The story goes like this. Woody Allen was making a thriller. While editing, Woody felt that the romantic scenes in the film are better. So, he converted the film into a romantic comedy, and Annie Hall was made.
Whether the story is true or not, it reinforces one thing, Allen’s command over his medium, direction and screen writing.
In filmmaking, writing and direction are two specialised job. A writer visualizes the film on paper and the director converts the vision on celluloid. Mario Puzo’s job was to write which Francis Ford Copola could ensemble on screen.
Here’s the catch. What happens when the director himself is a screen writer and vice versa. Woody Allen could convert a thriller into a romantic comedy because he wrote the film.
In the beginning, story and screenplay was always a director’s pejorative. Charlie Chaplin wrote all his films himself. Same is the case with celebrated European directors like Fellini or Bergman. Things changed when big studios took over in Hollywood. Money began to flow and each job was specialized with acclaimed writers like William Faulkner, and F Scott Fitzgerald coming forward to write movies.
A director writing his own script has advantages; he can manipulate it at any stage of the film’s making. Crash, written and directed by Paul Haggis forces us to think. Crash is a good film by the sheer strength of its screenplay, the ability of the writer to built situations. We wonder if Crash would appear same on screen if it were directed by someone else, say Clint Eastwood. Haggis wrote Eastwood’s ‘Million Dollar Baby’. Would it look same if Haggis directed that film? We have reservations. On screen, Eastwood is always himself. Somewhere he fails to bring out the pathos of the boxing coach. Probably Haggis could have done a better job since he created the character.
Woody Allen once said about ‘Husbands and Wives,’ that he carried over what he wanted on the page to the screen. That’s true of his entire oeuvre. He creates ordinary situation with such depth that it begins to make sense to us. And there is something of him out there, an average middle class neurotic guy, with a self-deprecatory and deadpan humour, thick-rimmed glasses, and all.
It’s true of most writer-directors. Charlie Chaplin could breath only through the Tramp, and Quentin Tarantino’s vision is always filled with blood.
If Allen deals with ordinary of ordinariness, Tarantino goes to other extremes. Blood apart, the highlight of his script is his dialogues. His character never speaks plainly. In ‘Reservoir Dogs’, what stands out is the interactions among the strangers, how they present themselves through their speech.
In ‘Pulp Fiction’ Tarantino made a pulp of the whole art screen writing. Gone are the good ole’ days of Aristotle, and the structure of the beginning, middle and end. It begins in the middle and ends where it begins. Seems Tarantino put together whatever caught his fancy, but ‘Pulp Fiction’ is not only coherent, also wonderfully textured.
In ‘Kill Bill’, Tarantino deals with his screenplay as if he’s writing a grand novel on screen. He not only names the two parts as volumes, but also gives chapter names, and how intelligently, naming Chapter One as Two. And his scenes, they begin languidly, with all possible details, making a silly situation not only convincing, but cinematically moving. Remember ‘Pulp Fiction’ where Jules sermonises before committing the murder, or, the grand finale between Bill and the Bride in ‘Kill Bill’.
Legend says, in his struggling days, Satyajit Ray would write a dummy screenplay whenever he hears about a movie being made of a novel. And when the film is released he would compare his version of the story with that of the film’s director. Ray is a successful writer himself, yet he never hesitates to take stories from others and turn it into his own screenplay, like Charulata and Ghare Bayre from Rabindranath Tagore.When a director writes his own film he has the creative freedom to tell the story the way he wants. Only Neil Jordan could direct the terrorism meets transvestite saga ‘The Crying Game’ because he wrote it. Same goes for Luc Besson’s ‘Leon: The Professional’. The way Besson developed the relationship between hitman Leon and 12-year-old Mathilda, he only could recreate it on screen.
There are people who complain of autobiographical shades when a director writes his own story. Federico Fellini’s ‘81/2’, the story about a confused director looks like Fellini’s own biography. True. But what do you say about ‘La Dolce Vita’, the story of the life among the rich in Rome. His Rubini is certainly not Fellini. Just for information, the term ‘paparazzi’ was coined from a character of this film, called Paparazzo.
Ingmar Bergman wrote ‘Wild Strawberries,’ the story of a doctor reevaluating his life, when he was lying in the hospital bed. It could easily be a tragic story. For record, however, it’s the most optimistic film ever made by the genius, Ingmar Bergman.
There are others, however, who achieved their creative height while working on other’s screenplay. Bernardo Bertolucci created magic with epics like ‘The Last Emperor’, and ‘1900,’ co-written with other writers. When he wrote ‘Last Tango in Paris’ alone he messed up everything, the presence of Marlon Brando notwithstanding.