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12 Great & Not-So-Great Debuts From Screenwriters-Turned-Directors

by The Playlist Staff
June 6, 2013 4:03 PM
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Screenwriters Turned Directors, Best/Worst

“...but what I really want to do is direct,” goes the hoary old Hollywood refrain. Actors, key grips, wardrobe assistants, the odd ambitious caterer -- sometimes it feels like everyone who’s ever stepped on to a movie set dreams, idly or with calculation, of one day calling the shots. Even the clapper loaders, who technically are the ones who call shots. But of all those jealously eyeing the director’s megaphone (metaphorical sadly, they seem to have gone the way of the plus-four as part of the director’s standard kit) perhaps those with the most reason to be covetous are the screenwriters, the hardy souls who turn in 120-page draft after draft, only to have their baby wrested from their grasp and dressed up, maybe brilliantly but often not, in clothes they might not have chosen themselves.

So is it any wonder that so many of them try to make that leap? The results range from the sublime to the ridiculous, of course (there’s no guarantee that even a great screenwriter will coincidentally come equipped with the talents to be a great director, after all), and with two others coming down the pike (Alex Garland's "Ex-Machina"and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s "Violent Talent" with Garrett Hedlund) this week sees another attempt as Geoffrey Fletcher, Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Precious” releases his directorial debut, “Violet and Daisy.” You can read our full review of the teenage assassin movie here or a more concise summation here, but if you want to see how it might stack up against previous screenwriter-turned-director efforts, we’ve collected a bunch of them together here. 

We’ve tried to concentrate on people known primarily as feature screenwriters before they made the transition (as opposed to straight-off-the-bat writer/directors), though this doesn’t always mean they have a long list of prior screenwriting credits (Fletcher only had one prior, but it did win a writing Oscar) though in every case, they were directing from a screenplay they (at least co-) wrote. So here’s our rundown of screenwriter-turned-director debuts, 8 shining examples, 4 hideous cautionary tales, and a whole load of good-to-middling in between, that we feel shed some light on the men and women who decide that “Fade Out” should not be their final words on a film.

8 Great Debuts

Searching for Bobby Fischer
Steve Zaillian -- "Searching for Bobby Fischer"
Before stepping away from the typewriter/computer (or whatever we had all those aeons ago in 1993 -- dinosaur quills and parchment?) writer Steven Zaillian turned in three screenplays for films of varying quality “The Falcon and the Snowman,” “Awakenings” and “Jack the Bear” that showcased the best and worst of his tendencies as a filmmaker. Best: his ability to find simple emotive throughlines in broader, sometimes historical contexts and worst: an occasional lapse into sentimentality or worthiness. Thankfully his directorial debut “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” largely avoids the latter (aside from the odd overegged moment) and delivers a genuinely heartwarming story of a young chess prodigy growing up in the shadow of the great Bobby Fischer’s disappearance, and the choice he has to make between chess and, well, everything else. It’s a little reactionary in a kind of “Forrest Gump”-y sort of way -- the moral runs that it’s better to be decent than brilliant, happy than successful -- but the film is well-meaning and the performances from a stellar cast (Joe Mantegna, Ben Kingsley’s accent, Laurence Fishburne, Joan Allen, Laura Linney, William H Macy all show up) mostly walk the right side of mawkishness. And with Zaillian’s simple faith in the goodness of children as opposed to the agenda-laden antics of the grown-ups (witness the great scene where the squabbling parents are removed from a junior tournament, to the applause of their well-behaved chess-playing progeny) he clearly is of one mind with next collaborator Steven Spielberg.

Subsequent Career: Providing something of a template for screenwriters who want to make the jump, Steven Zaillian has continued as a high-profile screenwriter long after his directorial debut, only occasionally dipping his toe back in directorial waters, and never with the same straightforward success of his first time out. As a writer, however, he’s gone on to be a bona-fde superstar nominated twice more after “Awakenings” for “Gangs of New York” and “Moneyball,” and winning for “Schindler’s List.” Directorially after the disappointment of “All the Kings Men” things seemed to go quiet, but he wrote an early version of the upcoming “Jack Ryan” reboot and is slated to return to the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ well with “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” as well as doing a pass on the mooted Ridley Scott Moses film "Exodus".

Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman -- "Synecdoche, New York"
Having written some of the defining screenplays of the early noughties (ok fine, “Being John Malkovich” was 1999) Charlie Kaufman became something of a brand-name screenwriter -- one whose own input rivalled that of the directors he’s most associated with (Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze) for authorial ownership over the finished film. And with a writerly vision as extraordinarily idiosyncratic, (and in the case of “Adaptation,” meta-autobiographical) as his, it’s no wonder his debut “Synecdoche, New York” is so completely unique. How could it not be, as it details a director/Kaufman proxy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his relentless quest for an authentic theatrical experience that leads him to essentially recreate and recast his entire life, as it is currently unfolding, in a 1:1 scale model. Sprawling in every sense of the word, shot through with great, self-deprecating insight about the creative process but so meta it practically eats itself alive, the film is a dizzying, mind-altering headfuck, yet way, way too smart to simply be a trip. In fact it’s so easy to lose sight of the horizon line while simply watching ‘Synecdoche,’ that we kind of have to fear for the sanity of the man who conceived, wrote and directed it. Charlie Kaufman, never, ever change.

Subsequent career: Kaufman has apparently been working, solely in screenwriting terms, on the young adult adaptation “The Knife of Never Letting Go,” among other things, including a possible reteam with Spike Jonze. But with a partly Kickstarter-funded animation based on his play “Anomalisacurrently filming -- Kaufman is listed as co-director -- probably the film we’re anticipating even more from him as writer/director is his much-touted “examination of celebrity as a mental illness” (according to star Jack Black) “Frank or Francis” a musical, which also stars Nicolas Cage, Kevin Kline and Steve Carell. There’s also his FX series “How and Whyin the works, which fills in the small-screen gap for Kaufman after his HBO series with Catherine Keener apparently didn’t get off the ground.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Shane Black -- "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"
With all the “Iron Man 3” hubbub in recent months, we’ve found ourselves typing the words “Shane Black” an awful lot more than we’d been doing for the few years prior. Which is all right with us, as we’re big fans of the man who was not only, famously, the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood at one time, he has also turned out to be a genuinely terrific genre director, with a particularly bright eye for the wit and wisecrackery he writes so well. Especially when it features Robert Downey Jr. His debut turn behind the camera, however, came a lot later than the scripts that made his name (you can read our rundown of those right here), and while it was hardly the box office blockbuster it may have been hoped the “Lethal Weapon” writer would turn out, it’s in fact a great, great film; a hugely enjoyable comedy/murder msytery/noir hybrid romp with plenty of meta flourishes and sideways-winking humour. Small-time thief Harry (RDJ) gets accidentally embroiled in a murder case along with PI Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, just great in this) and Harry's childhood crush, an aspiring actress named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). Twists, betrayals, bonding and romance ensue as Black constructs and then gleefully deconstructs seemingly every archetype for which he was responsible in the first place.

Subsequent Career: Well, aside from the small matter of having his directorial follow-up be the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time, Black had been pretty quiet on the writing front since “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (“AWOL” is his only credit in that period). But now he’s back on top as a golden boy (we wonder, did he watch the grosses for “Iron Man 3” climb skyward with an inevitable sense of “here we go again”?) new directorial projects are already being lined up, first among them apparentlyDoc Savage” at Sony, and then perhaps manga adaptationDeath Note” for Warners.

House of Games
David Mamet -- "House of Games"
If it feels like some of the writers on this list kind of lucked into direction having written a film (or several) that became a mainstream success thereafter, there are a few others whose writerly voice was already so established that the idea of having them direct a straightforward genre film is kind of inconceivable (see also: Charlie Kaufman). And David Mamet definitely falls into the latter camp having already made his name with screenplays (“The Postman Always Rings Twice” remake, “The Verdict,”) but to a larger extent with theatrical plays (“American Buffalo,” “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”), before he took his seat for the first time behind the camera. The result, “House of Games” is a wholly Mamet-ian affair, a dark, surreal, twisty-turny story of deceit and duplicity in which no one’s motives are pure and no one gets a particularly happy ending, but the hard-edged intelligence and cynicism on display exerts a delicious pull all its own. Psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse, either horrifically miscast or brilliantly cast, depending on who you talk to) largely through intellectual ennui, is led into a con game (other players include Joe Mantegna, JT Walsh and Ricky Jay) in which it’s never entirely clear who’s conning who and whether the payoff can ever be worth the various sacrifices. Couched in Mamet’s stagy, gorgeously clipped, acid dialogue, the film is deliberately heightened and gives, from its opening moments, an eerie down-the-rabbit-hole feel to a genre often otherwise portrayed as just a lark. As a result it’s as much an evocation of mood as it is a plot-driven story, and that more than compensates for its chilliness.

