Few things fascinate and inspire me more than the written word, specifically as they relate to film. Whether it’s the seamless structure of scenarios, or that one perfect line that cuts right to the heart of things – I’m utterly engrossed with every aspect of a screenplay. Some of my choices below are known primary for their dialogue, others for the way in which they evolve their stories. All have planted themselves in my mind and never dared to go away. They’ve encouraged, amused, and captivated me many times over. And I realized something funny while drafting this post: sometimes writing about words is the hardest kind of writing; for someone has already said it better themselves.
Screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
Widely considered by many to be the finest screenplay ever conceived, the script for Casablanca is perfect for reasons I have trouble articulating. It’s expertly crafted, tersely worded, and equipped with as much venom as it is bliss. It never feels forced or rushed, instead moving at the exact proper pace, with characters who say all the right things at all the right times. For whatever reason – blame it on closeness of their releases, popularity, whatever – Casablanca is frequently matched against Citizen Kane as the best film of all time. The late, great Roger Ebert said it best when he compared the admiration for the two films: “Citizen Kane is general considered to be the ‘greater’ film. But Casablanca is more loved.” Yes. Exactly.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Screenplay by Reginald Rose, based on his teleplay of the same name
One of the best things about Rose’s script for 12 Angry Men is that it’s always two steps ahead of its audience. For example, while the 12 jurors in question debate the fate of a young boy accused of murdering his father, you may wonder why the son stabbed his father in the chest, wiped it clean of finger prints, left the scene, and returned three hours later to retrieve the knife (which was still lodged in his father’s chest). Why? Why would someone wipe a blade clean and NOT take it with them? Once the 11th Juror asks that very question, we’re releaved that someone thought to ask what we were already thinking. This is a script that leaves nothing out.
The Godfather (1972)
Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by Mario Puzo
It just flows so well, you know? The extended set pieces, the glorious inter-cutting of multiple actions, the understated dialogue – everything about The Godfather simply works. It doesn’t really interest me to compare a film to the material it’s based on, but this may indeed be my favorite cinematic book adaptation. The proper cuts were made to enhance the film’s pace, and the alterations (typically to make the film more grim) were all tonally perfect. I never grow tired of it.
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
There are a few scripts on this list that are here for their dialogue, and not really much else. Every single exchange of words in Chayefsky’s Network moves like a freight train and ignites like a brush fire. It’s a deeply cruel, oddly humorous, and wildly intelligent work of contemporary poetry. Every time I watch this film, I marvel at the words being spoken and I ask myself, Jesus, how the hell did someone even think of that?
Taxi Driver (1976)
Screenplay by Paul Schrader
Taxi Driver is my favorite personal screenplay of all time. After an ugly divorce and an equally gut wrenching break-up with his live-in girlfriend, Paul Schrader spent the next several months wandering the seedy streets of New York City. Sleeping in his car, ducking into porno theaters, drinking too much, snorting too much. And it was from his personal anguish that Taxi Driver was born. Schrader was able to morph the isolation he gained from his depression into a masterful work of alienated art. Taxi Driver is my favorite flick of all time, and it all started with a screenplay; a complex, secluded, infuriated screenplay.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman
There must be a Bergman, and I wrestled extensively with which one to include. And instead of listing all of Bergman’s best scripts, and why they would’ve merited inclusion here, I’ll just say that what finally led me to choose Fanny and Alexander was its massive scope. Most every Bergman film is armed with a type of magnetism. There’s an allure that draws you in almost immediately, often inexplicably. Fanny and Alexander has this mystery, of course, but, on a more elementary level, it’s the impressiveness of its size that I’m most taken with. It’s the way it keeps transforming – how it could end there, but instead keeps going. And going. And going. More characters are introduced, while others are fully realized. There’s humor, horror, dread and compassion. A magnum opus from cinema’s finest master.
The Big Chill (1983)
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek
Of all the characters in all the screenplays on this list, I honestly think the ones I know best are the seven friends in The Big Chill. After their eighth counterpart unexpectedly kills himself, married couple Harold and Sarah, repressed housewife Karen, People Magazine journalist Michael, hotshit attorney Meg, television star Sam, and emotionally and psychically damaged Nick, reunite for the first time since college at Harold and Sarah’s large summer home. During their impromptu reunion, they fight, they cry, they drink, they do drugs, they have sex – all with a universal understanding of acceptance. Which means two things. One, through Kasdan and Benedek’s script, it’s so obvious how well this group of people knows each other. How close they once were and how their lives have all been fractured in some way since separating. And two, because this script is to well defined, we the audience are able to accept and believe these relationships from scene one. As natural and organic a screenplay that has ever been written.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Screenplay by David Mamet, based on his play of the same name
“All train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.” Real estate shark Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) says this to a whale he’s trying to pitch, early in Glengarry Glen Ross. The two are having drinks in a local dive bar, and Roma, possibly sensing that his mark can be manipulated through subtle flirtation, dives into a seemingly nonsensical monologue that starts with shitty train compartments and ends with volcanic orgasms. On the surface, Roma’s grand, philosophical speech means nothing, but Mamet knows better. He knows exactly what it’s doing, through every word, punctuation mark, beat, and fiery fit of profanity.
And this is just one brief, often overlooked passage from the film. The entirety of Glengarry Glen Ross is filled with the best that words have to offer.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Screenplay by Quentin Tarnation
Pulp Fiction is and remains a cultural phenomenal. For those old, it reminded them of screenwriting as an art form. It paved way for studio execs to seek new, inventive scripts – to crave the original and the bold. For those young, well, it told them that anything on paper is possible. No matter how insane, just write the fuckin’ thing and see what comes out. And I ask: what can possibly be better than that?
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on the television series “Traffik,” written by Simon Moore
Stephen Gaghan’s script for Traffic was the first screenplay that turned me onto the process. I had loved movies long before seeing Traffic, but when the film was released, I thought for the first time that maybe this nagging dream of mine, this desire to create something out of moving images, could start with words. I realized then that I could propel my dream with words of my own. I was well aware that movies came from screenplays, but up until then, I never had the slightest interest in writing one. Traffic changed that. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll get to say the rest was history.
Click here for more lists from And So it Begins, including: