Monday, 24 June 2019

Chernobyl, Craig Mazin and the deceptiveness of credits

So, while the ending of Game of Thrones caused a ruckus, HBO quickly bounced back with one of the most acclaimed TV series in recent memory, Chernobyl. This period drama, a co-pro with Sister Pictures, examines the real-life Russian nuclear disaster and cover-up that resulted in many deaths, and a lot more trauma.

The mind behind this is veteran screenwriter (and Sexy ScriptNotes host) Craig Mazin, an industry pro whose films have grossed millions of dollars at the box office, and created a reputation of being able to bring troubled productions home and to said monetary glory. Alright, so for the unaware, you'd think this means 'Oh, well if he wrote Chernobyl, he must work with the likes of Nolan and Scorsese. He probably has a few Oscar wins to his name.'

Nope, he's the guy who wrote Scary Movie 3, Identity Thief and the Hangover sequels.


As the title says, credits are a deceptive little minx. It's easy to look at Mazin's credits and go 'HACK!', 'SELLOUT!', 'FAILING UPWARDS!' and more. How on earth did he pull out Chernobyl when his past career heights were sex and fart gags? Oh, and a sequel to Snow White and The Huntsman, for some reason. Surely, if those are 'his creations', then there's no way he could've also written something of Chernobyl's quality.

See this? Let's discuss.

Well, put big airquotes aroung 'his creations': much of the work in Hollywood is assignments i.e. what the studio hands out. Adaptations of books, remakes of studio I.Ps, script rewrites (Mazin loathes the term Script Doctor) etc. Stories of Hollywood rewrites are just as mythic as the films themselves: eleventh-hour fixes or scripts drowned under endless notes, despite the best efforts of the likes of William Goldman, Robert Towne, Nora Ephron, Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino and many more. In short, just because a project says one name, does not guarantee that said project is on the shoulders of that one person. Film and TV, like in any collaborative project, get revised all the time.

The way that the Writers Guild of America works, credits are often arbitrated and alloted, based on percentages of material contributed. You don't meet the quota, you don't get credit (see Frank Darabont and David S. Goyer on Godzilla, or Paul Dini on Maleficent). If you'd like to learn more about this, as it can be a headscratcher, I suggest you read Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too! by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. It's an addictive read that'll leave you chuckling yet also be rather pensive about the Hollywood machine. Love or hate their films, this duo (who have shared projects with Mazin, like Baywatch) have been at the epicentre of some of the big comedies of the last decade (Herbie, Night at the Museum), so they know their stuff.

For how Britain works, here's our own Guild.

But, what's just as important here, is what this body of work says about Mazin: he's a lean, mean writing machine. Regardless of critical reception, you don't last as long as Mazin has if you aren't able to deliver the goods on time, solve problems, and said goods turn out greater returns. If you are that good on assignment jobs... what then could your own original work be like? What level of trust have you built, through these jobs, to convince people to take a chance on your original idea?

In short, what's your reputation? A go-getter, a dedicated craftsman, or a stubborn, difficult pain?

It's as true of the UK as it is of the USA. It's easy, especially for newer screenwriters, to look at the industry too much like a fan, and not as a professional with perspective. It's tempting to whine about how terrible you think these films are, and thus can't make the jump from Hangover 3 to Chernobyl as the work of the same man. However, here's some other examples to bear in mind:
  • Justin Marks - Wrote Legend of Chun-Li. Also wrote Counterpart and The Jungle Book.
  • David S. Goyer - Wrote Blade Trinity and Man of Steel. Also wrote Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Blade 2 and Dark City
  • Julian Fellowes - Wrote The Tourist. Also wrote Downton Abbey.
  • Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzmann - Wrote Transformers 1 & 2, as well as Legend of Zorro and The Island. Also wrote People Like Us, Xena, Fringe, Alias and Sleepy Hollow S1.
All of this is to say: no experience or work is wasted. Everything can be a learning opportunity, if you choose to use it: clearly Mazin did, and now look what he pulled off. What's more, never take things at face value: writers are always writing, commissioned or on spec. Much of what you write will never see the light of day, it's just a sad fact. How different would the perception of Mazin's work be if his more dramatic projects got made, or he got credited for more serious assignments?

However, wherever you end up, you never stop pushing or challenging yourself, and you use that to broaden and improve your own portfolio. Even if the end product isn't great, to get on it in the first place requires one to have a certain, often high, level of skill. That can sometimes be as good of an endorsement as great work by critical standards.

Sometimes, a creator's body of work can say more than the surface allows. What Identity Thief and other of Mazin's work may lack as great or unique cinema, it makes up for as a reminder of having a good work ethic and initiative. Chernobyl then, on top of being a great show, is also proof of the potential rewards of said dedication.

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