The 15 Best Writer-Directors of All Time
On the surface, writing and directing a feature film are two wildly different gigs. The image of a closed-off writer typing away in a dark room directly contrasts with the bombastic ideal of the director sporting a megaphone and a viewfinder. But if one looks closer, such responsibilities have more in common than meets the eye.
Both traffic in a world of characters and dialogue; a creative imagination that conveys a vision to those around them. And, if they’re particularly good, an experience that blurs the lines of responsibility to present a single fluid final product.
It’s no easy feat, and finding compatible teams are rare at best. But there are those who bypass the whole duo schtick and prefer to hack it themselves – these guys are the writer/directors. A rare breed since the advent of cinema over a century ago, they provide a pure vision to the viewer, meshing visuals with verbiage to elicit a true auteur experience.
This practice has only increased in the modern age, as iconic directors like James Cameron, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Ridley Scott continue to deliver brilliant cinema time and time again.
That these men must serve as honorable mentions is by no means to downplay their excellence, but instead to highlight the magic that the fifteen filmmakers on this list have created. So, without further adieu, here are the greatest writer/directors of all time.
15. Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola was the star of the appointed “Movie Brats” in the 70’s, a status that quickly devolved into a failed-wunderkind of former greatness. But, similar to Orson Welles, the Italian icon has continued to accumulate a legendary, if divisive careers as a writer/director. The Godfather Part I (1972) and II (1974) are obvious Coppola cornerstones, both as artistic highs and in the establishment of his signature American Dream undermining.
As a writer, Coppola’s stories focus around any one of the three themes present through the Corleone saga; be it family (Rumble Fish, New York Stories), paranoia (The Conversation, The Rainmaker) or the search for hope in dire circumstances (Apocalypse Now, Youth Without Youth).
While these self-penned stories have been met with disapproval in recent years, the director’s visual acumen behind the camera has never been questioned. From Busby Berkeley neons in One from the Heart (1982) to the sweeping black and white beauty of Tetro (2009), Coppola is a brilliant stylist, often making messy narratives tolerable in the light of gorgeous storytelling displays. Not the most consistent to crack the list, but when he hits, boy does he hit.
14. John Huston
Was John Huston the movie equivalent of Ernest Hemingway? Yes, hell yes he was. The sage director was a true maverick, dispensing time between WWII documentaries (The Battle of San Pietro, Let There Be Light) and drinking himself into oblivion with close pal and collaborator Humphrey Bogart.
Nevertheless, he found time to forge one of Hollywood’s most underrated careers both behind the camera and in the writing room. Landing one of the greatest debuts of all time with 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, the burly Huston showcased a knack for transporting literary worlds into bustling cinematic ones – a trait that would drive the duration of his fifty-year career.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), and Moby Dick (1956) each recalibrated novels for the big screen, adding an element of adventure behind already stuffed narratives. But, to Huston’s credit, these films, along with The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Night of the Iguana (1964), never came off pretentious or overflowing with artistic fluff – he just wasn’t that type of guy.
Every Huston story instead benefits from simple coverage that’s neither rushed nor self-conscious about its straightforward intent. The man knew how to make ‘em, and that’s exactly what he did – albeit, with a few drinks.
13. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s tightly wound career, similar to that of expressionist influences Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, is a thing of manicured beauty. That his films have spanned from sci-fi to thriller to superhero spectacle has done little to qualm his storytelling intent, which always finds itself steeped in nonlinear confusion.
Used most famously in Nolan’s backward mystery Memento (2000), this idea of the unstable protagonist has become a staple for both he and co-writing brother Jonathan; showing up everywhere from Following (1998) and Insomnia (2002) to The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010). The auteurs regular citing of film noir as an influence is not a minor interest as much as it is a narrative blueprint.
Visually, Nolan is one of modern cinema’s instantly recognizable masters; making use of music, framing, and expansive visual cues to make movie magic. Booming epics like Interstellar (2014) and The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-12) are labored over intensely, and the final products reveal a showmanship equalling Cecil B. DeMille while still retaining an indie approach to emotional progression.
It’s no coincidence that every director and their mother have since tried to capitalize on the rumbling bass of Batman, to the point where it’s become an irritating trailer cliche. Mine as well copy from the best, right?
