11 MARCH 2000, Page 42


Victims of intellectual torture

Margaret Leclere on how writers can lose control of their work during the making of a film Film producers should avoid using the word 'integrity' because it never sounds convincing coming from them. And the `integrity' they care least about is that of the material upon which their films are based.

I'm referring to Stephen Woolley, who complained it was unfair for the BBFC to give his film, Graham Greene's The End Of The Affair, an 18 certificate because the scene they found unsuitable for persons under 18 had 'integrity'. Huh. Like most film producers, Stephen Woolley is no stranger to the cutting and altering of scenes of great integrity. Sex scenes, how- ever, are helpful for publicity and usually get to stay in films. If they can be sold to young people, all the better.

Because Mr Woolley has the luxury of dealing with material by so respectable a writer as Graham Greene, he is able to claim the moral high ground. However, had Graham Greene been around, and had he written The End Of The Affair not as a novel but as an original screenplay (as he did The Third Man), and had he had the opportunity to 'work with' Mr Woolley, he may well have had cause to scream the word 'integrity' himself. Because had Gra- ham Greene signed a normal screenwriter's contract with Mr Woolley, and had Mr Woolley decided that, say, he required more sex in the film, and had Greene held out against this, then it is probable Mr Woolley would have sent him a letter `thanking him for his contribution to the project' and telling him goodbye.

Could this happen? Absolutely. And what could Greene have done about it? Nothing. His contract would undoubtedly have required him to 'waive his droit moral' (in the interests of raising finance, you understand); it would also have made provision for the hiring of further writers (because financiers won't risk their money otherwise — what if Mr Greene were to die mid-draft?).

Droit moral, as enshrined in the Berne Convention, is the inalienable right of an author over the 'integrity' and 'paternity' of his intellectual property. Once waived, he has no rights left. So, having been sacked, Greene would be left the victim of what amounts to intellectual torture: the wit- nessing from afar of the intimate handling of his baby by strangers.

If one tries to imagine how, under these circumstances, Greene might have reacted on hearing that the film, rewritten, had gone into production, perhaps it would go something like this: First he'd want to see the doctored screenplay — because for all he knows they may have barely changed it and it really is his work that is being filmed. But when he finally gets hold of the evil object he finds that, freed from the strict, controlling hand of its creator, his story, although still recognisably his own, has been deformed; the bedrock of moral and artistic considerations below the surface has been disregarded by the interloper (the hired re-writer who cares only to please his employers). For example, a character con- ceived as having little regard for his per- sonal safety may have been made to give up smoking in the interests of family view- ing. A character conceived as incorruptible may be made crooked on page one of the script in the interests of street-cred (this is the kind of storytelling film-makers under- stand). The point is, changes will be made with no thought for the conception as a whole. Besides, the interloper's motivation is entirely different from the creator's. He needs, first, to rewrite enough to merit a credit; second, to produce a script financiers will approve (i.e., the right length, not overly ambitious, spiced-up in the way he knows film-makers approve). So what is Graham Greene to do? He hates the script with his name on it, with his characters adrift inside it, crippled ver- sions of their former selves, doing things they should not and would not do. Yet it's still his baby. He gave birth to the monster. Should he simply walk away? Probably. But what if he can't? What if he put too much of himself into it? Perhaps if he were to remove his name, in protest, the world I want to sign it first!' would listen and not go to see the vile thing. Perhaps, having created it, he could kill it. Perhaps . . .

But then he learns that the film's credits will read 'Screenplay by Graham Greene and Interloper'. If he were to take his name off he would, in effect, be giving authorship of his work to Interloper. When he protests the producers tell him it's a 'dispute between writers' and should be referred to his union, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. So, hoping to get Interloper's name disjoined from his own, he instigates a cred- it arbitration by the Writers' Guild. To his horror, the WG uphold the producer's actions. Worse, they do not even enforce a separate credit acknowledging his creation of the thing. He and Interloper are to be joined as co-authors who, as far as the world is concerned, cooked up the thing together.

In an attempt to understand how this could be, Greene asks to read the guide- lines given to the arbitrators, the three ahonymous judges of his fate. This 19-page document starts well, with phrases such as: `The second object of arbitration is to enhance the value of the screenplay achievement as a distinctive form of cre- ative contribution to the art of fiction.' Then it gets confusing, with pages of specif- ic guidance on how to evaluate each writer's contribution to a final screenplay, at every turn assuming that all writers are working from some form of 'source material'.

And then, there it is: the answer. On page 13 it is stated that 'source material is material not written specifically for film but acquired by a producer from other sources'. In other words, the original screenplay is simply not acknowledged as a piece of literary creation, and intellectual theft, sanctioned by the WG, is the result.

I know this because, save for it happen- ing to Greene, most of the above is true. It happened to my husband, Eric Leclere, the writer of an original screenplay called The Lost Son, produced by Stephen Woolley's company, Scala Productions. In the end, no thanks to the WG but to an exchange of letters with Scala's lawyers (who also tried to claim that 'screenplays arc not source material'), he was given an additional cred- it which read 'based on an original story by . . .' But, as everybody knows, in the movies this credit can be secured on the strength of a few words on a restaurant napkin..

But, even if the above could never have happened to a writer of Greene's stature, it happens to writers all the time. In the case of The Lost Son Mr Woolley, having secured the rights to the material, declined to meet the writer to discuss the work. It is time the WG took action before the fail- ures of their arbitration policy damage the lives and careers of more writers.

And while the word 'integrity' is in the air . The Lost Son, budgeted at £6 mil- lion, received £2 million of public money from the Arts Council's Lottery funding. Were the Arts Council aware, when they awarded the £2 million, that the original writer — or artist? — had been sacked from his own art work, that nine months later the producers had invited him back and that he had declined in order to avoid further bad treatment? As they are sup- posed to 'monitor' proceedings, I imagine they were. To some, this would signal a doomed project. Yet the Arts Council saw fit to proceed, giving a green light to the £2 million on the basis of a script delivered to them just two weeks after the original author had declined to return, by a writer also hired within the space of those two weeks. Those must have been two busy weeks. Integrity and the movies . . .