Despite what graduate students in the field of performance studies might tell you, the writer still matters in the creation of story. Sure, the story is inevitably altered once the creative team’s fingerprints begin smudging it over, but the screenwriter creates the foundation, be it for story, character, or humor.
As a means of raising a glass to these easily overlooked heroes of the artistic landscape, Vulture has compiled a list of the world’s 100 greatest screenwriters, relying on a panel of 40 screenwriters (some of whom are represented on the list) to choose their favorites. And the result is illuminating, if not all that surprising.
Rounding out the top slots are the likes of Billy Wilder, the Coen brothers, Robert Towne, and Quentin Tarantino, all of whom can be linked together by their ability to flaunt their distinct stylistic flourishes across a variety of genres. Nora Ephron is the first female on the list at nine, while Spike Lee is the first author of color at 15. Scan through and you’ll likely find one of your favorites, whether it be comedy legend John Hughes, oft-overlooked indie luminary Nicole Holofcener, or old-school Spartacus scribe Dalton Trumbo. If nothing else, it’s bound to make you finally recognize the writer(s) behind the flicks you can’t turn off whenever they pop up on TBS (we’re looking at you, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel).
While film buffs will no doubt find at least a few rankings to bristle at, the accompanying blurbs do a fine job of both contextualizing a writer’s career and providing the perspectives of their colleagues. While this writer thinks Lethal Weapon and The Nice Guys’ writer Shane Black should be much higher than 87 on the list, his blurb more than makes up for his low ranking.
The bad-boy enfant terrible of the ’80s, Black hooked up with Joel Silver at the age of 24 to write Lethal Weapon — netting him a $250,000 deal at Warner Bros. — and became the face, for better or worse, of unhinged masculinity. Black reinvented himself, sort of amazingly, as one of the funniest and sharpest chroniclers of old-school male-bonding buddy pictures as he entered middle age. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang still has Black’s dude-bro aesthetic, but it’s now in the service of charm and a professional’s sense of putting on a show: The kid has become the Establishment in the best possible way. His films, specifically The Nice Guys, all seem like throwbacks; out of their time, yet timeless. He should also write every piece of dialogue Robert Downey Jr. says, forever. “Shane Black might be the most influential writer of the last 30 years,” says Zak Penn. “His blend of pulp, noir, and action predates Tarantino, and have influenced two generations of genre writers. Also, his scripts are notoriously good reads. I should know — my first script was a parody of his writing, and of course he was hired to rewrite it. That’s Hollywood. He’s also famous for wanting to kill Riggs in Lethal Weapon 2, then returning his fee when they didn’t use his script. Crazy or brilliant — maybe both.”
One thing’s clear: Everyone on this list, whether they’re at the top, the middle, or the bottom, created something that changed somebody’s life once upon a time.