Paparazzi flashbulbs burst as a standing-room-only crowd of adoring fans crane their necks for a glimpse of the arriving stars. Afterward, sound-bite-seeking news crews wait impatiently for the autograph seekers to disperse. It’s early March and you’re at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, whose highlights included a tribute to Anthony Hopkins. But that was last night. This is the morning after, and these stars…jeez, they’re just screenwriters! ”Wasn’t that bizarre?” marvels one of them, American Beauty‘s Alan Ball. ”It was certainly new for me. Nobody asks a writer for an autograph.”
If you drew up a list predicting the breakout stars of 1999, chances are Alan Ball or Charlie Kaufman (the impish intellect behind Being John Malkovich) wasn’t on it. But one year later, these guys are as hip to name-drop as buzz actors Wes Bentley or Carrie-Anne Moss. Where once writers were anonymous drones, now there’s Election‘s Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor; inside the Academy auditorium on Oscar nomination morning, their nod for best adapted screenplay got a bigger whoop than Tom Cruise.
What’s changed? Simple: the movies. From the bleeding edge of Fight Club to crafty crowd-pleasers like American Pie, the revolutionary cinema right now is as much a triumph of writing as it is of directing. ”In some cases, the screenwriters invented it,” says Columbia Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal. ”Malkovich wouldn’t have existed without Charlie Kaufman.” And with increased recognition has come bump-ups in clout, credit, and cash. (Ball, who got $350,000 for Beauty, is expected to get $600,000 for his next script.) ”Hollywood has treated writers like assembly-line workers. I think we’re getting away from that,” says Fight Club writer Jim Uhls. ”There’s more of an awareness that writers have a vision.” Adds American Beauty director Sam Mendes: ”It’s wonderful to be part of a year where so much great work came directly out of the writer’s brain.”
This being studio-controlled Hollywood, it’s still a place where writers are often barred from sets, screwed on credit, and forced to sacrifice idiosyncrasy for commerciality. But a shift — though not yet seismic — has been felt. ”You only have to look at the five films nominated for best picture,” says John McLean, exec director of the Writers Guild of America, west. ”Each either had a director who directed his own script or closely collaborated with the writer…. Studio execs addicted to assembly-line writing are dooming films before the director calls ‘Action.’ The culture is changing, and writers are lighting a fire under that change.” In other words: Burn, Hollywood, burn. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Fierman and Jessica Shaw)
ADAM HERZ — AGE 27 CREDITS Filthy-funny mind behind American Pie. Now finishing Eastbound and Down, Universal’s relaunch of the Smokey and the Bandit franchise. GOING RATE $750,000 for Pie; $900,000 for Eastbound. Universal has given him $2 million to write and direct his own feature. ON FAME ”Literally, for a month, I’d wake up, and inexplicably, the only thing going through my mind was ‘Me Chinese, me say joke, me pour pee-pee in your Coke.’ I went kind of nutty.”