Screenwriting credits, floating up in the air


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In Michael Tolkin’s script for the 1992 Hollywood satire “The Player,” studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) strangles a screenwriter he believes is trying to blackmail him.

It hasn’t gotten that gruesome in Hollywood. But for some involved in the script business these days, the movie’s arc may feel a little too familiar.


Screenwriters on some of the season’s biggest movies have seen acknowledgment for their work, if not choked off, then certainly minimized -- a group that includes, as fate would have it, Tolkin himself. So when the Golden Globes are handed out on Sunday, the names that viewers associate with the most lauded films may not quite include all the people who drove those movies forward.

That could be particularly true for three of the movies that lead nearly all others in Globes recognition — “Up in the Air,” “Nine” and “Avatar,” which have collectively amassed 15 nominations.

The issue cuts to the heart of contemporary Hollywood, where screenwriters are abundant but successes are rare, leaving a lot of people to scramble for a little bit of glory.

To those removed from the rituals of Hollywood, the fierce debate over credit can seem like arguing over who rides shotgun on a weekend road trip — arbitrary and, in the end, not very consequential. But for writers, credit can mean the difference between getting and not getting future gigs, higher paychecks and the acclaim and envy of peers. And credit issues can extend beyond how the Writers Guild of America arbitrates who did what on a script to shape the public (and media) consciousness about a writer’s standing.

All of this comes against the backdrop of writer concerns that they are not given the same respect as their peers, particularly directors. “These things just seem to be messier lately. Everyone wants credit and nobody seems to be able to figure out the truth,” said an agent for several high-profile screenwriters who requested anonymity because the agent may yet work with some of the writers.

Many in Hollywood are reluctant to comment publicly on this issue while in the thick of an awards campaign, scared of chasing away votes. But sources familiar with back stories on these three scripts -- a broad group of agents, writers and producers -- privately offered insight into how these films came together and how work was truly divided up.


The genesis story that Jason Reitman tells is by now well-honed. He discovered Walter Kirn’s novel “Up in the Air” in the independent bookshop Book Soup and spent a long time whipping a script into shape before getting behind the camera. “When I started writing this screenplay,” Reitman told NPR, “we were in the midst of an economic boom, and by the time I was finished we were in one of the worst recessions on record.”

What he hasn’t been saying as much was that the script was actually already in development for several years, first as an independent project and then at Fox, before he became involved, and screenwriter Sheldon Turner wrote an entire draft before Reitman put pen to paper. Turner’s draft would be recognizable to anyone who’s seen the finished film; significant elements from it, sources who read it say, appear in the finished movie.

The invention of George Clooney’s whippersnapper partner played by Anna Kendrick, for instance, came from Turner (in Turner’s version it was a man; another writer who wasn’t Reitman later changed it to a woman). A key plot point about a laid-off worker committing suicide came from Turner. And while Reitman invented many memorable lines, sources noted Turner made his mark too: he was responsible for the trademark line from George Clooney’s character to laid-off workers about founding an empire. Turner and Reitman separately declined to comment.

This all could have been fairly typical; Hollywood films, after all, often are the result of people drafting off predecessors’ work. Except when it came time to allot credit, Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit. Turner is also nominated for an adapted screenplay Golden Globe, where, if he wins, he will share the podium with Reitman.

Still, Turner has mostly stayed out of sight on the awards circuit, and it’s rare to hear Reitman, who has been ubiquitous on that circuit, mention him at all. [UPDATED 10:07 PM: Reitman and Turner just won the Critics Choice prize for best adapted screenplay. They both came to the stage but, in what could only be described as an awkward moment for Turner -- who trailed Reitman by about five seconds in coming to the podium -- only Reitman spoke, thanking several people but failing to acknowledge the credited writer standing next to him. Turner looked like he wanted to speak, but Reitman finished and began walking off the stage, the exit music began playing and Turner again trailed behind Reitman, not having said anything.]

The situation on “Nine” was thorny in a different way.

