24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

« Previous | 24 Frames Home | Next »

Screenwriting credits, floating up in the air

January 15, 2010 |  5:54 pm

Reit 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.

Ming 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.

Kalog 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.

Photo: Jason Reitman (Top). Credit: Claudio Onorati / EPA

Photo: Anthony Minghella. Credit: Max Nash / AP

Photo: Laeta Kalogridis. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times


Jason Reitman firmly at controls in 'Up in the Air'

Avatar director James Cameron as cinema prophet

Anthony Minghella: Won an Oscar for 'The English Patient'

Comments () | Archives (28)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ted Griffin had the rights to Up In The Air for years and wrote a couple of drafts..to get him to go away, Reitman gave him a producing credit on the film..i would not be surprised to see a lot of Ted's work in the final draft. Ted (who wrote Ocean's 11) also is the one who first brought the project to Clooney.

AVATAR owes its writing credits to both POCAHONTAS and DANCES WITH WOLVES as it was "boorowed" heavily from both:

Plot Summary for
Dances with Wolves (1990)

Having been sent to a remote outpost in the wilderness of the Dakota territory during the American Civil War, Lieutenant John Dunbar encounters, and is eventually accepted into, the local Sioux tribe. He is known as "Dances with Wolves" to them and as time passes he becomes enamoured by the beautiful "Stands With a Fist". Not soon after, the frontier becomes the frontier no more, and as the army advances on the plains, John must make a decision that will not only affect him, but also the lives of the natives he now calls his people.

Plot Summary for
Pocahontas (1995)

Capt. John Smith leads a rag-tag band of English sailors & soldiers to the New World to plunder its riches for England (or, more precisely, for Governor Ratcliffe, who comes along for the ride). Meanwhile, in this "New World," Chief Powhatan has pledged his daughter, Pocahontas, to be married to the village's greatest warrior. Pocahontas, however, has other ideas. She has seen a vision of a spinning arrow, a vision she believes tells her change is coming. Her life does indeed change when the English ship lands near her village. Between Ratcliffe, who believes the "savages" are hiding the gold he expected to be plentiful, and Powhatan, who believes these pale newcomers will destroy their land, Smith and Pocahontas have a difficult time preventing all-out war, and saving their love for each other.

it all seems very human jungle stuff. the problems are obviously caused by there being so many writers working on one script. so they fight like cats, the whole thing is disturbing. it all seems very odd to me. suppose i write a book? or a poem? anyone who mucked about with it quite honestly would be lucky to live on with limbs still attached. why don't hollywood writers reject this habitual rehashing of their work by hired others? its this idea that its been bought so the oppos can do what they like with it. i have problems with it. its not even legal.

"why don't hollywood writers reject this habitual rehashing of their work by hired others?"

Um, not one single screenwriter likes having his or her work rehashed. If you actually think the writers have any SAY in the matter, you don't understand a single thing about Hollywood. Screenwriters have about as much power to protest the decisions being made as the guy who empties the wastebaskets in the studio offices. Nor do we have control over what's done to our scripts by producers, directors, actors, etc. -- once the scripts have been bought they do not belong to us.

All this for starvation wages (I'm a "successful" screenwriter who averages $17k a year for working 14 hours a day six/seven days a week. I'm doing better than most of my other "working" colleagues. And I'm lucky if the movies made from my screenplays bear any resemblance to the scripts I wrote.)

I do love my job, but the hardest part is definitely listening to so many random strangers spouting off about what we "should" do with our careers without having the slightest idea what they're talking about.

The boldfaced update above that says that Sheldon Turner trailed Reitman and never got to speak is wholly inaccurate.

Mr. Turner did get to speak. In fact, he spoke first and even thanked Mr. Reitman. Don't believe me? Check it out: http://www.nbc.com/golden-globes/video/clips/best-screenplay-motion-picture/1194196/

Are you blind, Mr Zeitchik? Or were you simply trying to bolster the claims of acrimony between them that you made in this article?

It's no wonder why journalists are so mistrusted. You blatantly try to deceive your readership even the face of video evidence as if no one else saw the same show. What's your excuse for completely misrepresenting what actually happened?

Hey Max: He was talking about the Critics Choice awards ceremony, which was held last week, not the Golden Globes.

Max: Careful who you call blind. Zeitchik's boldface comments are regarding the Critic's Choice Awards, not the Golden Globes. They're two different award ceremonies.

Hey, Max - this article is referring to the Critics Choice Awards on Friday, where Turner was snubbed at the mike. You are talking about the Globes, where Turner gave a short and gracious few lines that was totally in deference to the director. Then Reitman gave an obnoxious little, "My turn now?" to Turner before taking over the microphone with a self-centered speech.

Jason Reitman wasn't necessarily being an ungrateful beneficiary. It's quite credible that he never saw any of the other drafts, but that the Writers Guild would still award some or all of the credit to a previous writer. The Writers Guild is known to be protective of the first writer on board a project since they so often got screwed over. But when it comes to an adapted script or a true story, it doesn't as much make sense to protect the first writer since they didn't come up with the source ideas anyhow. Yet that's what the WGA does.

