By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 19, 2014 at 1:05PM
"'I loved 'Gravity,' but the screenplay sucked" went the relatively common refrain. We'd wager that the people who said that were often the same who expressed confusion when silent film "The Artist" was nominated for an Oscar nomination for its original screenplay. You can find fault with the writing in "Gravity" and "The Artist," but if you enjoyed both, that's in large part down to the writing, and the popular conception that writers are responsible only for the dialogue is just one of the reasons that screenwriting remains one of the most misunderstood and curiously unsung aspects of filmmaking.
Too often, writers are ridden roughshod over during production, overlooked by the press and forgotten when the reviews and awards come pouring in (if they do). And yet thousands still set out to make their living as writers, because the rewards for the lucky few who do make it to the top of the tree are enormous, and every year brings an exciting new batch of talent whose writing skills make them as crucial as any part of a movie-making team.
As part of our ongoing series of On The Rise pieces (read about our picks for 2014's outstanding actors, composers, and cinematographers), we've selected a dozen of the writers who've made an impression on us recently and who we expect to hear more from in the coming months and years. Our previous picks have included "Guardians Of The Galaxy" co-writer Nicole Perlman, "Sandman" scribe Jack Thorne, "50 Shades Of Grey" writer Kelly Marcel, and "Iron Man 3" and "Mission Impossible 5" pen Drew Pearce. Who's joining them in the class of '14? Find out below.
After a couple of decades as an in-demand playwright, Lucinda Coxon is about to have a very big 2015, with two big projects on the way, one a big Hollywood genre prospect, the other a potential Oscar juggernaut. The 52-year-old Londoner started off her career on the London fringe theater scene, graduating from the Finborough Theatre to the Bush, before picking up commissions for the National Theater's Connections series for young people. Her first entry into the screen world was inauspicious: she penned the script for a low-budget romance called "Lily And The Secret Planting" back in 2001, which had Winona Ryder and Gael Garcia Bernal attached, but Ryder dropped out two weeks into filming due to illness, and the film was never completed. Her luck improved two years later, with period melodrama "The Heart Of Me," starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams, a raw, underrated picture that never quite found an audience. More stage work followed: she reteamed with Williams at the National Theatre for the acclaimed "Happy Now?," which crossed the pond to New York, and more recently there was the very solid "Herding Cats," starring Olivia Hallinan. But she's really found a groove on screen in the last few years, penning the charming hitman comedy "Wild Target," with Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt in 2010, and the next year was responsible for the excellent miniseries adaptation of Michel Faber's "The Crimson Petal And The White," starring Chris O'Dowd and Romola Garai. The latter, nominated for BAFTAs and a Critics Choice Award, opened doors as Guillermo Del Toro picked Coxon to collaborate with him on his upcoming Gothic horror romance, "Crimson Peak," starring Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowsa and Jessica Chastain, which hits next October. Soon after, another Coxon screenplay will be hitting screens: her adaptation of David Ebershoff's novel "The Danish Girl," about transgender artist Lili Elbe. Directors including Tomas Alfredson and Lasse Hallstrom have flirted with the project, but the film goes into production shortly with "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper, and Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in leading roles. Beyond that, she's been adapting another ghost story, Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger," for "Frank" director Lenny Abrahamson, and has also been working on a screenplay of Ian McEwan's excellent recent novel "Sweet Tooth," along with a WW2 spy series called "Enemy Lines" for the BBC.
Within the space of only a few years, London-based American writer Patrick Ness became one of the most acclaimed, original and beloved writers in the young adult genre. And as he goes from success to success, it looks like he's going to be conquering Hollywood very shortly as well. The 42-year-old Ness grew up on army bases in the U.S. before studying English at U.S.C (having been accepted to but declining to attend film school), working as a copywriter, and then moving to London in 1999, as he was working on his first novel, "The Crash Of Hennington," published in 2003, with a short story collection, "Topics About Which I Know Nothing," following two years later. But Ness (who'd been teaching creative writing at Oxford University in the intervening years) really broke out in 2008 thanks to "The Knife Of Never Letting Go," the first book in his "Chaos Walking" trilogy for young adults. Tough, brainy and literary, it's a heady sci-fi tale set in a world where everyone is able to hear each other's thoughts. Two equally acclaimed sequels followed in successive years, "The Ask And The Answer" and "Monsters of Men" (the latter of which won the prestigious Carnegie Medal) and a movie version has been brewing for a while, with some huge talent involved: Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay, and Robert Zemeckis is attached to direct. Other successful books followed including the beguiling "More Than This" and "The Crane Wife," both published last year, but it was 2011's book "A Monster Calls," which also won the Carnegie, that saw to Ness' entrance into screenwriting. Based on an idea by Ness' friend and colleague Siobhan Dowd, who passed away before completion, it's the strange, sad and moving story of a young boy, Conor, whose mother is dying of cancer, and who's woken at night by a tree monster who tells him three stories. Gorgeous and raw, it's a hell of a book, and when Ness came to adapt the screenplay himself, the result placed a deserved fourth on last year's Black List. Focus Features snapped up the rights in a hefty deal, and "The Orphanage" helmer Juan Antonio Bayona is about to go into production on the project, with Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson starring, and it's already been set for an October 2016 release date. Beyond that, Ness doesn't seem to have any other screenwriting work lined up yet, but his own fiercely original and beautifully written novels are ripe for adaptation, and we're sure that his new book "The Rest Of Us Just Live Here" will be the subject of a fierce bidding war: Ness described it by saying "What if you lived in a world a lot like a YA novel? Where people you know have already battled vampires and zombies and soul-eating ghosts and whatever this new thing turns out to be? What if you just want to go to prom and graduate before someone goes and blows up the high school again?" We can't wait to find out what the answer is.
Unlike most of the figures on this list, Justin Simien has broken out with a film that he directed as well as wrote: buzzy Sundance picture "Dear White People," which was one of the most talked about films in Park City this year. Simien's clearly very talented in both areas, but it's a writer's movie, sharp and fast and very funny, so while he's clearly an auteur to watch, we wanted to highlight his Final Draft skills above and beyond anything else. 30-year-old Simien, a Houston native who studied film at Chapman University, got his start in the industry (like another recent Sundance breakout, Ava DuVernay) as a publicist, working for Focus, Paramount and Sony. He'd been working on the idea for "Dear White People," a cutting yet warm satire about African-American students at an Ivy League college, since he was at Chapman in 2007, but after packing his day job in to focus on filmmaking full time, the project finally started to become a reality two years ago. It started as a TV series called "2%," but eventually mutated into a feature with the help of producer Lena Waithe, with the script's bold ideas and rigor attracting "Boyz 'n the Hood" and "Real Women Have Curves" producers Stephanie Allain and Effie T. Brown. Cannily, Simien used his background in publicity to get word about the project early: a proof of concept video went viral, and an Indiegogo campaign for the movie raised $40,000 ($15,000 more than the target) back in 2012. Attracting talent like Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams and Dennis Haysbert, the script finally lensed in the summer of 2013 before premiering at Sundance to stellar reviews. And rightly so. Evoking the early work of Spike Lee (Simien has described the film as a direct response to African-American cinema seeming to consist only of Tyler Perry pictures or biopics like "12 Years A Slave"), it's a dizzyingly smart, breathlessly funny riposte to the idea that we're living in post-racial America. We're eagerly anticipating Simien's future projects, which include a half-hour comedy project called "Twenties".
If screenwriting is a wildly male-dominated field, genre screenwriting is doubly so, but Lisa Joy is one of a number of writers who look to be causing a minor revolution in the next few years. Joy (or, to give her full name, Lisa Joy Nolan: she's married to "The Dark Knight," "Person Of Interest" and "Interstellar" writer Jonathan Nolan) started out in the corporate world (she worked for Universal Studios for a while), before returning to law school. Having written poetry for years, she took up screenwriting in what little spare time she had, and just as she started work with the firm that funded her tuition, a "Veronica Mars" spec she written got her a job on the writing staff of Bryan Fuller's cult show "Pushing Daisies." Though she had several years of what she describes as "indentured servitude" under her belt, she followed her dreams, having to pay back her tuition in one chunk almost immediately, but was soon at work on 'Daisies,' racking up four credits before the show was cancelled in 2009. Joy didn't skip a beat, moving over to spy favorite "Burn Notice," eventually becoming a co-producer on the show's fifth season. Joy left after that, having co-written a pilot with Fuller (who soon went on to run the exceptional "Hannibal") called "Mind Fields," about reclusive, romantic scientists, and also developed a show at Fox called "Headache," based on her own graphic novel, published the previous year, about a young girl who turns out to be the embodiment of the goddess Athena in the present day. Neither project moved forward, but another TV show did: Joy and husband Nolan co-wrote the upcoming HBO series remake of "Westworld" for J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot with a stellar cast including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Miranda Otto rounded up for the pilot. After that project sold, Joy became pregnant with her first child, but used the time to pen spec script "Reminiscence," a sci-fi noir about a man who runs a service allowing clients to relive certain memories. It's a terrific read, and became an immediate hot property when it went out to executives: It placed tenth on last year's Black List, and became one of the biggest spec sales of the year when Legendary Pictures picked it up for a whopping $1.75 million. There's been no news on the project since, but Joy's going to be busy regardless: she's writing the female-centric "Spider-Man" spin-off for Sony, which is targeting a 2017 release, and will be showrunning and executive producing "Westworld" if it moves forward.