After some derisory remarks I made in my review of Godzilla regarding its script, I had a thoughtful and useful question put to me. I was initially going to reply in the comment section of that post, but as my response developed into a more elaborate exploration of acceptable protocols for determining who to credit with a film’s successes and who to blame for its failures, I decided to feature it as a post.
A rough precis of the question is as follows: does my review of Godzilla essentially establish a baseless dichotomy that credits director Gareth Edwards for all the good bits and blames the screenwriters for all the bad?
To begin with the very suggestion of the question before I get into its specifics: while it is true that I let Edwards off rather easy in my review and ensuing comments, I deny that I make this the case in my reviews rather than the exception. I do not subscribe to the fallacy of assuming the name on the credits tells the whole story of that person’s involvement in the finished film. To use one telling example: David Koepp might have written the inept and pedestrian script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it was Spielberg who takes a sort of masochistic pride in claiming the idea to “nuke the fridge” (one can only wonder what was in the script before that nail in the integrity of the series landed). However, in the absence of direct testimony, we’ve only the credits to go by. It becomes necessary then to approach each credited individual of a film as guilty of his or her contributions until proven innocent. Regardless of this, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to be certain where to give credit or to lay blame. Indeed, I can imagine in some circles one of Godzilla‘s many producers bragging that it was he who came up with the finale, just as easily as I can imagine an uncredited writer doing the same–there’s no accounting for taste.
Without the opportunity to sit down with the director and the screenwriter and to ask who was responsible for what ideas, I can’t be sure who to blame or to credit, but the scriptwriter nonetheless remains the most readily available and credible source. As I noted above, it is to be expected that the screenwriter credit refers only to the ostensible agent responsible for distilling the ideas and contributions from everyone involved with the plot and narrative, which might even include Edwards. However, it is important to understand that there is a distinction between the two figures. Edwards the scriptwriter is a separate entity from Edwards the director–a greater function which includes translating the script to the screen, and any alterations that may entail. Edwards’ instincts as a cinematic storyteller–how he uses light, sound and the other elements of film to tell a story–are exemplary, and worthy of attention. His instincts as a writer might not be so attuned. Indeed, his previous films had generally forgettable scripts and competent, if unexceptional, plots.
This concession prompts us to ask whether Edwards’ deserves any credit then for his direction. After all, to be considered a great director, mustn’t the director be great at everything to do with film? No, and I’ll explain why with evidence. To resort to argumentum ad Hitchcockism: the master of suspense was no maestro. Tone-deaf for all ostensible purposes, Hitchcock left all musical decisions to his composers. In the case of Topaz, for example, he merely dropped in Maurice Jarre’s score where and when the composer intended. It would be strange then to credit the musical instincts of Hitchcock beyond having the good sense to avoid meddling. But no one who views any number of Hitchcock’s films, North by Northwest and Psycho especially, would confidently argue, much less suggest, that Hitchcock’s films lack musicality–or that Hitchcock wasn’t a capable director because he had no ear for music. The success of the films and their makers then derives from the collaboration of artistic temperaments, rather than through adjudication by a singular authority.
I give Edwards slack for the same reason that I don’t expect a director to otherwise be a competent actor, or to give actors their ideas. They may do so, but ideas do not a director make–execution does. Returning to Hitchcock again, the director was purposefully glib in his direction to actors. When a certain famous actress finally questioned him about this he replied it’s not his job to act, he’d hired actors for that. He trusted these artists to give him the best material to work with, just as they trusted him to make the best use of it.
I don’t expect Edwards to have the instincts of Stanley Kubrick, say, and be able to massage any story from conception to completion to suit his unique sensibilities–not yet anyway. And unlike Kubrick, who only gained total authority over every aspect of his films after nearly a decade of filmmaking, I don’t expect Edwards to have the clout at this point in his career to really challenge a top-tier studio, who have budgeted this confabulation to within an inch of its life and who are therefore unwilling to brook much dissent. (Edgar Wright was recently dismissed–or quit, depending on who is asked–following disagreements with Marvel over his direction of Ant-Man, a passion project for the director to be completed instead by a hack.) Nor do I need Edwards to be the best scriptwriter in the business to respect his talents. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not Edwards’ job as director to rewrite the script ipso facto.
