Hughes always managed to stay in touch with his inner child, and because of that and his insane productivity, his heartfelt comedy across multiple genres — teen, kids adventure, family comedy and buddy comedy — defined an entire era, and an entire generation of aspiring writers.
A more morose — but just as whip-smart — Aaron Sorkin with whom he wrote Moneyball , Zaillian makes bona fide movies for grown-ups, respecting their intelligence but also knowing how to craft a compelling scene. Zaillian is one of the masters. We owe a lot to James Cameron, in ways both good and bad. Cameron definitely speaks fluent badass — he understands the mannerisms and mentality of tough guys, both the gung-ho and stoic kind.
Cameron exploded in the s, and it could be said that he married the militarism of the Reagan era with the soft-focus, New Age ethos of the times.
Book: On Story — Screenwriters and Their Craft
In so doing, he set the standards for what Hollywood expects from an action film. Terminator is a perfect screenplay. Aliens is even better. In her first produced script, Callie Khouri broke a cardinal rule: she wrote a Western with female protagonists. We all owe her a huge debt. Long before he made a film called Nebraska, Alexander Payne was rivaled only by the Coens as a certain voice of middle-American satire. Citizen Ruth , his debut, original script in with frequent co-writer Jim Taylor , was a poison-laced morality play starring a go-for-broke Laura Dern caught in the middle of a small-town abortion debate.
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From his start writing sketches through The Producers and his streak of satires — including Blazing Saddles , Young Frankenstein , Spaceballs , and Robin Hood: Men in Tights — Brooks had a way of knocking the air out of whatever seemed serious and filling it with a hardy ladling of borscht. He took down racists, deviants, believers and nonbelievers, villains and heroes, too. His satire was shocking, relentless, and no one was spared.
He pulled it off because he saved his sharpest arrows for secular Jews, entertainers, and dreamers. He went after himself.
We go for capital-F feelings, simple truths about love, and some of the most endearingly eccentric characters ever put to screen. I hate him for that. If Woody Allen is the master of wringing comedy from neuroses, then Albert Brooks is our poet laureate of self-regard. Along the way, he also proved startlingly prescient. His scripts, written with Monica Johnson, were painful and real and aching in a way no one else was doing at the time. Every scene reveals another truth and another layer to the characters. Nancy has a knack for creating flesh-and-blood women; women who feel and are relatable.
Once upon a time, a small firestorm might have ignited over placing Orson Welles on a list of great screenwriters. For years, his co-authorship of Citizen Kane was in dispute, with many claiming that the credit belonged almost entirely to the great Herman J. Pauline Kael even wrote an explosive, brilliant, deeply problematic essay arguing so, only for much of her research to be discredited later.
He was certainly one of the great adapters, able to take everything from the most acclaimed classics think The Trial to the lowest-brow pulp think Touch of Evil and make it his own. His Shakespeare adaptations are gems of concision and imagination, balancing respect for the text with a willingness to innovate. The deadpan comedic timing she honed during that time was baked into all of her screenplays, including Tootsie, on which she did an uncredited polish.
I died. Today, Trumbo is more famous for what happened to him — a ten-month prison sentence and a decade on the blacklist for refusing to testify about Communist infiltration of Hollywood to the House Un-American Activities Committee — than for his actual writing. While his political stand was admirable, the work was great, too.
Trumbo won Oscars for writing both the effervescent romance Roman Holiday and the bullfighting melodrama The Brave One, though, because of the blacklist, both were credited to others. He received The Brave One trophy shortly before his death; his widow got the Roman Holiday one in He wrote Spartacus too, which gave us one of the most famous endings in film.
Robert Benton demands a lot from his audience. He could also do pure goodness, as Superman proved. A former art director at Esquire , Benton wrote movies filled with a unique sense of energy, likely due to the fact that he learned how to write not from literature, but from watching the French New Wave. Huston lived a full and fascinating life beyond the bounds of Hollywood, as a painter and boxer, which perhaps accounts for his artful and assured handling of themes like religion, criminality, and the situational meaning of truth in his work.
