Essential Books for Screenwriters

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Obviously, to become a good screenwriter, one has to watch a lot of films — new films, old films, shorts, documentaries, and everything in between are essential to developing one’s sense of narrative and aesthetics. Watching a million movies is an essential part of growing as a new filmmaker, but it’s also important to remember that reading actual books about the art and craft of screenwriting and filmmaking can be a significant aid in understanding the industry on a macro- and micro-level.

With that in mind, we’d like to develop an ever-evolving list of essential books for screenwriters and filmmakers. Being well-versed in the various techniques and approaches to crafting great scripts is essential if one wants to be a working screenwriter, but it’s also important to understand the role of screenwriting within the larger film industry, and how that industry functions as a whole.

We’ve begun putting together a list of essential texts on screenwriting and filmmaking that will live as a part of the Educational Resources available on The Black List…but we also want your help! Tell us about the books that greatly enhanced your understanding of screenwriting, narrative, and the film industry as a whole on Twitter, and we’ll add them to the below list. Together, we can make a comprehensive list of unmissable texts to help writers and filmmakers grow: think of it as a Black List syllabus, of sorts. And it also functions as a great gift guide for the screenwriter in your life too!

Essential books for screenwriters and filmmakers: 

The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler

Save the Cat – Blake Snyder

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit – Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant

Poetics – Aristotle

Making Movies – Sidney Lumet

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures – Peter Biskind

In the Blink of An Eye – Walter Murch

Celluloid Mavericks – Greg Merritt

Hitchcock – Francois Truffaut

The Filmmaker’s Handbook – Ascher & Pincus

Shooting to Kill – Christine Vachon

On Directing Film – David Mamet

Who the Devil Made It – Peter Bogdanovich

Painting with Light – John Alton

Inside Story – Dara Marks

The Empty Space/The Open Door – Peter Brook

36 Dramatic Situations – George Polti

Bulfinch’s Mythology

Rebel Without a Crew – Robert Rodriguez

Story – Robery McKee

 



2015 in Film

Continuing my post from last year on the quality of film from a numbers approach, I’m going to look into a few ways to measure whether 2015 was “a good year in film.”

To be honest, I haven’t heard much consensus around 2015 yet. Metacritic posted a useful piece about 2015 in film. One of the main takeaways was that 2015 had the most 90+ Metacritic scoring films in a long time. Carol ended up being the best reviewed movie of the year, above Anomalisa, Spotlight, and 45 Years.

Anecdotally, I was having a conversation with a friend in the industry; and we were both saying that the movies we saw were good, but nothing blew us away, especially in the prestige category. I was more excited in general about the two giant blockbusters: Mad Max and Star Wars. But on the prestige side, what did we have? The Revenant? Spotlight? The Big Short?

My personal pick was a small German film called Phoenix. I liked Carol a lot. Anomalisa was unique, though being completely honest, I dozed off at points (it was also a late showing). Two others that I really like and that barely anyone saw: I’ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner and ’71 with Jack O’Connell.

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The WGA Celebrates the 101 Funniest Screenplays

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Wednesday night in Hollywood, WGA members, writers, and film fans gathered at the Arclight to celebrate the announcement of the 101 Funniest Screenplays.

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After the red carpet, beloved comedy writer-director Rob Reiner took the helm as master of ceremonies for the night. Cutting and hilarious throughout, Reiner made a case for himself as the best possible panel moderator — he was able to balance off-the-cuff remarks with the necessary banter to keep the proceedings moving along. First up wias Jon Favreau, who introduced the infamous answering machine scene from SWINGERS, and then talked about how he wrote Swingers so that he and his friends could get jobs. Echoing a similar sentiment from many other writers, Favreau stressed that all writing is autobiographical, and much of the evening was devoted to exploring how writers got their first jobs in the industry.

For the first panel, Favreau was then joined by George Gallo (MIDNIGHT RUN), Marc Norman (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE), Jennifer Westfeldt (KISSING JESSICA STEIN), and Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldstein (WHAT WOMEN WANT) to discuss buddy comedies and romantic comedies. Norman walked us through the development process of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, which began as a drama, and the eleven years it took for that script to reach the screen (three for writing, eight for development). Gallo echoed this idea, saying that he wrote MIDNIGHT RUN because it was the kind of movie he wanted to see, and encouraged other writers to do the same.

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(L to R: Reiner, Alexander Payne, Jerry Zucker, David Abrahams, David Zucker, Bobby Farrelly, Bennett Yellin, and Peter Farrelly)

Following this discussion, Alexander Payne (SIDEWAYS) took the stage, lamenting the end of another summer with out a “great, intelligent comedy” in theaters. Payne stressed the importance of sincerity in comedy, saying that it’s often easier to acknowledge pain through laughter, and that having a collaborator (in Payne’s case, Jim Taylor) is a huge part of creating resonant comedy. He also took a moment to praise AIRPLANE!, calling it “a towering masterpiece, that’s as important to comedy as PSYCHO is to thrillers.” Payne was then joined by the Zucker Brothers and their co-writer, David Abrahams (AIRPLANE!) and the Farrelly Brothers and their co-writer, Bennett Yellin (DUMB AND DUMBER) to discuss satire and offbeat comedy.The Farrelly Brothers and Yellin then told the incredible story of how their first spec, DUST TO DUST, found its way to the Zucker Brothers: one of them went on a date with a woman who was living next to Eddie Murphy, she gave the script to him and he loved it but couldn’t identify who wrote it, so after passing it along to the Zuckers, they had to put an ad in the LA Times in order to find the writers.

For high-concept comedies, Randi Mayem Singer introduced the cake-mask scene from MRS. DOUBTFIRE, which she co-wrote and took the stage with Daniel Petrie Jr. (BEVERLY HILLS COP) and Dale Launer (DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and MY COUSIN VINNIE). All writers agreed that comedy can go really far in terms of what it’ll do to get a laugh as long as there’s a universal thematic concept at the script’s core to help make the comedy stick to your ribs.

Michael Elias and Carl Gottlieb, co-writers of THE JERK, then joined Reiner on stage to discuss classic comedies. Elias shared some warm anecdotes from a recent Reddit AMA about THE JERK. Elias and Gottlieb were joined by two other legendary writers, Buck Henry  (THE GRADUATE, WHAT’S UP DOC?) and Peter Bogdanovich (PAPER MOON, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), and all writers lamented the current state of original content in Hollywood, with Reiner saying “Nobody can make THE GRADUATE or PAPER MOON anymore.” Bogdanovich then talked about the freedom of the 1970s, highlighting Warner Brothers executive John Calley, who first suggested WHAT’S UP DOC? to him as a vehicle for Barbara Striesand. Bogdanovich wanted to bring in Henry to “complicate the picture,” which Henry did successfully, even if he confused himself in the writing process (Bogdanovich called Henry during rewrites to ask how he was doing, to which Henry replied: “Terrible! I lost one of the goddamn suitcases!”) Henry, who at 85, was the evening’s elder statesman and received a standing ovation, also talked about working with the notoriously particular Warren Beatty on HEAVEN CAN WAIT. Reiner asked if Beatty was difficult, and in response Henry quipped — “I don’t have problems with anyone except myself.”

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The top 21

For the final panel of the night, it was necessary to address an elephant in the room, something WGA president Howard Rodman brought up in his opening remarks — the list is overwhelmingly white and male, and when assembling panels for the evening, only white men had been asked to be panelists. With that in mind, the WGA created a panel for those who just missed the list including Kiwi Smith and Karen McCullah (LEGALLY BLONDE), Kay Cannon (PITCH PERFECT), Robert Townsend (HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE), and Don Roos (THE OPPOSITE OF SEX) to give the evening’s discussion some much needed diversity — there are only 10 women on the list, with even fewer writers of color or LGTBQ writers included. The writers then shared the films that inspired them to become screenwriters — for McCullah it was THE BIG CHILL, for Smith, WHAT’S UP DOC?, for Cannon AIRPLANE!, THE NAKED GUN, and ROCKY, and for Townsend HERE COMES MR. JORDAN.

Most of the time, it’s a joy to get writers in a room together and hear them discuss their experiences in the industry, and last night was no exception. Obviously, an evening that celebrates comedy screenwriting is going to have a lot of laughs, but there was a truly jovial spirit in the theater last night, thanks in no small part to Reiner’s skills as moderator. Being in the presence of writers you admire is always humbling, especially as they talk about their own influences — we’re all fans of someone else.

From the red carpet —

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Karen McCullah

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Don Roos

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Jon Favreau

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Robert Townsend

Check out the full list of the WGA’s 101 Funniest Screenplays below:

1. Annie Hall

2. Some Like It Hot

3. Groundhog Day

4. Airplane!

5. Tootsie

6. Young Frankenstein

7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

8. Blazing Saddles

9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail

10. National Lampoon’s Animal House

11. This Is Spinal Tap

12. The Producers

13. The Big Lebowski

14. Ghostbusters

15. When Harry Met Sally…

16. Bridesmaids

17. Duck Soup

18. There’s Something About Mary

19. The Jerk

20. A Fish Called Wanda

21. His Girl Friday

22. The Princess Bride

23. Raising Arizona

24. Bringing Up Baby

25. Caddyshack

26. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

27. The Graduate

28. The Apartment

29. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

30. The Hangover

31. The 40-Year-Old Virgin

32. The Lady Eve

33. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off / Trading Places (TIE)

35. Sullivan’s Travels

36. Planes, Trains and Automobiles

37. The Philadelphia Story

38. A Night at the Opera

39. Rushmore

40. Waiting for Guffman

41. The Odd Couple

42. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

43. Office Space

44. Big

45. National Lampoon’s Vacation

46. Midnight Run

47. It Happened One Night

48. M*A*S*H

49. Harold and Maude

50. Shaun of the Dead

51. Broadcast News

52. Arthur

53. Four Weddings and a Funeral

54. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy/Dumb and Dumber (TIE)

56. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

57. The General

58. What’s Up, Doc?

59. Wedding Crashers

60. Sleeper

61. Galaxy Quest

62. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

63. Best in Show

64. Little Miss Sunshine

65. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

66. Being There

67. Back to the Future

68. Superbad

69. Bananas

70. Moonstruck

71. Clueless

72. The Palm Beach Story

73. The Pink Panther

74. The Blues Brothers

75. Coming to America

76. Take the Money and Run

77. Election

78. Love and Death

79. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels/Lost in America (TIE)

81. Manhattan

82. Modern Times

83. My Cousin Vinny

84. Mean Girls

85. Meet the Parents

86. Fargo

87. My Favorite Year

88. Stripes

89. Beverly Hills Cop

90. City Lights

91. Sideways

92. Broadway Danny Rose

93. Swingers

94. The Gold Rush

95. The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek

96. All About Eve

97. Arsenic and Old Lace

98. The Royal Tenenbaums

99. Mrs. Doubtfire

100. Flirting with Disaster

101. Shakespeare in Love