Lights! Camera! Fiction!

A hundred years ago the job of screenwriter didn't exist in the early film business; today the scrip

Having missed every single opportunity to walk the picket lines (newborn baby - out of town - sheer laziness), it was with some trepidation that I attended the emergency meeting of the Writers Guild of America at the Shrine Auditorium this February. Would I be singled out for counter-revolution and run out on a rail?

Hardly. The Shrine - an orientalist fantasia old enough to have been built when the Middle East evoked romance rather than terror, and once home to the Academy Awards - was buzzing with screenwriters, far more than could have been manning the barricades. Snarky Peter Pans of the sitcom writers' room, grizzled ex-playwrights from the Law and Order League, hermit-crab feature writers like myself. After all, there was money at stake. The blazing sun of studio forecourts, two months of outdoor marching and sign-heaving, had done little to relieve our fish-belly pallor, and no one would have mistaken this for an actors' strike meeting.

Oh, the actors had made their appearances in solidarity, cheerleaders showing up to support the chess team. But tonight was about the writers. And the lawyers. Any illusions we may have had that the evening would conclude with a ringing endorsement of creative autonomy soon evaporated, for what we were actually striking over was the terms under which we had yielded that creative freedom in the first place. It was about internet residuals, download rights and minimum fees for webisode scripts, not dialogue and creative input. A pall of boredom settled on the crowd. Perhaps one or two of us looked around, took in the lotus-leaf pilasters, imagined that a whiff of Lucky Strikes still hung in the air and could see Billy Wilder ambling his way up to the podium to accept an Oscar for Sunset Boulevard. Hadn't it been about the writing at one point?

Ah, phooey, as one of Preston Sturges's characters might have said. American screenwriting has always been about money, as Marc Norman's comprehensive and level-headed What Happens Next lays out in considerable detail. It's all there, in fact, on page 188, where Norman describes the predicament facing screenwriters as they went up before a National Labour Relations Board hearing in 1938. FDR's relative friendliness to organised labour and a rare outbreak of testicles on the part of the Screen Writers Guild (later to become the Writers Guild of America) had paved the way for a basic agreement on the rights of writers for the screen.

As Norman puts it, if the writers described themselves as artists, independent contractors - certainly an elevation of their status and self-esteem - they fell outside of NLRB jurisdiction. Conceding to be employees, writers had to accept the government language, which said that an employee was somebody who worked in an industry engaged in interstate commerce, and "who had no control over his or her final product". "If there was a fiery debate over these words within screenwriters' ranks," Norman comments drily, "there's no record of it."

Your Syd Fields and your Robert McKees will tell you that screenwriting is about tapping into narrative archetypes or fleshing out bones of story structure with the muscles of human emotion, but the fact is that it started with directors losing interest in writing those goddamn title cards. As silent films matured it became obvious that dialogue, even dialogue that nobody would ever hear, shouldn't be left to actors alone (lip-readers complained about the line "Let's get them frog-eatin' bastards!" from a French Revolution drama); and that narrative writing, even if it were confined to the length of an advertising slogan, still bore a bit of scrutiny and application. Norman dutifully lays out the first steps of this business - it's a tedious affair at first, remarkable mostly for the brief opening allowed to women before men sniffed out the profits. One might get the idea that silent films held out the promise of real creative control for writers. At Ince Studios, a cowboys-and-Indians factory whose economy of scale relied at first on the fortuitous presence in town of the Miller 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show, scripts were stamped "Produce exactly as written" by the boss before a foot of film was exposed. Screenwriters would give a lot for that sort of language from the studio today, but it's pretty clear that this was an injunction to keep costs down.

Screenplays are often compared to blueprints; nobody ever lived in an elevation or watched a script. The analogy is flawed - construction supervisors never walk the red carpet - but pregnant. Short of a screenplay, studio production departments wouldn't have a document from which to budget a film, or to beat a runaway director with when costs run over. Leaving art aside, the script is the blackboard for Hollywood's industrial methods, from scheduling and budgeting to the voodoo economics of audience expectations (which can best be summed up, as Norman rightly puts it, as "the triumph of the human spirit"). This explains why the studios - which are essentially banks - have fostered the existence of a screenwriting demi-monde in the first place, but not why they have nurtured such a perpetually fractious lot in their bosoms as attended the Shrine that evening.

The answer is art, or at least artifice. Looked at one way, the suits have always understood that the business of agent lunches, staff meetings and marketing powwows doesn't mix well with the dreaming up of consensual hallucinations. Looked at another way, they consider the task of figuring out what happens next to be tedious, childish, or humiliating, or all three put together. We've all felt that way ourselves. Norman is right in identifying Charlie Kaufman's Adap tation as the best screenplay written on the subject of screenwriting - the self-loathing and grandiosity, the simultaneous sense one feels, sitting in Insomnia on Beverly Boulevard tapping away on Final Draft, that one may be on to something grand and that one really ought to find a more respectable way to earn a living. Kaufman is arguably the only screenwriter who ever consciously created a screenplay as artefact in itself, and thus the only writer to elevate the screenplay to the level of art rather than design. But there are, of course, marvellous practitioners along the way.

Things pick up once Ben Hecht arrives in Hollywood, bearing with him the viral storytelling abilities of the tabloid newsroom. He would be irreplaceable had he been known only as the recipient of Herman Mankiewicz's famous tele gram - "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots" - a judgement that still holds considerable contemporary relevance - but he also wrote Scarface and The Front Page, and had a hand in practically every worthwhile production of the 1930s, as Pauline Kael averred. Hecht and Mank set the tone - greed leavened with contempt, both for oneself and for one's employers - that still characterises the attitude of the Hollywood screenwriter today. In between came the migrations of slumming East Coast highbrows, meretricious Old World literati and, in time, gold-diggers from any town with a video store.

There is a brief flirtation with relevance in the form of communism - a disastrous one-night stand, in fact, a moment's pleasure repented at leisure. The Hollywood communists and fellow-travellers never posed a threat to the status quo, let alone the government, and they would pay dearly for whatever kicks they had got from the meetings and the pamphlets and the pretty words. Less charismatic in the public forum than actors, they were easy prey for Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Norman delineates the hearings and the convictions, the lack of convictions, the recantings and the principled stubbornness of the sorry blacklist interlude. Thereafter, the assault of television, video, video games and Vietnam - other stuff to spend your time on, in other words - which broke the hold of traditional film narrative on Americans' imaginations and ushered in the event film, the horror film, the stuff-blowing-up film, all of which render the services of a screenwriter somewhat decorative.

Norman tells the tale with admirable sympathy and notable modesty, remaining mum on the subject of his own Oscar-winning career (for Shakespeare in Love) and preserving an unscreenwriterly optimism. One might fault him in only two regards: first, he doesn't show much concern for what a literary critic might call the stylistics of screenwriting - the evolution of the forms and registers of dialogue, for instance, between the poles of realism and artifice; and second, he doesn't translate financial figures into present-day dollar figures. This might render the somewhat quaint numbers (what did Preston Sturges's $2,750 a week at Paramount amount to in the 1930s?) in a light that more realistically depicts why so many talents (and non-talents) spent so much of their lives on this most bastardised form of writing. But these are quibbles. Marc Norman has no doubt sacrificed considerable profit-making opportunity in the writing of this book, but he has done a bang-up job. Not all the competition are idiots.

Chris Weitz most recently directed "The Golden Compass". He was co-nominated for an Academy Award for his screen adaptation of "About a Boy"

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything