The Politics Of Screenwriting

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The darkest period in American screenwriting was certainly during the anticommunist scare period following World War II and into the 1950s. In 1947 the House

Paddy Chayefsky. everett collection. reproduced by permission.

Paddy Chayefsky. everett collection. reproduced by permission.

Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began hearings that brought in "friendly" Hollywood individuals who began testifying about "Communist" influences being introduced into films by certain filmmakers and writers. The result of the hearings in Washington, D.C., was the creation of an informal Hollywood blacklist of writers and directors who were not to be hired. Particularly prominent on this list were the Hollywood Ten, which included Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), Ring Lardner Jr. (1885-1933), and Michael Wilson (1914-1978), but it affected many more, including Jules Dassin (b. 1911), Bernard Gordon (b. 1918), Maurice Rapf (1914-2003), and Walter Bernstein (b. 1919), who later managed something of a comic revenge with a splendid script for Martin Ritt's The Front (1976), which treats the story of the way many producers used "front" writers to cover for actual blacklisted writers who were secretly still writing. For many, it was a long battle to gain their rightful credits on scripts written "under cover.'' Trumbo received credit after the blacklist period for films such as Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1957), while Michael Wilson (1914-1976) won credit, after his death, for his scripts for Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Many memorable films have been made as low-budget, independent projects based on scripts that take chances and purposely break the so-called rules of Hollywood screenwriting. Steven Soderbergh's debut feature as writer-director, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), walked off with the top Cannes Festival prize as a film with almost no sex but lots of lies, very good dialogue, and character shading much in the tradition of French films of the 1950s and 1960s. Shot in Soderbergh's home state of Louisiana rather than in Hollywood, the film's sharply written script pointed the way not only for the Sundance Film Festival in future years but for the multitude of independents that followed. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (co-written with Roger Avary, 1994), for instance, breaks up the classical narrative of following a main protagonist through a basically chronological story to its resolution by mixing together several narratives with intersecting characters but told in jumbled time frames, so that by film's end, when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) "dance" out of the diner, viewers must remember that this "conclusion" in fact takes place earlier, as Vincent is already dead.

In recent years, the line between a clearly independent script and a Hollywood-supported project has become blurred. A collaborative effort such as Ang Lee's Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) is a special mixture of Hollywood and foreign, independent, and Hong Kong kung fu, all blended into a memorable script and film. Based on a novel by Du Lu Wang, the script was written by American screenwriter and co-producer James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang from Taiwan, who had previously written Yin shi nan nu (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994) together. But also on the project was Taiwanese screenwriter Kuo Jung Tsai, whom Schamus never met while writing.

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