He pushed noir into emotionally complex territory with The Asphalt Jungle, portraying the ragtag group of criminals through a sympathetic lens. Did anybody write sass for Bogart better than he did? One of the absolute giants of world cinema in any profession, Zavattini was the most important creative figure in the development of Italian Neorealism.
Zavattini not only wrote many of the key neorealist films; as a noted critic and novelist, he was also the central thinker for the movement, helping outline its tenets and principles.
The Best Screenwriters of All Time
This was harder than it looked; he once said that creating a realistic film took just as much imagination as a fantasy film. He was actually from Detroit, and lived in Connecticut. Ideologically, his scripts are all over the map, but movies like the hippie-killing fantasy Joe and the slave exploitation flick Mandingo share a fundamental lack of inhibition. He invented his Tramp character in and began writing and directing shorts for him later that year.
Is it a visual medium? Not entirely. Film has the opportunity to present a sublime truth in front of you — unanticipated but instantly recognized. Chaplin worked with methodical preparation. It takes enormous planning to be effortless. Screenwriting takes many forms; not all of it with a cup of coffee in the morning at your keyboard. Decades later, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award is handed out at Sundance each year to the best screenwriters in the business. This is actually the essence of E. His scripts provide no easy answers, exploring dark corners of the human psyche with irreverence, glamour, and panache; his films feel fresh and challenging, particularly when it comes to detailing the nature of desire.
Ramis not only wrote Ghostbusters but co-starred as weirdo scientist Egon Spengler, mirroring his real-life niche as the goofball intellectual of his sketch-comic peer group. Ramis excelled at writing jokes and banter in the voice of his cast members, making improv-bred comedians sound so much like themselves they barely had to improvise.
It helped that his regulars included Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, who knew a few things about timing. His sense of structure and story matured immensely from the early days Stripes, Caddyshack, Animal House to Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day , the films critics most admired. But his influence as a writer was undeniably seismic. Of course, there is no Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors without Bergman. His ability to work similar themes over and over again in his films — often with the same rotating cast of actors — also offered an example of a working style many others including his most notorious devotee, Woody Allen have tried to emulate.
Through the ideas that he explored in his films — our place in the universe, the silence of God, the subtle power of influence and identity — and the way he explored them, Bergman pointed several generations of filmmakers toward an engagement with the biggest questions of our time. Frankly, we could use a couple more like him today. His subject is the human heart, which he mercilessly exposes and breaks down until there is nothing left but the soul, the starkly existential. When Herman J. Mankiewicz first met Orson Welles he was, to put it mildly, a mess.
Mankiewicz was first a newspaperman acting as a Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune as well as a drama critic for The New Yorker. His knowledge of this landscape led to much of the touching particulars used in Citizen Kane to construct the megalomaniac at its center.
He was at the height of his prowess through the s and s with much of his work going uncredited including Dinner at Eight, Dancers in the Dark, and uncredited input on a little film called The Wizard of Oz. His humor was sleek, his satire bracing, his handling of character steadfastly nuanced.
Mankiewicz embodied a sparkling levity that he made look easy, which embodied a signature of Hollywood at the time that is sorely missed. Sometimes, nice guys finish first. Levinson, like Woody Allen before him, began his career writing jokes for variety shows, which led to a partnership with Mel Brooks, with whom he co-wrote High Anxiety and Silent Movie. Hecht was famously brought to Hollywood by a telegram from Herman J.
One of his greatest gifts was undoubtedly his dialogue, which was tough, sly, and brimming with panache. Selznick who hired Hecht for ultimately uncredited work on Gone With the Wind. Hecht brought wit to gangster films and noir like Notorious, had a hand in definitive screwball comedies including His Girl Friday and Monkey Business, and injected bracing emotional truth into action-adventure films like Gunga Din. For a film auteur so steeped in mystery, David Lynch has let the public in on an awful lot of his creative process.
