Why these screenplays? And why only ten? I didn’t want to overwhelm you with the number of truly great, original scripts that became truly great original films. And frankly, I didn’t want to depress myself by questioning why I didn’t of think of this or why can’t I write like that. But for you, brave soldier, read on and be inspired. And if you’re like me and depress easily read them anyway. Great writing inspires. Always.
Casablanca – Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch – Okay there were scads more writers and many behind the scenes drafts. And there was no official screenplay at the start of production. But through some alchemy with a few gallons of spit and polish this story based on the play “Everybody Goes To Rick’s” came together and landed the top spot on the Writer’s Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Chinatown – Robert Towne – What you see is definitely not what you get in the 1970s film noir revival. The original script was good, but Roman Polanski’s modifications took it into the stratosphere. Sometimes writers do need a director’s vision and this was the perfect marriage of writer and director to birth an Academy Award winning classic.
Network – Paddy Chayefsky – Social satire is one of the most difficult genres to master, but when it is done well we have Network. The script takes aim at American television in the 1970s as a reflection of our vast art vs. commerce, politics as entertainment, nothing matters more than money culture. The true testament to this screenplay is how utterly spot on it is today.
Annie Hall – Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman – Not all Romantic Comedies are all that romantic as the coupling of Annie and Alvy proves. The comedy is nuanced and acknowledges relationships as complex, living organisms that bring as many tears as laughs. Showing equal perspectives of two people falling out of love gives a clever take on the blame game. Life is after all bittersweet and often breaks the fourth wall.
Die Hard – Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. DeSouza – If you aspire to write action or if you just want to feel like you’ve been pushed out of a window in your bare feet cut from all the broken glass, then this is your script. Die Hard ticks all the boxes of what audiences want in a popcorn induced thrill ride. The granddaddy of all heart-pumping, wise-cracking, balls of steel, who cares about the plot as long as it reaches the $100 million mark movies. Despite the circumstances, we still want to be John McClane. He’s smart and cool and tough and earns his happy ending while killing the bad guys and running circles around the idiots in charge. The Die Hard franchise (thanks mostly to star Bruce Willis as McClane) was so popular it changed the way producers do business and spawned the million dollar pitch craze, “Have I got a screenplay for you – ‘Die Hard’ on a bus. It’s called ‘Speed’.”
Do The Right Thing – Spike Lee – There is something so visceral about the movie that makes if hard for me to watch. That means the characters and story deliver such an unsympathetic emotional wallop that I am required to take several hours to reflect on how we interact with one another. It forces discussion and if it doesn’t make you have an opinion on the continuing struggle to find common ground then you should check your neck and wrists for a pulse.
Thelma & Louise – Callie Khouri – Coming on the heels of the Clarence Thomas hearings where Anita Hill bravely spoke her truth to Congress, Khouri’s script touched a feminist nerve. Two women over 35 (Yes, women in Hollywood do live beyond the age of 30) whose lives are irrevocably altered by violence and fight to deal with the consequences on their own terms is not an easy sell to studios. The script is so well written in concept and execution that no less than Ridley Scott did the directing honors. This is more than a road trip, more than a female bonding exercise. This screenplay shows empowerment through action. Any screenplay that allows women to call the shots, even if to escape the constraints of what men dictate, is far more liberating than a script where the females are merely window dressing for the male leads. Brava.
Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary – There is something so organic about the dialogue that is a testament to Tarantino’s trust in the audience to understand meandering as character development is not a waste of time. The story itself is a pure adrenaline shot to the heart featuring interconnected episodes of characters from the fringes of our noir-lite fantasy culture. This screenplay resurrected the out-of-sequence method of storytelling that previously or in less skilled hands seemed gimmicky. Granted, Pulp Fiction is not for everyone, but it definitely gives insight into the writers’ minds. Every word on the page is their voice and for an emerging screenwriter it is so important to establish yourself – even if it includes a ball gag and a Royale with cheese.
Memento – Christopher Nolan – from a short story by Jonathan Nolan – Speaking of deconstruction storytelling, Memento flawlessly delivers on a complex narrative structure that could go sideways at any moment. The scenes unfold front-to-back as the reveals come back-to-front in flashback. Innovative, yes. Mysterious, check. Confusing, absolutely. The kind of confusing that begs to be read again and again and again and even then all the details when woven together to make sense still give a tingle when something new is discovered.