The first film written by AI has arrived – and Hollywood is terrified

A scene from The Last Screenwriter
A scene from The Last Screenwriter

Artificial intelligence is the great existential threat of our time: if you’re not convinced, just ask Jennifer Lopez. In the recent Netflix film Atlas, she plays a scientist battling a malign computer programme which is trying to wipe out humanity – the latest in a long line of such virtual villains, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 to the stiffly tailored agents of The Matrix.

Meanwhile in the real world, artificial intelligence isn’t only co-starring in films: it’s started writing them too. The forthcoming independent feature The Last Screenwriter looks like an ordinary movie – and for the most part it was made like one, by real people with costumes and lines. But every last one of those lines was dreamt up by an AI: specifically ChatGPT, an online chatbot which wrote the screenplay over four days, based on a single, 17-word prompt.

Appropriately, the film is about that very process. It centres on an award-winning screenwriter called Jack, who experiences great financial success – and a creative crisis – when he collaborates with an experimental new AI programme.

The Last Screenwriter was due to premiere at London’s Prince Charles Cinema on Sunday evening – but earlier this week, the event was cancelled after the venue received around 160 complaints from its customer base. This puts it in the ignominious company of Kevin Spacey’s would-be comeback thriller Control, which in October last year also had its Prince Charles premiere pulled.

After the cinema announced The Last Screenwriter on social media on Monday, its followers were quick to respond. “You’re platforming work which completely undermines the creative process,” one lifetime member posted on X (formerly Twitter). “AI = plagiarism,” another user wrote. “Shame on you for supporting it.”

Since coming to the attention of the wider public less than two years ago, AI has proven hugely controversial – not least in the filmmaking world. Last year’s bitter and protracted Hollywood strikes were partly due to the perceived threat of studios adopting the technology at the expense of actors and writers.

The plagiarism charge is not a hollow one. AI compiles its own output from work that already exists – it ingests vast quantities of (human) writing, which it then mulches down and reshapes, like textual turkey dinosaurs, to satisfy the instructions keyed in by its users. And that means everything it produces is stolen – albeit in a diffuse and untraceable sense.

Yet while the studios were chastened, they’re still dipping their toes in limited ways. Earlier this year, the poster campaign for Alex Garland’s Civil War used AI to generate its unnerving, slightly ‘off’ images, one of which showed soldiers in a dinghy pointing their rifles at a giant swan. The campaign was met with fury online, as cinema-goers and makers alike argued that designers had been cheated out of work.

Meanwhile at Cannes this year, members of the dubbing and subtitling business said that recent advances in AI had left them braced for decimation. Why hire a new voice cast and a recording studio when a computer can change your stars’ original dialogue into any language you like, then even make their mouth movements match?

Against this fraught backdrop, The Last Screenwriter’s director, Peter Luisi, is something of an accidental controversy magnet. The Zurich-born filmmaker is a six-time nominee at the Swiss Film Awards – three times for screenwriting, he stresses, so it’s not as if he used AI to do something he couldn’t. Instead, he explains via Zoom, he wanted to put the technology’s supposed powers to the test.

“As a creative person, I’d always assumed that no computer would ever take my job,” he explains. “But then suddenly, we seemed to be approaching a point where a producer could type, ‘give me Indiana Jones crossed with The Terminator with a bit of romantic comedy’, and get a screenplay that was good enough for their immediate purposes.”

The response of many in the industry, he goes on, “has been to get angry and scared, or cover their ears. But I wanted to look seriously at what the results of this kind of filmmaking might be, and what they might be missing in terms of the human touch.”

So one day last December, Luisi sat down in front of ChatGPT and made his only creative contribution to the script: “Write a plot for a film where a screenwriter realises he is less good than artificial intelligence.”

Over the next four days, he asked the programme to develop its initial response: to create characters, flesh out the story, and then finally to script the individual scenes. When problems arose – from broad ones, like characters randomly switching sex, to more nuanced issues such as opaque motivation – he asked the programme to go back in and rework what it had come up with.

