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Writerly ambitions

The L.A. Times piece on Aaron Sorkin comparing great TV to movies is an interestingly compelling bit on just how mainstream cinema has moved from good writing to mainlining spectacle. Sorkin, surely one of the great TV dramatists of the past 20 years, has been praised for his script for “The Social Network” in its mix of trademark Sorkin traits: compelling characters, smart dialogue, and compelling moral dilemmas. In short, really what you’d watch a good TV show for. These are characteristics that seem to be missing more and more from contemporary cinema, and Sorkin brings an interesting point about great screenwriters of the past:

“If Herman Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Budd Schulberg were alive today, they’d be writing on TV. As a writer, you love immediacy, of being able to weigh in on something that’s on everyone’s mind. And with rare exception, you only get to do that with TV. With a movie, even if everything goes perfectly, I can write a joke today and have to wait two years to hear the laughter.”

The article goes on to look at the current state of some acclaimed screenwriters, and their notable lack of produced credits lately. Frank Darabont, maybe the best classical American director to debut in the 1990s and a three-time Oscar nominee, hasn’t made a film since “The Mist” in 2007 and has only directed four films since the past 17 years (compare that to uberhack Michael Bay, who’s shooting his ninth feature since 1995). Darabont finally made the move to television, where he’s running the show for “The Walking Dead” over on AMC.

Its initally difficult to think that Sorkin is right until you go back and look at the filmmakers mentioned. Mankiewicz  wrote or co-wrote “Citizen Kane,” “Pride of the Yankees” and “Dinner at Eight.” Wilder fielded an amazing body of work, ranging from “Double Indemnity” to “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment.” Sturges (“Sullivan’s Travels,” “Hail the Conquering Hero”) was the first writer who really directed his own scripts. Schulberg’s scripts for “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” are some of the most honest writing of that period.

Transpose that to modern times. Is there room in the 12-screen multiplex for complex narratives, complicated characters, real emotion, true pathos? Rarely, it seems. Those that attempt it seem to fall between the cracks if they can’t be attached to a certain genre. Consider Ben Affleck’s recent feature “The Town,” which has been raised for its sharp characterization, strong dialogue, and a realistic evocation of south Boston. Of course, it’s all wrapped around an easy-to-accept genre, the heist flick. If you stripped out that aspect and really made it into a Paddy Cheyevsky-esque “kitchen sink” drama, would it have opened at number one in its opening weekend? Doubtful.

Alan Ball won an Oscar for his “American Beauty” script and promptly went on to create “Six Feet Under” and adapt “True Blood” for HBO, both the great critical and public success. The L.A. Times article talks a bit about how Ball’s ascerbic view of American suburbia isn’t a natural match for Hollywood, but the bitter humor is perfect for cable television, where characters get hours and weeks to live out lives that would otherwise be condensed into two hours in a movie (I’d have been fascinated to see “American Beauty” play out over the course of several seasons, seeing how Ball and a crew of writers would have developed the lives and choices of Lester Burnam and his family and associations.)

Stephen Gaghan, an Oscar winner for “Traffic,” hasn’t had a feature produced since 2005, though he set a TV deal into place last year that, regretfully, has yet to bear any fruit. Meanwhile, his spiritual older twin brother David E. Kelley continues to create new series, including an upcoming “Wonder Woman” adaptation. Kelley began his career with the feature “From the Hip” and has only had three other films produced from his scripts, none of them worth a second look. Why? Because Kelley, like Sorkin, specializes in Big Issues, forcing his characters to deal with the weight of the world, and TV allows someone like Kelley to pound out a script about the moral dilemma of the week (gun control, public education, gays in the military, the war on terror) and have that script shot and on TV in a month’s time, whereas film takes YEARS, rendering the issue almost moot.

David E. Kelley
Stephen Gaghan

Think of those great James Spader monologues from “Boston Legal,” these beautifully eloquent pieces of writing, angry and funny and poetic, that would run for four or five minutes uninterrupted. (The clip quality isn’t much, but it’s a good example of Kelley and Spader at work.)

And then there’s the underappreciated genius of Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” which managed to use sports as a sounding board for anything that crossed Sorkin’s mind. I also love the back and forth between Josh Charles and Peter Krause towards the end, as well as the music playing over. (In a true and just world, “Sports Night” would have lasted at least three more seasons and Felicity Huffman would have won her Emmy for that show and not “Desperate Housewives,” but that’s another blog entirely.)

You’ll rarely find writing of this intelligence in most options you have at the local multiplex, sadly, where characters actually have opinions, on real issues, on things that matter, and are not just trying to save the President from the sleeper agent, or have to accept that yes, they’re in love with the rogueish Bad Boy (hi, Josh Duhamel). And I know that the argument is made on shows like this that the characters are nothing more than mouthpieces for the opinions of their creators, to which I say “So?” You want to have create a show that just sounds off on your opinions? Go write it yourself, then.

(Kelley and Sorkin also specialize in writing their shows themselves; both men hire writing staffs for their series, but its well known that those staffs basically serve as sounding boards for ideas for either men, and then Kelley or Sorkin goes off and writes the episode himself. Check out the credits on almost any series either man has produced, and you’ll see their names following that “Written By” credit moreso than anyone else.)

The lowest common denominator rule which seems to rule Hollywood production schedules (reboot of existing franchise/inane romantic comedy/overpriced tentpole franchise starter) has effectively dumbed down most movies to the point that I think great screenwriters will move more and more to televison, and most likely to cable, where the writer is going to be given greater creative leeway and a sense that their creation won’t be yanked after four episodes a la the four major networks.

It’s probably for this reason that most of the great TV dramatists stick to television. David Simon could never have created such a rich narrative with “The Wire” as a film than as a TV show. On film there would have been an action scene every 20 minutes, including a 15 minute guns-a-blazin’ finale, and wrap everything up in a smidge more than two hours; on TV he crafted 60 hours that felt more novelistic than anything, painting a real portrait of a city and a society that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. Furthermore, Simon’s made no bones about his opinions on numerous issues, including the state of television itself; he is the auteur of his creations, not a director. That is his heart and soul he’s putting up there every week, and no one elses, and he is not willing to dumb it down for anyone. (There’s a reason he won that MacArthur “genius” grant.)

Therein lies the great difference between film and TV: it’s a writer’s medium.  The film “The Hurt Locker” is a Kathryn Bigelow film, despite the fact Mark Boal wrote the screenplay. But the series “Sons of Anarchy” is Kurt Sutter, plain and simple, and he isn’t shy about the fact, nor should he be. And certainly the director plays a huge role in the creation of any film or TV show; Sorkin himself admits David Fincher’s style on “The Social Network” helps power a movie that is mostly people sitting around talking. Television shows with distinct visual style like “House” or “CSI” have those because an interesting director came in for the pilot, but odds are that director will move on to another show almost immediately. Directors in television tend to be journeymen, moving from show to show, network to network, multiple times over the course of a season (though most shows have a director as an EP to help maintain a consistant visual style). But that show creator and writing staff is there, day in and day out, creating their series and waiting for the next director to arrive. It is the difference between the architect and the carpenter; you can’t build the house if you don’t know what you’re building first.

Hollywood’s approach, however, is to always focus on the carpenter and then bring in whatever architects it takes to make the carpenter happy, constantly redesigning the house as you move along, until oftentimes what you’ve built doesn’t much resemble what you started on. Since most big-budget Hollywood films employ multiple screenwriters over time, doing script doctoring or on-set rewrites, whatever vision the original screenwriter had is lost over time. And yes, there are those incredibly discouraging stories by showrunners of have to filter their work through corporate eyes (Mitchell Hurwitz deserves better) or even leave their shows before they’ve aired, but odds seem to run high that television oftens a greater chance for a writer to be able to effectively translate from script to screen.

Certainly networks and cable want shows to be successful, but success can be gauged in different ways. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” barely break two million viewers a week, but AMC supports them because of critical plaudits and the buzz both shows bring to the channel. Two million tickets over a weekend may equal a $14-20 million opening, certainly respectable but nothing to shout from the rafters. But television can specialize. USA has its “blue sky” shows, AMC is trafficking in edgier dramas, FX chronicles the plight of the alpha male, Showtime focuses on risky comedies, and HBO … well, HBO anymore is just slinging shows at the wall and looking to see what sticks.

Sorkin sums it up well:

“If you polled all 300 million Americans on the least objectionable way to prepare beef, when you tallied up the results, the winner would be a McDonald’s hamburger. And that’s pretty much what you have to be when you’re making a movie that has to earn $200 million at the box office to be a success. But in TV, things are different now. If you’re a writer, TV isn’t the B team anymore. It’s filled the void with stories that have largely been abandoned by the movies.”

