Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Oscar Nominations and Authorship

By  · Published on February 22nd, 2011

Famed British filmmaker Mike Leigh recently received his fifth screenwriting nomination for Another Year. Another Oscar nomination for a highly celebrated filmmaker should be surprising to no one except, in this special case, for the fact that precisely zero of Leigh’s nominated films actually use screenplays. Leigh’s films are constructed through a painstaking and long-term process of creating characters and scenarios with his cast and creative team. His films aren’t improvised in the sense of, say, a Christopher Guest film, where a basic framework exists and actors are allowed to ad-lib and play with(in) that paradigm. Leigh’s films are instead created from the outset through an involved collaborative process.

Leigh’s regular team of actors bring to each individual film their construction of a character from scratch. Details arise eventually through this collaboration, and the final work projected onscreen is the end result of a long selection of various possibilities. The only reason Leigh’s films even qualify for screenwriting awards is because of the written script that Leigh creates after the end product has been made. The physical screenplay, in this case, is nothing more than a transcription written after the fact, or a record of a much larger event (whose details are largely unknown to the audience). While Leigh is the sole nominee for Another Year, the creation of the script (or, in this case, the transcript) is just as indebted to the creative efforts of other individuals involved. Stars Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville are, in a sense, just as beholden to the credit of Another Year as a story manifested in screenplay form.

But this post ultimately isn’t about Mike Leigh. The unusual and rare (signature) means by which Leigh’s films are made provides a rather direct means of understanding the frequently complex and often arbitrary relationship between an Oscar nomination and the authorship behind the work being honored; or, in other words, who is credited with responsibility for the work being recognized.

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the relationship between an actor’s performance and the larger context of filmmaking in which they perform. Mickey Rourke and Heath Ledger were big nominees of that year, but it was impossible to look at their specific performances without considering the larger framework within which we saw those performances (e.g., The Wrestler as reflective of Rourke’s career, Ledger’s posthumous role). In that sense, these turns weren’t being honored simply because of the performances themselves, because the way we read them was so determined by conditions outside the film itself.

In a more material sense, in honoring a performance we are essentially honoring a selection of a much larger body of work. Each take is often selected from multiple options, and a performance in one seamless scene can take place over a variety of days of filming. The final product, then, is the fragments of a process assembled together to resemble a whole. This is not to say that in every sense editors “make” a performance, or that performance is a product solely of post-production rather than actual in-the-shit filmmaking: rather, what we ultimately see onscreen is a complex amalgamation of both. Films are a collaborative medium, and taking this notion to its logical (but completely justifiable) extreme makes the entire notion of nominating and recognizing individual effort incredibly complicated and sometimes problematic.

Leigh’s films, and the transparent absurdity of his screenwriting nominations, are not as much exceptions to the rule as they are more honest manifestations of the natural collaborative process of scale filmmaking as a whole.

Films are the end result an odd combination of unavoidable spontaneity and calculated collaborative planning of action. In live-action filmmaking, one must plan to coordinate all the factors involved and work in union in order to articulate one collaborative vision, but nothing can ultimately turn out exactly as it does in one’s head. No matter how on-board all individuals involved are in terms of manifesting the same vision, specific factors of individuality within a collaborative framework come into play, be it the specific touches a costume designer or production designer implements, the way an actor delivers a line, or the unpredictability of outdoor shooting. All this comes to a head in the Best Director category, for often we can say what great directing looks like in a final product (through shot selection, for instance, which could be accredited as much to the DP as the director) or who good directors are, but it’s rare that we can identify specifically the role the director had in making choices along the collaborative train to the final product that makes them truly among the “best.” How exactly can we define good directing? What does it look like?

In a way, this isn’t unusual when evaluating works of art. Except for in the cases of the avant-garde and experimental, art is about the product and not the process. We judge a book or examine a painting in a gallery not through knowledge of the way that work came to be (though this knowledge, or at least bits of it, are often made available), but by what ultimately came out of it. But even though factors of outside influence and determining conditions are involved in creating any work of art (nothing exists in a vacuum), accreditation in the artistic process is often so much more clear when you speak of a painting or a novel, both of which more often than not have a single individual “author,” than it is in the collaborative nature of narrative feature filmmaking. Films are evaluated similarly by their final product rather than their process, but credit in this case becomes far trickier than the tradition of individual nominations leads you to believe. Individual authorship is rarely the case (such situations are also evidenced in incurred legal and industrial-political troubles, like the feud over who deserved producing credit for The Hurt Locker during awards season last year).

The screenwriting categories, then, start to look like the oddest categories of all. While several screenplays are no doubt works of art on their own, we as a culture haven’t gotten to the point of studying screenplays of, say, Charlie Kaufman like one would the plays of Tennessee Williams beyond screenwriting classes. While screenplays are “artful,” they aren’t at this point unanimously considered “literature” or standalone pieces of art, and are instead regarded more often as blueprints for the final product. But the best screenplay is often valued by the quality of the final product rather than their function as blueprint alone, which explains Leigh’s frequent nominations for screenplays that, as part of the creative process, never actually existed.

Aaron Sorkin, for instance, is no doubt a great writer, but it’d be difficult to see the momentum behind him for his recent work had his words not been delivered no magnificently by the individuals who were ultimately cast to articulate them. The screenplay categories in this way reveal the contradictions inherent in the nomination process, or in other words reveal the tension between process and product that exists when assigning authorship and credit. The screenplay is a component of preproduction, and product of the process rather than the product, yet it is evaluated after the fact (and often spruced up to better resemble the film for consideration in a way not unlike Leigh’s more explicit post-screenwriting process). While the prose of a screenplay no doubt has artistic value of its own, the evaluation of it is irrevocably tied to a network of other factors which took place after its creation.

Leigh’s post-screenplays are emblematic of the issue as a whole: in nominating individuals in a collective creative process, the product and process are conflated as one vague moment, and as a result authorship becomes oversimplified.

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