Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best movie about the writing process (or about a writer)?
Mae Abdulbaki (@MaeAbdu), The Young Folks, Movies with Mae
“Shakespeare in Love” probably doesn’t come to mind for most, but it is a great example of the ups and downs of writing. It strangely nails the writing process, while also tackling the business of theater. Simply put, “Shakespeare in Love” follows the journey of William Shakespeare’s writing of his famous play, “Romeo and Juliet.” The film strikes a balance between Shakespeare’s struggles with writer’s block and the maddening passion to write that comes after inspiration strikes: An inspiration that is both tragically brief and all-encompassing.
At various intervals, the film portrays the thrill of finding a muse and the utter devastation that comes with writer’s block and the inability to put words to a page. The writing process is so often hard to convey, but “Shakespeare in Love,” though a bit melodramatic in some of its portrayal, makes it so we’re in tune with the frenzied and somewhat chaotic energy of Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, while also able to feel his despair when he can’t get anything done. Meeting deadlines makes him stressed, finding a good pen (or quill) to write with even more so. Finishing a monologue? Forget it.
Enter Viola, an aristocratic woman who wants to play a role in the play, but can’t (old school sexism at its finest). Naturally, Shakespeare falls in love with her and she becomes his muse. Shakespeare’s focus on Viola as a muse for his play pushes him to finish writing “Romeo and Juliet,” but, as is the case with any writer, his reliance on a muse proves to be just as fleeting as their passionate affair.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
The literary pedigree of Werner Schroeter’s 1991 film “Malina” practically insures its depths of insight into the writing life: it’s based on the novel by Ingeborg Bachmann, and the script is by Elfriede Jelinek; it stars Isabelle Huppert, whose creative fury is among the treasures of the modern cinema, and Schroeter’s direction is as freely imaginative with images as its writers are with words. In its uncompromising vision of the inseparability of personal and artistic lives, of writers’ fantasies and realities, of immediate crises and historical traumas, the film of “Malina” evokes, like no other film that I’ve seen, the magma of conscious need and involuntary energy that drives great writers to write.
Sara Clements (@mildredsfierce), Reel Honey
The film that comes to mind immediately when discussing the portrayal of the writing process on screen is “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s not a story that depicts a successful attempt at writing, but rather, what happens when you are wrought with commercial failure, writer’s block, and the discouragement that comes when no one wants to read what you’re passionate about. Lee Israel was a biographer who was forced to sell her personal possessions, and in a desperate attempt to make money, she began creating forgeries of letters written by famous figures. Her financial troubles and struggle with alcoholism came from low sales of her Estee Lauder biography and being unable to receive an advance on her biography of Fanny Brice. It’s a story that all writers can relate to in some respect. We can work passionately on a piece that will barely get any views (or freelance dollars), and pitch ideas that we’re passionate about that editors don’t see value in. It’s disheartening, and while not many of us would go to the desperate lengths that Israel did, the self-doubt is universal.
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), The Wrap, Vulture, Teen Vogue, Writing Portfolio
Stephen King has always had a knack for highlighting the often tedious, solitary, and maddening writing process (who could ever forget “The Shining”?). But out of all of his crazed writer stories that have come to the big screen, none have more thoroughly conveyed writer’s anxiety more interestingly than the Rob Reiner-directed “Misery.” Paul (James Caan) is already a successful novelist but he’s primarily known for his “Misery” romance series. So, he wants to stretch himself as an artist and connect with other audiences by penning a new set of stories outside the genre. Because that can be as much terrifying as it is invigorating, the mind of King (as adapted by screenwriter William Goldman) fathoms a deterrent in frightening human form named Annie (Kathy Bates), a lunatic fan who terrorizes Paul into preserving her all-time favorite “Misery” series and therefore intimidating him into staying in his lane. Of course, crazed fans do exist, but what makes this narrative so compelling is how it captures the very real fear of growing outside your comfort zone. And for an accomplished writer who depends on an adoring audience to make a living, as Paul does, that can be the most horrifying thing of all.
Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects/One Perfect Shot, Birth.Movies.Death.
Charlie Kaufman is one of the best screenwriters on the planet, so it should come as no surprise that he’s written one of the greatest films about writing. “Adaptation.” (2002) is as enigmatic as films get. The Spike Jonze-directed picture is a meta-narrative based on Charlie Kaufman’s real-life failed attempts to adapt Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” which in turn became the screenplay for “Adaptation.” Nicolas Cage plays a Charlie Kaufman with severe writer’s block (and fictionalized twin brother, Donald Kaufman). Its inlaid complexities are marvelously entertaining and contemplative, but it also stands out as a crippling portrait of what it feels like to be truly uninspired in a career field that requires you to bleed inspired creation on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Among other things, it functions as a hall of mirrors for any tormented writer to wander through.
It landed in the middle of Kaufman’s 5-year Hollywood streak from 1999-2004, bookended by “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Meryl Streep (as Susan Orlean), Chris Cooper, and Cage all got Oscar nominations for their roles–Cooper taking his home–and Kaufman got a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Note: I recognize this is a stacked subcategory of film history. I’d love to pick another one of Kaufman’s in “Synecdoche, New York.” But before you get mad at me for not picking “Capote,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Barton Fink,” “Wonder Boys,” “American Splendor,” “20,000 Days on Earth,” “Non-Fiction”, or any of the other terrific options, know that I’m backed by the almighty Streep who said “Adaptation.” was “the best script” she’d ever read. And god knows how many mountains of scripts she’s read through.
Jen Johans (@FilmIntuition), FilmIntuition.com
From its opening sequence where insomniac Tobey Maguire — who figures out his stories at night when he can’t sleep — gets eviscerated by his classmates in creative writing class to Grady Tripp’s inability to stop writing his novel, Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” gets everything right.
Based on the book by Michael Chabon and brilliantly adapted by Steve Kloves, the film celebrates artistic camaraderie and the way that writers eavesdrop, observe, and create stories based on strangers, while also poking fun at the academic and professional jealousy that goes with the territory.
A writer’s movie where descriptive dialogue says as much about the characters speaking as the people they are talking about, “Wonder Boys” is one of my all-time favorite films.
Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), Just Add Color, Mediaversity Reviews, SlashFilm
“Barton Fink” is one of those movies that’s always stuck with me, partially because I watched it during a 10th grade English class even though the film had nothing to do with the curriculum we were supposed to be studying. That in itself is a long story. But the other reason it stuck with me is because it manages to capture how lonely and, frankly, disturbing the process of writing can be.
Granted, the film involves a lot of other fantastical elements, such as John Goodman screaming about “the life of the mind” and the mysterious painting on Barton’s hotel wall, depicting a woman sitting on a beach, actually coming to life. But those elements come together to show just how trippy the mind can become when it’s stuck in its own world for hours on end. Maybe having existential thoughtscapes at least twice a day while writing is a sign I should seek some counseling, but I also think it’s a symptom of the creative having a battle within themselves to put out the best work they possibly can.
This existential mentality is a bigger part of perfectionism than I think people realize, and Barton certainly seemed to be faced with some of that angst as he tried to crank out the best film ever. Even when Barton tried to escape all he endured and go to the beach, the weirdness followed him in the form of the mysterious woman from the painting actually being on the beach with him. The creative life is one that’s often glamorized, and indeed, it is fun to be able to make something out of nothing. But sometimes the creative energy that’s within talented people can become a scary entity all its own because of our ability to draw inspiration from any and everything. Eventually, it can start to seem like ghosts from your mind are everywhere.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG). Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages, The List
Writing is a difficult activity to capture on film in the same way hacking is, because the often frustrating process of sitting in front of a computer screen (or, back in the good ol’ days, a typewriter) for hours on end isn’t exactly the most exciting visual for an audience. “The Disaster Artist” captured the incomparable artiste Tommy Wiseau’s writing process, as he struggled to make “The Room” a reality, by showing actor James Franco strolling around empty rooms, eating noodles, and whining out loud about how hard it was, essentially putting the difficulties of his creative process on-screen by having the character literally verbalizing them and acting them out. The great journalism movies like “All The Presidents Men” or “Zodiac” tend to capture the process by showing stressed-out men in wrinkled shirts storming around newsrooms looking for “the scoop” like their lives depend on it, usually while chain-smoking or dragging a land-line telephone behind them — their guy might call any second, after all.
More recently, Best Picture winner “Spotlight” more accurately captured the modern mundanity of the newsroom, with all its requisite roadblocks from editors and various higher-ups, its team of investigative journalists foregoing meals or precious time with loved ones in order to crack a very important story. Even when it seemed like they’d done it, the boss was careful to ensure everything was checked with a fine toothcomb before giving the all-clear to publish. One of the movie’s most peculiar moments sees Mark Ruffalo vying for his Oscar (he would lose to another Mark, Mark Rylance, for Bridge of Spies) with a melodramatic speech about how important their work is and how it has to go to print now. Although it’s a jarring moment in an otherwise low-key study of hard work paying off, Ruffalo’s character’s freak-out helps to visualize the internal struggle most writers go through when trying to either put words to paper or to get others to care about those words once they’re done.
Writing is a frustrating, isolating process that pays off, eventually, when other people care about what has been written. “Spotlight” shows the often lengthy process to getting those words read, the frustrations of making others care why they matter, and the final release once the whole thing is done. It also shows, rather cleverly, the aftermath, when the newsroom phones are hopping and the whole cycle begins over again. That’s arguably the most frustrating part of being a writer; the work is never really done. At least, not if we’re lucky.
Yasmin Kleinbart (@ladysmallbeard), The Young Folks
When I first watched Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” in an Intro to Film Class, I was reminded of one person: myself. As an aspiring writer, I’ve always found the writing process excruciating, especially the feedback stage. You may have your vision of how the story will play out, but it may not sync with the big cheese’s view.
In “Adaptation,” Charlie Kaufman lays out the writing process like a Greek tragedy; A fictionalized version of himself (played by the wonderfully versatile Nicholas Cage) is on the set of “Being John Malkovich” being praised by studio execs while his head is being filled up with self-loathing. Cage’s Charlie is dedicated to the traditional practices of the craft and thinks that adding in sex, drugs, & guns is selling out the masses. His twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), is quite the opposite and lives for genre tropes.
When Charlie is given the daunting task of adapting Susan Orleans’ nonfiction book, “The Orchid Thief,” to the big screen, he wants to stay as faithful to the story as possible and stay far away from any gimmicks. However, as we know from the wacky third act, it doesn’t go exactly the way he imagined.
To call Charlie Kaufman an enigma would be an understatement; In all four of his movies, he invites the viewer inside his mind and exposes his insecurities. “Adaptation” gives such an intimate look inside a writer’s head that it’s hard not to get a feeling of Impostor’s Syndrome after watching.
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute
Is it the single best movie about the writing process? Maybe not, but “Adaptation” will always have a soft place in my heart. Charlie Kaufman’s swirling story is a semi-autobiographical take on the screenplay adaptation process of Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief”. Nicolas Cage stars as the twin Kaufman brothers, a conceit which, of course, allows for all sorts of confidence and talent zigzags. Incorporating scenes from the book itself, starring a fine Meryl Streep and outstanding Chris Cooper, adds its own layer of professional grey areas. Every writer has a process, one that probably does and should change with each project. Here, we see three, very different versions of what a writer can go through in trying to create. Their tortures are our exhilarating entertainment.
All that being said, one of the great treats of my career was getting to interview one of the most creative writers of our day, Tom Stoppard. He told me his gigs as a script doctor were his favorite. Why? Because he didn’t have to think of anything like a plot or character, he just got to patch things up, he explained with a big happy glint in his eye.
Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, Bonjour Paris
While “Almost Famous” is not a movie about the writing process, per se, it is one which so well captures the feeling of “other-ness” and “on the outside looking in” experienced by most writers. William Miller (Patrick Fugit) goes on the road with a rock band to write a cover story about them for Rolling Stone magazine. In the process, he wrestles with telling the truth and telling the story the band wants to be written about them. As it is said: the truth is the easiest thing to remember. As it is not always said: the truth is also (usually) the more difficult thing to say – and write.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat / Screen Rant
For me, the most accurate representation of what it’s like to be a writer can be found in the vastly underrated 1988 Chevy Chase comedy “Funny Farm.” He plays a New York City sports writer who quits his job and moves to a quaint little town in Vermont to write the proverbial Great American Novel. The writing process is repeatedly derailed by various things that distract him (which any writer can relate to), writer’s block hits (ditto), his wife hates his finished work (she’s the internet before there was an internet), and he eventually has to realize that it’s okay to stick with what you’re good at, even if it doesn’t change the world.
Incidentally, Chevy Chase gives one of his best performances in one of his best films. Why this movie isn’t considered a comedy classic is a mystery for the ages. Go see it if you never have!
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
This is an easy one, as I have only ever seen one film that accurately recreates the writing process, at least as I have experienced it, and that is director Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 “Hannah Arendt,” starring the great Barbara Sukowa as the titular intellectual. Much of what we see Arendt do as she works on her seminal 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is sit and stare, thinking. Yes, she does write, whether by pen and/or typewriter, but she mostly thinks (and somehow, believe it or not, this is represented in a way that is cinematically dynamic). And that’s what writing so often is: thinking. There are bursts of creativity, but mostly it’s about formulating ideas, gathering them, perhaps even procrastinating by doing other things. A movie about me writing would involve quite a lot of multitasking until the big moment where I can focus on the main task at hand. Or, like Arendt in this biopic (not that I compare myself to her in any way), I lie down, sit, pace and stare at the ceiling, out the window, etc. Or I play with my dog. But 75% of my writing time, at least, is spent not writing. So thank you, Margarethe von Trotta, for making this film that gets it just write/right.
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
Every writer, to some degree, worries about being discovered as a fraud. It’s a lifestyle that can feel dangerously vaporous. For dramatizing that anxiety—and for creating the scariest prop in movies out of a stack of paper—”The Shining” is, far and away, the truest depiction of what it means to be a writer, at the darkest times we all know. So much is conveyed in this one montage at the typewriter: Writing becomes nothing more than deploying the same dumb sentence in artful ways—stanzas, paragraphs, poems, thick slabs of repetition. Months and months of “work” (and no play) have been wasted. Cut to Shelley Duvall’s face, and her entire identity as someone married to a writer begins to crumble. It’s the whole reason they’re at the Overlook in the first place, so he can finish his book. The death blow comes when Nicholson gleefully asks, “How do you like it?” There, he’s fully revealed as a monster. He’s either weirdly happy to be exposed as a failure, the jig finally up, or thrilled to be sliding into total self-destruction. And just before he says it, he lingers, watching her. Savoring the moment. It’s Jack saying goodbye to himself. That’s the nightmare.
Andrea Thompson (@ areelofonesown), The Young Folks, The Chicago Reader, Film Girl Film
Like most great movies, “Ruby Sparks” is about so much more than the topic under discussion, which is the writing process. Paul Dano is Calvin, another writer who has found himself unable to write years after his first novel was published to critical and commercial acclaim. Until that is, he has a dream about a girl (and the fact that she is a girl is very much the point) which finally inspires him to start writing again. He starts falling in love with his creation, whom he names Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), only to one day find Ruby has not only magically appeared in his apartment, but believes them to already be in a relationship.
Written by Kazan herself, “Ruby Sparks” is about how the writing process itself can warp our perspective and relationships. After Calvin finds he can still control Ruby through his writing, his insecurity drives him to keep Ruby in his life by any means he can, culminating in one of the most emotionally devastating finales I’ve ever seen on-screen. It remains a powerful indictment of how many men casually create stories and roles for women can take on a life of its own, with horrific consequences for those who are unable or unwilling to fulfill them.