Everybody knows that the writing credits on big Hollywood movies are lovely fictions, but it’s generally considered rude to draw attention to the fact. Try telling that to one of the producers of The Fugitive, who practically bragged about the teams of writers he brought in to assemble his 1993 chase picture: “We got the best dialogue guy to do the dialogue, the best action guy to write the action scenes, the best police guy to do the police stuff…”
That quote is from memory — it was seared into my brain back then by such a bold statement of contempt for the Writer’s Art. I was a young playwright and aspiring screenwriter, and knew that a writer was an Artist who could not be cheapened into a highly paid plumbing specialist, brought in to fix his bit of pipe so the sewage could flow more efficiently.
The fact is, on major movies producers will often hire as many writers as they can afford, sometimes for a total rewrite, sometimes for a week-long “polish,” sometimes because an actor is upset about his or her dialogue, sometimes because the director wants more “passion,” whatever the hell that is, sometimes because everybody’s in a panic and certain names have a tranquilizer-like effect on morale: “Oh, don’t worry, everything is going to be fine, we’ve got John Sayles in to do a polish.” This is all very insulting to the idea of the Writer as Artist, and upsetting to the Writer’s Guild of America — my union — which insists that no matter how many writers a movie has, the screenplay will be credited to a maximum of two individuals or writing teams. Okay, four or more if you add in story credit. (As a general rule, if you want to know how many writers worked on a big budget movie, multiply the number credited by three, or by five if the movie is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.)
But what’s even more frustrating and insulting to us writers is that sometimes, as in The Fugitive, this writing-by-specialty approach really works. The movie is the kind of efficient, propulsive, studiously low-tech thriller about which people say, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” even while it’s being made. Watching it again, especially after 17 years of increasingly stylish cinematography, plasticized actors and computer generated effects, it almost seems like it should be in black and white starring Humphrey Bogart.
The movie can be broken down into discrete sections, each as well designed and essential to the movie’s function as the parts of a car. The opening sequence, with poor Sela Ward’s murder at the hands of the One Armed Man and Harrison Ford’s subsequent (and believable) conviction for the crime; the amazing (non-CGI!) train accident that allows Ford’s escape; the first sequence on the run leading to a credulity-stretching leap off a dam; Ford’s return to Chicago and his sleuthing and continued narrow escapes, while pausing to save a child’s life with his medical expertise… watching all of it, you realize that this kind of successful, smart, commercial movie-making is in fact an industrial process that requires a whole bunch of really smart people manning the levers.
In fact, let’s propose a counterfactual: Could one writer — even one as gifted and professional as either of the two credited writers, Jeb Stuart and David Twohy — really have written The Fugitive on his own? You’d need somebody who could handle the murder-mystery plot and the police/judicial procedurals, who could also write for Tommy Lee Jones’ wisecracking team of Federal agents and the pasty, hostile Chicago detectives. He or she would have to have the medical chops to handle the Cook County Hospital sequence — “Look at the film! Look at the film!” — and the action sensibilities to script three or four brilliant escapes. Plus he would need the narrative wit to come up with Tommy Lee Jones’s famous, Oscar-winning retort to Ford’s protestations that he didn’t kill his wife: “I don’t care!” A line that according to some reports, Tommy Lee Jones came up with himself.
Don’t get me wrong — as a writer, I believe that the very best movies are the most personal ones, which means one writer pursuing his or her own vision. That’s how you get Annie Hall and Adaptation and dozens of other precious works of genius. But anybody who knows the first thing about how movies are made knows that Hollywood is, in fact, a sausage factory, with a process as far from the Pristine Pursuit of Artistic Vision as a factory farm is from Old McDonald’s. But anybody who loves movies — and everybody loves movies — has to admit: Sometimes, the sausage tastes fantastic.
Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s news quiz, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! heard by three million listeners each week via 520 public radio stations and podcast, and the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them. He is also a playwright and screenwriter, and once wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without meaning to.