Haloed Hollywood

When he was asked to write the screenplay for Letters to Juliet,José Rivera viewed it as an opportunity to explore a new genre — romantic comedy.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Published: March 16, 2012 3:07 am

When he was asked to write the screenplay for Letters to Juliet,José Rivera viewed it as an opportunity to explore a new genre — romantic comedy. However,two drafts down,the screenwriter was in for a rude shock when the production team dismissed him and hired another writer instead.

Though his name still appears in the film credits,Rivera feels that his screenplay,which approached love with a mature perspective,has been altered into a teenybopper romance. “I was replaced by not one,but four writers,” says Rivera as he shakes his head,“There is very little respect for screenwriters in Hollywood. They can be replaced anytime the producer wants.” This confession is in stark contrast to the perception of screenwriting as a profession in Hollywood.

While Indian screenwriters lament that they are often exploited and not credited for their work,Hollywood is cited as the haloed example. But Rivera who adapted The Motorcycle Diaries,the memorable travel memoirs of Che Guevara for the screen and is now working on a movie based on Jack Kerouack’s On the Road,feels that the situation is not different back home.

Writer-filmmaker Audrey Wells (Shall We Dance?,Under the Tuscan Sun) agrees that a downright bad script rarely gets made into a film in Hollywood,but directors and actors often improvise on the sets.

Essentially,what the screenwriter pens almost never translates exactly on screen. “And did you know that it is common practice in Hollywood for scripts to be rewritten by other writers?” she quips. “The producer often brings in other writers to ‘improvise’ on the original script as a favour,and isn’t credited for the role. In fact,a producer who does not do that is said to have ‘neglected’ the script,” adds Wells.

Screenwriters in India often turn filmmakers because it gives them greater control over their own work,which may otherwise be changed by the producer and director without consulting them. Wells feels that a similar situation is prevalent in the West. Having herself turned director with Under the Tuscan Sun,she encourages other writers to take up direction,too.

It is this control exercised by Hollywood producers that led to the emergence of independent cinema back in the 1960s. A mature industry that functions alongside the studio system,it is the one recourse that writers have. Mexican independent writer-filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga,who has penned award-winning films such as Amores Perros,21 Grams and Babel,does not wish to subscribe to Hollywood. “I can choose the actors,the crew and make sure that the script is not tampered with,” explains Arriaga who prefers to bring in multiple parties as co-producers on his films.

Despite popular perception that women in the West are met with equal opportunities in the profession,Wells points out that their sex is a minority. “In Hollywood,if you go by the number of members of Writers Guild of America,the writers’ union,women constitute only 15 per cent. So the number of writers with regular work is even lesser,” she points out. The writer adds that women are rarely competing with 80 per cent of men for work. “We are competing only with other women as we are approached mostly to pen women-centric scripts,” says Wells.

At the same time,the Guild also protects the rights of the members and is extremely powerful unlike in India. The screenwriters’ strike in 2008 had left both the television and film producers with no choice but to comply with the Guild’s demands. In India,writers live a hand-to-mouth existence for the first few years and depend heavily on producers and financiers for clearance of paycheck. They are often exploited. Blatant plagiarism of scripts is ,hence,commonplace.

In contrast,and as Rivera can tell from his experience with Letters To Juliet,the credit is never taken away from a writer in Hollywood. Another measure for recognition,says Rivera,comes through the Academy Awards,which are widely recognised across the world. “But the greater measure of pride for a screenwriter comes from within — the knowledge that a good film begins with a writer,” says Rivera.

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