“But other than cutting some scenes for length, I forced myself to work with whatever the AI gave me,” he says. Before the end of the week, he had a 61-page screenplay on his desk.

Luisi’s previous film, a comedy called Bonjour Switzerland, had been a significant domestic box office hit, so the Swiss government had given him a £750,000 grant to put towards his next project. All of that was channelled into The Last Screenwriter – but when trying to top up the budget, he found he was unable to raise a single penny more as soon as he explained the nature of the project.

A scene from The Last Screenwriter
A scene from The Last Screenwriter

“I think everybody was afraid of it,” he says. “You know, that other writers would say, ‘They’ve given money to a computer instead of me.’” Not just a computer, though. Every other element, from its performances to its cinematography and score, was the work of a sentient (and compensated) artist, “all working as hard as we could to make the AI script as plausible as possible.”

The filmmaking process itself, Luisi goes on, was “essentially an experiment: starting from this synthetic beginning, how close to a ‘real’ film could we get?”

The answer is twofold: in places, not very; in others, worryingly so. Much of the dialogue exists in a sort of verbal uncanny valley – every sentence is the most obvious version of itself, while the old screenwriting maxim ‘show, don’t tell’ is assiduously ignored. Sometimes, though, a detail takes you aback: a passing literary reference, or a piece of foreshadowing that hints at a deeper structure beneath the straightforward row of events the film busies itself ticking off for the most part.

If you were minded to be generous, you might also pick up on what Luisi describes as “shadows” of major, much-cited works with some kind of connection to The Last Screenwriter’s themes. Can it be a coincidence, for example, that the troubled writer assailed by unnatural voices shares a name with The Shining’s protagonist?

Perhaps most intriguingly – “and I didn’t even ask it for this,” Luisi says – the AI has written itself a neat argument against those plagiarism claims. In an early scene, Jack tells his new digital writing partner that it’s essentially “just a remix artist”.

“That may be true,” it responds, “but even human creativity isn’t birthed in a vacuum. You too draw on films you’ve seen, books you’ve read, experiences you’ve lived.”

Nevertheless, a little over an hour later a happy ending arrives, in which we’re reassured the human touch in art is indispensable, and AI is no cause for concern. But then – without wanting to get all dystopian about it – AI would say that, wouldn’t it?

London's Prince Charles Cinema, where the screening was due to take place
London's Prince Charles Cinema, where the screening was due to take place - Alamy

Is the film worth watching? In its capacity as an experiment, absolutely. And note that the film hasn’t cheated a writer out of work – rather, its writerless status is the reason for its existence – which is why the backlash to the premiere feels, at best, off beam. (I remain of the view, perhaps less fashionable that it once was, that in order to criticise a film, you have to watch it first.) And as one commenter on the cinema’s Instagram feed pointed out, pulling film screenings over social media outrage isn’t exactly a blow struck for artists’ voices either.

The Prince Charles declined to discuss the cancelled screening, but directed press towards a statement on social media. “The feedback we received over the last 24 hours once we advertised the film has highlighted to strong concern held by many of our audience on the use of AI in place of a writer which speaks to a wider issue within the industry,” it said. “As a result of this, we have decided not to go ahead with the hire.”

Still, Sunday’s premiere will happen regardless, at a different (and undisclosed) venue elsewhere in the capital. It would be wrong to deny his flesh-and-blood collaborators the chance to celebrate their work, Luisi explains, plus he’s already booked his hotel and flights.

The public backlash initially shocked him, but he’s starting to understand the subject has a taboo quality: “People don’t like what’s happening, so they don’t want anyone to touch it,” he says.

“But my point is, the technology is already here, whether we want it or not. So we have to ask ourselves: how do we feel about computers writing our stories? I’m absolutely not saying it’s what I want to happen. But we can’t hide from the conversation.”

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