First Timers

For most, the dream of being a screenwriter is never fulfilled. A quick search for tips on how to be a screenwriter will yield one consistent piece of advice, “Finish what you started writing,” a piece of advice that is tragically seldom practiced. The truth is, it’s hard to be a screenwriter, because it’s hard to milk a satisfying story out of the marrow of life. Even if a burgeoning writer manages to craft a decent script, it’s far less likely that an unknown writer will be able to attract enough attention to his script to get it produced, or even read by a meaningful party. However, there have been just enough exceptions to the heartbreaking gauntlet of Hollywood failure to give those who dream of telling their tales on the silver screen a sliver of hope.

Most people think of Sylvester Stallone as a guy that punches and/or shoots people while slurring lines out of his trademark sneer. The reality is that the Italian Stallion wrote Rocky, allegedly in one continuous sitting, and went on to win 3 of the 10 Academy Awards he was nominated for including best picture. 

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are two other shining exceptions to the rule. Their 1997 screenwriting debut, Good Will Hunting, remains critically beloved and managed to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The popular internet rumor that the script originally called for an invasion of space aliens remains unconfirmed.

There are other notable exceptions too. When Diablo Cody wrote Juno, she had just wrapped up her career as a stripper. Blood Simple was penned by a couple of Jewish brothers, who had clawed their way up through meager production roles like assistant editor for Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Wes
Anderson and Owen Wilson were just some heady film dorks from Texas until a series of benefactors championed their first film, Bottle Rocket. Tarantino worked in a video store watched every movie ever made, and then wrote True Romance.  Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon, and depending on who you ask, changed the studio process forever. Aaron Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men, just as his career as a singing telegraph man was winding down. Cameron Crowe was a freelance writer for Rolling Stone before posing as a highschool student and writing both a novel, and a film adaptation about his exploits called Fast Times At Ridgemont High

So for all the naysayers that claim that a first time screenwriter has no chance of getting published aren’t wrong, but there are exceptions. Of course, posing as a high school student, memorizing ten years worth of VHS films, and working your way through the soft core porn industry may be the price success.

Here are some great films by first-timers.

(1976) Rocky   

Written, directed by, and starring Sylvester Stallone

(1997) Good Will Hunting 

Written, directed by, and starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

(2007) Juno 

Written by Diablo Cody

(1996) Bottle Rocket

Written and directed by Wes Anderson and written by and starring Owen Wilson

(1984) Blood Simple

Written, directed, Produced and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen

(1982) Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe

(1992) A Few Good Men

Written by Aaron Sorkin

(1987) Lethal Weapon

Written by Shane Black 

Directors, Writers, and Auteurs

Film is relatively new medium. It was silent until 1927, and black and white until 1939. As a result of only recently entering into its adolescence as a genre, it is possible to argue that it has only recently become possible for a filmmaker to be a true master of the the medium.

These  masters, who seek to exert creative control over as much of the filmmaking process as possible are called “Auteurs” the French word for “author.” The idea is that  some filmmakers have such involvement in the process, including writing, directing, producing, and even perhaps editing or designing sets, that they are the ultimate cause for the final effect of the film.

Autuer theory has its roots in early french film criticism, mostly surrounding the work of an early film pioneer named, Jean Renoir. His film Le Grande Illusion, was the first foreign language film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. In the wake of Renoir, other virtuoso filmmakers began to be referred to as Auteurs, including Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock. As the technology of filmmaking developed, the stories and images of films became more ambitious. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen began to develop the medium.

By the 2000’s there were literally dozens of filmmakers who were considered to have a distinct enough voice, or trade mark look, to be referred to as “Autuer.” Among them were many of the most popular directors of today: Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, The Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Harmony Korine Clint Eastwood, and countless others.

However, while many critics use the term autuer as a form of praise, it is usually reserved for the director. In fact in the French criticism community in which it came to prominence, some critics even argued that the director was without question the single most important member of a production team, surpassing the rest of the crew and even the screenwriter. So the question has remained, can a screenwriter be an autuer? In some cases like P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, and Woody Allen, the screenwriter and the directory are one and the same. It is much more difficult to point to a screenwriter who does not direct that has a sufficiently distinct voice to be recognizable regardless of production, or studio interference. So the question remains, can a screenwriter be an Auteur?

