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I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.
- Paul Schrader
Someone once asked me what I considered greatest screenplay of all time to be. I didn’t have a singular answer for them then and I don’t have one now, but in thinking over the question I’ve decided to assemble a list of what I believe to be ten essential films for screenwriters. Some entries on this list may seem surprising, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that the best films are often the ones where you don’t take notice of the writer until after the fact. The plot, characters, and dialogue mesh so nicely that you forget someone actually sat down and put a script together.
So, without further hesitation:
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets)
A sleazy and oft-forgotten drama-noir, Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most quotable films of all time. It concerns two men: a powerful and morally-dubious gossip columnist and his equally unscrupulous press agent. The script by Ernest Lehman and playwright Clifford Odets packs more zingers into 90 minutes than you ever thought possible. Characters cut each other down with such sharp-tongued efficiency that you’ll find yourself laughing as much as you are wincing at the horrifying ethics (or lack thereof) at play.
Best Scene: The introduction of columnist J.J. Hunsecker as he ruthlessly puts a U.S. Senator in his place, all without lifting a finger.
Network (1976) (by Paddy Chayefsky)
I know I said the best films are often ones which minimize the presence of the writer but Network is the exception to the rule. A brutal satire of American media, Network tells the tale of Howard Beale, a disgraced news anchor whose mad rants against mainstream culture get exploited for ratings by studio executives. Chayefsky keeps his foot on the gas for the entire script as characters banter endlessly in television jargon so dense it often seems like a foreign language. Overwritten might be the word to use here, but Beale’s rants come through clear as day with a message as relevant and damning as it was forty years ago: the media owns you.
Best Scene: Any of Beale’s televised tirades.
The Apartment (1960) (by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond)
During his illustrious career, Billy Wilder and his various screenwriting partners racked up an obscene amount of Oscar nominations (and wins) for their writing efforts. Some of these scripts include Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17 and, of course, The Apartment. Arguably Wilder’s best film, the log-line alone is brilliant: a low-level insurance clerk seeks a promotion by lending his apartment to his superiors for their one-night stands. There are a lot of factors at play in this one: love, sex, work and relationships, not to mention heartbreak and suicide. Wilder walks a thin line between comedy and drama and at times brings us to very dark places, yet by the film’s inevitable conclusion we’re left with a charmed sense of satisfaction without feeling cheated.
Best Scene: The ever-resilient C.C. Baxter walks elevator operator Fran Kubelik out of the building after work, revealing he knows more about her personal life than he lets on. Given any other actor, this scene would come off as perverse, but Jack Lemmon totally sells the character here.
Paris, Texas (1984) (by L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard)
A perfect example of show-don’t-tell, Paris, Texas revels more in what it doesn’t say than what it does. After an unexplained four-year absence, Travis wanders out of the Mojave desert and is taken in by his brother who brings him home to Los Angeles. From there, he is reunited with his seven-year-old son and together the two set out to find the boy’s mother. This is a film which poses so many burning questions: How did Travis wind up in the desert? Why couldn’t he speak? Where was he living? Why did he leave in the first place? The beautifully minimalist screenplay by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson knows better than to answer these directly, instead giving us sporadic scraps and hints along the way while keeping the bulk of things ambiguous.
Best Scene: Travis tracks his former wife to a Houston strip club, where (unbeknownst to her) they have an entire conversation from opposite sides of a one-way mirror. We’ve waited close to two hours for this scene, and it’s absolutely electrifying.
Chinatown (1974) (by Robert Towne)
Often dubbed “The Great American Screenplay” Robert Towne’s legendary Chinatown repopularized the mystery genre. An homage to private detective tales of the ’30s and ’40s, Chinatown is the perfect mystery: complex, sinister, and completely believable. Los Angeles Private Eye Jake Gittes is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to tail her husband and quickly finds himself entangled in a web of murder and conspiracy, all of which ties into the city’s water supply system. Towne expertly crafts a highly intricate plot peppered with minute details that require multiple viewings to fully appreciate. Pair that with smarmy authentic sounding gumshoe dialogue and you’ve got an eternal classic.
Best Scene: While investigating the site of a murder, Gittes is confronted by two thugs, one of whom (played by director Roman Polanski) cuts his nostril with a switchblade. Gittes subsequently wears a large bandage on his nose for the remainder of the film.
Miller’s Crossing (1990) (by Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers have written a number of great scripts. Fargo is a masterclass of dark comedy, The Big Lebowski launched an entire religion, but neither have the head-spinning intricacy of Miller’s Crossing. A Prohibition-era gangster film, it concerns mob advisor Tom Reagan as he finds his loyalty split between two different bosses in the midst of a gangland war. Pay close attention, as the film sports more scheming and double-crossing than you’ve likely ever seen before. As wisecracking Tom bounces from side to side, you’re never sure of his exact intent. Dense, funny, carefully crafted. Multiple viewings are a must.
Best Scene: To prove his newfound loyalty, Tom is told to take weaselly bookie Bernie Bernbaum into the woods and shoot him. As they go further and further into the trees Bernie frantically pleads for his life, telling Tom he doesn’t deserve to die. It’s a heart-pounding scene made all the scarier by Tom’s dead-eyed silence in response to Bernie’s pleas.
Boogie Nights (1997) (by Paul Thomas Anderson)
One of the greatest ensemble films in recent years, Boogie Nights throws us head-first into the ’70s California porn scene. Introducing all the players in one unspeakably incredible opening tracking shot, Boogie Nights ultimately focuses on the rise and fall of Eddie Adams, a well-endowed dishwasher in a San Fernando nightclub frequented by pornographer Jack Horner. Jack meets Eddie one evening and the rest is history. Anderson’s script is split decisively in two: the first half feels like one big party as Eddie rises to stardom while the latter half is essentially the morning after. These characters — whom Anderson has presented to us as a makeshift family — pay the consequences for their actions with the utmost harshness. It’s a devastating story but not without hope, as these resilient misfits always manage to come together, pick themselves up, and go on.
Best Scene: Having lost his career due to hubris and drug abuse, Eddie and his friends attempt to rip-off a coke dealer in one of the tensest and well-executed scenes in cinematic history.
Apocalypse Now (1979) (by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola)
I have never read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but almost every person I know who has read it tells me the same thing “Just watch Apocalypse Now.” Coppola and Milius loosely adapted the story of African colonization in the mid-1970s and transformed it into a sprawling Vietnam epic. The bleak and hypnotic tale follows an army lieutenant charged with locating a renegade colonel deep within the Cambodian jungle and dispatching him with “extreme prejudice”. Despite the explosive war in which the story is set, Coppola and Milius confine the bulk of the action to a PT boat which is ferrying the lieutenant down the river into Cambodia. Some of cinema’s finest voice-over is at work here, as our protagonist regularly reflects on the horrors of war and the absurdity of human nature.
Best Scene: Lieutenant Willard finally comes face to face with Colonel Kurtz, the man he’s been sent to assassinate.
The Rules of the Game (1939) (by Jean Renoir)
Much like Boogie Nights, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is a prime example of ensemble storytelling. Set at a french chateau on the eve of World War II, a handful of upper and working class people find themselves entangled in a complex comedy of manners. One has to marvel at how one writer could keep track of this many plots and subplots, particularly the two separate love triangles which dominate the piece. Interweaving comedy and tragedy with ease, Renoir creates a film far ahead of its time.
Best Scene: After all the mayhem comes to a head, several of the men take a moment — just a moment — to stop their petty antics and collect themselves.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
What screenwriting list would be complete without Tarantino? His pop-culture savvy, violence-infused stories have shocked and entertained audiences for over twenty years, but when it comes to skill with the pen, Inglourious Basterds is a cut above the rest. A mish-mash of several narratives — primarily a young French girl and a band of savage Jewish-American soldiers — Basterds serves mainly as a revenge tale. As the soldiers seek out and brutalize Nazis, the young French girl — family murdered on the orders of a sadistic SS colonel — owns and operates a cinema where she plans to reek havoc during an upcoming propaganda screening. Tarantino is in fine form here. His writing feels fresh and retains a sense of humor despite the horrific acts depicted on screen. His characters are quirky and fully realized, be they sympathetic or outright terrifying. This is a master at work.
Best Scene: Disguised as Nazis, several allied officers infiltrate an underground bar in order to rendezvous with a German movie star turned informer, a event which quickly goes awry. This may very well be the greatest scene Tarantino has ever penned: the fear and tension is palpable. Watch the film if only for this scene.