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On The Rise 2015: 20 Screenwriters To Watch

On The Rise 2015: 20 Screenwriters To Watch

It’s that time of year again, when blockbusters start to lull, the fall festival season hasn’t quite begun, and when the movies on release tend to be slimmer pickings. That’s when we like to look to the future and the talents who’ll be shaping it, with our On The Rise season of actors, actresses, writers, directors, cinematographers and composers to watch.

We’re nearing the end, and after looking at actresses, actors, composers and cinematographers, for our penultimate piece, we’re investigating the most undervalued member of the core filmmaking team, the screenwriter. While TV is, perhaps more than ever, a writer’s medium, the movies continue to treat scribes like replaceable pieces of machinery — in fact, they’ve even started getting multiple writers to write drafts of the same movie simultaneously and then combining them after the fact (see: “Wonder Woman”).

And yet without writers, there are no movies (at least until that “30 Rock” joke about a “Transformers” movie “Written By No One” comes true, anyway), and for all the problems facing those who want to create original material, every year sees a wealth of unique and distinctive voices emerge.  In the past, we’ve highlighted people including Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr Banks”), Graham Moore (“The Imitation Game”), Nicole Perlman (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”), Lucinda Coxon (“The Danish Girl”), Justin Simien (“Dear White People”), Matt Charman (“Bridge Of Spies”) and Tess Morris (“Man Up”). Who’s made our list this time? Find out below, and let us know who you’re excited about in the comments.


Lydia Adetunji

A former journalist for the Financial Times, British writer Adetunji switched gears and became a playwright, premiering her first play “Fixer,” a political drama set in Nigeria, in 2009. Several other plays followed, including “Compliance,” winner of the Catherine Johnson Award for Best Play in 2011, but she’s started to move towards the screen in the last few years. Her short TV film “Camouflage,” starring Lara Pulver, screened in 2012, and both neo-noir screenplay “Necropolis” and wartime Bavaria-set horror film “A Little Music” landed on the Brit List (the UK-centric version of the Black List). The latter’s moving ahead at Film4, with “Peaky Blinders” and “Robin Hood: Origins” director Otto Bathurst directing. She’s heading for the small screen too, collaborating with writer-director Amit Gupta (“Resistance”) and Jim Manos Jr. (“The Sopranos”) on a drama series for Channel 4. Expect very big things from her.


Kristina Lauren Anderson

Topping the Black List is undoubtedly a huge boost for a career, but for every Danny Strong or Graham Moore who’s gone on to a massive TV show like “Empire” or an Oscar-winner like “The Imitation Game,” there’s a Christopher Weekes or Wes Jones who’s still awaiting their first produced movie since their victory. From the looks of how things are going, Kristina Lauren Anderson, the 2014 winner, should definitely fall in the former category. Anderson was a former assistant to “The Killing Fields” helmer Roland Joffe, whose spec “Forever Jiaying,” about the Nanking Massacre, making the Nicholl Fellowship finals. But her biopic of “Catherine The Great,” now set up with “Dark Knight” producer Charles Roven, topped the Black List last fall (the script had been discovered through the organization’s website), and she’s been hugely in demand since: she’s now writing YA adaptation “Invisibility” for Warners, HMS Bounty story “Life And Death in Eden” for Grand Electric, and co-writing “The Black Count” with Cary Fukunaga.


Joe Robert Cole

There’s probably no better way to launch your writing career than with a Marvel movie — after all, they’re about as close as you can get to a guaranteed hit these days, and the studio’s commitment to thriftiness has often seen them hiring relative newcomers, especially thanks to their writing program. The latest to follow in the footsteps of people like Drew Pearce (“Iron Man 3”) and Nicole Perlman (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) is Joe Robert Cole. The writer first popped up a few years back with supernatural drama “Amber Lake” in 2011, and found his way into Marvel’s writing program sometime after that. Cole has been working away on a script for “Inhumans,” the secret alien/human hybrid society of superbeings, for a while, and the studio was so happy with his script that they moved the movie into their Phase Three plans, with the movie set to open in July 2019. Next up for the up-and-comer is alien invasion pic “Revoc,” for Summit and “Hitman: Agent 47” for director Aleksander Bach.


Matt Cook

It’s taken a while for Matt Cook’s first produced credit to arrive: he had a script on the Black List back in 2010, but it’ll only reach theaters early next year. He’s making up for lost time, though, with the next few years set to see a host of new projects from the screenwriter, an Iraq war veteran (read his haunting account of his service, and his return to the country, here). Cook’s calling card was “Triple Nine,” a gritty cop drama that John Hillcoat’s directed with a stellar cast including Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie and Woody Harrelson. He’s worked again with the latter on the upcoming neo-Western “By Way Of Helena,” directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, and there’s much more on the way; Nicolas Winding Refn comic book adaptation “Button Man,” Hugh Jackman-starring Biblical tale Apostle Paul, Vietnam pic “Matterhorn” (which he’ll also direct), and Otto Bathurst’s prison drama Three Seconds with Luke Evans, Josh Brolin, David Oyelowo and Maggie Gyllenhaal, plus an FX drama about prison guards called “Keepers.”


Michael Green

Is it possible to recover from having “Green Lantern” on your resumé? For screenwriter Michael Green, it’s entirely possible, given that he’s got some of the biggest movies of the next few years on his dance card. Green began as a writer and producer on “Smallville,” “Everwood” and “Heroes,” and created the excellent, though short-lived series “Kings,” a sci-fi take on the story of King David starring Ian McShane and Sebastian Stan and directed by Francis Lawrence. “Green Lantern,” sadly, marked his first big-screen credit (in his defence, he was one of the earlier writers on the film), and since then, he’s worked on TV show “The River” and on this year’s Oscar broadcast. The next few years promise to be massive, though: he’s pennedBlade Runner 2for Denis Villeneuve, “Prometheus 2” for Ridley Scott, and is currently at work on the final “Wolverine” film, plus he’s co-showrunning Starz’ Neil Gaiman adaptation “American Gods” with “Hannibal” mastermind Bryan Fuller.


Javier Gullón

It’s hard enough to break through as a screenwriter in Hollywood if English is your first language, but it must be exponentially more difficult if you hail from somewhere else. Fortunately, Javier Gullón has managed the transition with aplomb. He’s been increasingly in demand at home in Spain over the last few years, with a varied collection of work including rom-com “Road To Santiago” and thriller “Invader.” After English-language debut “Treading Water,” he turned heads in the U.S. after adapting Jose Saramago’s “The Double” in bleak, beguiling fashion as Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” (some of the film’s most memorable additions, including those goddamned spiders, originated with Gullón). The latter’s made him very much in demand with studios: Arnold Schwarzenegger is starring, and Darren Aronofsky producing, in the writer’s revenge movie 478,” and he’s now adapting sci-fi novel “The Dark Side” for Fox and Steven Zaillian, about a murder on the moon.


Julia Hart

A second-generation screenwriter (her father James V. Hart penned “Hook” and “Contact,” among others), Julia Hart was a high-school English teacher for years, but eventually heeded the call of the family business. Her first script for the lean, tough-as-nails feminist Western “The Keeping Room” made the Black List in 2012, and was filmed last year starring Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld —after deservedly picking up rave reviews on the festival circuit, it hits theaters later this month. That film’s success has helped break the door down in a major way: she’s adapted novel “Beautiful Disaster” for Warner Bros, and wrote HBO miniseries “Madame X,” about a 19th century midwife, for Lynn Shelton to direct and Anna Paquin to star in. Next up is a leap into directing: she’s just shot her first featureMiss Stevens” (once planned as Ellen Page’s directorial debut), a comedy about a high-school drama teacher starring “American Horror Story”’s Lily Rabe.


Christina Hodson

Relatively few screenwriters make the transition from the executive suite to the writers room, but after the success that Christina Hodson is having, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more making an attempt. Hodson, who hails from the UK, began her career at Focus Features and Curious Pictures before making the leap to screenwriter, with thriller “Shut In” making the Black List in 2012, and the “Rosemary’s Baby”-esque “Seed” doing the same in 2013. Her first produced credit will be the former: Naomi Watts is starring in the film, with “Doctor Who” and “Daredevil” helmer Farren Blackburn directing, with the film hitting theaters next spring, while her “Fatal Attraction”-esque female-driven thriller “Unforgettable” just got before cameras with Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson starring. She also sold sci-fi project “The Eden Project” to Sony, has been hired to pen a reboot of “The Fugitive” for Warner Bros., and, for her sins, is part of the “Transformers” writers room at Paramount.


Doug Jung

Doug Jung’s been on the peak of hugeness for a little while, but should finally tip over the edge next year thanks to a sci-fi blockbuster you might have heard of. The writer started off in TV, working on kids’ show “So Weird” and proto-“Newsroom” “Breaking News” starring Tim Matheson and Clancy Brown, while he moved into features with the underrated James Foley grifter pic “Confidence” with Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman. Since then, Jung returned to TV as a writer/producer on “Big Love,” creating undercover cop show “Dark Blue,” and penning a couple of episodes of “Banshee” last year. But his feature return comes in 2016 in a big way —he teamed up with Simon Pegg to write “Star Trek Beyond,” the third movie in the franchise once supervised by J.J. Abrams. Given that Pegg’s normal writing partner is Edgar Wright, that bodes well for Jung…


David Kajganich

There’s a fairly major difference between a screenplay on the page and how it turns out, and it’s possible for a screenwriter to have some worrisome credits in their past and yet be a very hot property. That’s true of David Kajganich, whose first two credits were disastrous ‘Body Snatchers’ re-do “The Invasion” and Joel Schumacher’s dreadful Nazi-horror “Town Creek.” But Kagjanich has bounced back: his drama “True Story” with Jonah Hill and James Franco deserved more attention than it got, and Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” with Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes is about to premiere at Venice. He’s also become a go-to adapter of Stephen King, penning two-part adaptations of “The Stand” for Ben Affleck and “It” for Cary Fukunaga (neither came to pass in those forms, sadly), and TV is also calling: his adaptation of Dan Simmons’ “The Terror” isn’t moving forward at AMC, but “Goliath,” about a death-row attorney, is still in development at the network with “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Sean Durkin, while he’s also got 1960s-set gay rights drama “Open City” in development at HBO.


Mark Mallouk 
If you can write a draft of a movie that helps to attract not just three different directors —namely Jim Sheridan, Barry Levinson and Scott Cooper— but also a cast including Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Dakota Johnson and a few dozen more, then you’re probably deserving of some attention. That’s what Mark Mallouk has managed with his first produced credit, “Black Mass.” The Kansas-born writer has been a producer for some time for Cross Creek Pictures (he has executive producer credits on “Rush,” “A Walk Among The Tombstone” and the imminent “Everest”), but was the first writer on the company’s Whitey Bulger picture. Mallouk shares credit with Jez Butterworth on the final film, but he’s got more solo work on the way: he adapted crime thriller “Bent Road” for his home company, and is also returning to organized crime for a movie about the complex dynamics in the Chicago Calabrese family for “Sicario” producers Black Label Media. 

Meg LeFauve

Few people on this list have had such a major turnaround as Meg LeFauve. She began her career as a producer for Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, working on coming-of-ager “The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys” and period drama “Flora Plum” (which Foster was directing until production was shut down when star Russell Crowe was injured), before moving into screenwriting with a never-made remake of Irish comedy “Wild About Harry.” It took nearly a decade for LeFauve’s first screen credit as a scribe to arrive, but she couldn’t have asked for a better first one  —with Pete Docter and Josh Cooley, she co-wrote Pixar’s giant hit “Inside Out,” and will likely be picking up an Oscar nod for it at next year’s ceremony. She’s also been working on another Pixar project, but has also jumped to another Disney project — with “Guardians Of The Galaxy” co-writer Nicole Perlman, she’s penning “Captain Marvel” for, well, Marvel.


Phyllis Nagy

The first big-screen release for writer Phyllis Nagy has been a long, long time coming, but all signs suggest that “Carol” will have been worth the wait. The project first came about in the early 1980s, when Nagy, then in her early twenties, befriended novelist Patricia Highsmith. Nagy moved to London and became a successful playwright, and Highsmith suggested that she adapt one of her books for film, having never been happy with previous adaptations. Nagy began work on a version of Highsmith’s “The Price Of Salt” back in 1996, but it’s taken twenty years to arrive, in much-praised, Oscar-contending form, as the Todd Haynes-directed “Carol.” In the meantime, she’s continued to have success in the theater, and picked up Emmy nods for writing and directing HBO movie “Mrs. Harris,” starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley, but it’s “Carol” that should make her name on the big-screen.


Nicole Riegel

A former soldier who’s since made the move into screenwriting (the second on this list, interestingly enough), Reigel is quickly racking up a dance card full of tough subject matter with some A-list collaborators. She only has one finished screen credit to date —as one of the writers of “The Heyday Of The Insensitive Bastards,” the James Franco-shepherded portmanteau drama made by the UCLA students that Franco taught back in 2012, Riegel included— but she’s not been idle. Among the projects she’s working on are a film about firefighters for Justin Lin, an Afghanistan-set war movie for Cary Fukunaga, sci-fii thriller “Slated” for Mary Parent’s company, Black Listed script “Dogfight,” about a teenage boy trying to save his brother from meth addicts, and “Lynch,” a biopic of captured U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch. All that, and she could probably kick your ass.


Taylor Sheridan

It’s very common for semi-working actors to be working away on a screenplay, but it’s very rare for them to get made, and rarer still for those actors to shy away from appearing in their projects. But both of things are happening to Taylor Sheridan, who looks set for great success behind the typewriter than he’s had in front of the camera. Sheridan has credits stretching back to “Walker Texas Ranger” in 1995 and mostly in TV, and is best known for playing Deputy David Hale in a couple of seasons of “Sons Of Anarchy.” But his career’s gone in a very different direction of late, after he made his screenwriting debut with Denis Villeneuve’s Cannes hit “Sicario,” a brutal look at the war on drugs. Sheridan’s since followed it up with the currently-filming “Comancheria,” a present-day Western staring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster, and he’s also developing Bradley Cooper WW1-era spy movie “Dark Invasion,” Libya-set based-in-fact thriller “The Embassy House,” and two TV projects: Fox’s Greek God drama “Olympus,” and Montana-set HBO drama “Yellowstone.”


Mark L. Smith

After carving out a niche in the horror world as the writer of sleeper hit “Vacancy” (and, to a lesser extent, of Joe Dante’s 3D movie “The Hole”), Mark L. Smith is about to move into much more respectable territory —he’s the writer of “The Revenant,” the upcoming, much-anticipated Oscar contender from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of “Birdman” (which previously had the attention of Park Chan-Wook and John Hillcoat too). It seems to have opened up a whole new chapter in Smith’s career, because he’s got a ton of projects on the way: he’s reteaming with “Revenant” star Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio for a movie about bikers, and for a biopic of King Harald of England, respectively. He’s also got remakes of “Firestarter,” “Martyrs” and “A Bittersweet Life” coming up, the Emma Watson-starring “Queen Of The Tearling,” “Chain Of Events” for “The Imitation Game”’s Morten Tyldum, and a rewrite of “Collider” for Edgar Wright. So yeah, pretty busy.


Gary Spinelli
All screenwriters consoles themselves, as they stare at a blinking cursor for hours on end, that they’re going to sell their spec for a million dollars and that Tom Cruise will star in it. This actually happened to Gary Spinelli. He’s not a newcomer to the business —he sold an intriguing, though unmade action spec “The Highest Bid,” about an art auctioneer who kidnaps criminals and sells them off— back in 2009, and penned Dolph Lundgren thriller (!!!) “Stash House” in 2012. But it’s the upcoming “Mena” that’s going to make his name. Telling the story of Barry Seal, a gun-runner and drug trafficker for both the CIA and the Medellin cartel, the script sold to Imagine and Universal for a whopping $1m, one of the highest sales of last year, and it’s now in production with Cruise starring and Doug Liman directing. It hits theaters in 2017.


Tim Talbott

The Robotard 8000 was (still is) something of a legend in screenwriting circles: two veteran writers who, looking to let off steam, penned a script for a taboo-busting comedy called “Balls Out” and posted it online. It was never made (though it was recently the first script featured on the Black List’s live-read podcast —listen here), but it provided a boost for its two scribes, and Tim Talbott in particular (“Empire” writer Malcolm Spellman was the other). Talbott began his writing career on “South Park,” serving as a staff writer on two seasons in the early ’00s, until his friend Christopher McQuarrie recommended him for a project he’d already passed on, “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Over a decade passed since Talbott began work on the project, with “Balls Out” and various TV gigs, most recently “Chicago Fire,” until the movie, based on the true-life 1970s experiment, screened at Sundance. It was worth the wait: it’s a stellar bit of writing, perfectly capturing very difficult material, and we can’t wait to see what he does next.


Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Still just 27, Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ rise has been positively meteoric, from film school to working with A-list auteurs in just a couple of steps. Hailing from Glasgow and trained at the National Film and Television School, Wilson-Cairns wrote calling-card script “Aether,” about a machine that can hear sounds from the beyond, in six weeks over Christmas 2013. By March, she’d sold it to FilmNation, and the spec landed on the Brit List, Hit List and Black List. “Utopia” helmer Marc Munden is attached to direct. From there, she landed her first assignment, adapting “The Good Nurse,” about true-life serial killer Charlie Cullen, suspected of killing up to 300 patients, for Darren Aronofsky and Protozoa Pictures. Currently, she’s working on the third season of “Penny Dreadful,” the first writer besides creator John Logan to do so. By the time she’s 30, she’ll probably be running Hollywood.


Dwain Worrell

Few screenwriter have had a path to success like Dwain Worrell. Born in Barbados and raised in Boston, he made initial forays into the industry with little success, and ended up moving to China for nine years, working for a government TV station there while writing scripts on the side. His enlisted brother told him about a mythical Iraqi sniper, leading to Worrell’s spec “The Wall,” about the battle of wills between American and Iraqi snipers. He submitted it to Amazon Studios, where it became the first spec bought by the fledgling company —it’ll go into production later this year. He’s now returned to the States, and has just kept selling projects: he’s writing sci-fi “Mindcorp,” about “next-generation mind-body experimentation,” for “Narcos” director Jose Padilha and Warner Bros., and just sold a new take on “Dante’s Inferno to the same studio.

Honorable Mentions: As ever, there’s plenty more we could have included. There’s “Z For Zachariah”’s Nissar ModiApril Prosser, who penned upcoming Jessica Chastain/Cecily Strong comedy “Plus One”; Jack Amiel & Michael Begler, creators of “The Knick”; Daniel Kunka, whose “Yellowstone Falls,” a dialogue-free post-apocalyptic story about a pack of wolves fleeing mutated humans, was a big spec sale last year; “Black Panther” writer Mark Bailey; Gaby Chiappe, who wrote Lone Scherfig’s upcoming “Their Finest Hour And A Half”; Brit Listers Melissa Iqbal, Arine Kene, Sameera Stewart and Simon Stephenson; and Black Listers Tom Flynn, Banipal and Benhur Ablakhad, and Daniel Stiepleman.

There’s also Will Widger, who’s gone from little-person noir spec “The Munchkin” to comic book adaptation “Lumberjanes”; Chuck MacLean, who’s writing “The Boston Strangler” for Casey Affleck; Jac Schaeffer, whose sci-fi comedy “The Shower” will star Anne Hathaway; Stephanie Shannon , who penned Lewis Carroll biopic “Queen Of Hearts”; “The Water Man” author Emma Needell; Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton, whose Viking Santa pic “Winter’s Knight” was a huge spec sale; Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, who took the first pass at “Star Trek Beyond” before moving on to “Flash Gordon” for Matthew Vaughn; and former “Jackass” associate Knate Gwaltney, who penned upcoming Halle Berry thriller “Kidnap” before landing a job on “X-Men” spin-off ‘The New Mutants.

Then there’s Annie Neal, writing murder-mystery action biopic “Agatha” and YA adaptation “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”; “Independence Day: Resurgence” writer Carter Blanchard; “John Wick”’s Derek Kolsdat; “’71” scribe Gregory Burke; “Love & Mercy”’s Michael Alan Lerner; “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl” creator Jesse AndrewsChristopher D. Ford, who went from “Robot & Frank” to “Cop Car”; “The Walk” co-writer Christopher BrowneDarren Lemke, who’s going from the apparently-actually-quite-good “Goosebumps” to “Shazam!”; and “Room” author-turned-screenwriter Emma Donoghue. And apparently a first-time screenwriter called Joanne Rowling sold a spec to Warner Bros. called “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.” Anyone know anything about her? 

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