These films were all written by their director as well. 

The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – Wes Anderson

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch

The Dictator – Charlie Chaplain

La Grande Illusion – Jean Renoir

2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick

Annie Hall – Woody Allen

Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino

Punch Drunk Love – Paul Thomas Anderson

Superheroes as Allegory

Throughout the last 20 years an overwhelming increase in the number of films about people with special powers has taken comic book movies from fringe to front and center. Super Hero movies, particularly those with origins in comic books, command budgets upwards of one-hundred million dollars, and frequently gross several times that. Why has a form of entertainment once relegated to basement conversations over games of Dungeons and Dragons, become le film du jour? It may have something to do with the gradual replacement of traditional forms of narrative, such as religious texts and shamanic writings, with more commercialized easier-to-digest forms of story-telling. If this is true, super heroes, in a sense, have become the god figures of modern culture. One might initially reject this as either a blasphemous dismissal of the importance of religion, or as a pie in the sky conjecture, and it may be a little of both, but the fact remains that audiences love to go see guys with super powers fight other guys with super powers. The remarkable thing is the similarity between beloved characters like Spider-man, Iron Man, Batman, other heroes who add the word “man” to a noun in different ways, and deistic pantheons of ancient world religions.

Thor is  a little to obvious so let’s dig a bit deeper. When it came out in 2002 Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man shattered box office records, and along with its counterparts, X-men, and Unbreakable resurrected comic book films from obscurity and ridicule, but there’s more than just financial success to explain the sudden rush of fandom to these franchises. Spider-man in particular has always been a young man’s comic. The story of gifted, but ostracized Peter Parker, becoming the coolest, wittiest, most righteous crusader for justice and people with crushes on Red Heads everywhere, resonates deeply with young men who are just starting to work out their views of themselves and how they fit into the world around them. Spider-man however, is not the first character to serve as a proxy for teenagers. Hercules was half-man half god, slew monsters with multiple appendages, was praised equally for his wit and strength and got started doing his semi-godly duties when he was just a boy. The analogy isn’t watchmenperfect, but it’s certainly present.

There are many such analogies to be made. Batman, like the Roman God of the underworld Pluto, is fabulously wealthy, lives underground, and administers justice. Superman is a fairly obvious sun deity à la, Ra, Jesus, or Mithras. The case can even be made that the entire Justice League serves as a proxy for the Greek Pantheon. Comic book writers, particularly in the Marvel realm, even go as far as including actual mythical figures like Thor, Artemis, Hercules, and Hades, which are all featured characters in the Marvel and DC universes. 

The idea of super hero fables as allegory was certainly not lost on Alan Moore when he wrote Watchmen, nor on Zack Snyder when he directed the film adaptation, and Dr. Manhattan exists as a perfect example of the deified tendencies of super-powered beings. The interesting conclusion that Watchmen makes however, is that it is not super-powers, but the moral indignation of normal human beings that truly amounts to heroism. Dr. Manhattan is a bit of an absent father, while Night Owl and Rorschach are tireless vigilantes for true justice. You know who else is blue? Krishna, the personification of Hindu god-hood. Like Dr. Manhattan, Krishna is a bit aloof by western standards, but represents the sum total of all a human could ever hope to be, except, well, human. Dr. Manhattan is contrasted with two of the most western heroes imaginable, a man who uses industry (even a railroad) to solve his problems, and a homeless man who literally sees everything in black and white. Through their interactions, the audience is shown the problems with each of their systems of thought. 

Obviously there’s a lot of money to be made with these big budget summer blockbuster style films, but why has such an obscure form of entertainment found the limelight over the last decade? It may have something to do with the human tendency to seek out stories that inform our own lives. Where normal life is boring, and moral decisions are often grey and complex, superheroes live in a world where bad guys deliver evil monologues and all the boring bits are cut out. In a sense superhero movies skip everything about normal life that’s boring, and cut straight to the cause and effects of the most significant actions in the protagonist’s life. They allow for a clear picture of justice, and righteousness, and simultaneously, evil and manipulation.

Could it be that these films resonate with people in the same way mythologies and religion used to? Perhaps the millions of dollars people spent to see The Avengers, was a sort of tithing as all these people subconsciously reaffirmed what they believed was good about the world. Of course it’s a bit of a stretch to imply that the Hulk is a deity that must be worshipped, but perhaps he is an allegory about the power of anger, and the struggle of developing an identity. Perhaps Iron Man is a 21st century parable about the responsibility of the wealthy to not be complacent.  It is possible, that more than they draw from ancient religions, and myths, they are simply creating new ones. 

Here are some of the best allegorical comic book movies. 

(2008) The Dark Knight

(2012) The Avengers 

(2013) Man of Steel

(2003) Hulk

(2008) Hancock

(2009) Watchmen

(2004) Spider-man 2

Stories about Stories

Joseph Campbell and the well-known psychologist Carl Jung, both posited that stories were a way for human beings to ascribe meaning to the infinite chaos of creation around them. These stories provide a framework for the experience of being alive, and establish patterns that make processing an incredible amount of information easier, by giving the illusion of cause and effect. Films are a particularly effective method for creating a reality because that’s exactly what the crew of a film does on some level. When an audience sees rundown buildings overgrown with vines besieged by zombies, what they are actually seeing is the painstaking work of teams of artists who transform locations into the fantastic sets used in movies. Some films take this alternate reality even further and incorporate the idea of story telling into their own narrative. These meta stories are some of the most interesting and powerful stories, because they point out the assumptions an audience carries with them from other viewing experiences and uses them not only to comment on and interpret the human experience, but also to comment on stories themselves.

Big Fish written by John August and directed by Tim Burton, is a fantastic example of a script that discusses the power of stories, in this case, the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is a meta narrative that Joseph Campbell believed to be the backbone of nearly every story ever written. To illustrate the prominence of this structure, consider the similarities between the characters of Luke Skywalker, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, Hercules, and Iron Man. All of these characters are told they have the capacity for greatness, are forced to act on that possibility, and subsequently rise to the challenge, becoming heroes and experiencing some sort of catharsis. Big Fish not only features an on-the-nose hero’s journey, it features a character actually commenting on the tropes and the reason for them as he recounts the story. Not all stories about stories are as somber as Big Fish though. 

Joss Whedon is an incredibly prolific writer, and a devout fan of story craft in general. The Avengers features multiple mini hero’s journeys throughout. There are however, other meta narratives besides hero’s journey. The Cabin in the Woods is a fan boy’s salute to the horror genre, but the horror genre is really a medieval story form repackaged and twisted slightly. In Shakespeare’s England the most common form of entertainment was a fantastically depressing genre called the morality play. These morality plays were basically stories like the boy who cried wolf, or the frog and the scorpion. The basic idea is that the sins and faults of a character early on in the narrative will be responsible for their undoing later on. The Cabin in the Woods gleefully embraces, not only its monster movie heritage, but rather brilliantly, its morality play ancestors, and  features a wonderful Richard Jenkins character explaining the significance of each story beat as it happens. 

There are dozens of examples of this kind of thing. Before Cabin in the Woods there was  Scream. The Princess Bride comments on two kinds of stories: romance and fantasy and again features a narrator within the story. Tropic Thunder is a send-up of Hollywood in general, but especially Vietnam era war movies, and the list goes on and on all they way to The Producers. These stories serve as mile markers for genre, and for the film medium, but they also function as challenges to filmmakers to transcend traditional story structure and tropes and try to make something new. Any filmmaker or writer who seeks to educate themselves about the finer points of movie making would do well to add these to his or her collection.

(2003) Big Fish

(1987) The Princess Bride

(2012) The Cabin in the Woods

(1996) Scream

(2008) Tropic Thunder

(2008) Be Kind Rewind

(2002) Adaptation

Best Drug Movies

For the adventurous and the broken, sometimes reality just isn’t enough. Over the years, bohemian filmmakers and others enamored vicariously with the lifestyle of raffish and desperate drifters have committed stories of the highs and lows of illicit drug use. Often, drugs serve as a backdrop to a character, perhaps to inform the audience that this person is aberrant, or simply weak willed. Other times, drugs help to give a character mystique or some sense of mystical power. 

Drug movies run the gamut of perspective from stories of the devastating powers of addiction and helplessness, like Trainspotting, or Requiem downloadfor a Dream, to absurdity and horror, or just plain hilarity. Reefer Madness, an anti-marijuana propaganda film from the 1950s is ironically celebrated by “stoner audiences” as a cult classic. Terry Gilliam’s  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the story of alternative cultural icon, Hunter S. Thompson covering drag races in Nevada for Sports Illustrated, uses drug use as a narrative excuse to create surrealist imagery and vaguely satirical commentary on society and its norms.  Of course more often than not, drug use facilitates comic relief and ridiculous escapades such as in Pineapple Express, or Half Baked. 

These are some of the most noteworthy drug films in no particular order

(2008) Pineapple Express

(1998) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

(1996) Trainspotting

(2000) Requiem For A Dream

(1994) Clerks

(1998) The Big Lebowski

(1983) Scarface

(1969) Easy Rider

(2013) The Wolf of Wall Street

(2010) Enter The Void

(2001) Blow

Leonardo DiCaprio Scripts

An actor as polarizing as many of his characters, Leonardo DiCaprio’s name is sure to arouse as many groans as adorations. While many of his performances are rightfully lauded, many others are dismissed as “pretty boy” pandering. Whether or not it’s fair to hold an actor to task for his very first performances is a question that will have to wait for another article, but the fact remains that while DiCaprio has delivered performances adored by fans and critics alike, he has yet to receive an Oscar Award for Best Actor. 

DiCaprio’s career began in television, but his second film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, proved quickly that he was a serious actor with serious capabilities. Within four years, DiCaprio blossomed into a heartthrob and an A-list celebrity with roles in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet,  and
James Cameron’s mega block buster, Titanic.  In the years between Titanic and his first collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York, Leo began to develop his darker side, taking on roles like Richard in Danny Boyle’s, The Beach, and the titular role in The Man in The Iron Mask. These roles prepared him for some of the highlights of his career, many of which came at the direction of Martin Scorsese. 

Leonardo DiCaprio’s career has moved steadily in a direction toward darker and more complex characters well suited for such an intense and classic actor. He is a classic leading man, clean cut with a pretty smile and a steely gaze, and if he keeps delivering performances like The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, he will continue to be.

The Wolf of Wall Street – 2013

Django Unchained – 2012

J. Edgar Hoover – 2011

Inception – 2010

Shutter Island – 2010

Revolutionary Road – 2008

Body of Lies – 2008

Blood Diamond – 2006

The Departed – 2006

The Aviator – 2004

Catch Me If You Can – 2002

Gangs of New York – 2002

The Beach – 2000

The Man in the Iron Mask – 1998

Titanic – 1997

Romeo + Juliet – 1996

The Basketball Diaries – 1995

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – 1993

Joaquin Phoenix Scripts

Many child actors live notoriously troubled lives.

The stress of fame, and the challenge of creating emotions for a performance takes its toll on downloadyoung minds, all too frequently resulting in alcoholism and mental illness.  Often times these troubles mean the end of the performer’s career, but there are exceptions. Joaquin Phoenix is certainly no stranger to adversity. When he was still very young, he lost his brother River who was also a performer. Joaquin Phoenix has been admitted into rehab, and has publicly claimed to be narcissistic, manic, and unstable. Despite all this, his career is a brilliant example of how to turn dark circumstances into an incredible career.

Phoenix’s specialty is characters who are troubled like him. Brooding, and unpredictable, his performances reach beautiful empathetic heights and frightening lows, but they rarely feel phoned in. His performance as Johnny Cash is legendary although he did not receive an Oscar for the role. Merrill, his character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs,  provides real depth and humanity in a film often criticized for its heavy handed subtext. The commonality amongst each of his performances is a sense of desperation. In Her Theodore aches for love and understanding, in The Master,  Freddie searches for truth to calm his storming mind. It is rare that an actor can operate in such delicate places without crossing over into parody or melodrama, and while Phoenix may owe some credit to those who wrote the script or directed his performance, it is impossible to overlook his abilities. 

Here are some of Phoenix’s finest performances:                                                                        

Best Screenplay Nominees (That Didn’t Win)

What do the films North by Northwest, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan all have in common? None of them received the annual Academy Award for best screenplay, but they were all nominated.

Many frustrated filmmakers have questioned how the Academy makes its decisions, but regardless of how political some claim the awards to be, they are certainly the most coveted honors in the film world, except maybe a good opening weekend. The category of Best Screenplay is used to honor the writers of exceptionally excellent scripts, an art that is perhaps as nuanced as the actual filmmaking itself. After all, its possible to make a bad movie with a great script, but all the CG in the world won’t fix a poorly written screenplay.

Throughout the years, a number of films have fallen just short of the honor, but have been remembered fondly while the winners have faded away. Of course, the popularity of the film is immaterial to the quality of it’s writing, so perhaps these hopefuls got precisely what they deserved. A point of curiosity: not a single nominee that lost Best Screenplay, won Best Picture, and most Best Screenplay winners didn’t go on to win Best Picture with the exception of Annie Hall which received both.




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Best Scripts About Fighting

download (11)At the heart of every script is a conflict, and it is this conflict that drives the decisions of the characters. How the characters choose to reconcile this conflict is what gives the story its meaning. These conflicts manifest themselves in a variety of ways, sometimes as a single man versus seemingly overwhelming odds, or as a difficult choice a character must make that forces him to sacrifice something he loves. Sometimes this conflict manifests itself a little more directly, in the form of fists striking flesh, and feet shuffling to dodge blows, and when this happens the release of tension can be truly cathartic.

There are few images more compelling than a physical struggle between the sources of conflict in a film, and there are a number of ways this device can be used effectively. In films like David O’ Russell’s The Fighter the physical violence is only a manifestation of the internal conflicts of the film’s protagonist, whereas in Bronson the titular character relishes fighting as a way to garner the fame he desperately craves. In both cases it is a nebulous and abstract conflict giving rise to absolute primal resolution. This is the power of a well designed cinematic fight; it is truly raw.

A discussion of great movies about fighting would be incomplete without a mention of Sylvester Stallone’s first film which he wrote, produced and starred in, the immortal Rocky. Rocky is a beautiful example of the poetry of violence magnifying the conflict of a narrative, in this case the ambition of the hero vs. the insurmountable odds against him. In all these cases the violence comes when the hero is left with no recourse and the tension must find release. It isn’t always powerful, but when it is, its as poignant and poetic as any love story, and the push and pull between two foes locked in combat is closer to the posturing of new romance than one might think. These are some of the most impactful examples of the genre, though not as impactful of course as a punch from Tommy Conlon, Tom Hardy’s hard hitting character in Warrior. That guy ripped the door off a tank!

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Richard Linklater Scripts

download (17)Richard Linklater’s films are a sort of challenge to the film industry. His willingness to depart from traditional techniques and narratives and to do so in such a radically independent way have established him as a perfect of example of what independent filmmaking could be. Linklater is a totally self-taught screenwriter, director and producer and has won numerous awards for his films including several Austin Film Awards. He has been nominated for the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay twice, as well as awards at Cannes film festival and Independent Spirit.

His career began with a $3,000 super 8 feature called It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books but his first real fame came in 1993 with Dazed and Confused which also helped launch the career of a young Matthew McConaughey. The film followed the exploits of young people dealing with disaffection and apathy which became a recurring, prominent theme in his work.

With Waking Life Linklater brought the idea of lucid dreaming into prominence, and developed a rotoscoped animation technique he would later perfect in, A Scanner Darkly. A few years later, he experienced some mainstream success with School of Rock. In 2011 he worked with Jack Black a second time in the para-documentary Bernie which featured stellar performances by a cast of non-actors who had actually experienced the events of the film. In 2013 he completed his “Before” trilogy with Before Midnight with Ethan Hawke reprising his role from Before Sunset and Before Sunrise.

Linklater’s strength as a writer comes from his ability to capture the essence of people like him: artistic, alternative and hip kids with something to prove. His legacy as a filmmaker serves as a powerful testament to the potential of independent film, and the proper ways to go about making them.  Here are some of his best scripts.

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