Isn't it lucky and nice for Jason Reitman that he is now a powerful Hollywood director and producer in his own right (Thanks, dad! Thanks for the boost!), and can continue to steal other people's work and to try to steal the credit for it, and get away almost scot-free?

And really, who'll know? Just the people who read the LA Times article about it, and a handful of insiders who won't dare do anything or say anything about it because... well, now he has power.

As for Clooney; if he knows this is what has gone on, I hope I never see him work with Reitman again -- and knowing what we know about him, I bet he never does. The man has a tendency not to want to work with scum.

Seriously, I'm sick of these fortunate children of Hollywood blue bloods buying up scripts, adding a few words, and claiming it was their work. Tarantino should of won. At least we know who he borrowed from and has no shame in name checking them. He at least wrote his screenplay.

The other played it like relief pitcher.

"Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this story," huh? Well, did he? Or did he write the whole darn thing himself?

Anyone who reads the above and concludes that Reitman tried to "steal" the screenplay credit is out to lunch. What seems to have happened is that they (and possibly many others) worked on the adaptation independently. The Writers Guild is then responsible for deciding who gets credit based on who they figure contributed at least one third to the final script. This calculation favors earlier writers, as they will get credited for characters, ideas and scenes that a later writer may have taken from the source or created coincidentally on their own.

Reitman and Turner likely never met or read each other's writing, working only from the source novel by Walter Kirn. If Reitman really was trying to steal the screenplay, the Guild would have concluded that their scripts were too similar and then given Turner the ONLY credit. That didn't happen. So we can only conclude that they each contributed at least one third.

Really, if Turner's only distinct contributions were a few episodes here and there, then he should be happy. They didn't use his script but he still got money and a credit, and now gets to share a bunch of awards.

David writes "Really, if Turner's only distinct contributions were a few episodes here and there, then he should be happy. They didn't use his script but he still got money and a credit, and now gets to share a bunch of awards."

Who says Turner's only distinct contributions were a few episodes here and there? And why then should Turner be credited in second position if he was the first writer? The reason is simple, his script was the most recent one used, even if Reitman came in afterward and added a few episodes here and there.

The most important thing here is that Reitman is second-rate in the class department. Sheldon Turner is a credited writer on UP IN THE AIR. Why should Reitman treat him any differently than his movie star cast whom he allegedly wrote all of the parts for (everyone in town knows Reitman was meeting every actress in town for both of these parts). The reason is because Reitman is not much of a writer and he knows it. Thank You For Smoking was overly considered shtick, and a stripper wrote Juno.

Sheldon Turner sold his spec script to Montecito Pictures in 2003.

Who owns Montecito Pictures? Jason Reitman's father, Ivan Reitman.

Jill Gooden writes: "The reason is simple, his script was the most recent one used, even if Reitman came in afterward and added a few episodes here and there."

Prove it. Post Turner's version of the script so we can compare it to Reitman's version, posted various places such as:


Reitman's version is very close to what ended up in the movie. If you say that Turner's was the most recent one used, then it will be obvious that it's the same, minus a the few episodes that you say was Reitman's only contribution.

Having read both drafts, all I can say is under WGA rules -- and by just plain common sense -- both Reitman and Turner deserved credit. Griffin and Turner probably deserved Story By, but somehow I guess that didn't come up.

And @anotherkickedaroundwriter. I love these dweebs posing as working writers. No way you're making 17k a year and getting movies produced. End of story.

To David:

Have read Griffin, Turner, and Reitman drafts. The first two deserve credit. Griffin was bought off. Turner wasn't. Reitman's father owned both scripts for years before his son ever "stumbled on the book on the shelves of Book Soup and began writing on it for the next six years." Why does he keep pushing this version of reality? It shows his immaturity. He is a director who tweets every time he goes to the loo. Why can't he give credit where credit is due? People in town openly discuss this. Which is why this LA Times article was written and why other news sources are picking up on it. Read the comment sections at the following:




The guy should come clean.

Some interesting comments regarding this article over at Jeff Welles' place:


Speaking of "second-rate in the class department" I suppose Jill would know. Her patronizing diss of Diablo Cody as "a stripper" reeks of bitterness and envy.

Touche', Tina. You are absolutely right. Mentioning that a former stripper wrote JUNO is completely off-topic.

What I should have said is, "Ms. Cody's JUNO defined a new low in what the AMPAS considers Oscar worthy."

It all seems very human jungle stuff. the problems are obviously caused by there being so many writers working on one script. so they fight like cats, the whole thing is disturbing. it all seems very odd to me.

website design

Um, not one single screenwriter likes having his or her work rehashed. If you actually think the writers have any SAY in the matter, you don't understand a single thing about Hollywood. Screenwriters have about as much power to protest the decisions being made as the guy who empties the wastebaskets in the studio offices.

I thought for a moment that Wolf himself were running for election. Watch the video and I think you'll agree that this was 3

lol thats a wonderful idea, however I have to ask, where did you find his camera and are you planing to return it? :D

1 2 | »


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...




Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: