Magazine article The Spectator

Give Credit Where Credit's Due

Magazine article The Spectator

Give Credit Where Credit's Due

Article excerpt

In May, certain negotiated agreements between the Writers' Guild of America and the American Producers' Association are up for renewal and the WG is threatening strike action if current talks fail. In America, this is serious and producers are already hoarding screenplays to see them through the expected drought, while the viewing public have been warned to expect an avalanche of `Reality TV.

Among the points up for renegotiation is the so-called `possessory credit', or `vanity credit'. This is the one that allows a director the credit: 'A film by (the director)' or '(A director's) film', rather than the more honest `Directed by. . . ' credit. The use of this form is largely responsible for hammering home the auteurist message that the director is the sole creator of the film.

Until the Sixties, the use of the possessory was pretty arbitrary; powerful directors would sometimes secure it, to the annoyance of the Writers' Guild which, in 1966, negotiated a deal with the studios whereby only a film maker who had also written the screenplay could get that particular credit. The Directors' Guild threatened strike action and the producers capitulated. When the WG subsequently fought to regain it, the Directors' Guild found their usually poorly attended union meeting swamped with famous names. Even Alfred Hitchcock rolled up. The writers didn't stand a chance.

Today the issue is hotter than ever, and if the WG loses again, as it well may, all writers everywhere had better beware, because the power of the movies in the world today is such that even novelists will be affected if the directors' claim to the possessory credit is now consolidated.

The evidence comes from the world of theatre, where, traditionally, it is the playwright whose name has been inseparably linked to the play. A few weeks ago Sky News set a dangerous precedent with an item about `Stephen Daldry's new play'. Daldry, who directed Billy Elliot, has (heroically, like Sam Mendes before him) returned to the theatre to direct a play called Far Away. Sky News neglected to mention it was a play by the rather important playwright Caryl Churchill. And Daldry also failed to find an opportunity to say her name during several minutes of chat.

A sinister pattern is beginning to emerge. To return to Sam Mendes: when the film American Beauty was first released here, its screenwriter, Alan Ball, was, unusually, interviewed. In answer to a question about the inspiration for the script, he spoke of standing on a bridge one morning and watching a plastic bag drifting through the air, and how he saw this as symbolic of people's lives.

Soon afterwards, at a screening of the film, its director, Sam Mendes (previously a theatre director), was asked by a journalist to explain what he'd been trying to say when he filmed a plastic bag drifting through the air. He answered that were he able to explain everything the film was trying to say he'd have written an essay about it.

A strange and ambiguous answer. It left unchallenged the implication in the question that the flying bag was his idea, an image through which he was trying to say something; and it implies more. It implies that the whole film was his way of saying something - something that he couldn't say in an essay: that it was, in other words, his creation; that it was indeed 'A film by Sam Mendes'.

To the casual film fan, this may seem a petty complaint - a director on the publicity circuit can't be expected always to say the right thing. No, but it's amazing how directors will consistently fail to mention the writer, even when doing so would facilitate an intelligible answer to a question. …

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