a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Thursday, July 27, 2006

But I Really Don't Want To Direct

I was going to do a post talking about all the really successful, generally-known screenwriters out there who don't direct, but I was having a problem coming up with a lot of real solid names.

Charlie Kaufman. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. John August was, but he's directing something now. Akiva Goldsman... but he's not one of my favorite writers.

I'm sure if I really thought about it, I could come up with a longer list. But I'd have to strain a bit.

The point is that, in Hollywood, if you want to really have a lasting writing career, and make a name for yourself, you have to become a writer-director. Plus obviously it gives you more control as well; you get to shepherd your work onto the screen in the way that you see it.

And there are scads of stories of good writers who became very good writer-directors. One of my favorites is Barry Levinson. He wrote a ton of stuff for TV, became a successful screenwriter, and then got his shot. He went on to write and direct Diner. Tin Men. Avalon. Liberty Heights. Plus a few very good films from other people's scripts, like Rain Man, The Natural, Bugsy, Wag the Dog and Good Morning Vietnam. (Okay, he's done some crap, too. Like Toys, and Sphere. No one's perfect).

My problem? I really have no interest in directing. I've been on movie sets, and it all left me cold. If I ever sold a script, I'd have no interest in holding out for the director's slot -- I'd want them to hire someone who could do it justice. It's not a skill set I possess, or that I ache to learn.

I know, I know. I'm entering into the realm of fantasy. I should have such problems.

But it's really true: there aren't a lot of role models out there for people who just want to write movies, and get them on the screen. It's hard for a writer/non-director to have the kind of career in which you can string together a lot of movies and really become known for doing a certain kind of thing.

If Barry Levinson hadn't directed his Baltimore movies, who would have? If John Hughes hadn't written and directed his teen classics, would they have gotten made?

And say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan, but he has his body of writing work because he went out and got people to pay him to direct it.

I find that a lot of my favorite screenwriters are guys who have been directing their scripts from the start of the careers, doing their own low-budget films and not trying to write big studio stuff.

Guys like Noah Baumbach, who did The Squid and the Whale, and Kicking and Screaming (no, not the Will Ferrell one). Or Whit Stillman. Or even Woody Allen, before he was replaced by a pod person, somewhere after Crimes and Misdemeanors.

But that's not me.

So I'll keep writing, and keep loving movies, and hope to one day strike gold, and turn it into a vein. But a little part of me wishes that I had gotten the directing bug somewhere along the line. Because it really seems like the way to go.

So let's talk about the screenwriter, who never gets enough respect.

Who are some of your favorite screenwriters? Who are the people whose name on a movie automatically gets you to want to see it? Who are the screenwriters who inspire you to want to write better?


At 11:37 AM, Blogger Cathy Krasnianski said...

Two of my all-time favorites are Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayevsky.

You just don't get better than them!

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Systemaddict said...

Honestly, this one isn't just a writer- but it's also twofold-

Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan.

Jon wrote the short story Memento was based off of, has always helped edge in with creative imput for Chris.

Both of them togehter, and apart I suppose, get me to read, or get me excited to see the movie.
Jon and Chris are writing the new Batman (I'm sure amongst others) but...this has got me more excited than I was before. Jon also wrote the screenplay to the Prestige which though I haven't read it, and looking forward to doing so.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Piers said...

Ted Elliott / Terry Rossio
Shane Black
Nicholas Meyer
John Rogers
Charlie Kaufman

On the TV side...
Russell T Davies
Joss Whedon
Joe Straczynski
JJ Abrams
Paul Cornell
Steven Moffat
Nigel Kneale
Brannon Braga (in his early days)
Michael Piller

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Brett said...

OK, so maybe you can explain this for me:

A few weeks back, during my whirlwind tour of LA, I had three different pros all ask me, unprompted, "so, would you like to direct?"

In ever case we were talking about WRITING -- twice, specifically about MY writing -- when that question zoomed in from what felt to me like left field.

