Monday, July 08, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Which Would You Rather Watch....?

A regular reader, Jason, asks me the following question:

"Which would you rather watch, and why:
- a movie written by the world's worst screenwriter, directed by the world's best director?
- a movie written by the world's best screenwriter, directed by the world's worst director?"

Jason, that's a terrific question, and it's actually an easy one for me.  I'd much rather watch a movie written by the world's worst screenwriter, directed by the world's best director.

Here's why: 

In film, a writer provides the narrative blueprint and indeed is tremendously important to the overall creative process.  

But once the writer is done with his or her work, actors then interpret the material on set. Directors shoot the material, imposing their own vision, and finally, editors shape the material according to that vision (or perhaps the vision of the producer, in many cases).  Music is added that brings further color to the material.

If a writer falls down on the job and presents a bad screenplay, in other words, there are still ample opportunities to improve or re-parse the material in ways that result in a satisfactory film.  The idea "if it's not on the page, it's not on the stage" is not necessarily one that translates to film, the most collaborative of art forms.  Much of film language is simply visual, and a bad screenwriter's work may still boast the ability to inspire great visuals, for example, even if his or her dialogue is atrocious.

By contrast, a terrible director has the capacity to do real, permanent damage to a work of art, and if that's the case, it's essentially too late to salvage anything good in the end.  

If the performances are shot incompetently, you can't edit them to make them better. 

If the compositions are terrible, you can't just fix them "in post."  

Thus a failed director can cause massive damage to a film on a scale that a bad writer simply can't.   

Contrarily, there's very little a great writer can do to fix a bad director's work.  He or she is "done" by the time shooting begins.

I say all that as a writer -- and as a defender of writers -- by the way.  But the best, most eloquent words in the world can't save a film that has been incompetently or miserably presented.  By contrast, a skilled director can polish a turd of a screenplay, and make it shine to at least some degree.

I learned an odd lesson about all of this when I wrote and directed episodes of my web series, The House Between (2007 - 2009).  The best scripts didn't universally turn into the best episodes.  

Sometimes, the exact opposite was true, and actors rose to meet (and conquer)  more problematic material, etc..  Or I had to come up with imaginative editing in post-production that gave the "bad" episodes a luster which actually made them superior in final presentation to scripts that I actually preferred and which I felt were "better" on the page. 

The bottom line? There's a whole complicated alchemy at work in the filmmaking process.  And I believe a film with a bad script but a great director, stands a better chance of succeeding than a film written by a great writer, with a terrible director.

I look forward to seeing reader responses on this one.  Thanks for a great question.


  1. Before this post, I would've said the opposite, but you've convinced me.

  2. John, good thoughts regarding this question. Absolutely agree. Film is a director's medium.


  3. You make some excellent points John, and I think the key one is that film is a collaborative medium. But in the end the director is the one who is pulling the whole thing together to a unified whole. So even if the screenplay stinks, it falls on the director to work with it.

    I've been reviewing some of the James Bond films and I've found several cases where the scripts are severely lacking in coherence or just have some serious plot holes in them. Yet these films are still very successful (and sometimes considered favorites by viewers) because the director was able to overcome the script weakness and deliver what the audience wants to see. In other cases, the fact that a script was not completely sculpted, but thrown together as a series of "gags" ends up hurting the final product and most folks agree that the film is one of the weaker in the series ("Man with the Golden Gun" I'm looking at you).

    Sometimes enthusiasm trumps it all. Ed Wood wrote some of the most amazingly cumbersome dialogue I've heard, composed some of the most ridiculous shots ever put to film - and yet, his joy at creating the films comes right through. You can tell he was trying his hardest to entertain and deliver a message. He may not have succeeded, but sheer will has created some films that we will never forget (even if some of us try really hard to do so). I've got to admire the man's drive and yes, even his movies. :)


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