The screenwriting credits on the Italian-themed musical would have been tricky enough given that Anthony Minghella, who wrote a draft after Tolkin, died right after turning in his script (just before the 2007-2008 writers strike hit). But it comes with an even more complicated back story, featuring a man often at the center of awards-season drama: Harvey Weinstein.

Tolkin was brought on several years ago by The Weinstein Co. and director Rob Marshall to adapt both the Italian classic “8 1/2” and the Broadway musical “Nine” that’s based on it. He spent several months writing his draft, including a number of weeks just with Marshall and nearly two months with Marshall and composer-lyricist Maury Yeston. Minghella later came on for roughly six weeks of work writing a new draft.

It’s impossible to quantify the exact contribution of each, but people familiar with the scripts say Tolkin’s draft established plot and structure while Minghella concentrated on areas like dialogue and giving the movie an Italian flavor. The combination of Tolkin’s drafts (he did two passes) and Minghella’s version, which became the shooting script, would seem to have paved the way to a smooth ending.

But shortly after production last year, the relationship between Tolkin and Marshall went south, for what sources say were personal and creative reasons. The pair have not been on speaking terms since.

In the meantime, another drama was brewing: Weinstein and Tolkin were in a complex dialogue over credits. Weinstein wanted Minghella to get sole credit, leaving Tolkin out. (An early trailer of the film, in fact, featured only Minghella’s name and not Tolkin’s.)

Complicating matters was the fact that Weinstein and Minghella were close friends and collaborators (they worked together on movies such as ‘The English Patient’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’). Also, to more cynical minds involved in the project, having Minghella as the single credit on the film would benefit the Weinstein Company film by providing a more poignant subplot for awards pundits, since the film could more easily be sold as Minghella’s final work.

Tolkin pushed back at Weinstein’s request, but rather than try to arbitrate right away (which would have meant, among other things, the specter of fighting a Writers Guild battle against a dead man), he went directly to the Minghella family. The two sides soon came to an agreement that they would go to the Writers Guild with a joint statement seeking credits that would not only include Tolkin but put him in first position (Hollywood shorthand for the writer whose work figures most into the film) followed by Minghella. The WGA read the statement and agreed.

But the Writers Guild wasn’t the only battleground for ‘Nine.’ As the publicity rollout for the film began last month, members of Weinstein’s and Marshall’s camps quietly downplayed Tolkin’s involvement. Those working to promote the film, meanwhile, were keen to make Marshall available but, outside of one junket appearance, discouraged stories about Tolkin.

Tolkin, in a carefully worded statement to The Times, recounted his involvement and defended his credit. It read, in part, “I went to New York in July [2008] and spent seven weeks, almost daily, working with Rob Marshall. I came back to California, followed by Rob and Maury Yeston and worked with them for another eight weeks,” adding “I’m proud of the work I did.”

Weinstein could not be reached for comment, though a Weinstein Company rep did make available producer Marc Platt, who noted that ‘to be fair, these were unusual circumstances because of the deference everyone felt toward Anthony. But Michael did a fine job, and was entitled to get what he deserved.’

Murkiness over credits also points up one of Hollywood’s most basic truisms: For every high-profile success, there is usually a lesser-known name at least partly responsible for it.

That’s especially applicable in the instance of Fox’s “Avatar.” Most people believe — and, indeed, facts bear out — that James Cameron spent years developing the story.

But a writer protege of Cameron’s named Laeta Kalogridis — who is credited as a writer on the upcoming sci-fi film “Battle Angel” that Cameron will produce and possibly direct — was developing the story closely with Cameron and is believed to have contributed portions of the script.

One wouldn’t know that from the credits, however, where Kalogridis is listed simply as an executive producer — a minor credit even by producing standards, and certainly one that does not suggest writing involvement. A request for an interview with Kalogridis on the subject met with quick and efficient response from both a personal publicist and a Fox publicist, each declining to comment or make her available.

The issue is clearly a hot-button one for studios, which in many cases not only want to please an A-lister but also craft the most appealing narrative for media and awards-season consumption, and the Cameron story provides just that. When you’re trying to sell something, after all, it helps to have a marketable concept. Griffin Mill could tell you that.

--Steven Zeitchik

Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this story.


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