Screenwriters have been habitually overlooked by critics and a movie going public that hallows directors and A-list actors. But the glory of great films is, in no small part, great writing.
Six who are leaving their mark on the big screen:
AARON SORKIN Steve Jobs
Few screenwriters achieve even modest fame; fewer still become household names.
Aaron Sorkin is an even more unusual case: a screenwriter whose renown and influence have altered language itself, giving birth to an adjective (‘‘Sorkinesque’’) and a verb (‘‘Sorkinise’’). And, of course, there is Sorkin the genre. Everyone in Hollywood knows what an ‘‘Aaron Sorkin project’’ denotes: a TV show or film that combines old-fashioned craftsmanship and up-to-date settings, along with fusillades of feisty dialogue delivered by quintessential contemporary types — newsmen, politicians, techies.
From The West Wing to Moneyball to The Social Network, Sorkin specialises in heroic, weird savants and in stories that find gripping drama in characters most comfortable staring at a laptop.
This year he brings Steve Jobs, a deliciously Sorkinised take on the ultimate geek demigod, based on the biography by Walter Isaacson and directed by Danny Boyle.
‘‘Certain types of genius can be hard to dramatise,’’ Sorkin concedes. ‘‘Coding, much to my disappointment, doesn’t really look like anything on screen. It just looks like people typing.’’ The key, he says, is ‘‘to make wonky scenes look and feel and sound like bank robberies and prison breaks’’.
He gives credit for that feat to his colleagues: ‘‘I love what happens when you write something that draws on the combined talents of a great director, great actors, great designers, great technicians. I like team sports better than individual sports; I like bands better than solo acts. This is why I write screenplays, not novellas.’’
AMY SCHUMER Trainwreck
Amy Schumer isn’t really a writer. That’s what she says, at least. ‘‘I haven’t been writing that long at all. I had to get [screenwriting software] Final Draft when my TV show got picked up. It’s all pretty new to me. I mean, I will get better.’’ But for a novice, she’s doing pretty well. Inside Amy Schumer is TV’s most subversive, hilarious and, yes, well-written show; its short, sharp comedy sketches wield satire like a shiv, slicing through contemporary politics and pop culture.
And of course there’s Trainwreck, Schumer’s debut feature-length star vehicle, penned by the woman herself. As pure comedy, Trainwreck kills, delivering a nonstop string of gags, with uproarious performances from the leads (Schumer and Bill Hader), and a supporting cast of stalwarts like Colin Quinn and upstarts like LeBron James. The revelation is how well the movie works as straight romantic comedy, centred on the charming, shaggy love story between Schumer’s dissolute party girl and Hader’s nice-guy doctor. But Trainwreck has it both ways, hitting all the meet-cute/break-up/make-up beats while sending up the genre, and giving a mischievously feminist spin to all the dusty old rom-com tics and tropes. Credit of course, to the writer: Many of the film’s best moments were in the novice screenwriter’s first draft.
PAOLO SORRENTINO Youth
‘‘When I start to write a movie, my first priority is that I want it to be funny,’’ says the director and screenwriter Paolo Sorrentino. ‘‘I want to make people laugh. On my way to doing that, I often wind up creating something that is also sad.’’ That deft, slightly surreal blend of tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve is present in all of Sorrentino’s work, from the mafia thriller The Consequences of Love (2004) to The Great Beauty, his celebrated 2013 valentine to the gorgeous and maddening Eternal City, Rome. The Neapolitan writer-director’s latest, Youth, is perhaps his sharpest and most endearing film to date. It’s the story of two ageing friends, Michael Caine’s composer-conductor and Harvey Keitel’s film director, on a retreat in a Swiss spa.
Many films have explored this crepuscular territory, but Sorrentino steers clear of lions-in-winter cliches while delivering an affecting and — yes — funny-sad rumination on late life and, well, youth. ‘‘I was interested in exploring how older people feel about the future, instead of the past,’’ he says.
ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU The Revenant
‘‘Right now, I am in the fourth or fifth circle of hell,’’ says Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He’s joking — sort of. It’s early in the morning in mid-October, and the Oscar-winning Mexican writer-director is already at work, labouring on a tight deadline to put post-production touches on The Revenant, his feverishly awaited revenge thriller based on the novel by Michael Punke. Set in the wilds of the 1820s Dakota frontier, the film, which co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy (and was co-written by Mark L. Smith), tells the story of Hugh Glass, a legendary fur trapper who, in 1823, was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his expedition party.
Glass survived the attack, dressed his own wounds and completed an epic six-week, 320km crawl to the safe haven of Fort Kiowa, a fur-trading outpost on the banks of the Missouri River.
‘‘Nobody knows much about Hugh Glass beyond the basic outline: he was attacked by a bear and he was abandoned,’’ Inarritu says. ‘‘The only thing that survives of him is a tiny little note that he wrote to the parents of a trapper that died in battle. There is lots of room for imagining and elaborating.’’
Inarritu has been one of cinema’s most thrilling imaginers and elaborators for the past 15 years. From his torrid feature debut, Amores Perros (2000), to the best picture Academy Award winner Birdman, he has pursued an aesthetic that might be boiled down to a single word — more — stuffing his movies to bursting point with love, sex, politics, violence, all chronicled with extravagantly swooping cameras.
Ultimately, he says, his goal is to enchant an audience into suspending disbelief: ‘‘The duty of art is to make probable the improbable.’’
CARY FUKUNAGA Beasts of No Nation
Cary Fukunaga was fresh out of film school when he wrote the screenplay for Beasts of No Nation, the grim, hallucinatory war film which debuted simultaneously in theatres and on Netflix in October. Beasts was one of the first scripts Fukunaga had written, but the hallmarks of the sensibility and style that would make the 38-year-old Bay Area native one of this decade’s most acclaimed American filmmakers were already in place. The story, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about a child soldier in an unnamed West African nation, spoke to Fukunaga’s cosmopolitanism, his heady and wide¬ranging interest in the fractious politics of the globalised 21st century. Fukunaga’s screenplay revealed a natural storyteller and a technician — a filmmaker with shrewd instincts about how to bring narratives to vibrant life.
The result is one of the most powerful war movies in recent memory, a brutal but ultimately humanist film powered by Fukunaga’s hurtling camera work and fine performances by Idris Elba and the teenage Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah. It’s the latest entry in a film¬ography of impressive range, from the Mexican migrant thriller Sin Nombre (2009) to his stately adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) to his ballyhooed stint as director of the first season of True Detective (2014). In all of his work, Fukunaga combines a cineaste’s command of classic structure with an iconoclast’s compulsion to bend the rules. ‘‘I always like screenplays that subvert the three-act structure,’’ Fukunaga says. ‘‘You can sometimes lose audiences when you do that, but I appreciate new forms of entering the structure. In my experience, it’s usually worth the risk.’’
PHYLLIS NAGY Carol
Phyllis Nagy, the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, maintains a bright line between her stage and film endeavours. But her screenplay for Carol, the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt (1952), is self-evidently the work of a theatrical pro. Directed by Todd Haynes and co-starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the taut, suspenseful Carol combines the best elements of chamber piece and sumptuous period melodrama.
As for the movie’s vaguely sinister undercurrent: That’s pure Highsmith. Nagy relished the challenge of capturing the distinctly creepy and suspenseful atmosphere that hovers like fog over the writer’s novels. She accomplished it, she says, by writing less. ‘‘I tried to maintain that Highsmithian obsessional quality by texturing scenes so that the director and actors are free to work without words. The lack of dialogue, the lack of speechifying — that’s actually how this story gets told.’’
Jody Rosen – New York Times – January 16, 2016