Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A shout-out to screenwriters

I was driving down Venice Blvd. today when I saw an electronic billboard for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, which was released last Friday.

What was unusual on this billboard were the names listed. Drew Barrymore? Check. Ellen Page? Check. Shauna Cross?


I thought it might be one of the stars, but if so, how come I've never heard of her? I'm obsessive about knowing the names of actors -- a post for another time -- so I don't come across many movie advertisements where a star is big enough to have his/her name on the poster, but small enough for me to not know.

Then as I got a little closer, I saw it said "screenplay by" in smaller letters above Ms. Cross' name.

It struck me as funny, but only because it was so unusual, not because she shouldn't get the credit. As I've discussed on this blog previously, our common practice is to assign "authorship" of a film to its director, even though most times the director is not literally a person who does any "authoring." But the screenwriter is the person who, in most cases, originated or at least adapted the story, without whom the director wouldn't have anything to do.

But screenwriters usually only get hyped if they are someone noteworthy -- Charlie Kaufman, William Goldman, Robert Towne, Diablo Cody, Dave Eggers, etc. Someone whose previous screenwriting efforts have been so heralded, they've been given more credit for their films than the person who directed.

So I looked up Shauna Cross when I got home, and found out that she had had only one previous assignment to her credit: a 2007 comedy called Taking Five, which does not star anyone I've ever heard of. On wikipedia, I saw that she is also the author of the book Derby Girl, on which Whip It! is based. It must be semi-autobiographical, because Cross is also a member of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, who have become an only semi-ironic pastime that has become semi-popular with Angelenos.

Still, it's safe to say that most people have never heard of Shauna Cross. So it's hard to imagine, purely from an advertising perspective, what advantage there is to having her name on the billboard. It's true that this is where Cross lives -- not unusual for screenwriters -- and that she has probably gained some limited fame as a member of the local roller derby team. But it would truly be limited -- my guess is that of the people who do go to see the Dolls, few become involved to the point of getting acquainted with them.

Then there's another, sort of far-fetched theory: that Diablo Cody herself set some kind of precedent. Cody wrote the Ellen Page hit Juno, and became an overnight celebrity as a result. So maybe, just maybe, the studio thought that people would be drawn to another screenwriting-heavy film featuring Ellen Page. In fact, Cody has another thing in common with Cross -- they are both unlikely screenwriters. Cody's celebrity was perhaps not due primarily to her clever (sometimes too clever) dialogue in Juno, but the fact that she was, famously, once an exotic dancer. Exotic dancer? Roller derby girl? Close enough.

But I'd like to pin the credit on Drew Barrymore. She's produced numerous films, so she knows who's who and what's what on a set. If my theory is correct, she wanted to be magnanimous and share her "authorship" with a truly deserving partner. Barrymore seems to me like the kind of person who values a good script, and wants to spread the love if the movie is a hit. After all, there would be no Whip It! without Shauna Cross.

Sadly for Whip It!, it failed to clear $5 million this past weekend, but at least some critics seemed to like it.

Me? I can't promise to see it in the theater -- I didn't make it to Zombieland or any of the other films I intended to see this last weekend -- but it looks cute, and I'll definitely give it a watch eventually.

As for getting to a Los Angeles Derby Dolls game? match? roll?, well, one thing at a time.

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