, but isn’t aware of, or willing to admit to, The Elephant In The Room.
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