The mind-bending collapsing of story, the melding of characters, the startling images; you enter a dream when you see one of his films. Mulholland Drive? Never mind that you have to figure out a way to interpret the crazy creatures and lands Tolkien imagined. You also have to organize it so it makes sense, make all the hard-core fans happy, and keep it moving quickly enough that your average casual moviegoer is eager to hand over 15 bucks to watch 10 hours of your childhood obsession. And not just from husband-and-wife duo Jackson and Walsh.
What they produced ultimately feels as magical as the worlds it created. Their fourth would not suffer the same fate. Back to the Future , which Zemeckis directed, was a smash hit sci-fi comedy that launched Michael J. Fox to stardom, spawned two sequels and remains a part of the pop-culture Zeitgeist 30 years later.
Not that anyone could have predicted it. Finally, with the help of Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale got the movie made and followed it with two successful sequels, all of them relying on the wry humor of exceedingly relatable characters existing in a completely unrealistic world. The two screenplays that Scott Frank considers his most uncharacteristic also, in some sense, contain the secret to his success. That would be Out of Sight. Or Minority Report. Or Logan. Or Get Shorty. Or … But they embody his ease with emotions.
He crafts classy, high-level, character-driven hits. The heir apparent to James L. Brooks and Cameron Crowe, Apatow navigates the tricky middle ground between comedy and drama, landing in the realm of the great humanist filmmakers, who see life as something worth laughing and crying about in equal measure. For the duration of his singular career , Linklater has simply done things his own way, precisely how he wants them. This is not to say Linklater has never changed: There is a wisdom and comfort in his recent work, an old dog not afraid to learn some new tricks.
Turns out the slacker was the ultimate professional the whole time. Everyone from Owen Wilson to Noah Baumbach has collaborated with him. We believe in his movies because we feel the love and care he puts into every page. Though his sensibility and fingerprints are on every single one of his films, Spielberg has only one solo screenplay credit: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It may be the most humanist film to ever climax with the arrival of an alien spaceship.
Artificial Intelligence. And you know what? It works. As a screenwriter, you have to appreciate that. His scripts for Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo balance a taste for sheer epic grandeur with a deep sympathy for strugglers thrust into extraordinary and extraordinarily demanding circumstances.
Whether working with Shakespeare or Sondheim or James Bond or Xenomorphs, Logan knows how to mine a fascinating idea or two from what could easily be a cut-and-dry adaptation job or franchise gig. He makes blockbusters for the adventurous, thinking moviegoer, who appreciates a bit of self-doubt in or homoerotic tension between two Michael Fassbender—played robots. Maybe Arriaga just needs time to develop into a director worthy of his own writing.
Or maybe the partnership was inimitable, a temporary marriage of egos that helped lead the 21st-century Mexican film Renaissance. There was a period in the late s when just about everybody had The Usual Suspects on their list of the greatest scripts ever written. Not all of these movies were hits, but they have all helped to make McQuarrie the kind of screenwriter whose name in the credits immediately makes discerning viewers take notice.
Which is odd, because Foote was a chronicler of small-town life, his tales filled with subtle longings, simmering regrets, and muted emotions — a far cry from the blistering works of fellow TV pioneers Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Foote was never one to take random gigs or to compromise his vision; he stuck to writing about the people and places he knew best, and he wound up doing it for almost 70 years, a career of startling longevity.
His adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably the greatest literary adaptation in history. Gary Ross worked as a political speechwriter before moving to movies full-time, and his best work has the feel of an American fable. An ordinary man becomes the president of the United States. A teenage girl from the backwoods takes a stand against an oppressive government. To borrow an image from Pleasantville , Gary Ross paints in vibrant primary colors. He writes with so much heart and confidence.
She passed away in at 62, shortly after turning in her draft for The Empire Strikes Back ; Lucas would go on to rewrite the script with Lawrence Kasdan, but he ultimately gave Brackett co-credit alongside Kasdan because, as some film scholars have opined, her core story beats survived. Post- Matrix , the Wachowski siblings have gotten a bad rap.
