I took two screenwriting classes. One was as an undergraduate for a Communications credit and I got a B minus. The other, I took for only three days when I was in graduate school. Then I dropped out (an experience you can read all about right here). Also, yeah I have written a few screenplays but they are all pretty wretched in retrospect. And it’s been probably five years since I tried. Dunno, just trying to make it clear here that I am hardly the ideal person to ask about this sort of thing! I also can’t say I am a fan of too many screenwriters specifically, though I definitely have a few favorites I would recommend. So, here we go…
A screenwriter who seemed to consistently do good work, whoever was directing his words, is Paul Schrader. His work from The Yakuza to American Gigolo is stunning, I think (I am not including Raging Bull there on purpose because that movie stinks on every level). Like, Schrader’s writing makes a exploitation movie like Rolling Thunder 15-20% smarter than it needs to be. He knows when to be “smart” and when to just like indulge dumb movie pleasures. And there’s Taxi Driver, obviously. One of the best things about Taxi Driver is how Travis is in (almost) every scene and so the whole movie is from his perspective, but you barely even notice that, or like, it just feels organic, you know? That’s a very self-conscious technique that he doesn’t oversell and that’s what makes the movie so moving and like, ambiguous.
Another screenplay I would recommend would be River’s Edge by Neal Jimenez. I’ve never actually read the screenplay, but so much of that movie’s success hinges on the way it is structured and that to me, is screenwriting. Specifically, time is so carefully accounted for and acknowledged in that movie. The movie takes place over a few days and pretty much every hour of those days is incorporated into the script. No shortcuts or cheats or anything like that. The more you watch it, the more you see how every piece of it fits together perfectly. There’s a lot of characters and they’re all intersecting or pairing off but it all holds together in a totally anti-Magnolia super self-conscious way. Again: Doing smart things but doing them without being a big loud dick about it.
Alan Goldberg’s screenplay, Love In Vain is kind of the gold standard in that regard. It has also never been made into a movie, but the screenplay was published like a piece of literature, which is pretty amazing. Goldberg does so much with basic facts of Robert Johnson’s life and mixes a ton of research and like ethno-historical stuff from the era without any of it feeling forced. And there’s a wandering drift to the storytelling that fits the temporal living of a Delta blues dude playing, drinking, and screwing. It’s a biopic in the sense that it is a movie about a real person’s life and is heavily rooted in research and “facts,” but it doesn’t forget the “art” half of the equation, either. He gets it, man. Maybe one of the reasons it’s never been made into a movie is because it doesn’t need to be a movie to work?
Also, I just realized I didn’t discuss or even celebrate dialogue! I didn’t intend to do that, but I think that’s probably telling of what I look for, or think is important in screenwriting. It isn’t snappy clever conversations full of quotables, at all. It’s building a really rigid but invisible frame around the narrative. To me, the trick of a good screenplay is to indulge all that structure-structure-structure stuff without it being too obvious. Like, doing the three-act deal while also accounting for tangents and atmosphere is ideal.