One of the many remarkable things about The Last Jedi is that it’s the first Star Wars film to be both written and directed by one person who isn’t George Lucas. In fact, it’s the exception to the rule in general that one person both writes and directs a feature film. Usually that’s only found in the independent film world, where a single creative individual will decide that directing the script she’s written is the best, most budget-friendly option.
Screenwriters are often the unsung heroes of a quality film, while they’re usually among the first thrown under the bus when a movie turns out badly. When the credits say “A film by” or some variation thereof, the name that follows is that of the director. Especially with big studio tentpole and franchise films, there’s only one director while there may be two or three – or 12 or 15 – writers who have been involved at some point. Complicated guild rules will determine who the credited writers are, but many may have tightened up certain spots or done “doctor” passes before the film finally hits screens.
Today, on National Screenwriter’s Day, we’re going to look at the trailers for five films that tell the stories of these talented individuals who may not have the same name recognition directors enjoy but who are no less essential in producing the films we all enjoy.
In one of the Coen brothers’ finest dark satires, John Turturro plays Barton Fink, a celebrated New York playwright who’s lured out the Hollywood by the promise of making big money writing for the pictures. That promise quickly sours as Fink finds not only does he not have the attitude or inspiration to tell the kinds of stories demanded of him by the studio but also because his hotel neighbor is…well…troubled. The trailer starts out by playing up its sweep of the major awards at the Cannes Film Festival prior to release. We then meet Fink and the supporting characters, seeing that he’s going to struggle with transitioning into the life of the screenwriter. It quickly turns into a murder mystery involving the LAPD and a fiery conflagration.
In A Lonely Place
Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon “Dix” Steele in this 1950 drama directed by Nicholas Ray. Steele is a struggling screenwriter who finds renewed inspiration after beginning a relationship with aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame)…and after being accused of murdering a nightclub coat-check girl. The trailer sets up a story of mystery and intrigue centered around that murder as well as the relationship between Steele and Gray. We don’t see much of Steele plying his trade outside of weaving a tale or two but certainly see the tension that develops between the couple and how Steele’s temper occasionally threatens to get the best of him.
When writer Charlie Kaufman set out to adapt the book The Orchid Thief he did so in the most meta way possible: By writing about his own struggle in adapting The Orchid Thief. So Nicholas Cage plays a fictionalized version of Kaufman, as well as his fictional brother Donald who’s a much more commercially-friendly writer. The two of them interact with Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the author of the source book, in various outlandish ways. Charlie’s neuroses are clearly on display in the trailer as we see him and Donald butting heads as he struggles with trying to tease a story out of a book that doesn’t have one. There’s certainly a meta-narrative on display here as we see Charlie describing things that then happen exactly as he lays out.
OK, the movie isn’t really about a screenwriter. It’s about no-talent, big dream director Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) and how he assembles a cast of misfits and also-rans to finally make a movie. Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), the accountant-turned-screenwriter, doesn’t even appear in the trailer. But given the premise of the movie – that Bowfinger is shooting footage of A-list action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) without his knowledge, it’s hard to find a better argument for the importance of a quality script. That’s something the movie itself has in spades, but the movie-within-a-movie is sorely lacking.
William Holden plays struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, a man who gets pulled into the orbit of fading movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in director Billy Wilder’s classic. Gillis has convinced Desmond to let him rewrite her script for a movie she eyes as her comeback vehicle. Meanwhile Joe is working on another screenplay with Betty (Nancy Olsen), a friend’s girlfriend, something that causes a rift between Norma and Joe. As the trailer opens we see police rushing to the home of “an old-time star,” a story we’re promised the film will tell the real story of before the tabloids get ahold of it. The body of a screenwriter has been found floating in her pool and…yeah.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.