Subsequent career: Mamet seems to keep his writing and directing careers running on parallel tracks, certainly jobbing as a prolific screenwriter for film and TV, but also regularly popping back for directorial stints, with mixed bag results. “State and Main” -- his weird take on the Hollywood satire subgenre -- is a film we love but no one else seems to, while his subsequent con-game/crime films range from enjoyable (“The Spanish Prisoner”) to mediocre (“Heist”). He’s also directed his own play “Oleanna” and done some TV work, notably directing the recent Al Pacino Phil Spector biopic. But most excitingly, he’s due to team up with Cate Blanchett next for “Blackbird” (a film that sounds like it has shades of “Argo) which he’ll direct from his own script.

Joss Whedon -- "Serenity"
We dithered about putting Whedon on this list, but more about whether he should be here for “The Avengers” or for “Serenity,” because while the latter is definitely his big-screen directorial debut, it is also based on a pre-existing TV show, and was seemingly collectively wished into being purely by “Firefly” fans rankling at the show’s early cancellation. But then we figured, so what, Whedon actually faced the same, if not worse, obstacles as any other first-time feature director and the grace and wit with which he did so are extraordinary. “Serenity” actually pulls off the hard task of satisfying fans of the show but not relying on your foreknowledge to pull you in, largely thanks to a story-within-a-story-within-a-story opening 10 minutes or so that so cleverly and seamlessly establishes the universe that it should maybe be taught in writing classes. Of course Whedon already knew his way around a screenplay from not just his time running ‘Buffy,’ "Angel" and "Firefly" but also from his contribution to films of varying quality from “Toy Story” to “Alien Resurrection” to “Titan AE.” Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his band of space cowboys (including Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin) while shielding a fugitive girl from the The Alliance (represented by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ruthless agent), uncover an ages-old conspiracy involving the deadliest bogeymen in the universe, the Reavers. It’s an immensely enjoyable sci-fi film, and if it never totally overcomes its TV show roots, well, when the TV show was that good, it doesn’t really matter. (Is our brown coat showing?)

Subsequent Career: After suffering through the cancellation of another TV series “Dollhouse,” Whedon landed a stint writing “X-Men” comics and also scripted last year’s terrifically fun “The Cabin in the Woods.” Directorially, nothing much happened at all for Whedon however, except for some superhero team-up thingie that no one’s ever heard of. His “Much Ado About Nothing” is in theaters now (review here) and of course he’s hard at work writing and prepping “Avengers 2” which will, most probably, break all known records and have a lot of good jokes in it. Perhaps you're thinking about other stuff you'd love to see him tackle, seeing as guy's got range? We certainly were.

Clooney Michael Clayton
Tony Gilroy -- “Michael Clayton
As this list will show as it goes on, screenwriters can break through into successful directing careers, but truly excellent debuts from screenwriter-turned-directors are rarer. But you can’t get much better than Tony Gilroy’s excellent morality drama, “Michael Clayton” in terms of success metrics. Can you think of any other screenwriter-turned-director, or hell, any feature-length debut that earned itself seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and all the lead actors? (Tilda Swinton won Best Supporting actress). This is, of course, in no small part due to the fact that Gilroy is an excellent screenwriter who knows character, story and conflict like the back of his hand. The screenwriting architect of all the “Bourne” films, even when the franchise changed directors, Gilroy was arguably its heart and soul and a fundamental part of what helped raise the movie into a brainy, far-above-average action thriller. But before 'Clayton', Gilroy had worked in the industry for almost two decades penning scripts for "Dolores Claiborne," 'The Devil's Advocate," "Armageddon" and "State Of Play," so he certainly served his time in the salt mines, and deserves extra credit for making his debut, when it came, such an understated, intelligent pleasure.

Subsequent Career: Gilroy’s directed two features since ‘Clayton,' both of which he wrote and we can probably assume -- if all goes well -- that unlike some guys on this list who have gone back to screenwriting for hire (Zaillian), he’s going to keep going with the writing-his-own-material-to-direct vein. While neither film has been as creatively successful as ‘Clayton,’ it’s admittedly a hard one to top. His immediate follow-up was the more frothy, but complex spy-romance caper, “Duplicity,” and then after that he helmed the fourth ‘Bourne’ film “The Bourne Legacy,” and the first in the series without Jason Bourne himself. It wasn’t the huge hit that Universal had hoped for, but they’re aiming to have a sequel so clearly they’re still invested in this universe.

The Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont -- "The Shawshank Redemption"
Ok, so Darabont does have directorial credits prior to “The Shawshank Redemption” (for TV movie “Buried Alive” and short, no-budget “The Woman in the Room,” also based on a Stephen King story). But the period prison movie did mark his feature big-screen debut, after a decade of jobbing as a screenwriter on various horror sequels and remakes (“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” “The Blob,” “The Fly 2”) as well as several episodes of both “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” And it perhaps has to go down as, if not the greatest, then at least the most beloved screenwriter-turned-director debut of all time, since the film itself, though a flop on initial release, now regularly tops viewers polls as their favorite ever. And in fact, screw it, we’re just going to go with “greatest” because mass popularity is in this case completely justified by the film: a lovingly crafted, richly drawn, engrossing story about triumph in adversity and friendship in unlikely places. It’s so goddamn stupidly touching and uplifting that we’re getting a little misty just thinking about it, so yes, “greatest” it is. If you’re one of the five people who haven’t seen it, hey, congratulations on emerging from that 20-year coma and here’s what you have to look forward to: Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sent to prison for killing his wife, though he maintains his innocence. While inside, suffering under the cruel and corrupt practices of the wardens, he establishes a friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman), and little by little, finds ways to alleviate the horrors and injustices he faces daily, and those of his fellow inmates. Leading to one of the most satisfyingly-earned endings in Hollywood film history and with every single actor from the leads to the supporting cast (William Sadler, Clancy Brown, and Bob Gunton among them) on not just career-best but definitive form, ‘Shawshank’ is simply a masterclass in classic Hollywood storytelling, on every conceivable level.

Subsequent Career: Darabont went back to prison, and to another non-horror Stephen King story for his directorial follow-up in 1999 “The Green Mile,” which is a strong film, if not quite attaining Shawshankian heights in balancing sentimentality with surprise. 2001’s “The Majestic” was a disappointment though, and Darabont didn’t direct again until 2007 when he came roaring back (on to our radars, at least) with the entirely unexpected “The Mist” a beefed-up nasty B-movie that boasts simply one of the most audacious endings to any non-arthouse film that we’ve ever seen -- so unbelievably bleak it’s somehow laugh-out-loud funny. But he’s also been busy on the writing front of late; Darabont wrote and ran season 1 of “The Walking Dead,has written the upcoming “Godzilla” reboot, and already has a 6-episode order from TNT for "Lost Angel" (aka "L.A. Noir").

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  • JG | January 26, 2014 5:57 PMReply

    Steven Gaghan won an Academy Award for TRAFFIC (2000) and followed that up with ABANDON starring Katie Holmes, which I don't know if anyone saw, much less liked. Seems to have righted ship with follow-up SYRIANA.

  • ronnie | July 15, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    frank miller's THE SPIRIT was definetely the kind of movie a watched and loved, but knew no one else would get. i thought jackson was great. i found the story totally understandable, and cool: jackson wants the blood of hercules to be immortal, eva mendes wants the golden fleece. you know, im gay, but i thought the t and a was quality.

    im afraid its the kind of film that people dont like because they overthought it. sin city gave people the wrong expectations for where this film would go.

  • Reini Urban | June 27, 2013 8:54 AMReply

    Come on, you really did miss two of the best and alive writer-turned directors out there!
    How could you miss Quentin Tarantino, who was quite successful in both but arguably is a better screenwriter than director.
    And even better, the famous novelist Lee Chang-dong who decided to go into directing (and later on into politics) with quite a breakthrough success also, similar to his books. He never did screenwriting for others.

  • Jeff Smith | June 17, 2013 8:56 PMReply

    The Fabulous Baker Boys, Steve Kloves's directorial debut should be up there with the good ones.

  • John Gilvray | June 8, 2013 11:44 PMReply

    If one wants to do a proper story on this subject, please go to the writer-directors you are writing about, and maybe manage to ask them the actual story about what happened, in script, in production, in post, to the pictures you are discussing. Then you would have something for people to read and discuss, probably blisteringly improved and informed by the subjects of the article. I should certainly like to see Christopher McQuarrie and William Monahan and Steve Zallian, among others, respond to the assertions in this piece about writer-directors. I suspect that most of them would have a word to say. This article does not go out for comment to the people it is talking about. Whether this is out of innocence, ignorance, or intentional deficit of elbow grease is for the writer to consider, because surely there was no trained editor involved.

  • jean vigo | June 7, 2013 12:50 AMReply

    While many of these examples reveal a lot of folks who come from a clear "non-directing" or even "non-filmmaking" (Frank Miller) background, there tends to be a running misconception in this "biz" about the screenwriter/director thing. It has to do with "intent" and actual background.

    Many of the folks on this list actually INTENDED to direct, made shorts, went to film programs and studied the craft, but "broke in" as screenwriters. Frank Darabont, on this list, is a good example of that; he made several shorts in his early 20s before going into screenwriting, then BACK to being a writer-director, NOT writer "turned" director.

    Funny, how the business sees a lot of this like a team sport (e.g. "you're a center fielder; you can't play 1st base.") Not like that. Of course, many intend to become writers and then become directors, but not strictly the case. (See: Paul Haggis.)

  • Red Stevens | June 6, 2013 9:27 PMReply

    What about Preston Sturges? I'm only saying this because didn't he start the trend of screenwriters-turned-directors?

  • Ted | June 21, 2013 5:26 PM

    Sturges' The Great McGinty is better than the "great debuts," listed here but his follow-ups: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story are so much better people forget about his debut's charm.

  • cirkusfolk | June 6, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Paul Schrader???

  • Stephen B | June 6, 2013 7:05 PMReply

    Worst "successful screenwriter turned director" movie: Kevin Williamson's Teaching Mrs. Tingle. This was before everyone realized Williamson was more or less a hack (or at least a one trick pony) and expectations were actually pretty high. It's awful. It plays like a bad ABC Family movie of the week.

  • DG | June 6, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    No mention of Diablo Cody or am I missing it? Also Harmony Korine, he's one of the craziest examples of screenwriter turned director, getting his first writing job by basically meeting a pervert in the park when he was 19. Also most of all I'm just happy that you can still make the jump from screenwriter to director in this day and age, as I believe all the best directors are writers too or have written

  • Carson Wells | June 6, 2013 11:51 PM

    Has Cody's directorial debut even been released yet? Some of us find it hard to judge films without seeing them.

  • yer | June 6, 2013 6:40 PM

    Korine only had one film as a screenwriter before directing, does that really qualify as a screenwriter turned director?

  • Theoc | June 6, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    Excellent list, some great stuff in there.

  • DG | June 6, 2013 7:00 PM

    Yeah I guess you're right

  • THOR | June 6, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    No mention of the Academy Award-nominated Steven Knight's (Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace, Eastern Promises) directorial debut that's one later this month?!

  • Rob | June 6, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    Alex Kurtzman's People Like Us?

  • eduardo | June 6, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    Throw me on the Way of the Gun-bandwagon. That movie's pretty damn good, and way more distinctive than Jack Reacher, which I still kinda liked.

  • Kyle | June 6, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    Avengers sucked.

  • Dale | June 6, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    Don't overlook James L. Brook's "Terms of Endearment" which won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress. Not a shabby directorial debut.

  • wes | June 6, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    I was disappointed with Synecdoche.

  • Tyrannosaurus Max | June 6, 2013 8:48 PM

    Dude, me too, Wes. I thought I was really gonna like it and I hated it.

  • Leonardo | June 6, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    I thought that "The Way of the Gun" was great, the last third makes it better again.

  • Terrence Aybar | June 6, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    Way of the Gun is pretty goddamn awesome but even I have to admit that the plot gets kinda convoluted as it moves along. It's one of those movies that you have to give your absolute undivided attention to while watching and even then it's really easy to miss an important detail or nuance.

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