'Tales from the Script' Review

From 2010, Christopher Campbell reviews the screenwriting documentary.

Tales from the Script
First Run Features

This review of Tales from the Script was originally published as a Doc Talk column on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on March 10, 2010.

I implore any prospective or fledgling screenwriters out there to see the new documentary Tales from the Script. And afterward, if you still feel like attempting to break into that highly competitive and rarely rewarding side of the movie business, then it’s possible this is indeed the right dream and career for you. As Taxi Driver and Raging Bull scribe Paul Schrader says in the film, “If you can be happy doing anything else, do that.”

Tales from the Script is basically just a supplement to the recently published book of the same name by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman (or vice versa, the book can be seen as the companion piece to the film). Hanson also directed the documentary, which features interviews with a number of celebrated screenwriters, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), and William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), as well as lesser-knowns like low-budget action scribe Michael January (CIA II: Target Alexa), Golden Age Oscar-winner Melville Shavelson (Houseboat), and My Favorite Year screenwriter Dennis Palumbo, who ultimately quit the field and became a psychotherapist.

Palumbo may be the only one who quit, but at times the other talking heads in the film seem to be on the verge of doing the same. Honestly, the whole point of the film appears to be a response to a statement from John Carpenter, who was one of Hanson’s first interviews. He says, “If you knew what was gonna come, you wouldn’t do it.” Well, kids, here’s what terrible things came with the careers of your favorite screenwriters: starvation on the way to success, starvation after success, lack of respect, lack of control, lack of credit, unwanted credit, and disheartening interactions with anyone from Uwe Boll to Steven Spielberg.

Eventually, there is some bright-side stuff, maybe about an hour or more in. Guinevere Turner still loves what she does, for example; particularly that she can wake up late and party any night she wants (and I’m sure she’s happy about having written Go Fish and American Psycho). And her horrible experience with Boll on Bloodrayne hasn’t changed this. Likewise, Justin Zackham‘s complaints are menial compared to the once-in-a-lifetime experience he had with The Bucket List. And Ghost Oscar-winner Bruce Joel Rubin has an uplifting story about one person’s gratitude for My Life that seems to make up for all the bad stuff associated with the craft.

Could you get this predominantly negative and minimally positive wisdom from Hanson and Herman’s book? Probably, and there isn’t much in the film to stimulate you cinematically save for a few chapter-heading clips from movies about Hollywood and/or screenwriting, including Adaptation, Barton Fink, and Get Shorty (though shockingly nothing from the mother of all films addressing the treatment of screenwriters, The Player). But there is some satisfaction in seeing all these writers starring in a movie all their own, putting their words out there without interference from actors or producers or whomever else.

And maybe there are fans who will appreciate seeing the faces behind names like Zak Penn (X2: X-Men United), David Hayter (Watchmen), John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and Mark Fergus (Children of Men). If there’s anything I learned from my review of The Sci-Fi Boys four years ago it’s that it doesn’t matter if docs like this are good or bad as long as they cater to a certain niche audience. Many screenwriting enthusiasts are sure to enjoy Tales from the Script just as many science fiction fans enjoyed that film. And just as many editors love The Cutting Edge (no, not the figure skating film), which is a much more interesting and instructive documentary, in my opinion, but it probably would be cherished by members of the editing field regardless.

As someone very interested in the movies and not so much in fashion, I certainly got through Tales from the Script easier than (I’m still having with) the acclaimed and surely more well-made documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. One complaint I do have, however, which I mostly want to share because Doc Talk is a column devoted to nonfiction cinema: why no documentary writers? With the WGA Awards now recognizing the screenplays for docs, it’s only fair that books and films about screenwriting better acknowledge them. too. Especially this film, since it includes a “written by” credit.

I know, writing for nonfiction is in many ways different from what this film’s featured screenwriters do, and I’m sure documentary writers’ struggles and successes are a whole other story. But I guess this just means there’s room for a sequel (book and/or film) from Hanson and Herman that takes a look at people like Alex Gibney, Michael Moore, Amy Berg, Ross McElwee, and The Cove‘s Mark Monroe, letting them talk about the process of writing a documentary with a narrative — whether before or after the cameras begin rolling. I hope I’m not the only one as curious about that as with fiction writers.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.