Behind the Lines with DR: Writing Credits… How Small Do You Go?

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Just this week I got a call from a young writer/director acquaintance. He’s a friend of a good pal and, every so often, I’m lucky to be emailed a link to one of his recent short films. They’re always chuckle-worthy, if not laugh-out-loud funny. But also quite well-constructed and arrestingly realized. To quote Lord knows how many Hollywood legends, “This kid’s got a future.”

writing creditAs it turns out, this young auteur’s most recent production has gotten some traction, making the rounds amongst Hollywood reps and garnering him interest from agents and managers. Deservedly so, I might add.

But wait. This is my blog. There’s always a turn of the worm. And it made me rethink some previous assumptions about that age-old itch known as credit. So hang with me.

As it turns out, the pair of equally young thespians featured in the five-minute short had found a bone to pick with their buddy, the director. You see, while he’s getting some heat off the work, the actors are not. Thusly, the young auteur found them on his stoop, demanding that he include them as co-writers in the film’s credits.

“You’re kidding me,” I said flatly, yet not so surprised. In fact, I saw it coming from a mile away. Why? Because whining about credit isn’t rare. In fact, it’s a pandemic of small mindedness.

Now, before you say “really?” There’s actually a credit fight over who wrote a five-minute film? Lemme say, yes. Complaints and wrestling matches over credit know no budget, format, nor film length.

I recalled an educational film I wrote and directed back in my college days. It was for an educational film company where I’d interned the previous summer. Due to some creative constipation at the executive level, they’d found themselves short on marketable product. So my partner, Charlotte, a sharpie who was employed full-time at the San Diego outfit, and I concocted a conceptual piece that could be shot on the cheap, posted, and loaded into their distribution scheme within a few short months. We got our green light and, on the night before our one-day shoot, our immediate boss (who unbeknownst to the powers that be was the prime reason for the clog in company’s product pipeline) showed up at my apartment door, invited himself inside and parked his fat butt across from Charlotte and me. This is when he announced that unless he received an executive producer credit on our eleven-minute epic, he would find a way to torpedo the project and get both of us fired.

Of course, I didn’t care. “Fire me,” I insisted, incensed at the pagan yet petty power play. But Charlotte had recently married a UCSD graduate student and her job meant both money and health benefits for the newlyweds. So we wisely caved to his demand, gave the SOB his stupid credit, and plotted our future careers without him.

“So your actor friends,” I said to the young auteur. “Is acting all they brought to the party?”

“No,” he said. “They’re also producers.” As it turns out, they’d tossed in a few bucks to help the low, low budget shoot. So good on them.

“But were they in the room when you wrote the script?” I asked.

“Nope,” he answered. “Not for any of the drafts.”

“So what’s their beef, exactly?” I asked.

“Well,” he continued. “They wrote a bunch of emails with suggestions for this and that. Plus I workshopped the script with them.”

“Did you use every suggestion they made?” I asked.

“Hardly.”

“So you chose which suggestions would go in the script and which wouldn’t?”

“Yes.”

This is when I began to challenge my former opinions on contributory credit. Though I wasn’t quite ready to voice them.

“Well, those choices that you made are writer’s choices,” I first defended. Though it might’ve been a knee-jerk reaction. “We get input from everywhere. Producers. Actors. Agents. If it’s a good suggestion, we writers use it. We’d be foolish not to, yes? We want only the best ideas to make the final product.”

Now, me using the world “foolish” could be construed as a gross understatement. Ideas come from everywhere and anywhere. And great ideas are like manna from heaven. One never knows where a usable notion might come from. I’ve heard of caterers making constructive comments that ended up on screen.

Are we really wrong to deny them their deserved credit?

“Not just that,” I continued to defend the old rules. “Your actor pals are producers on the short film. Making constructive suggestions is part of their job. Not to mention their names are already on the film. Twice.”

“True,” said the young auteur. “I’m just trying to be fair to them.”

“By your soon-to-be-ex-friends’ logic,” I surmised. “And I say ‘ex-friends’ because, in my opinion they’re not acting at all like friends. Using their flawed logic, I should have shared writing credit with Michael Imperioli on Bad Boys.”

“Why?”

“Because the movie was a mad dash for anything that might be smart or funny. And one day an audition tape out of our New York casting office showed up with Michael Imperioli improvising as Jojo the Tire Man. Not only did it get him the part, but shortly after he arrived at The Miami Biltmore, I bumped into him in a hallway, introduced myself and told him not to be too surprised when he found that I pilfered some audition gold for one of his two scenes.”

Yes. Pilfered. As in stole.

Imperioli’s reply came with a surprised smile and a succinctly simple, “Cool, man.”

“I don’t recall Michael Imperioli showing up anywhere to suggest he deserved a writing credit on Bad Boys,” I argued. “Or for that matter, Martin Lawrence or Will Smith, who along with Tea (Leoni) spent days with me ‘workshopping’ scenes.”

In fact, there was one scene where I was stuck for some girly dialogue and simply phoned Tea’s hotel room upstairs. Ten minutes later she was in an empty office with me, spit-balling and improvising her way through the scene until it felt as if it had practically written itself. I said thanks, pounded out the new scene, and we shot it three days later. In retrospect, I didn’t lobby for Tea to get credit. Nor did she imagine that she should have. Instead, she was excited to contribute. And why wouldn’t she be? It was her performance up on the big screen.

But I’ve turned a bit reflective. Was the wisdom of hindsight trying to whisper to my conscience? Was I selling Tea’s contributions short? Or Michael’s? Should I have lobbied for extra on-screen credit for them? Something up front, maybe?

TEA LEONI
(and some assisted chick-licks)

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI
(and four faux-cocaine-fueled riffs)

I mean, seriously blogfans. It may look a bit confusing. But wouldn’t it be fair, not to mention conspicuously accurate?

Or maybe we should add all the extra contributions to the credit roll. Imagine how those might read, especially if we were all so interested in veracity. I’d written that Kevin Pollack’s character was driving an S-Class Mercedes, but we could credit the Transportation Captain for having switched it to a Chevrolet product because the automaker was willing to provide all production vehicles at a discount. Or where I imagined Ben Foster’s character wearing a jacket of second-hand slacker plaid, should the costumer be given an extra credit for having put the skin-and-bones actor in a leather jacket in order to give him bulkier physique?

But wait. I’m playing small ball here.

The ultimate coup de grace would be if Bruce Willis received his due for all the f-bombs he’s so artistically caboosed to my dialogue over the years. Perhaps an on-screen acknowledgment somewhere after the distributor’s disclaimer. You know that part. Where they claim that any and all similarities to any real live humans is strictly coincidental, et cetera et cetera. What if there was this final disclaimer:

All unnecessary fucks, fuckers, motherfuckers, fuckheads, and fuck-tards courtesy of Bruce Willis.

All silliness aside, most would agree that credit should go where it is due. That said, isn’t it just about ego? Seriously. Think of all the artful products in our daily lives with which we take for granted. The cars we drive. The corner lamp of which everyone remarks on its nouveau deco beauty. That brilliant TV commercial we froze on our DVR just so our significant other could marvel at its brilliance. Where are credits for those created and/or treasured feats?

As I write this blog, I wonder if I’d be less satisfied if my name wasn’t attached to it, let alone be on the website domain. It’s nice to be acknowledged for work well done. But without it, would I never put words to paper?

I think not.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Download Chapter 1 of Blood Money.

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