Placing the blame, a ramble

I’m very manipulative towards directors. My theory is that everyone on the set is directing the film, we’re all receiving art messages from the universe on how we should do the film. – Jeff Bridges

I recently started to read the Guillermo del Toro/Chuck Hogan book The Strain. It got me thinking, who gets the blame for things where more than one artist contributes to a work? I think singer/songwriters and authors are generally the only people in the media arts that get to claim sole authorship, but what happens when you have multiple writers on one book, or when a band writes a song together? And what about movies? There’s a saying that a film is made three times, the first in script form, then during shooting, and finally in the editing room, so who gets to claim credit for what?

The Strain isn’t the first book I’ve read where two authors wrote together. The collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub for both The Talisman and its sequel, Black House was a strong one. They always feel like just a Stephen King book. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t read any Straub before I read those books, but I don’t think that’s the sole culprit here. When two people come together to create one thing there is necessarily a give-and-take with one giving and the other taking. I’m not trying to invalidate one artist over the other but something’s got to give, right? So far, about 40 pages into The Strain, only the opening scene seems del Toro-y. It’s a fairy tale told to a young boy, a scene that occurs over and over again in del Toro’s films. The rest seems more thriller than horror or fantasy, focusing on an airplane that lands at an airport and then shuts down completely on the tarmac. There’s a more techno-thriller vibe than anything I’ve seen GDT do, including a paragraph that describes in detail the weapon selection of the SWAT team that approaches the airplane. I don’t know if del Toro even knows what a gun is, unless it’s a steampunk one. Maybe this is how you distinguish who to blame/credit for what. You get two very different people and only have knowledge of the artistic leanings of one of them. Then when something doesn’t fit you give it to the other guy. Problem solved.

Steven Spielberg directs Henry Thomas while making E.T.

Or not. What about a movie? I once had an afternoon-long argument between me and my roommates about the legitimacy of the auteur theory. I don’t even know if I fully buy into the theory, but here’s my understanding of it. The director gets credit for the final film, while everybody else gets credit for their element. The Director of Photography will get credit for how the movie looks, the actors for their roles, the writer for the story and words and so on and so forth. But the director gets to claim the final artistic vision, the big picture if you will. My roommates thought that this devalued all the work that everybody else did. I countered with the idea that directors are the decision makers, the people that get the final say on all aspects of the film. They’ll use the input from everybody and decide what goes into the film and what stays out. Even if they don’t directly make the artistic contribution of lighting, they direct the DP to do one thing over another, taking into account the expertise the DP brings to the job. It’s not a perfect accounting of the way a movie gets made, but it kinda works.

And how about The Beatles. They’re the most popular band ever. There are four of them, but the specters of Paul and John loom the largest in most people’s minds. They’re a very well documented band and we know almost every backstory to every song. We know who wrote them, who played what on them and who sang them. But take the example of Yellow Submarine. It is credited to Lennon/McCartney, but wikipedia tells us that it’s really mostly McCartney with a tiny bit of Lennon and even Donovan thrown in for good measure. Paul thought that the song sounded more Ringo-y than anybody else, so he gave it to Ringo to sing. So who gets the credit for the song? Is it Paul? Ringo? Donovan? I think the safe answer here is that The Beatles get the credit, no matter who did what. They formed a group for a reason, and you have to take that as it comes because anything else seems disingenuous. Maybe we should just take everything as it comes. Stop being so demanding of art and artists. Let them do their thing and then we’ll do our thing.

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5 thoughts on “Placing the blame, a ramble

  1. I had the same thought with Moneyball. Steven Zaillian is a good to occasionally great screenwriter, but Aaron Sorkin is a genius with an easy to identify style. I’m quick to praise Sorkin for the best dialogue scenes of the film – table meeting with the scouts and the last day of the trade deadline – while complaining that the delivery in those scenes had to be slowed down in order to blend with Zaillian’s less idiosyncratic style. In truth I have no idea which writer worked on which scenes.

    1. Yeah, it definitely feels like less of a Sorkin script than, say, The Social Network. Though that one has another quandary, that being how much of the film is Sorkin and how much is Fincher. COMPLEXITIES!

  2. I like to think that the actual writing of The Strain is largely on Chuck Hogan based on a lot of character ideas from del Toro. As someone who has done screenwriting before, del Toro probably is strong in contributing plot and characters and visualizations of settings and people, but it takes someone more focused as a writer, like Hogan presumably, to translate that into an effective narrative structure and dialogue on paper. But it is an interesting question. I think anytime you work with others, even something as simple as feedback from a friend, your product becomes slightly less your own, and that is probably a good thing if art is going to reach beyond the individual. Still, credit to those who actually convert ideas into a real thing.

    1. You’re probably right in this case. Before I even started I figured that GDT probably didn’t do much of the actual writing. Like I said in the post, you can definitely feel his touch in the first scene, but the rest feels very different so far. I watched Cronos recently and there’s another scene in The Strain that feels very reminiscent of that film, with a rich dying man who is connected somehow to the upcoming vampires.

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