Pay ‘Em What They’re Worth: Part 1

What with the holidays being a time for arts and crafts, and the current writer’s strike, it’s appropriate to all take a moment to acknowledge the art and the craft that is writing. I’d like to suggest that, if you are a true movie fan, you need to start paying attention to screenwriters.

I have a “Top Ten” list of writers who rarely let me down when it comes to providing enjoyable entertainment (Although most have at least one big stinker!).

The conventional wisdom is that film is a director’s medium and TV is a writer’s medium and that is somewhat true, with the lines being blurred so much recently. Bad direction can sink a great screenplay, and television often gives more time for things like complex character development. But a good screenwriter can definitely improve your odds of catching a great film. It’s the old adage that a good director can’t overcome a bad screenplay and a bad director can make a good movie from a good screenplay.

I actually began to compile this list long before the strike, but the timing is serendipitous. Most of us moviegoers tend to “collect” favorite stars and/or directors and make an attempt to see their movies when the come out. It isn’t quite like the old days where a “bankable” star could just about guarantee a successful opening weekend (usually considered to be box office receipts equal to at least one half of the film’s total budget). Unless of course, your name is Will Smith.

Huge stars like Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry and George Clooney couldn’t guarantee success for perfectly good films like A Mighty Heart, Things We Lost in the Fire, or Michael Clayton. So without further ado, I’d like to celebrate the art of screenwriting, an often overlooked aspect of filmmaking. We have five today and then five more tomorrow. This isn’t actually an ordered list, so don’t expect us Oysterites to numerate and give you the “number one greatest screenwriter.”

And by all means, if you have a personal favorite let us know in the comments below.

Lawrence Kasdan

The first guy who I really started noticing as a screenwriter was Lawrence Kasdan. He wrote the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back, my favorite Star Wars film, followed by writing and directing one of my favorite modern noir films, Body Heat, and then wrote the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In Continental Divide he made John Belushi believable as the lead in a rom-com, he wrote Return of the Jedi, and then wrote and directed everyone’s favorite movie about yuppies, The Big Chill. He’s followed those with Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Grand Canyon, The Bodyguard (pure pap, but entertaining nonetheless), Wyatt Earp and Mumford. The notable stinker: the Stephen King adaptation, Dreamcatcher. At his best Kasdan manages to make the epic seem personal and even the personal, like a weekend reuniting with friends over an unexpected death seem positively gargantuan. That’s no easy feat to accomplish.

John Patrick Shanley

I noticed the next guy for much the same reason I noticed Kasdan: he wrote several movies in a row I liked, which were all in different genres. John Patrick Shanley showed amazing versatility when he wrote Five Corners, a 1960s period drama with Jodie Foster and John Turturro, followed by Moonstruck, and then a great quirky murder mystery called January Man.

These were followed by the hilarious and sort of modern classic rom-com Joe versus the Volcano, the “cannibalism” drama about the soccer team crash landing in the Andes mountains, Alive!, and the Michael Crichton adaptation, Congo in 1995. He hasn’t done much since then, other than a notable TV movie, Live from Baghdad.

He has a new movie in production called Doubt, based upon his own play which won the 2005 Tony Award, 2004-2005 Drama Desk Award, and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Doubt is about sexual abuse allegations at a Catholic School.

Nora Ephron

I admit it: I am a (straight) guy and I usually like romantic comedies. If–IF–they’re smart about it. Or have Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts in them. Nora Ephron, known primarily for that specific genre, has actually written some good dramas (Heartburn, Silkwood) and the romantic fantasy, Michael, but she will always be known for hitting the rom-com trifecta with When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.

Coincidentally, My Blue Heaven and Mixed Nuts are both underrated Steve Martin gems and though the meta-adaptation of Bewitched never really clicked with viewers you’ve got to at least give her credit for trying to make a television show adaptation clever and unique.

John Sayles

John Sayles is in the enviable position of usually directing his own screenplays, and of being an indie filmmaker whose projects nearly always make (at least some) money. Enough to allow him to make his next movie, anyways. He started with genre crap like Piranha and Lady in Red, but quickly distinguished himself with The Return of the Secaucus 7.

Some more crap, and then he went on a creative tear with a series of critically acclaimed films such as Baby, It’s You, Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, and Eight Men Out. He created a much beloved and extremely short-lived TV series called Shannon’s Deal, starring Jamey Sheridan.

Consequently, he may have single-handedly rescued Burt Reynolds’ career with Breaking In, followed by City of Hope, Passion Fish, an instant children’s classic called The Secret of Roan Innish. Lone Star, Limbo, Sunshine State, Silver City and Casa de los babies continued his streak of critically acclaimed independent work.

William Goldman

I want to be William Goldman in my next life. He writes successful novels, sometimes adapting them into successful screenplays. He is one of Hollywood’s most successful “script doctors”, rescuing other screenplays from mediocrity. And he writes original cinematic stories, as well.

Even if the only thing he had ever done was The Princess Bride that would make him one of the greatest of all time, but there’s more. Commentary by me need not apply to these movies: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Stepford Wives (1975), All the President’s Men, Marathon Man. (If Psycho made a generation afraid to take a shower, and Jaws a generation afraid to go in the water, MM made a generation afraid to go to the dentist.)

He adapted Stephen King’s Misery, cemented Robert Downey, Jr’s stardom with Chaplin, wrote a nice update of Maverick, then turned in Absolute Power and The General’s Daughter. Interestingly enough he shares his major bomb as co-writer with Kasdan on Dreamcatcher. Mum’s been the word since that turd of a movie, but I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear of William Goldman.

Tune in tomorrow for the final five screenwriters.

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