Now I know I’m not the first person to complain about the disposable quality attributed to screenwriters, and how they’re the unsung heroes of the movie business (although as George Carlin once said, as soon as someone is identified as an unsung hero, he no longer is one). However, I want to put an end to the notion of the director being the center of the auteur theory. I don’t like or agree with the auteur theory, but if anyone is deserving of it, it’s the screenwriter. First of all, the idea and execution of the movie usually starts with them. For example, Dan O’Bannon conceived Alien, not Ridley Scott. A lot of people say the director is God. I say the screenwriter is God, and the director is the prophet.
There are a lot of great screenwriters, and some obvious choices are left off here (Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino, Coen Brothers, etc.). The reason I left some choices off is because they are usually writer-directors. Although some people on this list did direct, their best work arguably were their screenplays. I will say going ahead that you should know the guy in the picture is Dalton Trumbo (actually it’s Bryan Cranston playing Dalton Trumbo), but knowing Bryan Cranston played him should show you that you should know who he is.
Why 9? Because I know you don’t care enough to read 10.
1. Dan O’Bannon
As mentioned above, Dan O’Bannon was the guy who wrote Alien, and the story surrounding its creation is the stuff of movie lore. Originally an artist, O’Bannon was hired to go to Paris to do concept art on a film adaptation of Dune. As it usually goes, the project fell apart due to financial problems. O’Bannon came back to Los Angeles destitute, and knew the only way out was to write a script. While sleeping on co-writer Ron Shusett’s couch, they wrote Alien together. The script got attention and got made into the science fiction horror classic we know today.
The producers tried to get O’Bannon’s name taken off the film due to having done numerous rewrites, but there was one thing O’Bannon created they knew they couldn’t touch: the famous chest burster scene. Oddly enough, the scene was autobiographical. O’Bannon suffered from Crohn’s Disease, a bowel inflammation. He wrote the scene not only as a practical reason for how the alien gets on the ship, but used the pain he felt from Crohn’s to create one of the scariest scenes in movie history.
Oh yeah, and if writing Alien wasn’t enough, O’Bannon was responsible for some of the computer graphics in the first Star Wars (the TIE fighter was something he helped design).
Select Screenwriting Credits: Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), Heavy Metal (1981), Blue Thunder (1983), Total Recall (1990)
2. Chris Columbus
Chris Columbus is better known for his directorial efforts, responsible for movies such as Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter films. However, he’s no slouch as a screenwriter. He didn’t just direct some of the most enjoyable family films of the 80s, 90s and 2000s; he wrote some of them as well. His first produced effort was Gremlins. Written as a satire of It’s A Wonderful Life, Columbus wrote the script as a student at NYU living in a loft (rats crawling around at night that scared him were the inspiration for the gremlins). He wrote it only to show he had writing ability, but when Steven Spielberg showed interest in it, it went to another level.
Gremlins of course became a big success, and Columbus ended up writing two other great family films: The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes. It may be because he started out writing some classics that he became such a great director of family films.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Christmas With The Kranks (2004)
3. Paul Schrader
At a time when Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma were making their first films with a European sensibility, Schrader outclassed them all in this aspect as a screenwriter. Schrader’s most well known script, Taxi Driver, is clearly indebted to European masters like Bergman and Bresson.
Like O’Bannon, Taxi Driver came out of pain. He left his wife for a woman, but then that woman left him. Depressed, he spent his days drinking, and his nights watching porn. After getting hospitalized for an ulcer, he started writing quickly; as in finishing two drafts in ten days quickly. However, before Taxi Driver became a modern American classic, he and his brother Leonard (who would go on to write Kiss of the Spider Woman) wrote The Yakuza, which sold for a high amount at the time: $300,000. It was made into a film in 1974, and Taxi Driver came along two years later. It would not be his last collaboration with Scorsese; Schrader wrote the screenplays for Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ.
Schrader has gone on to have a critically acclaimed directing career, but writing Taxi Driver will remain his most well-known and most admired film.
Select Screenwriting Credits: The Yakuza (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
4. William Goldman
So far, all of the screenwriters on this list went on to directing at some point. Not William Goldman. He has never even been interested in it. In addition, he’s the only one so far on this list that has been nominated and won an Academy Award: he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in 1969, and Best Adapted Screenplay for All The President’s Men in 1976 (that second one was a cruel ironic joke, since Goldman regrets working on it). He was also one of the first screenwriters to make national headlines. Goldman was paid a record breaking $400,000 for his screenplay of Butch Cassidy, the highest amount paid for a screenplay at that time.
So it’s safe to say that if any screenwriter was to best exemplify the auteur theory, it would be this guy. He doesn’t limit himself to screenplays either: he’s written novels, plays, short stories, and one of the most famous books about Hollywood, Adventures In The Screen Trade. In it, Goldman coined the immortal phrase that is still being said today and Goldman claims will be in his obituary: Nobody knows anything. Also, contrary to popular belief, he did NOT write Good Will Hunting.
If you can only remember one writer from this list, remember William Goldman.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) The Stepford Wives (1975), Marathon Man (1976) All The President’s Men (1976), The Princess Bride (1987), Misery (1990), Chaplin (1992), Maverick (1994). I can go on if you’d like.
5. Shane Black
Known as the master of the action genre, Black had auspicious beginnings. His very first produced screenplay was Lethal Weapon, which he wrote in six weeks at the tender age of 24. So no, Black was not too old for that shit. However, he churned out several high selling screenplays that turned into commercial failures. Pressured also by the resentment that came with the high sales, Black decided he was enough of that shit for a while.
About ten years later, Black came back, making his debut as a director with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Since then, he has continued as a director, directing films such as Iron Man 3 and the very Shane Black movie, The Nice Guys. Although he’s now pushing his 50s, he’s still writing and directing, and doesn’t seem too old for this shit yet.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
6. Angelo Pizzo
Everyone can get into a good sports movie (even yours truly, even though I don’t like them that much), and if you see “Written by Angelo Pizzo”, you know you found a good one. He’s written two of what are considered by some to be the finest sports movies: Hoosiers and Rudy. Unlike other screenwriters, Pizzo has managed to work exclusively in the sports genre his entire career, specializing in adapting real life historical stories. Like Schrader with Scorsese, Pizzo’s screenplays have been directed by old college friend, David Anspaugh.
Unlike the previous screenwriters on this list, Pizzo came to writing fairly late, but not all of the previous can claim that their first movie was elevated to classic status. After a stint as a development executive, he sat down and wrote Hoosiers at the tender age of 40. He wasn’t a one hit wonder either: Rudy was his second. Eventually, he made his directorial debut in 2015 with My All American at the tender age of 69. It’s almost like this guy is the Clint Eastwood of sports movies: started late, but going strong.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Hoosiers (1986), Rudy (1993), The Game of Their Lives (2005), Bleed For This (2016)
7. Elaine May
It’s no surprise that before she became a reliable comedy screenwriter, she started out in a comedy duo. In the mid 1950s, Nichols and May (as in future filmmaker Mike Nichols) were one of the most successful comedy acts. Despite their success, both of them wanted to branch out to do other things, so they split in 1961. Nichols arguable came out of it better; he pursued directing and since then has directed films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and The Birdcage.
Yup. Nichols and May didn’t entirely disband in a sense. Nichols may have had the more successful career, but Elaine May was the one who helped pick him back up when his career wasn’t going so hot; aside from The Birdcage, she also wrote Primary Colors for him. Aside her work with him, she established a reliable if short career as a writer/director. Her most notable works are The Heartbreak Kid (it would be remade as that horrible Ben Stiller movie) and the polarizing flop Ishtar (hey, Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino liked it, so it can’t be that bad). Even if Elaine May had written nothing else besides my favorite comedy, The Birdcage, she would still be on this list.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981, uncredited), Tootsie (1982, uncredited), Ishtar (1987), The Birdcage (1996)
8. Terry Southern
If you call yourself a Stanley Kubrick fan and don’t know who this guy is, then you’re not a Stanley Kubrick fan, simple as that. Why? Terry Southern co-wrote Dr. Strangelove. This is pretty rare in Kubrick’s filmography, since Kubrick rarely collaborated with a writer who didn’t write the source novel.
Like Goldman, Southern was a writer who never directed, and one who worked in multiple mediums, developing a very satirical writing style. He wrote a novel called The Magic Christian, which Peter Sellers read and loved during the production of Lolita (it became a movie in 1968, starring Sellers and Ringo Starr of all people). He passed it on to Kubrick, which then lead to his hiring. After Dr. Strangelove was a success, Southern became the preeminent scribe for the hippie counterculture; among other films, he was responsible for shaping the screenplay of the dated but nevertheless interesting Easy Rider.
Unfortunately, despite his workaholic ways, Southern embodied the counterculture ethos by struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. He made ends meet by teaching screenwriting at Columbia University. In addition, he worked on SNL, but a lot of his sketch ideas were rejected by being too “out there.” If nothing else in this post has convinced you of his hip credentials, then that should do it.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Dr. Strangelove: Or How Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Casino Royale (1967, uncredited), Barbarella (1968), Easy Rider (1969)
9. Lawrence Kasdan
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg might have revived the blockbuster with Star War and Jaws, but they needed someone to help them keep the engine going. At the time, the engine was dead; they had a half-baked adventure idea and Lucas was stuck without a passable script for The Empire Strikes Back. After reading one of his spec scripts, they handpicked Kasdan, a copywriter, out of the advertising world and into the movie world.
Imagine that: a novice screenwriter hired to write the sequel of the most successful movie ever, and to listen to Lucas and Spielberg brainstorm their new idea, hoping to write a script that incorporates the best of both worlds. If they don’t like the script, he loses the Empire job. He’s also getting mixed messages: Lucas wants him to write More American Graffiti, Spielberg tells him not to do it. That’s a lot of pressure.
In the end, Kasdan had nothing to worry about. Having studied under the same guy who taught Arthur Miller, Kasdan had sharp storytelling and writing abilities. He pulled off both with gusto; Empire became known as the best Star Wars film and Raiders of the Lost Ark became known as one of the finest adventure films. As a director, Kasdan became known for small, personal, “people” films, and it almost seemed like the blockbuster had lost its scribe.
Not to worry! He bounced back and wrote the screenplay for The Force Awakens, proving yet again he can blend seamlessly between personal films and blockbusters.
Select Screenwriting Credits: Star Wars Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Continental Divide (1981), Star Wars Episode VI- Return of the Jedi (1983), The Bodyguard (1992), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)