Forty-six screenwriters—or “egomaniacs with low self-esteem,” as one diagnoses his peers—hold forth on their chronically abused profession in Tales from the Script, a talking-heads documentary focused largely on moolah, not craft. (Seemingly tailored to the ADD-afflicted, it also averages about 20 to 30 seconds per soundbite.) Populated by a few stars of the trade like Paul Schrader, who identifies the “post-content” Hollywood era’s dawn with Barry Diller’s reliance on market research at Paramount in the early ’80s, and William Goldman, famed for his pronouncement that “nobody in Hollywood knows anything,” Script reserves most of the talking for more anonymous pros who labor on tent-pole or comic-book leviathans, past Men of the Hour like Shane Black and John Carpenter, and grinders who struggle to get out of the straight-to-video niche or even get their first film produced.
The total effect is one of a video seminar for career masochists, as every phase of the scenarist’s path—starting out on food stamps, getting a script “mashed and chopped,” being denied credit after doing a complete rewrite—is laden with humiliation. Since the filmmakers limit the tutorial to big-studio hustling, even the green-lighting of a script by a risk-averse industry machine is seen as “when troubles begin,” with $200 million riding on every Yes. As for art, Goldman offers that “the quality of writing…is not what makes a screenplay work,” but story and structure; other voices chime in that the discipline is “mathematical” or “architecture.”
Anyone expecting an equivalent to the splendid 1992 cinematography doc Visions of Light is in for a letdown; sardonic clips of screenwriting-themed films from In a Lonely Place to Barton Fink stand alone, with none from the interviewees’ work. (Given that one of the happy stories is from the creator of The Bucket List, that’s not necessarily a complaint.) Buzzwords like “high concept” and “soft passes” are abundant, leaving little sustenance for the civilian viewer but for some dishy trash talk, peaking with Guinevere Turner’s incredulous account of reviled director Uwe Boll’s meat-cleaver approach to her script for BloodRayne. A rather perfunctory tie-in for its companion book, Script is a flimsy opportunity to rubberneck at the misfortune of a profession where the summit of aspiration is “getting lied to by a higher caliber of person.”