The involvement of Fleabag creator Phoebe-Waller Bridge in the latest Bond film has been a big talk. But she wasn’t the franchise’s first female writer, writes Beth Webb.
Bond film No Time to Die is finally out later this month – and it’s a big film, as it also marks the final farewell for Daniel Craig in the role after five films playing a suave spy. It’s a shame that in Dr No, the first James Bond film in a franchise that has spanned nearly 60 years, the main character is the main villain’s pet monkey rather than the villain himself. Or everyone talks Chicago hitman style instead of using dialogue from Ian Fleming’s spy novels. These two twists and turns made it an iteration of the screenplay during Dr No’s development, and if it weren’t for Johanna Harwood, a woman who had a huge influence on Bond but is rarely credited, 007’s 1962 debut would have looked very different.
Harwood is so underappreciated that, if you Google her name today, the first image that pops up is actually Phoebe Waller-Bridge rather than Harwood herself. That’s because the creators of Fleabag and Killing Eve have now followed Harwood as only the second woman to contribute to a Bond screenplay, with the upcoming No Time To Die, finally hitting screens in the UK next week after 17 months, induced by Covid. postpone.
Why female screenwriters deserve more credit
What’s interesting – and depressing – is that Harwood is part of a historic lineage of women who have helped to shape some of the most lucrative and decorated films and franchises in male-dominated Hollywood, from Star Wars to Sister Act to The Lego Movie – yet rarely received proper credit.
One of these was the late, great Carrie Fisher who became known as one of Hollywood’s great “script doctors”: that is, an “invisible” screenwriter brought in to fix problematic screenplays, typically without their name appearing on the credits.
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Fisher had been dabbling in script work since incorporating some of her own dialogue into her early Star Wars films, to the point where she was writing it into the script by Return of the Jedi. However it was her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge that would pivot her more centrally into script work. The book caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who consequently brought Fisher in to work on his Peter Pan spin-off Hook. “They told me they wanted me to rewrite Tinkerbell’s part, but if Tinkerbell interacts, you’re writing scenes,” Fisher told the Phoenix New Times.
Her body of work from then on was vast and varied, and her special skillset ranged from improving female roles to managing difficult relationships behind the scenes. She reworked Rene Russo’s character in Lethal Weapon 3 and wrote the part of Drew Barrymore’s heroine in romantic comedy The Wedding Singer. While working on Sister Act, she called up Whoopi Goldberg and told her to smooth things over with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg after a series of heated creative spats. Fisher only held a handful of named writing credits, including one for her screenplay of the movie adaptation of Postcards from the Edge, but her talent for writing robust, funny women was used by some of the most prolific men in Hollywood.
Another woman who has helped shape the Hollywood blockbuster, mostly invisibly, is Lindsay Doran, whose largely uncredited work has earned her the title of “The Script Whisperer” across the industry. Once an executive producer on films like This Is Spinal Tap and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Doran now focuses on not rescuing, but more revolutionising screenwriting through her attitudes towards it.
In her Ted Talk Saving the World vs Kissing the Girl, Doran spoke about how reading the psychology book Flourish by Martin E P Seligman introduced her to positive storytelling, and the revelation that characters’ personal relationships trump their personal achievements. Successful films such as Dirty Dancing, The Karate Kid and The King’s Speech, she argued, all endure because the lead characters’ triumphs are shared with the people that they love.
It’s difficult to measure the impact of Doran’s influence on Hollywood; her last official film credit was Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang in 2010, and her work extends to teaching alongside her consultancy work with studios and filmmakers. However Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose collective writing and directorial work ranges from 21 Jump Street (2012) to The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, have worked with Doran extensively on perfecting their winning brand of silliness and sincerity. Meanwhile Terry Rossio, a writer for Shrek, Aladdin and the Pirates of the Caribbean film, described her to the New York Times as a “Pied Piper, leading all those ratty, bleak and violent screenplays in town over a cliff.”
The landscape for credited female representation has begun to shift in the wake of movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up and a call for the hiring of more women writers, as well as directors and crew members, more generally.
Studios are now slowly making the changes to diversify, and credited female screenwriters are being brought in for larger projects, such as Nicole Holofcener, who was hired specifically to write the female perspective in Ridley Scott’s upcoming period epic The Last Duel, while longstanding collaborators Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the rest of the screenplay.
For some however, these changes are not enough. The move to bring Phoebe Waller-Bridge in at a later stage in the screenwriting process for No Time To Die for example, raises questions as to why she hadn’t been included on the project from the start.
“While I am happy to see such a talented scriptwriter like Waller-Bridge join the team, I find it frustrating that she was brought in so late into the process to ‘spot shot’ and ‘treat’ various sections of the script that required development and enlivening,” says Funnell. “Diversity in scriptwriting requires the full participation of creative personnel from the outset of the project including the conceptualisation and development of characters and storylines.”
The gendered responsibilities bestowed upon female writers also can present restrictions on how they are able to contribute to films. “We shouldn’t just be pigeonholing women writers as women writers,” says Germana. “We want them because they are very good writers, not because we need to tick a box. Waller-Bridge deserves to be there because she’s a brilliant writer.” Gratifyingly, in that respect, Waller-Bridge has made clear her gender was not a factor in her hiring for the film. “The reality was I got a call from Barbara [Broccoli, the film’s producer] and Daniel saying, ‘We like your work, can you come in and help us?’. There wasn’t ever really a conversation about can you come in and help us with ‘the ladies’,” she told the BBC.
Nevertheless, the significance of her involvement in Bond should not be underestimated; her role as one of the new faces of an inherently masculine franchise is both a boon and a reminder that there is still a lot of work in Hollywood to be done when it comes to giving female screenwriters the opportunities, and credit, that they deserve.