Monday, February 28, 2011

It's great to see screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Chris Sparling getting the recognition they deserve

It's been said "film is a director's medium," and the whole notion of a name above the title and possessory credit was a battle long ago given up by the Writers Guild of America. Yet a recent wave of Hollywood films seems to be shifting toward what was unthinkable years ago--acknowledging the screenwriter as auteur. It's a subject at the heart of Steven DeRosa's book Writing with Hitchcock, which, in a new expanded edition, closely examines the most important writing collaboration of cinema's most celebrated auteur.

In Writing with Hitchcock, Steven DeRosa invites the reader into what was sacred territory at Paramount Studios for much of the 1950s--Alfred Hitchcock's office, where he and a young screenwriter named John Michael Hayes hashed out, debated, and plotted the movie at hand, until it was time for the director to go home, or to one of his favorite restaurants, leaving the writer to sort through the ideas they discussed that day and weave them into a screenplay. The first of their collaborations, Rear Window, marked a turning point that began the Golden period of Alfred Hitchcock's career, a ten-year-run during which he made his greatest films in Hollywood.

In all, four of those films would be penned by John Michael Hayes, the only screenwriter in Hollywood whose collaboration with Hitchcock lasted beyond two consecutive movies. Yet in spite of Hayes's considerable contributions to films such as Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, the director barred Hayes from speaking to the press about his work. It's hard to imagine a director or studio being able to silence a writer in such a way today.

One of this year's top contenders to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture is The Social Network, the film about the battle between the creators of Facebook, which is being touted more as the product of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's talent than that of director David Fincher. Even the official website for The Social Network contains a downloadable PDF of the screenplay. While Fincher himself has been dismissive of the film, Sorkin's script has been praised as an incisive look at a generation and for the irony in its subtext--the story of an idea that promised friendships, but ultimately caused destruction of the friendships between those who created it.

Another film released in 2010 which created a stir around its screenwriter was Buried, the movie which placed Ryan Reynolds in a wooden coffin beneath the Iraqi desert with a cell phone, a cigarette lighter, and little hope. For all the dazzling direction by Rodrigo Cortes, who faced the challenge of making a visually interesting movie in the smallest of spaces, the studio did not shy away from the fact that the concept was the brainchild of screenwriter Chris Sparling. Sparling would later be at the center of his own controversy when an email went out in his name to Academy members asking them to consider his achievement for an Oscar nod.

"It's great to see screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Chris Sparling getting notoriety and the recognition they deserve," says Steven DeRosa. "In Hitchcock's day and during the height of the studio system in Hollywood, that just wasn't done. Rear Window is as much John Michael Hayes's film as it is Hitchcock's. But for so long in Hollywood, unless you were a writer-director like Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, or speaking of more contemporary hyphenates like Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola or Quentin Tarantino, the perception has been that it was solely the director's vision that reached the screen." DeRosa writes that Hayes drew upon situations in his own life when creating the central relationship between the characters played by James Stewart and Grace Kelly in the film. Like Kelly's character, Lisa Fremont, Hayes's wife Mel was a high-style fashion model.

DeRosa makes a compelling case for the significance of Hitchcock's collaboration with Hayes, as the director was in the midst of a career crisis following the failure of his own production company and a string of box-office failures when he called upon Hayes to help him reconnect with his audience. "Although they enjoyed a very fruitful association, it ultimately came down to a matter of contending with Hitchcock's ego. After Rear Window was released and was a huge hit, Hayes began to get recognition from the press and award nominations. After that, his days with Hitchcock were numbered. It's too bad," notes DeRosa, "because the films they made together were the pinnacle of sophistication and suspense at the movies."

Writing with Hitchcock is available now on in both print and e-book editions.

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