12. Charlie Chaplin
Comedy was a serious business to Charlie Chaplin, who all but embodied the term of auteur before it even existed. The big-shoed goof behind The Tramp would go on to write, direct, compose, and star in each of his iconic films; often times elevating the genre to places it had never yet been.
Such abilities were commonplace for Chaplin, an English gentleman who grew up rough and understood the plight of the poor only too well. His Tramp was a rallying cry of the little guy, a man who, in the words of historian James L. Neibaur, always attempted “to get in on the action, only to be shoved aside.” This simple plight would be the driving idea behind Chaplin’s scripts, which could be as ludicrous (The Gold Rush, The Circus) as they were poignant (The Kid, The Great Dictator).
Given the silent parameters of his first twenty years onscreen, the renaissance man developed a brilliant eye for imagery, especially if it so served the joke. Early Tramp shorts, spanning from Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) to A Woman of Paris (1923), did wonders to expand the visual language of film moving into the sound era.
Once there, however, the auteur continued to reap the benefits of both, leaving his hero silent while using noise and the dialogue of others to accentuate his message in outings like City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). Not even evolving times could hold back the burgeoning genius beneath that little black derby.
11. David Cronenberg
If someone in a movie is enduring bodily transformations, odds are it’s a David Cronenberg flick. The “Body Horror” behind the director’s most legendary work is a quick tip off of authorship, but it’s really just the tip of the twisted iceberg with regards to style.
Grotesque breakdowns and make-up worthy of latex appraisal run through every written narrative, starting with Shivers (1975) and crawling clear on through to Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986). The latter film, widely acknowledged as the Baron of Blood’s masterpiece, practically dares the viewer to watch as superficial horror masks the psychological damage underneath. It’s not pretty.
This underlying ugliness extends to the narrative side of things, where an obsession with ambiguity is countered by dense context. Atypical leads in Crash (1996) and Eastern Promises (2007) are sullen and minimal, driven by their affiliation with a soul sucking (or flesh melting) society.
Cronenberg’s abstract attitude captures the monotony of the modern world – evident in everything from The Dead Zone (1983) to the bleakness of A History of Violence (2005). Content may alter, but these “Body Horror” basics remain hallmarks behind The King of Crippling Disease.
10. Quentin Tarantino
The genius of Quentin Tarantino, besides his ear for juicy quotables, is his ability to filter the past through his own unique perspective. He’s a dude that completely goes gaga over highbrow and lowbrow movies in equal measure, just at ease borrowing from Jean-Luc Godard as he is kung-fu king Wang Yu.
And it shows, especially in the writer/director’s later efforts, which blatantly pursue the dated look of exploitation a la Kill Bill (2003-04), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012). Each adventure, ripe with grainy cuts, whip zooms galore, and POV ground shots, find Tarantino indulging every sleazy tendency imaginable, and the results are adored by casual fans and film school fanatics alike.
While this visual encyclopedia does much to further his distinct style, it’s the screenplays that really do the talking. From that very first diner sequence in Reservoir Dogs (1992) to the more recent Bruce Dern-Sam Jackson debacle in The Hateful Eight (2015), Tarantino weaves profanity and profoundness like few writers can; each time against a backdrop of (literally) explosive violence and a killer soundtrack.
Masterpiece Pulp Fiction (1994) will always be his greatest achievement in this regard – ugly, sexy, and chatty to the point of hilarity. He doesn’t need you to tell him how good it is, he knows it’s good.
9. Joel & Ethan Coen
Everyone loves the Coen Brothers. It’s understandable, given their status as some of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers – and easily the best sibling duo of all time. Growing up under the influence of guys like Robert Altman and Howard Hawks, the visual works of Joel & Ethan land somewhere between both, often times aided by go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The films that these three men have composed, ranging from the beauty of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) to the grimy desolation of No Country For Old Men (2007), have been regularly cited as some of the hippest and most cutthroat cinema in recent memory, dabbling in comedy and hardcore pulp alike. Often times, a similarity to golden age crime can be spotted, especially when the duo is diving headfirst into downtrodden urban treks (Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There).
This noir content spills over into the narrative norm of the Coen boys, who delight in tackling unconventional fare. It could be something as radical as a hippie detective (The Big Lebowski), a nihilistic folk singer (Inside Llewyn Davis), or a screw-loose screenwriter (Barton Fink), but the bottom line is: it’ll be off the beaten path. Character portraits of oddball characters? In the words of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, “You betcha!”
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