But few purveyors of popcorn material approach their work with as much humanity and emotional intelligence as they do. Even in their breakout indie film Bound is as sweet a love story as it is a smart little clockwork crime yarn. But the Wachowskis are filmmakers who think in big-budget scale because the themes they return to — heroes transcending a restrictive society, and tapping into their secret, quasi-mystical potential — are big-budget themes.
Few screenwriters in the past two decades have been as fearlessly inventive. And the script for Cloud Atlas is also brilliant. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with Howard; the pair would team up with Opie again on Splash , Parenthood , and EDtv.
Their lines are sharp, hilarious, and play much deeper than gags are supposed to play. But his two films co-written with Nicholas Pileggi are arguably the peak of his career. Though The Departed comes close. Few writers could capture basic human phenomena like Robert Altman. First, he pointed out how structure has overwhelmed other elements of storytelling as a result of screenwriting guru books:.
Scott also addresses the nature of several screenwriting books and seminars that claim they will help new writers have a script they can sell in a mere matter of months:. Per the latter, it takes time, it takes work, it takes immersing oneself in the world of cinema, it takes reading hundreds of scripts, watching thousands of movies, it takes learning principles and practices used by professional screenwriters. No book or guru is going to make me wake up at every morning and put my butt in a chair to write.
That's my job. I hope someday it will lead to a career. You can check out the whole debate on Frank Darabont's comments at Go Into the Story , but don't forget to let us know what you think about screenwriting gurus as well as their books and seminars right here on NFS. Have they helped you or led you astray as you hone your screenwriting craft? I'm inclined to agree with you, Christopher.
I also like tip books, that may illuminate something that wasn't working in an already finished script that you might not have been able to put the finger on. Never done a screenwriting seminar. It seems to be like one of those Hollywood traps. If you're dedicated enough to sit down at the crack of am every day and write, well I hope you have a great career too, dude. I'm more of an 11am person myself I had a screenwriting teacher who really harped on the same types of things these books and gurus do and it really hurt my ability to write.
I got so caught up in doing it 'right' that I lost my style and voice. It took several years before I was able to find it again. I think it's extremely important to know the rules but not necessarily important to live by them. I think and believe if you read novels, shorts, screenplays anything with a story you're going to take in the general flow and scheme. I had the exact same experience, trying to do it how I'd learnt it should be done instead of just writing a good script.
I always wonder about the stick that screenwriting gurus get. My art teacher was an amazing teacher but he never sold a painting. My english teacher taught me a huge amount about creative writing but he never wrote a novel. My Dad, on the other hand, was an amazing chef but didn't teach me thing one about cooking, he had neither the patience nor the inclination for it.
I guess what I'm saying is that you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss people who have decided to teach just because they haven't excelled at the highest level. I've read over a hundred screenwriting books and while some of them are a lot better than others I can honestly say that there is something of value in every one of them, even Robert McKee's, and his credits are not something you'd write home about.
The screenwriting gurus can help you create a nice screenplay by their standards, but who will buy it? And what is the point of creating something that is only the basis, foundation and blueprint for a movie and tailoring it to a screenwriting guru who will not buy it, instead of a producer or studio who will buy it? Create art for its own sake, fine, write a novel for its own sake, but why write a screenplay for its own sake? The point is they are both right, only the former didn't need to the latter to inform them. If you rely on gurus you are muddying your mind - is this a principle of writing for thrillers, suspense, or a romcom, I can't remember etc.
Ultimately, you are stripping yourself of the self confidence you need to make creative choices and it's never going to work. Limit yourself to a couple of recommended books, strip whatever you can out of it that resonates with you and sit down at a computer to find your own path. Just make sure you have you family filter turned on. It seems more like their screenwriting careers were short lived and they had to find another way to make a living.
Everybody wants a quick fix. The simple truth is you have to be writing screenplays as well as revising those screenplays constantly. I wrote ten features before I feel I wrote a good one and that one is still being revised as we speak. Cinestar, if you redact a writer's credits to simply what have been produced, then you are taking some of the greatest writers of our times and saying that they do not count. He was writing for the screen until the day he died. If you have an understanding of the credits process, then you would realize that credits are determined by many, many, elements over which, you, as the writer, have no control over.
