In the run-up to the Writers Guild Awards this Sunday, we asked eight celebrated screen and television writers to name the films that set them on a course to screenwriting stardom.
Bigger; 13 Reasons Why
In my twenties, I remember hearing about a new movie featuring young black people about my age, single, professional, living on the South Side of Chicago. There were few, if any, films of that kind in the mid-’90s. In fact, most black films at the time acted as a much-needed voice for our pain, focusing on the drug- and gang violence that plagued black neighborhoods at the time. Few movies depicted Black love. By the late ’90s, we had the choice of some magnificent Black love stories and romantic comedies like The Best Man and Love and Basketball. Before we were given these classic films to enjoy, however, there was Love Jones—the film that ultimately made me want to become a screenwriter.
In a darkened theater, with no one but me and my friends in real life watching the Black friends in Love Jones—bigger than life—we were stunned. This film was hugely validating, like watching the retelling of our own lives. No matter how much I loved going to the movies, there almost always was a separation from me and the characters in them. They were older than me, younger than me, whiter, more male…something that kept me one step away from true connection. Sure, there were movies of all kinds that I loved, but seeing Love Jones for the first time allowed me to see myself living in my world, and that alone felt magical.
From its jazz score (featured on one of my favorite soundtracks of all time) to depiction of poetry and art, Love Jones showed an eclectic side to Black Chicago. I loved the idea that a little world that only my friends and I knew had made its way onto the big screen. I loved the idea that someone in another city, in another culture, could get a peek into my life, as I had into other people’s lives and culture for so many years. But for once, sitting in that theater, I wasn’t forced to stretch my imagination to draw a connection to the art being presented to me. For once, this art reflected my reality—the reality for Black 20-somethings in Chicago, figuring out life and love. From that moment, I knew that my stories weren’t too small or insignificant to tell. The beauty of Love Jones showed me the beauty in my own world and gave me permission to share that beauty with others, which is why I write today.
(Photo courtesy Felischa Marye)
Crazy Rich Asians
I was eleven, standing outside a London cineplex with my kid sister, shivering in the unfamiliar cold as our parents argued with the box office cashier. We were on holiday from Malaysia and, as an exotic treat, my mother decided the family would go to the movies (it wasn’t a thing we did back home—the movies we watched were mostly pirated Hong Kong kung-fu flicks on VHS). We had decided on Coming to America, but there was a problem: a minimum age requirement, also a foreign concept to us. The cashier, unswayed by my mother’s argument that any Malaysian tyke could buy cigarettes, drink or place horse bets, finally agreed that I at least was close enough in age to be admitted. My father and I happily bounded inside while my mother and sister were relegated to A Land Before Time.
Sitting in the darkened theater with my dad, tingling with the knowledge that I was skirting British law just by being there, was already the highlight of the trip. Then the movie started. And my eleven-year-old-Malaysian-raised mind was blown. I had never seen or heard of Eddie Murphy, Arsenio, Queens, or Jheri curls, but I loved it all and wanted more. There were naked breasts and stick fighting, barbers and church choirs that were unlike any barbers and church choirs I knew, and the line “You sweat from a baboon’s balls” tattooed itself on my juvenile brain. I’d never felt so grown up or laughed so hard. I knew the story and characters and Zamunda were fiction, but that night I began to believe as Prince Akeem did: to find my true calling and destiny, I had to go to America.
(Photo by Irvin Rivera for Los Angeles)
Dustin Lance Black
No single film inspired me to become a screenwriter. There have been so many: The 400 Blows, All the President’s Men, My Own Private Idaho to name just a few. But there is one singular cinematic experience that deserves much of the credit for getting my screenwriter fingers moving.
It was my eighth birthday, a monumental one for a Mormon boy. Eight is when LDS children are baptized, become “grown-ups,” and are suddenly responsible for their sins. At the time, I was living in San Antonio in a military family, and I already knew I was queer as a three-dollar bill. I was an outsider, a freak. My solution: let shyness be my shield. I stopped talking. I made no friends. Making matters worse: two years earlier, my “good” LDS father had up and vanished, leaving me and my two brothers in the care of our tough, but physically paralyzed mother. She had no job. We were broke.
But my mother refused to let my big birthday pass without marking it in some extraordinary way. So, she woke me up that June morning with: “I just bought us all tickets to a movie! It’s called E.T.” She must have found just enough room on a high interest credit card. I was beside myself. I thought movie theaters were only for rich families.
My mom used her hand controls to drive us to a mall. I could smell the popcorn as we stepped inside. An aunt met us at the ticket booth. And before I knew it, a young man tore my ticket in two, and handed me back half. We followed my mom on her crutches down a long, dim, red-carpeted hallway, then stepped into an enormous theater. Everything inside was blue velvet. Every seat was filled. This was something very special, and for the first time in my life, I was a part of it.
What my mom didn’t know was that E.T. was centered on a single-parent home, its middle child, Elliot, in desperate need of connection, hope, friendship, love, and to my young mind’s eye: a father figure. He was my age. Like me, a middle child. And like him, I had no clue where my dad was. I had never connected with anyone in a film the way I did with Elliot that day. Because, unlike the solitary experience of watching TV at home, I wasn’t the only one laughing and gasping. Everyone in the audience was. Often in unison. For those treasured two hours, I knew I wasn’t alone. And for a shy boy who was certain he was too strange for this world, there was no better medicine than to learn that my heart beat in similar fashion to others’.
At the end of the film, E.T. lifts his long finger to Elliot’s head and tells him: “I’ll be right here.” At eight, I yearned for someone to “be there” for me. Hearing others weep in the dark gave my heart permission. My tears fell fast and hard. When the lights came back up, I buried my face in my hands. I refused to leave the theater. I didn’t want to lose this sacred space and feeling.
In order to finally get me out of my seat, my aunt ran across the mall to a craft shop where she shoplifted a tiny wooden heart that she pressed it into my hand: “This is E.T.’s heart, and now you have it right there with you too.” I still have that little wooden heart. I still have that torn half of my movie stub. Because, I would eventually leave the LDS faith and its unfair judgements behind, but that darkened theatre, with its permission to feel and connect with others, would become my true church.
Like so many, I do love sitting at home in my sweatpants watching a film on a TV larger than I ever could have imagined when I was a kid. But to only ever view films in the privacy of our own homes misses half of the point of it all. Even before a pandemic shut down our theaters, I watched in horror as far too many shrank in scale. Sometimes the movie screen would prove smaller than my TV, some theaters only held a few dozen seats. No. Bring back the velvet, the spectacle, the church as expansive as our collective imaginations. Because I’m certain I’m not the only outsider who learned he wasn’t quite so alone in the world thanks to the touch of blue velvet, the smell of fresh popcorn, and the sound of others’ joy and tears as light danced over our heads and onto that impossibly large screen.
That’s what makes my fingers move.
(Photo courtesy Dustin Lance Black)
The ’80s were unkind to the Big Apple. Ravaged by both the crack and HIV epidemics, there was little rest for the city that never sleeps. I grew up in the midst of this tumult, on Story Avenue in the Bronx. Fitting, since story defined my childhood and became a salvation.
Whether Saturday-morning cartoons or picture books at bedtime, I loved living in my imagination, swept away to far-off lands. But it was the invitation into the imagination of others, taken at the Whitestone Multiplex Cinema, in the dark, surrounded by strangers, that left the most indelible mark.
It was 1986 when I saw two films at Whitestone that continue to impact my understanding of story and self, and my desire to affect an audience. Transformers: the Movie and The Color Purple couldn’t be more different from each other—one an animated feature about robots in disguise, the other a decades-spanning drama adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But their thematic overlaps—family, resilience, and self-reliance—were significant. And both films accomplished the same goal. They made me feel. Yes, I shed an equal number of tears when Optimus Prime died from fatal wounds after battle as I did when Celie reunited with her long-lost sister, Nettie. (I still do).
Now, at six years old I wasn’t sure what my career path would be. But I knew, with certainty, that whatever I chose to become I wanted to take audiences on a journey. I wanted to make others feel the way these films made me feel.
It’s difficult to say if one single movie-going experience sparked my love of story and my desire to be a screenwriter. In truth, every time I sit in a darkened theater, surrounded by strangers, another flick of the match that is inspiration is struck. With the advent of technology and streaming it’s easier to stay home. And with a global pandemic it’s certainly safer. But I look forward to that moment when we can get back to sitting in the dark. Inspired. Together.
(Photo Courtesy Steven Canals)
A Dog’s Purpose
Family lore has it that at age three I made it clear to my horrified parents that I intended to be “show folk” by hopping up on a restaurant table and belting out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Because I didn’t really know the lyrics, I just made up my own. Then I hit the final note, and everyone in that shrimp shack exploded into applause, and my parents knew from the satisfied look on my face that my fate was sealed. In that moment, I became the director, writer, producer and performer I am to this day, because I learned a valuable lesson: If you want to be part of a show, you’re going to have to make the damn show yourself.
I loved movies (though too often the women on-screen were dull and helpless) and because all I ever saw on the Oscars were white male directors and screenwriters, it never occurred to me that I would be allowed to write and direct a feature film.
Until 1985, when I saw Desperately Seeking Susan, which was directed by a woman, Susan Seidelman, and written by a woman, Leora Barish. From the moment I saw Madonna drying her armpits with a public restroom hand dryer, I knew this was a slyly witty film that only women could have brought to life.
In 1986, another movie rocked my world: She’s Gotta Have It, written and directed by Spike Lee, about a woman who dates three guys and refuses to pick one. (Though if I were her, I so would have picked Spike.) But by that time, I was savvy enough to want to know: how did they get to make that movie? I learned that Spike raised money, and essentially greenlit his own picture.
I had found a kindred spirit. Spike was clearly the kind of guy who would jump up on a table in a restaurant, metaphorically speaking, and I wanted to follow his genius lead.
Though it took me until 2004 to get my film Cook Off! into production, the film that inspired me to write it was A League of Their Own, also directed by a woman, Penny Marshall, and based on a story by two women, Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele. It’s a brilliant movie about how women really are: the support, the crying (in baseball!) the backstabbing, all of it. That’s the kind of movie I wanted to make.
By giving myself permission to write and direct movies I want to see, I earned the distinction of being the only woman screenwriter to have two studio theatrical releases in 2019.
Like all girls, I was raised on Cinderella, truly the worst story you can ever tell a girl. Now, as a woman filmmaker, I have learned that you cannot sit around waiting for a glass shoe, or a greenlit movie. Find your own glass shoe, give yourself permission. If you want to make a damn show, especially one that features interesting women, figure out how to make it yourself.
(Photo by Irvin Rivera for Los Angeles)
Guardians of the Galaxy
When I was nineteen I went to stay with my brother in Berlin. At the time he was renting a bullet-pocked fifth floor walk-up in Kreuzberg. Not long after I arrived, he invited me to accompany him to an art-house screening of Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel Uber Berlin (Wings of Desire). I didn’t speak a word of German, and as a playwriting student at the height of my love affair with Stoppard and Pirandello, I couldn’t imagine the point of watching a foreign film without subtitles. I went anyway, prepared to be lost.
Instead, I was transported. While there was, in fact, a smattering of English spoken in the film, I found the language barrier freed me to appreciate everything that wasn’t spoken. It was the first time I realized that film is its own language, not just images to punctuate or illustrate a story.
Wings of Desire is a visual poem, an ode to a transitional place and time, with the same kind of ethereal, heightened beauty as dusk or dawn. It takes place within the interstitial Berlin landscape—in the barren, unruly spaces between bombed-out buildings, themselves unknowingly liminal. The film was shot a few years before the Wall fell, after which the cityscape would fill in and become nearly unrecognizable.
It was also the first time I’d seen a film mirror the experience of the dual awareness of a movie-goer. As the angels watch the lives of the humans play out, we can’t help but be reminded of ourselves as unseen voyeurs empathizing with the characters on screen. When Damiel the angel gives up his immortality to become real, he undergoes the Wizard of Oz-style transition from the realm of black and white to one of eye-popping color. In my mind, it mimicked the experience of emerging from the world of the film into the real world waiting outside.
At this point I peered around the theater to see if the German-speakers around me were having the same emotional experience I was—and those who met my eyes smiled at me, as if to say “isn’t it wonderful?” In that moment, it felt like I wasn’t just a member of an audience, but a congregation. When I got back to NYU, I picked up a second major—in filmmaking.
(Photo courtesy Nicole Perlman)
First Sunday; Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
I’d been a fan of Spike Lee’s ever since She’s Gotta Have It. I mean, what teenage boy wasn’t in love with Nola Darling? My college years wouldn’t have been the same without sneaking into School Daze or Do The Right Thing. The characters and themes were so familiar it was scary.
But it was the one that followed that would pique my interest in film. Malcom X wasn’t just a movie, it was a movement. The rise of Black spirit and pride in culture was at an all-time high. Before the film even came out I wandered onto Melrose Avenue to the Forty Acres store and bought a way-too-expensive leather Malcom X jacket. As a Black man in his mid-twenties, born during the civil rights movement, this film was a must see.
I remember piling into the Magic Johnson Theatre (or, as we called it, the Tragic Johnson Theatre, seeing as how someone was always getting shot there). The lights went down and the trailers started. Folks were cutting up and talking loud, as is customary when Black folks get into a theater together. And of course, I joined in, cracking jokes on friends, yelling at the screen, and acting, as my momma would have it, like “I ain’t have NO home training.” Finally, the film started.
Quickly I noticed that the crowd, myself included, was eerily calm. Quiet. Actually watching the movie. You could hear a pin drop. Sure, I had seen films by and starring Black folks that were very good. Some even classics. But this one was a game changer.
The costumes and production design. The hair. The scale and scope. The acting. The historical context. The cinematic excellence. And most of all for me…the writing. It was engaging. Emotional. Powerful. A mix of brotherhood and betrayal. Love and loss. Healing and heartache. And by the end, when Nelson Mandela came on screen and the kids started saying “I am Malcolm X”… and then Aretha Franklin started singing “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” I lost it. I couldn’t take it. I was a teary-eyed, blubbering mess.
It was surreal as I sat there was watching myself watching the movie, thinking: “This shit… sniffle sniffle… is out of control!” Thinking: “Man…I can do this!”
I had been bit. In the best kind of way. I wore that Malcolm X jacket so often that the X started fading and eventually peeled off. Didn’t matter to me. If wearing the jacket in some way contributed to this success of this masterpiece, it was more than worth it. A writer was born.
(Photo Courtesy David Talbert)
The King’s Speech
Just a few months shy of my third birthday I first caught sight of the silver screen.
My family was evacuated from Great Britain to America in the early days of World War II. It was common knowledge (although not to a child of my age) that the three ships of our small convoy were sitting ducks for German U-boats.
Somehow I found myself wandering the vessel on my own and entered a high-ceilinged lounge doing double duty as a cinema to calm the frayed nerves of the civilian passengers.
Suddenly, I was confronted by the sight of two giants, male and female—he in the robes and turban of an Indian sultan, she in gossamer attire—and they were kissing (yuck). I was rescued from watching this unnatural act by being quickly ushered out and reunited with my frantic parents.
Although the following day one of our convoy, filled with Italian prisoners of war, was sunk, and a week later a big metal lady was standing in the middle of New York Harbor holding a torch, both leaving lasting impressions, it was the two giants on the screen that became etched indelibly into the retina of my mind.
This was an era without TV, computers, DVDs, or any other means of watching a film other than in a movie theater. It was considered a big treat.
Of course I was exposed to the mandatory childhood Disney traumas of witnessing Bambi’s mommy being assassinated by hunters, and Dumbo’s mom brutalized by circus thugs, but by and large I remained a cinematic virgin until we returned to England at the end of the war and I fell under the influence of my maternal grandfather Isidor, the family patriarch.
In those days all shops were closed on Thursday afternoon. This was to allow retail workers to do their shopping. But they couldn’t do their shopping because all the shops were closed—took them many years to figure that out.
For Grandpa Izzy, Thursday was a sacred time, spent in pleasure palaces with magnificent names like the Hippodrome or Electric Palace, especially if the feature starred grandfather’s all-time favorite: Rita Hayworth.
One day I heard, “The boy is coming with me.” From then on every Thursday after school I went with grandpa in search of the redhead, although her films were quite possibly inappropriate for a ten-year-old lad.
Trouble was, no sooner had the organist finished murdering “God Save the King” and the house lights lowered, Isidor always fell asleep and started to snore loudly.
Mortified, I’d slide out of my seat and relocate to the other side of the house; when the lights returned I’d scoot back and wake him. “Wot, wot wot?” he’d rouse himself. “That was a good one, wasn’t it, boy?”
Indeed it was. I’d just spent several hours gazing up at a glorious woman with a face as tall as a building and flaming red hair vamping her way through The Lady From Shanghai. I was deeply in love (so was Orson Wells).
I vowed one day I’d write stuff like that.
(Photo courtesy David Seidler)