Tales from the Script (2009): United States – directed by Peter Hanson
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some strong language
Tales from the Script sounds like a great idea for a documentary: get a number of famous and unknown screenwriters to give interviews on a variety of subjects ranging from the joys of seeing their imagination come to life to the drudgery and despair of having extra writers hired to replace you. And the film is interesting, in a way, at least for someone with an interest in the creative and business process each Hollywood film undergoes. But it is also rather sterile, with little B-roll, and poorly constructed; without having access to a number of its famed writers I imagine it would have made a great extra on a DVD.
The film is broken into a number of chapters, and in each one a number of screenwriters weigh in on a particular aspect of the filmmaking process from a writer’s point of view. Some of the sections are rather ambiguous, and certain snippets do not seem to make particular sense within their section. Nearly 50 writers make up the interviews, and the diversity brings a certain level of freshness that otherwise would have been lost among the dullness of talking heads.
Fortunately, each time a writer is on screen he or she is introduced with an accompanying title of theirs. This is particularly helpful when attempting to keep track of everyone. Many of them fade into the background as they offer interesting little bits of information. A few of the more prominent writers are far more interesting and offer some profound insight on the creative process.
William Goldman provides much of the insight and humor. He is more foul-mouthed than the rest of the writers combined, and it is odd to see the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride speak in such a manner. But his experience with the industry is invaluable. At one point, early in the film, he says that the quality of writing is unimportant; it’s the story and structure that matter.
Paul Schrader, too, is interesting as he talks about writing the screenplay for Taxi Driver and collaborating with Martin Scorsese on it. He admits he was not experienced enough to direct it at the time, and speaks favorably of knocking ideas back and forth with Marty. Guinevere Turner takes the cake for most interesting anecdote, relating her experience working with Uwe Boll on Bloodrayne. In a refreshingly honest and unflattering moment she relays an initial phone call with Boll in which he demands a script. A short time later she sends a rough, crappy draft to him which he says is excellent and about to start production. Later, watching the film at its premiere, she is the only one laughing, and states that only about 20% of her ideas made it into the final cut.
Many of the writers have common experiences with directors, actors, or producers manipulating their scripts. Horror stories abound concerning extra writers hired for rewrites, directors ignoring scripts, and actors refusing to do certain scenes. There are some positive experiences, too, such as when Harrison Ford told a writer that he didn’t need to give a long speech; he could convey it all in a glance. Time and again the writers talk about being salesman, sitting in executive offices and explaining their pitch, knowing their odds of success are minuscule. The business sounds like a dreadful place to try to make a living, and even Schrader admits some advice he gives aspiring screenwriters: if something else in life makes you happy, do it. If not, screenwriting will be a lot of work, and miserably so.
For all of the interesting and amusing stories there are a number of segments that are immediately forgettable. It doesn’t help that the entire production is so sloppily constructed. The interviews look very poor, as if done digitally with mediocre equipment and little knowledge of lighting. Even worse are the cheesy freeze frames at the end of each segment as it segues into a new chapter. These contribute to the notion that it may have been better off as a DVD extra. Any music accompanying the interviews is slight and almost too subtle, and there is hardly any B-roll to break the monotony of talking heads. There are occasional exteriors of bland production buildings, and the occasional sweep over a production still, but little else worthy of mention.
In spite of its flaws, Tales from the Script will be a very interesting documentary for anyone interested in pursuing a career writing for the Hollywood machine. If nothing else it serves as a reminder to strive for work in independent features; there may be little money there (at least compared to the $4 million Shane Black received for The Long Kiss Goodnight) but there is a greater chance your creative vision will be completed pure and unspoiled. For those not interested in what happens behind closed doors on the various studio lots, Tales from the Script does little to continually engage a viewer’s attention.