In each case I offered something like "the idea of having greater control over the storytelling process has some appeal, but for now my concern is developing my skills at effectively creating a movie blueprint using words."

Is it just assumed that all writers secretly want to direct? Did I accidentally say or do something to prompt the question? Is there something in the way I communicate or write that makes peopel think I have "director" blood in me? Or, perhaps, are they so turned off by the idea of me being a WRITER that they subconsciously try to find some other hole into which they can shove me?

If I get to wear puttees and jodhpurs, and a touring cap turned backward, then hell yeah, directing seems fun. Without those, just another job, man.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Formerly, The Dude Spoke said...

I really like David Goyer's writing in films.

And Wesley Strick was a guy I really admired in the late 80s early 90s.

I know Goyer went on to direct his script for blade 3, but i don;t know about Strick.

Just writers I admire: Charlie Kaufman, Scott Frank, Stuart Beattie, Karey Kirkpatrick.

Other writer/directors I admire though?: Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson, Cameron Crowe, Joss Wheedon, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite screenplays of all time.) Frank Darabont, Kurt Wimmer, Darren Aaronofsky, David Twohy, jon Favreau (although he doesn;t sem to direct his own scripts anymore, so I'm not sure where this falls in). And I like when James Cameron writes things other than Titanic.

Just one man's thoughts. keep in mind, these are all also modern guys. Classics are too many to list.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Screenwriting Guy said...

I feel the exact same way about directing. Would rather drive nails into my scrotum then deal with actors.

Also, one guy I like to use as a role model is Mike White. He's written some great stuff, both for studios and indie.

At 1:36 PM, Blogger Not A Winner said...

I've always felt the same way about directing - no interest. Zero. Zilch.

It's a logistical nightmare, takes patience, people skills, hard work, vision. I have the utmost respect for quality directors, but it makes my brain hurt just to imagine.

On the other hand, I do have interest in producing. So go figure.

The screenwriters who inspire me most, unfortunately, tend to be writer-directors: Tarentino, Wes Anderson, Billy Wilder. Shane Black was a screenwriter only, but then he comes along with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was one of my favorite films of the year.

Pretty soon Terry and Ted will probably be directing too. I guess Charlie Kauffman will have to carry the torch alone. I don't see him directing.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Aside from those mentioned, the only writer-writer (see what I did there?) whose mere credit will get me excited about a film is Scott Frank. From Dead Alive to Out of Sight and Minority Report, the guy is great at putting unique characters into the types of genre movies where those characters aren't welcome. And when he adapts, he stays true to the spirit of the source material while creating something new and exciting.

But I only get to use this answer till The Lookout is released.

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

I'm trying the writer/producer route.

At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Kenneth Molen said...

While there's not a ton of movies written by him, I've liked everything I've seen by Lem Dobbs:

- The Limey
- Dark City
- Romancing the Stone
- The Score
- Kafka

The same goes for Andrew Kevin Walker:

- Seven
- 8MM
- Brainscan
- Sleepy Hollow

All these are movies I wish I'd written.

At 3:35 PM, Anonymous MicktheFish said...

I feel like Jonathan, most of the time when I get excited to see a movie because of a name in the credits, it's a writer/director type name. It's a Michael Mann, a Cameron Crowe, M. Night, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, or someone like that. Because I know I'm going to see something unique to them. (hopefully)

There are screenwriters that I'm always glad to see, like Charlie Kaufman...he's the only guy I know whose draw eclipses whatever director he's working with for me. I'll go see it because I know I'm going to see a Charlie Kaufman movie.

I started directing my own movies a couple of years ago, because I figured it would be a way to catapult myself into the position I REALLY want to be in: writer/actor. I still don't love the directing process, but two feature films in, I feel like I'm onto something, now.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Craig Moorhead said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but William Goldman never directed anything.

Also, Paddy Chayefsky as mentioned above.

While both have had flops, they have also had some of the most brilliant moments in movie history. A lot to be learned...

At 7:14 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

M. Night Shyamalan has always been a director who writes his own material.

Brett - it's no wonder they ask you if you want to direct because today that is where the power resides. They want to back or be part of someone's career who can get them a job.

