James Moran interview: do screenwriters get short shrift?

James Moran, of Doctor Who, Cockneys Vs Zombies and Tower Block fame, chats to us about writers, and whether they're getting a raw deal...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

James Moran is a screenwriter, and has been since he was able to quit his full time job, once he sold his first movie script, Severance. He wrote Severance across many, many evenings, and off the back of its success, he’s since penned movies (Cockneys Vs Zombies, Tower Block) and TV (Doctor Who, Torchwood: Children Of Earth) as well as moving into directing.

He’s a writer working at a point where screenwriting continues to get scant regard in some quarters. Read reviews of a movie, and how often is the writer mentioned? When a press junket comes along for a big production, it’s the stars and director that tend to get wheeled out, but what about the person who wrote the words on the page?

We were curious, so chatted to James about the value of screenwriting, and his thoughts on it. Here how it went…

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Can you talk us through some of the conceptions you come up against when people find out what you do for a living?

The first thing they ask is if I’ve written anything they might have seen. It’s a fair question, usually asked with a suspicious look! But I’ve been in the business long enough that there’s a pretty good chance they’ll have seen one of my TV episodes, or one of the movies, or at least have heard of them.

Once they’ve made sure that I’m not just some dangerous fantasist, 80% of them will ask a variation of this question: “so do you write EVERYTHING in the movie/episode?”

How do you respond to that?

At first, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Maybe they were asking if I specified music, or actor choices, or so on. After being asked it several times, I gradually realised that they genuinely didn’t know what writing a script involved. Did I just write the dialogue? Or just the action? Surely the actors made up their own words? The director decides what happens on screen, don’t they? Which bits did I write? Did I just come up with the idea?

Does that just come from audiences?

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No! Once, I was even asked – by a producer! – what happened after I had written the script. They asked if it then went to “the dialogue person”. I said no, I put the dialogue in as well, it’s usually less confusing for me that way.

A lot of people don’t know what the writer does, even though it’s the least mysterious job title of film/TV production – “Best boy”? “Gaffer”? “2nd 2nd assistant director”. But they don’t make movies or TV shows, so that’s okay – they don’t need to know how the sausage is made. People in the industry have no excuse, and that’s why this is becoming more of a problem.

Is it a problem, though?

Very much. Writers don’t write to become famous, which is just as well, because that hardly ever happens. We write because we love telling stories. All we expect is a fair credit for our work. But even that is getting more difficult.

In public, the director usually gets all the credit, for the whole film. They’re the ones mentioned in reviews, articles, invited to film festivals to talk about their ‘vision’ for the film – it’s understandable to a certain extent, as they’re the ones on set, guiding the film through filming, communicating to all departments what the film is supposed to be. It’s a huge job. Naturally, they’ll have more to say about the actual production.

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But film is a collaborative medium, it takes a village – sometimes a small town – to make one – no one person is more responsible than anyone else. Which is why it’s baffling that writers usually get completely ignored – we’re sometimes left out of the press, the interviews, the editing, the screening, film festivals – and festival brochures -, reviews – it’s like we don’t exist.

Directors don’t help us here, either.

How so?

One of the more unpleasant aspects of the film world is the ‘possessory credit’. You’ll know it as ‘A Film By Bob Person’, or ‘A Bob Person Film’, or ‘Bob Person’s Film Title’. That’s in addition to their normal ‘Directed by Bob Person’ credit – they get two credits for doing one job! It makes it seem as if they created the whole film by themselves, without any help from anyone. It’s a huge insult to the entire cast and crew.

The possessory credit is even cheekier when they didn’t write or originate the story. Bennett Miller directed Foxcatcher – script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, based on a true story, but somehow it’s ‘a film by Bennett Miller’. He did the same for Moneyball, written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on a book by Michael Lewis, and based on a true story, but again, it’s a film ‘by’ Bennett Miller. ‘By’! How is it ‘by’ him? And yet he’s praised for his storytelling skills, because people think that directors do everything.

How have things worked out for you?

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On my first film, I wasn’t even invited to the press interviews, until the director found out and insisted I be added to the list. You’d think that when interviewing the people who made the film, they might want to talk to the person who made the story up out of their head from nothing. I know, crazy, right?

This is why, when a film is successful, a lot of the time the director will get more work based on that success. Everyone else who worked on it, including the writer, is left behind. The director is seen as the main creative force. This is why, after one or two movies – sometimes even a short film – directors are handed the reigns to massive budget movies, and encouraged to come up with the story themselves. And the trouble with a lot of directors, as the saying goes, is that they all think they can write.

Can you capture why this matters so much to you?

Yes. I realise all this isn’t exactly a life or death crisis, but it affects all writers, our jobs, and our chances of getting the next job. All we have in this business is our name, our credits – the more we get sidelined and ignored, the less we’re seen as the people who actually write the damn things. I try to make as much noise as possible so that people know what writers do, and who did what. Hence this interview!

So the next time you get excited about Bob Person’s new movie, you might want to check out who wrote Bob’s previous one, and follow their career instead!

James Moran, thank you very much.

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