Moreover, the problems I have described in Godzilla amount to a significant rewrite–if not exactly page 1 then close enough to be complete. While I would’ve suggested Edwards and his team go back to the drawing board were I in the room, I wasn’t, and I’m sure the studio could not care less about any perceived problems with the script. The film was a success, that’s all that matters in Hollywood; artistic merits or narrative qualities be damned. (That writers never achieve the same level of publicity as the director or the “makers” of such and such a film ought to alert everyone to this tendency.)
One would hope that Edwards would pass on a project if he didn’t feel the script was right, but the opportunity to direct a tentpole movie with a huge budget seems like all that he has ever striven for his entire career, and I’m happy to see him achieve it, and I’m content to allow him a reprieve from my ire–for his first big budget movie at least. At this point it’s simply too early in his career to tell what bad habits he’s going to end up depending on, and which it will then fall to the critic to point out. Moreover, I have no idea how Edwards’ responded to the script. Was he perfectly content with it? Did he want rewrites but was nervous about stepping on anyone’s toes? How many toes were there to step on? How many writers were responsible? How late was he brought into pre-production? Was he involved with the script in any way?
Normally I wouldn’t write about a film like Godzilla at all, not because it’s a Godzilla movie but because it doesn’t have all that much to say about anything other than what a giant monster assaulting a city would be like. I don’t begrudge populist entertainment, but unlike so many bloggers and mass media journalists who seem keen to strap on the knee-pads, I don’t worship it, nor do I envy the success of those on the altar. If you’ll notice my track record, I tend to favour my time and attention to films which share the same writer as they do director, or films which I know bear the heavy stamp of their originators. I’d rather be told a story than sold a product. As to why I wrote about Godzilla then: I have been interested in Edwards’ budding talents as a director (the name is now fast becoming household), had already paid for the ticket, had noticed some notorious elements of the script, and so I thought I’d mention them.
Were this his second major Hollywood film I might perhaps hold him to task (indeed I may do just that when Godzilla 2: Godzillier hits theatres in a couple of years–and if I’m still writing this blog). But new talent needs to be fostered more than it does abused. Little in the script shows promise for the scriptwriter; the dialogue is banal, the scenarios contrived and familiar (as stated in my review). There are elements in the film, however, which show great promise for the director (the balance between large scale destruction and intimate interactions, an attentiveness to his digital creations, managing large scale action scenes by focusing on the main characters, little superfluous editing). A story can be told well even if the story itself isn’t worth the telling. The opposite is also true. There are many good scripts buried under otherwise incompetent direction. Indeed, the masochistic, Stockholm patient in me is thankful that Edwards resisted the Michael Bay-ian impulse to make Godzilla an alien and scrub all mentions of radioactivity since that would be a simple, facile alternative to the suggestion that the US ever possessed nuclear weapons, nevermind saw fit to use them twice against a foreign nation.
The true cineastes de notre temps, et notre passé–the Charlie Chaplins and Jean-Pier Melvilles–are relics of cinema. The vanguards of a new cinema have fumbled the fire left to them by Truffaut and Godard, lit for them by Resnais and Melville and fed by the work of Griffith, Huston and Hitchcock. These were directors who renewed their cultures as they reshaped them. Nowadays culture is a liquid amalgamation spread thin through cyber space, too slippery to be contained by a manifesto, much less suffer its expression. In the absence of such significant and overwhelming talent and ambition we recourse to the nearest source, the Duncan Jones’s and Gareth Edwards’s of modern pop culture cinema, two such directors with notable and impressive debuts who have since been catapulted into the upper echelons of Hollywood empiricism. I’ll take them and champion them over Hollywood hacks any day.