So let Americans have their Big Macs, but let us be grateful that some of us are looking for something more satisfying.

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  1. marcusg
    October 11, 2010 at 10:11 am

    It is interesting that piracy has been touted as the culprit for movies making less and less money. While piracy is a problem, the viewing public now has access to reviews and comments well before a movie hits the ‘silver screen’. Take the recent movie Date Night. The leads, Tina Fey and Steve Carrel, are funny people but the film was cliched, hack-eyed and not very funny. The trailer showed all the best bits anyway.

    In most countries TV is free. Product quality has to be high otherwise your product will not survive. Movies seem to have multiple lives, on the screen, cable, DVD / BluRay, on TV (ironically), Special Edition, Definitive Edition, Director’s Cut, special packaging.

    If you love a TV show or a movie you’ll buy the series or the Definitive Edition or the Director’s Cut And we all know the Director’s Cut means the original vision of the piece, not some moronic Studio Executive’s version that demanded changes governed by an audience test. Unfortunately, most movies today, but there are exceptions, simple don’t quell the appetite. TV shows develop overtime, with evolving story lines and characters make them far more enjoyable and satisfying. It’s bit like the McDonald’s burger versus a medium-rare steak at a high class restaurant.

  2. Ross
    October 11, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    The kind of writing you seem to be praising here is “issue writing.” And issue writing is perfectly fine, I suppose, when it’s done well, and sounds good, and the speechifying doesn’t bleed over into the pedantic.

    But Billy Wilder’s own favorite among his movies was DOUBLE INDEMNITY (because, he said, it is “the one that has the fewest mistakes.”) And INDEMNITY — like CHINATOWN, BODY HEAT, SHANE, JAWS and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS — is a genre movie. That is to say, it is a movie that is proudly and defiantly plot-driven (yes, just like Affleck’s superb “heist movie” THE TOWN).

    Sure they boast vivid characterizations and wonderful dialogue, but these movies above all have strong narrative engines. They are all about INCIDENT. They are about “what is going to happen next?”

    And really smart and exciting genre stories are what seem to be most conspicuously absent in movies and TV at the moment (THE TOWN being a rare and welcome exception).

    • October 11, 2010 at 9:43 pm

      I agree with what you’re saying about “issue writing,” knowing that from the earliest days of television, the best writing was what would be termed “issue writing.” Consider Rod Serling and Reginald Rose, these brilliant writers who almost already wrote about issues, but hid it behind their stories.

      But I think you’re off about incident. Yes, incident is important, but only so long as we CARE about the characters. Case in point: “WarGames.” It’s an incredibly dated movie and the technology seems ridiculous at this point, but you care about the characters.

      All of those movies you mention have strong narratives engines, yes, but you are involved in the characters. Regardless of however grand the story is, if you don’t give a crap about the people in the story, then it doesn’t matter.

    • marcusg
      October 12, 2010 at 4:45 am

      I have to agree Ross, the medium of TV lends itself to more “issue writing” simply because the character motivations and story can be drawn out over time. True, there can be a fine line between quality “issue” writing and grandstanding and pedantic language.

      A movie does not have the luxury of long term character development, but at the same time story (coherent plot at least), characterisation, motivation, continuity, (sometimes logic would be a start) should all be paramount in the finished movie product.

      You can categorise the story-telling technique anyway you like; strong narrative, incident, issue story along with character development. But a movie must be enjoyable.

  3. October 11, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    American Beauty a television series? Oh you know that would have been phenomenal! Much respect for Alan Ball. I think there are some great points in here, although admittedly, I quit watching television in the last year and made an affirmation to start watching more movies. I still Netflix much talked about TV shows (just saw the first season of Deadwood), but there is so much junk on the air. I suppose the same can be said for movies – formulaic big studio flicks, that is. I think I’ll definitely have to give “The Town” a watch now, ’cause I’ve heard some good things about it. I was surprised to see my local indie cinema is screening it alongside “Jack Goes Boating” which I saw and liked. Had this not been a Phillip Seymour Hoffman film (and his directing debut at that), I certainly don’t think it would be getting the exposure it is. Then again, I’m in New York – Hoffman’s home base.

  4. manoj keswani
    October 11, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    could you make a list of all the tv shows that are mentioned in this article?

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