The average person can name dozen(s) of directors, a handful of writers, and damn near no producers (unless they are also directors) for feature films. In tv it's the writer-producer who has the seat of power ("It's a JJ Abrams or Aaron Sorkin show.")

Writers have bad publicists, and we're not on set so we don't get to hook up with the celebrities and be seen having drinks poolside at the Chateau.

Writers need to change that, by promoting themselves every way they can...

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Actually, M. Night has written stuff that he didn't direct; everyone forgets that he co-wrote Stuart Little.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Chris & Jon Nolan. Shane Black. Charlie Kaufman. Scott Frank. Lawrence Kasdan. Steve Martin (except Shopgirl). Wes Anderson. Baumbach. Pat Rodio.

I've directed 3 features and 4 shorts, all low budget, but nowadays I've stuck to writing 'cause I'm sick of being held back by budget, but if the opportunity came along (with a decent budget) and I could direct, then yes, I'd do it again. But at this point I would not pursue directing.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Scott, please... who you trying to kid? Stuart Little was a job he took after he had already written and directed three movies. (and I'd love to see the chronology as I'm guessing he did the Stuart Little job before Sixth Sense came out)

THEN - he went back and has been a writer-director ever since. No rewrite work. No pitches. No assignments.

He is a writer-DIRECTOR.

At 3:37 AM, Anonymous chris Soth said...

Stuart Little probably Night's best writing. He's a much better director than writer. Just get a movie'll want to direct after that.

At 5:00 AM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

In fact M. Night Shyamalan wrote and sold Labor of Love before he became famous with Sixth Sense. I think he sure had interest in directing it but he would've let it go at that time.

I write scripts because I have so many ideas in my head as a director. I love to be part of the entire process of filmmaking. From writing to cutting.

When I read I mostly like the kinds of Shane Black writes. Fast paced, funny and exciting. But I wouldn't necessarily want to direct them.

At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

Ernest Lehmann

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I don't have an overwhelming desire to direct, but I'm guessing that if I sell a script that is made into a movie, and that movie implements my script in a way I can't stomach, then I'd suddenly turn into a screenwriter that needs to direct.

A theory I really want to test.

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous kristen said...

Scott, I feel exactly the same way. No interest in directing. I find production boringly technical and film sets needlessly stressful. Maybe you should "mix things up" and write a novel or two in addition to the screenplays. Then you can try and make like Michael Chabon or Scott Smith.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous danny said...

Aaron Sorkin.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Dave said...

Can't believe it was so long before somebody mentioned Aaron Sorkin.

Also, Jeffrey Boam, Richard Price, Jeb Stuart, Babaloo Mandel & Lowell Ganz, Simon Kinberg, Richard Curtis, Jim & John Thomas, Jack Epps, Jr. to name a few... as well as the aforementioned William Goldman.

I think David Webb Peoples is a very compelling writer also...

I believe the biggest lure of directing is if a writer can work with a good director so they can see what's involved and get a good grasp of how to do it. Then, it's a matter of not having to hope that whomever is given their script to direct sees the story the way they do.

My preference would be to work with a director over directing myself, but I wouldn't be opposed to the opportunity.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Amy F. said...

All these names...not one woman.

Scott, any ideas why screenwriting seems to be so dominated by men?


At 7:37 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I think in general, women are drawn more to relationship tales/serious dramas, and more and more it's the kind of thing that winds up on TV rather than in theaters.

There are a lot of good female screenwriters, but yeah, it's odd, they don't seem to reach the level of writers that make these kinds of list.

Not sure why, and it's not right, but it's hard to deny the imbalance.

At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Treekiller said...

Scott Frank scripts are awesome. He doesn't waste a word.

I forgot about Lem Dobbs. Nice call, Kenneth.

As for the future, I think we are all going to have a lot of Sheldon Turner, James Vanderbilt, and Beau Bauman DVDs on our shelves. I love these guys.


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