Follow some of the credit wars, some solved through arbitration, some not. Your script may be horrifically disassembled; the beautiful script that you wrote may end up being another writer's credit. These discussions are meaningless, without at least trying to distinguish the kind of screenwriting one cares to do.
Are we talking about professional Hollywood success, and a willingness to write what routinely gets sold? How much of the knowledge base here is actual skill, and how much is understanding the market? Is the idea to acquire the skills needed to work professional, or to write well and originally?
Or do you want to break into the cable dramatic series market, where far more technical and literary skill is required and the cliches and formulas of mass-market Hollywood are of no use? Is the standard Au Hasard, Balthazar? The Conformist? Or is your ideal "indie" Little Miss Sunshine? Or "Stranger than Paradise"? Or "Clerks? Or none of the above? Beyond that, does the traditional advice actually make sense? Or is so-called 3-act structure an artifact of the analysis? If you looked for 4 acts instead of 3, would you find them?
This profusion of questions is perhaps one measure of the incoherence of the aspirational screenwriting world. I have, at least in myself, noticed my ego's sincere desire to believe it's in total control and seek to define all the "hows and why's" collected to best help repel the insecurity inherent to being flawed and human while endeavouring to create something worthy of other peoples time and attention. Make's for a lot of useless chatter and activity along the way.
Which ultimately does me fuck all good of course, and I am learning I just have to have to shut up, put up and get to work.
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Let's say you give an art student a white wall and unlimited access to paints and brushes. Now give another art student a piece of paper and a pencil. If both of them produce something really good who is more creative? Guess what i'm trying to say is that knowing the rules can be very liberating and take away some of that fear of facing a blank page. Having said that I find that the best way to learn is by doing so I guess that as with most things in life virtue lies in the middle. I have in turn been both greatly helped and hampered by books and gurus on screenwriting.
Obsessing about the fact your at page 40, when "ideally" you should be at page 30 can really hit the creative breaks and put you into second guessing that can be quite destructive I've found personally. On the other hand when something is not working, having a good understanding of theories around structure or making sure a scene turns or campbell's comparative mythologies etc is invaluable.
I would say that the act of study itself is very worthwhile, but that it's very important "creatively" to then also let go of that study. And not just, not to be beholden to it, but actually to let really it go. I believe the points which are pertinent will then surface anyway in response and in harmony with your imagination if and when required if you have truly studied hard and put a lot of hours in. It really is a ride for me, or a flow, or a zone, for me "creativity" and I'm learning that the zone itself while it may be valuably supported by or arrived at by any number of means, needs to supersede all the other factors.
I think this debate is very well addressed by T. Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent. That said I personally believe that a foundational understanding of the well established principals of writing, both regarding structure plot even , and indeed an understanding of character, is necessary for anyone hoping to be taken seriously as a writer, whether his medium be screenplays, novels, poems, or otherwise. In my experience screenwriting gurus as this article has identified them are hardly the best people from which one can obtain this understanding.
I think Mr. Boone is absolutely right that an excellent way to understand screenwriting principals is simply to watch movies. Frank Zappa's prowess certainly shows that traditionally accepted learning methods for example, classroom learning are not the only route, although I would certainly say that attending university to study screenwriting is a far better route than screenwriting gurus. As I have observed, screenwriting gurus have generally bogarted traditional teaching methods and warped them into a money-making operation.
Some of the information is still there absolutely, which is why some people are helped by screenwriting gurus; however, ultimately there is no real instructional substance in what they have to offer, and those seeking to learn to write from a traditional instructional approach would be better suited seeking out a B. I personally learned an immense amount very quickly from watching movies, once I began consciously seeing how a screenplay works as it plays out, and I hope that by saying that I can revitalize some people's interest who may be intimidated by the daunting task of learning the craft.
I disagree therefore with only one thing Frank Darabont said. Other than that, I think he hit the nail right on the head about those nonsense gurus.