Did the PC kill Hollywood’s archetypal screenwriter?

In the first part of this report for TG Daily, several top Hollywood screenwriters recalled the creative process before the computer age, and at the beginning of it.

Word processors and computers definitely made the process faster, but could they make a writer lazier in their thinking?


“With computers and word processors, rewriting became effortless. If you didn’t like something, you’d delete it, start a new file and start again. You didn’t have to mechanically preserve your pages, or crumple them in a ball, throw them out and start again,” says Carl Gottlieb, screenwriter of Jaws and The Jerk with Steve Martin.

”So it became almost too easy to rewrite. You could write down anything, and a computer would make it look as if it were formatted perfectly and it would look like a finished product, although it wasn’t. The finished product in the old days, in the pre-computer era, was the result of a lot of polishing, a lot of handwritten notes, a lot of cutting and pasting, a lot of manipulation of paper and ink. And when you didn’t have to physically manipulate paper and ink, you could rewrite at will and unless you had a heightened sense of discipline, the quality of writing would decrease because you didn’t have the thought.”


“There’s something about the mental time it takes to compose a thought and set it on paper physically that’s very important,” he continues. “Every sentence is the result of some thought or some process. Especially if you’re a fast touch typist, and you can type almost as fast as you can think, you’re basically you’re transferring your thinking to a mechanically finished state, perhaps before it’s intellectually finished. There’s something to be said for the introspection that’s necessary for creation. As much as we would like to create spontaneously, the written word requires a little bit more of an intellectual process.”


John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now, also told the Creative Screenwriting  conference he writes in longhand because “it’s too easy to change things on the computer. You don’t have to hand fit it, and basically, this is hand work. There is no way to make precision parts and put them together. Every screenplay is different so it must be made by hand.”


On the other hand, W.D. Richter, who wrote the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and directed Buckaroo Banzai, loves the fact that now changes can be made much easier than before. 

“It’s so liberating,” he says. “You literally think about the mechanical complexity of making a change (with a typewriter). What will it entail? How much retyping?  I had a typist who made changes to my scripts by cutting and pasting and there would come a point where she’d have to retype some of the manuscripts all over because they’d be a foot thick with staples. So I used to be mindful of, ‘Am I using too much of her time?’ And you just couldn’t try stuff before. I’m working on a script right now that if I were doing it longhand or on a typewriter, I wouldn’t be as far along.”


And it also has to be said a lot of writers before they ever get to a computer like to work longhand, which thankfully saved me years ago when I had trouble writing, and on paper it flew out of me like crazy. I remember a well known author once saying she did this because she can’t think at a computer, and I often find this the case as well.


“People ask me what’s the best word processor,” says Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale. “It’s still a pencil and paper. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it goes anywhere.”