There’s a scene in Starz’s forthcoming documentary series The Chair—which debuts September 6, and which I previewed here—where director Shane Dawson and his producing partner Lauren Schnipper are discussing the rewriting of the script with their producer-at-large, Josh Shader, one of the only people in touch with both of the two productions being made from the same script by Dan Schoffer. It’s as tense a confrontation as you see in the first two episodes of the series, as Schnipper works to break down the writing credits of the still in-progress script that was heavily rewritten and noted by Dawson before being shipped back to Schoffer to take a final pass. Without saying it directly, her question is predicated on the likely results of a WGA arbitration hearing for the film, and Shader’s answer is—paraphrasing—that because they gave the option back to Schoffer to write the final version of the script, Dawson’s contributions will just be considered notes that happen when a director gets involved with a project, with Schoffer therefore retaining final, sole credit on the film.
It’s a moment of some tension. Schoffer gives a talking head discussing how Dawson’s claim to credit is an overreach, but as relative first-timers in the context of film production Schnipper and Dawson are mainly just looking for clarification on what to expect moving forward, which seems reasonable. Credit is complicated, as Schnipper notes when she contrasts Dawson’s process (rewriting/notes and then sending the script back to the writer) and fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci’s greater control over the script to her film. Whereas Dawson effectively rehired Schoffer to rewrite his own script, Martemucci took the job herself, with the documentary following her completion of the script heading into production. And so this foreshadows what may appear as part of the documentary, which is a likely arbitration hearing for her film, the result of which will determine the writing credits for Hollidaysburg when it debuts in theaters and on Starz this fall.
It will be a rare case where we’ll potentially have a lot of very clear information about the arguments made before an arbitration hearing, beyond simply knowing the result (A “Story by” credit for the original writer, a shared writing credit, etc.). In most cases, there isn’t a documentary film crew following every stage of the production, and there aren’t two concurrent projects that let you draw a direct comparison between the two. There’s just an end result and bits of pieces of production history, as is the case with this weekend’s Guardians of the Galaxy (which I “reviewed” on Letterboxd if you’re looking for more thoughts on the film). The film’s script is credited to James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, although the two never worked together on the film. In a lengthy—and fascinating—Buzzfeed profile on Perlman, as well as in numerous Q&As and features she’s done in the past week, it’s revealed she worked as part of the Marvel Writing Program, an incubator in which writers were brought in to help develop Marvel properties into potential franchises. Over a two-year period, she worked on adapting the Guardians of the Galaxy series into a workable film franchise, including choosing the roster, plotting out the story, and then completing further writing work during a six-month freelance period once it was clear Marvel was serious about that project.
The Buzzfeed piece features lots of detail on her experience with Marvel and her role in conceiving of this project, but it also acknowledges that she was never going to be its sole screenwriter.
“It wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when,” she said. “I always knew they were going to bring in a writer-director. That was always sort of the plan. I’m not primarily a comedy writer, but it needed to be a comedic project. Like, this is a project that has always been irreverent. It’s always been tongue-in-cheek. And so that was always the question.”
James Gunn became the writer-director in question, and thus began the careful negotiation of authorship. Perlman hasn’t been erased from material around the film, and she was both invited to the set and attended the film’s gala premiere, so it’s not as though there is intense conflict or bad feelings about the experience. And the fact that Marvel is letting her talk about her experience so openly speaks volumes, given they could have probably signed her into nondisclosure agreements if they had felt they needed to. I could be cynical for a moment and note that Marvel is likely allowing this because of the positive press it’s brought over a Marvel Studios film finally having a female writer, making it probable they would have worked harder to marginalize her contributions had she not been given a co-writing credit in WGA arbitration (thus giving them a “lemons into lemonade” option of a progressive gender story), but she is nonetheless being allowed to articulate her authorship in popular discourse around the film. That’s important.
However, Marvel has also very much positioned this as James Gunn’s vision, in the same way that Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man was positioned as his vision right up until creative differences led to his departure, and Marvel began the uphill battle of trying to get “Peyton Reed and Adam McKay’s Ant-Man” to overwrite the existing authorial work done in the many years of development on the project. Whereas Perlman’s authorship—bounded primarily in a story development process controlled by Marvel and with limited profile based on her relative lack of experience—is fairly easily rearticulated as secondary (if still meaningful) in discourse around the film in the wake of Gunn’s hiring, Wright’s intense authorship discourses are much more prominent, and will be a greater challenge for Marvel (and one imagines the arbiter in a WGA hearing).
We don’t know exactly how the WGA determined the shared screenwriting credit on Guardians of the Galaxy, but the range of deep texts of production like Perlman’s Buzzfeed profile and other interviews available to us lead us to want to make our own determinations, as we form our own informal arbitration for “credit” on the film in the court of popular discourse. Gunn’s weighed in himself: at a junket for the film, he told Film Divider’s Charles Madison that
“Really, in Nicole’s script everything is pretty different. I mean the story is different, there’s no Walkman, the character arcs are different, it’s not about the same stuff. But that’s how the WGA works. They like first writers an awful lot.”
Here we see Gunn—in addition to noting that he would not have credited Perlman as a co-writer if he was in charge of the process—laying claim to particular elements—the music, the character arcs, the “story”—and not others, and if we combine with Perlman’s comments about the comedy in the film, then a lot of what I personally enjoyed most about the project sounds like what Gunn brought to the table once Perlman’s work on the film was complete. And so in writing about the film, part of me would feel comfortable giving Gunn a lot of credit for making the film that I eventually saw. But then we could look to Perlman’s response to what would appear to be an e-mail question from Moviehole:
“We didn’t collaborate, they brought in James Gunn with his ideas, he was the director and added his “James Gunn flavor” and a few characters and worked off my script.”
That paints a slightly different picture, in which any claim to prioritizing Gunn’s contributions is focusing on flavor instead of the main ingredients (with the new characters merely a garnish—she referred to all of this as “James Gunn magic” to The Hollywood Reporter). As much as there doesn’t appear to be any outright conflict regarding the scripting timeline, the final WGA decision, or the ultimate prioritizing of Gunn’s authorship by Marvel, there is still plenty of murkiness regarding the authorship of the film.
This murky negotiation of writing credit makes writing about the film into a bit of a minefield. Take this Crave Online interview with Gunn as an example: as it was originally written, the story failed to mention Perlman at all, prompting an editor’s correction and apology. However, the correction itself almost goes too far based on what we know, as it suggests Gunn “wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman,” when the two never actually worked on the script at the same time. There’s no question the correction was necessary, as Perlman’s work on developing the concept for the film built a foundation for any work that followed (and was credited in a way that reflects this, if not even more), but at the same time would it be unfair to Gunn to create the impression that story and character material he personally developed and added to the story does not belong to him and him alone given that Perlman was not involved directly? And moreover, although Perlman and Gunn’s stories seem to overlap as it relates to their contributions to the end product, can we take Gunn’s word for it when it comes to which elements of the film belong to him exclusively, or is this just him consciously or unconsciously engaging in discourses of conspicuous authorship to ensure his contributions are foregrounded in coverage of the film?
I raise none of these points in an attempt to discredit Perlman; her status as the first woman credited on a Marvel film is enormously important, and will hopefully be the start of a trend for a company that has a production history problematically linked to broader narratives of gender and Hollywood. However, in writing about the film myself and reading writing about it—particularly Todd VanDerWerff’s review at Vox, where he takes pains to include Perlman in each nod to authorship—I found myself struggling with how to engage with the particulars of the film within these conversations. And this doesn’t even get into the larger question of how much autonomy any filmmaker—no matter how much they articulate their authorship—can have within the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe machine. Were the issues I had with the film’s structure a byproduct of Perlman’s original treatment that Marvel Studios insisted on maintaining even as Gunn took over? And do we then consider that to be outside of Gunn’s responsibility, or has his choice to take such strong authorship made any and all decisions into his responsibility as writer/director, even if their original authorship lies with Perlman’s contributions?
For a film that is often so enjoyable because of how uncomplicated it is compared to the overly-extended Marvel Cinematic Universe, reading about Guardians of the Galaxy has been a comparative minefield, albeit one that offers plenty of discussion of how we conceive of authorship in popular discourse around a piece of major studio filmmaking; it also makes a nice precursor for the Ant-Man conversation we’ll be having roughly a year from now.