Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Screenwriting, the Oscar Race and the Smear Campaign Against Jason Reitman

Scripters Award win by the writers of Up in the Air this past weekend brought to mind a recent controversy about the film's writing credits which erupted a few weeks ago. The story started from an article by Steven Zeitchik (Screenwriting credits, floating up in the air). He talked about the tricky matter of having multiple screenwriters in succession and the resulting disputes over the writing credit. There were three examples given – Nine, written by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella; Avatar, by James Cameron; and Up in the Air (read screenplay here), written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner. But comments on the message board, bloggers and other writers who picked up on this focused entirely on Jason Reitman and accused him of trying to steal a writing credit he didn’t deserve.

I myself commented on the article (I’m the David in question in the original article’s comments) and was shocked at the nastiness directed at Reitman. The mostly anonymous comments at this and other articles include, “Isn't it lucky and nice for Jason Reitman that he is now a powerful Hollywood director and … can continue to steal other people's work and to try to steal the credit,” “I'm sick of these fortunate children of Hollywood blue bloods buying up scripts, adding a few words, and claiming it was their work,” “Reitman is second-rate in the class department,” “Reitman is an overrated prick,” and “fuck Reitman.” The fact that Jason Reitman is a credited writer on the film after arbitration with the Writers Guild means that he most definitely played a critical role in writing it.

Stealing credits used to be a problem long ago, with directors or producers making changes to a script and then claiming authorship. Also, many writers can be hired in succession over the years to write one or more drafts of a film. So the WGA put in place an arbitration process that compares all versions of the script and the writer(s) must defend their contribution. They have complicated and strict guidelines as to how the credit on a film is given. No more than three writers or writing teams may receive credit. True co-writers are credited as a team with “&” while the word “and” is used to indicate the writers did not work together.

The first writer whose script contains certain elements like major plot points, characters and scenes gets credit for those ideas (dialogue isn’t weighted as highly as you’d expect since it’s the easiest to alter when actually trying to steal a credit). But this is even the case with adaptations and true stories, where many of these elements already exist. A 2004 article from oregonlive.com (Hollywood tale: writing the script; losing the credit, unfortunately no longer online) describes how Mike Rich developed a screenplay for Miracle about the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s stunning upset of Russia in 1980. He was hired by the producers, started from scratch, did his own research, and never once consulted the previous drafts by Eric Guggenheim. When Guggenheim asked for a shared credit, Rich understandably was reluctant because his work was all his own. The WGA’s arbitration decision gave the ONLY credit to Guggenheim. Even though it was based on a true story,
Guggenheim was credited for creating pretty much everything except the dialogue.

So in adapting a book that had already adapted, it’s surprising that Reitman got any credit at all. The WGA is particularly tough with writers who are also directors or producers. Reitman was both. They could easily have denied him a writing credit if they felt his contribution wasn’t substantial. In A conversation with Jim Sheridan, writer-director Jim Sheridan said that's why he didn’t even bother writing Brothers, because he knew he almost certainly wouldn’t get credit for it. Even if all the first writer did was translate the original Danish screenplay word-for-word, that would be enough to be credited and Sheridan’s work would go unrecognized.

At The Playlist, they compared Turner’s version of the script to Reitman’s (Reitman Vs. Sheldon Turner Controversy: We Compare The Two 'Up In The Air' Scripts), and found them to be nothing alike. The Turner version is a rote by-the-numbers adapation, with a very different tone, a less likeable protagonist and “not a single line of dialogue is repeated between the two scripts.”

This was all easily deduced. If all you knew was the WGA’s guidelines, the fact that Reitman had the director and producer credit too, and that there was another credited writer, the only sensible explanation was that Turner was the first writer, but that Reitman’s version was so overwhelmingly different that the WGA could not deny him a credit too. This article at Scriptmag bears this out.

So where did these nasty claims of credit-stealing come from? Certainly not from Sheldon Turner, who I’m sure must be thrilled to be receiving all these awards for something he abandoned years ago. It doesn’t do him any good to have people turned off by Reitman and he ends up losing the Adapted Screenplay award as a result. My feeling is that this has the fingerprints of the notorious Weinstein brothers.

At first, this seems not to entirely make sense: the original article mentions the movie Nine too, which is a Weinstein movie. But Minghella's dead, so there's no harm in giving that background info. Besides, that movie was a turkey and they must have accepted that it wasn’t worth putting any muscle behind it. It only got one Oscar nomination (Penelope Cruz) and won’t win. The article didn’t mention the movie A Single Man, a Weinstein film that had higher Oscar hopes when the piece was written. A Single Man has the same situation as Up in the Air: Tom Ford was the writer-director and shares the writing credit with David Scearce, who is never mentioned by Ford in interviews. Yet I don’t recall Ford ever being called a prick as a result.

But clearly the Weinsteins’ main horse in this race is Inglourious Basterds. It received 8 nominations, second most after the 9 nominations of Avatar and The Hurt Locker. So then why aren’t they going after those two movies? I suspect it’s a cynical move by the Weinsteins to appeal to the Academy’s Jewish voters.

Wait, there are Jews in Hollywood, you ask? Shhh. But yes – or so I’ve heard.

Screenwriter William Goldman wrote that his mother used to always ask, “but is it good for the Jews?” Perhaps the Weinsteins believe that many of the old guard of the Academy still think this way – it would help explain the inordinate success of Holocaust-themed movies at the Oscars – so they’ve decided to try to eliminate their main Jewish competitor. But they can’t very well accuse Reitman of Anti-Semitism the way they’ve done with their opponents in the past. So they’ve manufactured a scandal from nothing to turn him into a villain.

I don’t see it working, however. Even if this so-called scandal took hold
which I don’t believe it didthere’s no guarantee that Jews will migrate to Inglourious Basterds. I know some Jews who don’t like it. Someone told me of a mutual friend who is Jewish calling him up after seeing Inglourious Basterds and haranguing him for half-an-hour about how much he hated it. Many think it’s a mockery and turns Jews into Nazis.

Anyhow, it turns out Reitman is a great guy and was very cordial to Turner at the WGA’s recent screening and Q&A of Up in the Air. At the Scripter Awards ceremony, he graciously said,
“I’m thrilled that the USC Libraries have this award, since it speaks to how many writers work on films.” He was absolutely the wrong target to go after.

Next time, the Weinsteins should just make better movies and save themselves the hassle.

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