Authorship Matters

How many times have you watched a disappointing film and thought “who was responsible for this mess?”  How many times have you watched something and thought “who was responsible for this masterpiece?” In most art forms a sole creator can take credit, but not so in things like film and tv. There, the creative process is so complex that it relies on collaboration and compromise with so many egos and opinions of so many artists involved, every one of them certain that theirs is the best way forward, that it is amazing anything good comes out at all. So many talented people working in so many departments all delivering their best may make for pretty pictures, but handsome actors and exotic locations won’t save you from the boredom of a bad script. What sets the great ones apart from the vast majority of mediocrity is, I believe, primarily strength of story.

Authorship is a nebulous notion when it comes to movies. No matter what the screenwriter (or even the novelist upon which a film adaptation may be based) has written, there are too many unpredictable factors that influence how the shooting progresses for it ever to come out exactly as planned. Every one of the artists involved contributes something different to the process that moves it in ways that could not be foreseen, overcoming production challenges with creative solutions. And then there are the flourishes that can alter an innocuous line into something full of menace or love – great actors give characters a depth and dimension beyond what the page says. What you end up with on film more or less dictates what you can do in the final edit, and in some cases there may not be any footage shot for scenes written, forcing yet more creative solutions. When you think about it, it is remarkable that anything coherent emerges from the process of filmmaking at all.

The question, then, is what makes a good film? There are many, many factors, of course, but I think, at the heart of it all, a strong story that everyone can agree on and work toward is the most essential aspect. Story is the reason everyone pays attention to a movie, anyway. When it is bad, the audience disconnects. What makes story good? Continuity and logic. Once a rule or plot point is established, it must be adhered to and characters should behave logically toward it. James Bond is a highly trained spy and able to master just about any vehicle, but if you were to have a sequence in which he drives badly you would need to establish a story-reason, such as poisoning, for it to be logical.

Stewardship of the story rests with key creative personnel who all need to share a common goal, but as the leading figures in the process it is vital for the producers and director to share a common vision and give each other what they need to deliver a good product; the producers because they are responsible for the project in its entirety and the director because he or she is in charge of making sure everyone is pulling together during filming and editing. Writers are, of course, vital. Without them there is no script and nothing to shoot. They do all the hard work of justifying every plot point and characterization, inventing the world of the story and creating the framework for the entire project to hang all its efforts on. Writers can be thought of as the creators or the originators of a story, but unless they are involved in rewrites during shooting and editing, they can’t claim authorship of a film any more than the producer or director. Film is collaborative.

The problems are difficult enough to  deal with on a single film. Sequels are a whole other thing for which I would say it helps to keep key creative personnel on board for any continuation, but not essential. One of the most famous examples of a superior sequel is ALIENS (1986) which was made seven years after its predecessor by a completely different creative team. A large factor in the success of ALIENS, I believe, is the ways in which it respects and builds upon story material established in the first film. All sequels are essentially whores, turning tricks on a proven formula to make money, but the better ones give you something new in addition to what you came back for and, therefor, a reason to care.

Strength of story and its stewardship throughout the filmmaking process is the most important aspect of a great film. For it to carry over into more than one film is rare but not unheard of. The chances of story integrity are stronger when key creative personnel carry over, but as long as the previously established facts about the characters’ world remain intact and respected, the chances of something good or great coming out of the process are much improved. Ultimately, it all comes down to respecting the story and, by extension, the audience.

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