This insight into the blockbuster screenwriting process is as inspiring as it is troubling.
When viewed as an example of craft – and particularly the business of craft – in film, Vanity Fair‘s video “Hollywood Screenwriter Attempts To Write A Scene in 7 Minutes” offers an interesting, even suspenseful, insight into the process of churning out a blockbuster script. The ability to deliver creative responses to prescribed story beats is a skill, a practice, and a mindset which may be helpful for those of us not in the industry to witness, and maybe even learn from.
It’s certainly a far cry from the Sorkin / Kaufman dream no doubt held by many aspiring screenwriters: the singular voice, drawing from a deep well of the personal and pioneering. Instead, what we see here is the workman approach to screenwriting – which one suspects is the far more everyday reality of the job inside Hollywood.
I find what Emily Carmichael shares of her process here both courageous and concerning. I’m grateful for the peek behind the curtain – and I also feel a sudden understanding of how so much that comes out of Hollywood is so bad.
To be clear: this is not a criticism of Emily Carmichael personally, or of her work. I also understand, as she states clearly at the start of the video, that this is not representative of her normal working conditions or process.
All of that said, the process the video does show makes it easy to imagine how certain ideas – bad ideas, undercooked ideas, disappointing ideas, clichéd ideas – make it into finished films, particularly sci-fi films, and how the problems with aspects such as internal logic, world-building and macguffins can originate and propagate.
It’s unfortunate that this particular example’s genre is sci-fi, where world-building is perhaps most crucial, complex and unforgiving, and where any lack of thought or real understanding during production is palpable in the finished product.
With so many people involved in major film productions, and innumerable details to be addressed between them, it isn’t difficult to imagine how arbitrary decisions can become foundational canon, how placeholders can become artefacts, and why editing-by-committee means that one answer can be regarded as being as valid as another. In this light, it renders the solid or meaningful movies which result from this process as nothing short of miraculous.
It must take tremendous force of will, then, for the “auteurs”, the drivers with singular vision and the stamina to fight every single battle for that vision, to get their idea through this process intact. I’m not just talking about folks like Ridley Scott, who famously made enemies of his entire crew during production of Blade Runner only to produce something which initially flopped. I’m talking about the Tarantinos, the Edgar Wrights, who treat script, plotting and world-building as a work of art to be complete and able to stand alone before cameras even roll. I’m talking about folks like Denis Villeneuve, who interrogates his screenwriter about each page of the script, in order to understand the meaning and purpose of every detail, and who subsequently make no arbitrary choices on set – and you can feel that when watching the finished product.
As for workman-like film-makers: it’s not their fault that the system works the way it does, and that a big part of their job is to go along with decisions made by a committee with neither the understanding of nor interest in artistic minutiae which may or may not be “arbitrary”.
Collaboration often produces masterpieces, and singular visions often suffer in their vacuums. It is absolutely a gamble to go against the established way of doing things, particularly when thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are all riding on a film’s production.
But the established system certainly doesn’t produce more hits than misses, commercially or artistically. And the fact that someone doing their job well means they contribute to a machine which aims for a one-in-ten strike rate is all kinds of broken.
Lindsay Ellis dissects a particularly tone-deaf example of this all-too-commonplace, lacking-in-thought, sloppy approach to sci-fi and fantasy in her video essay ‘Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding‘: