How do you know who's at fault for bad parts of a movie? Actors/Director/Screenwriter

I hear people all the time, “It was a great script, but the director ruined it” or “The actors and the script sucked, but the direction!

Etc., etc., etc.

But how can you tell?

For instance, two of the few things I’ve seen Natalie Portman in are the Star Wars prequels. Based on those, imo, she is probably the worst actor in the history of staged performances. However, how do I know that she isn’t a great actor and Lucas just directed her badly?

How do you know? :confused:

In this case:

  1. Watch “The Professional”
  2. Compare her performance in Star Wars to the superb examples of pure acting genius delivered by Hayden Christensen and some of her other colleagues.

Draw your own conclusions.

Seriously, I think the most viable way is comparing the performance to other examples of the same actor and to other performances in the same film.

Though kellner, you have to admit using the new SW films as an example in this situation is a tough choice.

The plots have been great, but the dialogue is atrocious and Lucas is well known for being very controlling on the set.

But certainly “The Professional” is a good film and Natalie was very good in it. I can’t say the same for Hayden, as I’ve never seen him in anything else, and of course there is Ewan McGreggor who is an outstanding actor and actually does manage to show it in the SW films despite crappy lines. This is a tossup.

I think instead of using particular actors or films, you may want to think about aspects of film making that are universal.

For instance: Pacing, or too many quick cuts from character to character or scene to scene. These are the fault of the director.


How do I tell? I have a crystal ball.

I get to park in handicap spaces, too.

Well, if Natalie Portman were a GREAT actor, she’d have been good in Star Wars regardless of what Lucas did. Witness the performances of Liam Neeson or Christopher Lee for contrast. However, I think it’s unfair to blame any of the actors in the latest Star Wars films for turning in poor performances. Portman has been very good in films by other directors, so odds are that she’s just getting poor direction, or maybe even no direction at all. But even if she were wholly incompetant, it’s still the responsibility of the director to recognize that they can’t handle the material and replace them with someone who can. Often, the studio might force a director to use a particular actor regardless of their ability or appropriateness for the role, but in this case, Lucas IS the studio. So, in that particular case, regardless of wether Natalie Portman is a good actress or not, the blame for what you’re seeing up on the screen is solidly in Lucas’s lap.

One thing you can be sure of, it’s not the screenwriter. First of all, most scripts go through many, many screenwriters, with the one whose name is on the credits determined by arcane SWG rules, often mediation, and sometimes lawsuits. The director chooses what to shoot, so if the script is crap it’s the directors fault.

There is an old joke about the starlet who was so stupid that to get ahead she slept with the screenwriter.

As for whether it was the actors’ fault - just consider the number of best actor awards coming from Lucas directed movies.

Well why would they have a Best Screenplay Oscar then? You never hear about Gus Van Sant’s work on Good Will Hunting. You always hear about what a great script it was.

Also, I heard once (I think I actually read it in a Screenwriting book so this is admitedly biased), that Speilberg shot ET almost verbatim from the script, so the screenwriter really should have gotten a lot more, if not all the credit for that movie.

Thought he was quite good in Life as a House.

The director is ultimately responsible for everything. There are some scripts that succeed or fail on their own, but most of the time, the director 1) chooses the script, 2) rewrites the scripts, 3) determines what you see on the screen, 4) stages each scene, 5) has the final say on how actors read their lines, and 6) tells the editor which take to use.

There are some exceptions, of course. Charles Kauffman is responsible for his own films, even though he’s the screenwriter. “Shakespeare in Love” owes everything to Tom Stoppard. Walter Pigeon’s phoned-in performance in “Forbidden Planet” nearly ruins the entire film. And “Casablanca” was just fate coming together.

But usually, the director has the control, so he has the responsibility.

Wouldn’t this also be the fault of the editor? The director has final say, of course, but surely an editor can be held accountable as well.

To the OP, without knowing the backstory, it’s impossible to know who was responsible for what. The 98’ remake of Godzilla, was based on a much better script. The director, however, reportedly decided to completely re-write 90% of the movie over the course of a couple weeks. The original screenwriters’ names are still on the film, but the movie barely resembles what they wrote. And more’s the pity, too. As anyone who was unfortunate enough to see the finished movie can tell you.

There’s no easy answer to the “how can you tell what went wrong” question, certainly not one that can be posted in a necessarily short-n-ephemeral message board. The bottom line, though, is that it takes time and experience. After seeing several thousand movies, reading much background material (biographical, technical, business) on the craft and industry in general as well as on specific productions, and working on films myself, I think I have a pretty good handle on how things are put together and I can identify the weak elements of a film, at least in a broad sense, from one or two viewings.

However, this is not always the case.

For example, I saw a thoroughly awful film very recently. I happened to see it under very secure circumstances, and I can reveal absolutely no details about it, per the ironclad agreement I signed when I received my pass. I’d very much like to identify it, in order to warn interested viewers away from it, but I can’t, so don’t ask; I’m not even going to hint.

I bring it up, though, because afterward my moviegoing companion and I were trying to figure out where the movie went wrong. It had some evident potential, but by the end the good ideas were twisted up with the bad in a catastrophic flaming trainwreck. And the question we were debating was simple: Whose fault is it?

We did this by carefully reviewing the credits, attempting to identify source material and tracking backward from there to puzzle out what elements came from where, which stuff was on the page and which stuff was contributed by the director or whomever. We discussed the filmmakers’ histories, the director and the producers and so on, considering how they usually go about making their movies: which writers do they use, how long do they stay in preproduction, what kind of input do their actors typically have, and that sort of thing.

In the end, I came to the tentative conclusion that the film, metaphorically speaking, was put in the oven before the batter was fully mixed. It is sometimes the case that a film must be put into production for financial or logistical reasons before the problems with the script have been worked out; look at The Devil’s Own, that IRA/cop movie with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt a few years back, which was forced in front of the cameras without a fully polished script partly because the two big movie stars had established their availability just so and if the schedule slipped one or both of them would have to drop out and the project as a whole would then be endangered. Without going into specifics on the nature of the mystery movie I’m discussing, I strongly suspect the script was being worked on and known problems were being ironed out when for one reason or another they had to rush into production before they were ready. That is, I will admit, a guess. It’s an informed guess, but without additional information it’s still a guess. It’s quite possible I’m off base, and that the director fell down in the bathtub the day before shooting started and hit his/her head on the faucet and suffered brain damage and as a result created the incoherent mess I saw. Or maybe he/she is just plain incompetent, and his/her prior successes were flukes of luck. Or something else. Honestly, I don’t know. I think I know, and I’ll be looking for more information, but I’ll be surprised if I’m not at least in the ballpark.

Does that help? I know an answer like “take your time and learn, young padawan” isn’t particularly satisfying, but it’s the only honestly accurate response, in my view.

Ok Cervaise, I understand you can’t everyone but just wisper it to me. I won’t tell.

whisper dammit :smack:

My wife used to have a riddle about education (she is a teacher) Do you know how you can identify a “gifted” child?

It is the child of the parent you are talking to at the moment.

Your question is the converse of that one.

The fault lies with whomever you are not talking to at the moment.

Just consider the number of major best actor awards and noms coming from Peter Jackson’s movies. Lucas has five to Jackson’s three, and he’s acquired them from five movies to Jackson’s nine. Guess the acting in Lord of the Rings must really suck, huh?

Like Jackson, Lucas doesn’t deal in the kind of movies that attract acting nominations. American Graffiti and THX-1138 are his only real character-driven movies.

Uh-uh, nope. Some actors, true, manage to deliver a goddamned-great performance under ANY conditions. They’ll take anything they’re given and do good work with it. These are the actors that you see in improv groups, f’rinstance… they can pull off excellent work at the drop of a hat.

Other actors, however, are accustomed to following a certain “process” towards making a character, and are probably used to relying on the director… who is, after all, in charge of everything. Once given sufficient direction to suit their needs, they’ll do some damn good stuff.

Which is the superior acting method? I dunno. But I DO know that if a director relies too much on the actor, that can make for a weak director and thus a weaker show. “Too many cooks”, and all that.

Apparently when screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. first saw MAS*H he was furious!

“How could you do this to me!? There’s not a single word that I wrote on that screen!”

MASH ended up winning Lardner an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. :smack: In all fairness, Robert Altman even said that he wouldn’t have been able to make MASH the great movie that it was if it weren’t for Lardner’s screenplay. He considered Larder’s work on the project to be and invaluable guide in putting the movie together.

I’m not sure how character driven THX is, but American Graffiti sure is. But I was referring to Star Wars movies, which have only gotten one best or supporting actor nomination - and I don’t think Lucas taught Alec Guiness anything about acting.

What are the best actor noms, by the way? I can find only two - Guiness and Candy Clark for Graffiti.

We’re talking about the factors that make a movie bad, not what makes it good. A good script can lead to a good movie. Not all scripts get trashed. Remember who wrote the script for Good Will Hunting! When the writers are actually saying the words, things are less likely to be changed. Woody Allen scripts don’t get trashed either - but lots of them do, more than most people realize.

As for the Oscar - there have been plenty of cases where someone who felt he was responsible for the goodness of a script not getting his name on it or an Oscar.

Adding to the complexity of this is the fact that the movie was adapted from the book by the pseudonymous Richard Hooker, who was in no way anti-war. Most or all of the incidents in the movie came from the book. You’d have to compare the original script with what got on film to see of the theme extracted came from Altman or Lardner. For those who have never read the books, the real Hawkeye was no Alan Alda - in the books they use “Democrat” as a curse, and do a lot of very politically incorrect things.