The title of this feature might seem obvious, because anyone who writes or watches movies knows that almost every halfway decent movie relies first and foremost on its script. Sure, there are plenty of filmmakers who write and direct their own material, which makes it harder for them to pass the buck when people don’t like their movie (sorry, Darren Aronofsky), but some of the top tier directors, the ones that every actor and tech person wants to work with, are constantly relying on finding those great scripts to turn into movies.
Let’s look at Steven Spielberg for instance. Right now, he has one of his biggest hits in a decade with Ready Player One, which is coming out just a few months after the Oscar-nominated The Post. It’s not the first time that Spielberg has had two movies within the course of less than a year, but being able to release such output is one of the many signs at what a confident director he’s become in the almost sixty years (!) since his first short film. Whether he has huge stars like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep or makes a movie with Tye Sheridan and Ben Mendelsohn, Spielberg’s name is often the biggest selling point.
That said, not even the biggest Spielberg fan can defend every single movie he’s made in the past twenty years, and there have been a few dogs in there. For every Lincoln, there’s a BFG, and for every Munich, there’s an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Spielberg does tend to be more hit than miss, but when he misses, he does so in a big way. Again, that often comes down to the script or screenwriter with whom he’s aligned himself. And let’s face the fact that not every screenwriter is perfect or pristine either.
Because Spielberg is one of the most reputable filmmakers working in Hollywood, he tends to get the best scripts sent to him. The same can be said about Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis and Steven Soderbergh. These are all directors who have been making movies for so long they can each do almost anything. The Oscars they’ve won for directing has gone a long way to bolster their reputations. (Roman Polanski’s Oscar for The Pianist only helped so much against the crimes he committed in the ‘70s for which he exiled himself to Europe rather than face prison time. That would bring a whole new meaning to the term “director’s jail.”)
That isn’t meant to take anything away from the material these filmmakers have developed from the script stage, but even the best filmmakers might not realize when they’re taking on a project whether a movie will work and connect with audiences as well as it did for them when visualizing the movie they wanted to make.
That’s especially the case with Ridley Scott, who theoretically could make a movie every year if he chooses to, although he also directed two movies last year. Scott has made 15 movies in the 21st Century, which is almost 2/3rds of his filmography going back to Alien in 1979. Scott has been more active and prolific as a filmmaker in his 60s and 70s then many filmmakers half his age, but his movies have also been rather spotty and erratic in terms of quality.
Scott can go from the not-great The Counselor to even worse Exodus: Gods and Kings, and then turn around and make The Martian, one of his more acclaimed films to date. People generally liked All the Money in the World more than Alien: Covenant, but the $53 million the former made worldwide is a drop in the bucket compared to the latter’s $241 million. And yet, Money cost considerably less than Alien: Covenant, which barely did well enough to warrant another sequel. (Sorry, cliffhanger ending!)
I enjoyed both Alien: Covenant and Prometheus quite a bit, although they angered the fans of Scott’s early sci-fi classic Alien, and because they’re more high-profile than his other films, the anger towards what they did or didn’t bring to the franchise is almost everlasting. Prometheus was written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, although Ridley Scott was running the show, as was the case for Covenant, which was written by John Logan and Dante Harper. The latter were working from a story by two other writers, so there were a lot of sous chefs in the kitchen with Scott calling out the orders.
It’s interesting to see how critics react to movies with multiple writers like that, because there’s still the Hollywood myth of movies with one writer and one director, each with their own specific skills, being the best way to go, with the director always calling the last shots. Nowadays, you hear about studios assembling writers rooms to conceptualize and flesh out ideas for franchises, something that’s happening more and more, mainly because that works for television. How many times in the last five years have you heard about television shows being far better than what’s playing at the multiplex? One can certainly point to the pool of talented writers behind the scenes on these shows first and foremost.
I don’t want to harp on Scott, because he is easily one of my favorite filmmakers, and I’ve liked films of his like Robin Hood, Body of Lies and even A Good Year. Yes, folks, I’m a Ridley Scott apologist, and in all three cases, I thought the scripts were fantastic. I imagine they didn’t connect with critics and audiences because at least the latter two were not what’s expected from Scott.
Moving onto Steven Soderbergh…
Soderbergh took a four-year break after 2013’s Side Effects, and he’s gotten mixed reviews from his two latest films Logan Lucky and the current thriller Unsane. Soderbergh has run the gamut from micro-budget indies to huge blockbusters like the Ocean’s movies, and in every case, the script comes first, and it’s a roadmap for everything else. I think that’s why Soderbergh’s films are somewhat more consistent despite the various genres within which he plays. Like Spielberg, Soderbergh has worked with some of the best writers, including Scott Frank and Scott Z. Burns
Clint Eastwood is a living legend who became a top actor in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s only to transition into becoming one of the top directors. Still, some of his biggest recent hits have been ones where he both acted and directed, and that probably comes to him finding scripts which will allow him to both. It’s been almost ten years since Gran Torino, the last movie for which he did both, but he still had huge hits with American Sniper and Sully, which had fairly decent scripts but were bolstered by the starpower of Bradley Cooper and Tom Hanks.
Ron Howard is in a similar boat without having the box office hits of Eastwood or Spielberg. Howard has had more than his share of movies that didn’t connect with critics and audiences – some fairly recently like In the Heart of the Sea and Rush––and there’s a chance that maybe he isn’t as savvy about making scripts better as Spielberg and other directors do. Howard directing Solo: A Star Wars Story, which comes out next month, is going to be a true test on whether he’s meant to be playing in the big leagues with the others above. Even Howard’s teaming with Tom Hanks for the Robert Langdon movies petered out between 2006’s The Da Vinci Code and 2016’s Inferno, even though I liked the latter far more than the former. Go figure.
As much as a movie’s business comes down to starpower, subject/premise and marketing, the quality of a film comes down to three things: 1.) Script; 2.) Cast and 3.) Director. The likes of Spielberg, Eastwood, Scott and Soderbergh can put together some of the top casts, but they still need a good script to work from, which is why movies like The Post and Ready Player One have taken off and done better than some of Spielberg’s other recent films.
Robert Zemeckis can also fit into this category, having written many of his own screenplays but also directing the likes of Flight and Allied, written by John Gatins and Steven Knight respectively. While the former did far better with Denzel than the latter did with Brad Pitt, there’s a clear consistency between his projects because Zemeckis will write almost every other movie that he directs.
We definitely seem to be seeing a shift towards more filmmakers of the writer/director variety, but as we start seeing new directors coming up through the ranks, they can learn a lot from the filmographies of these legends. There’s no denying that all of the above directors deserve all the accolades and awards they’ve received, but it’s just as much about the screenwriters and scripts they decide to make that’s going to determine their legacies.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor