The 15 Best Writer-Directors of All Time

8. Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers working today. As a writer, he is perfectly at home tackling the widest array of topics imaginable.

As director, he possesses the talent and vision to make such ambition a breathtaking reality. It’s not particularly notable in Anderson’s debut, a nifty little neo-noir by the name of Hard Eight (1996), but follow-up Boogie Nights (1997) exploded upon the movie world with the aggression of an established superstar; spinning an ode to 70’s porn into a heartbreaking surrogate family.

From that point on, P.T.A. has dipped his pen in everything from melodrama (Magnolia) and romance (Punch-Drunk Love) to eccentric stoner noir (Inherent Vice), each time with a consistent bar of excellence.

Stylistically, Anderson is a tough one to pin down. His muse often times is the varying subject matter at hand, which dictates the lumbering takes or the jaunty little color palettes that make things stand out.

The long pool take in Boogie Nights is flashy not only in its technical excellence, but in the reference to Soy Cuba (1964) that it’s pulled from – while the expansive landscapes behind There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) paint harrowing portraits of the past with vivid detail. When all’s said and done, Anderson could be one of the all-time greats.


7. Preston Sturges

One of the first screenwriters to successfully make the jump to directing, Preston Sturges was the king of sophisticated slapstick. And while such an order of succession may leave many questioning his prowess behind the camera, few comedy filmmakers used cinema to such side-splitting effect.

The opening of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) alone is an amazingly balanced sequence, taking a historically forgotten long take and overlaying it with four minutes of crackling dialogue and visual accompaniment. That the film, similar to the story within it, befuddled the moviegoing public, indicated just how far ahead Sturges was when it came to laughs that made his viewers think.

Verbally, he’s become a name-drop guarantee for any writer seeking witty wordplay in their scripts. Everyone from Robert Zemeckis and Lawrence Kasdan to the Coen Brothers and Woody Allen have acknowledged this influence, as Sturges’ 1940’s string are still the benchmark for stylistic emulation.

And it’s easy to see why, especially when watching staples like The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) blazing trails for the future of cinematic comedy. That’s not even counting dark satire like Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which movie nerds like Quentin Tarantino regularly cite as influence for their bungled onscreen murders.


6. Stanley Kubrick

Now this one may be open to some debate in terms of credit, but people would start internet riots if Stanley Kubrick weren’t mentioned among all time writer/directors. The former photographer dabbled in writing through early efforts Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), but it wasn’t until run-ins with penman pros like Jim Thompson (The Killing, Paths of Glory) and Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) that the he began carving out a narrative niche of his own.

Subsequent projects 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980) really broke the mold of conventional storytelling, and made the compulsive Kubrick an auteur of heated debate. Each movie script was written by the author of it’s source material, but the cameraman’s consistent co-writing credit typically instilled great changes in the final product.

In terms of compositional directing, there isn’t much to say about the New York native that hasn’t already been extensively covered in documentaries and fan pieces (Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, Room 237).

The guy knew what he wanted, and went through astounding lengths to achieve it, sometimes at the cost of a story (Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut) that lost steam by the midway point. But that’s neither here nor there, given that he influenced pretty much everyone that arrived after him on the list. In that respect, Stanley gets the nod.


5. Akira Kurosawa

A fascinating study in traditionalism and Western mythos, the films of Akira Kurosawa were, in a word, advanced. The filmmaker, a devout student of his Japanese upbringing as well as the works of Americans like John Ford, created a hybrid of styles – a living, breathing, visceral experience onscreen.

Such culture clashes appear in his breakthrough film, Rashomon (1950), and never ceased evolving over a career of eight decades. Kurosawa’s camerawork bustled with inventiveness, swooping around his actors, cutting on motion, and using the frame itself as an instrument of adrenaline-induced tension. In this regard, the master director pulled many a visual cue from the westerns of Ford, who returned the compliment with The Seven Samurai (1954) remake The Magnificent Seven (1960).

In crafting his scripts, Kurosawa looked into his own culture for inspiration, often finding it in the guise of Kabuki theatre and Japanese lore. Both Samurai and Yojimbo (1961) are direct descendants from the ancient ronin code, in that they portray isolated warriors seeking purpose in a morally grey world.

These stories, coupled with historical epics like Ran (1985) and Kabuki treatments of Shakespeare through Throne of Blood (1957), are only a small sampling of Kurosawa’s majestic movie mind – a true master of the medium.


4. Orson Welles

Reverence for Orson Welles is commonplace, but the renaissance man deserves his obligatory gush of praise whenever writer/directors are mentioned. Citizen Kane (1941) – classic, overrated, amazing, boring, whatever one feels towards it, it remains the greatest film debut of all time, and for good reason. Welles rips through a show-stopping performance topped only by his direction and writing work with collaborator Herman Mankiewicz.

The rise-and-fall narrative behind Kane has become symbolic of Welles’ own portly demise, but that doesn’t stop this exploitation of powerful men from showing up in Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955), and Touch of Evil (1958). Even Harry Lime, Carol Reed’s iconic antagonist in The Third Man (1949), finds poetic cynicism in the form of Welles’ penned cuckoo clock speech.

As a storyteller on the image dispensing front, the wunderkind redefined how movies could be expressed. Postmodern trickery in ‘F’ For Fake (1973) blurred with documentary footage in The Stranger (1946) to serve a visual world where manipulation was king. Viewers constantly had to be on their toes during a Welles production, as the gregarious auteur often maximized all senses to create an experience unlike any other. Just another sleight of hand from cinema’s all-time magician.


3. Woody Allen

Woody Allen was an anomaly in Hollywood. Quick with a quip and profound with a quote, his career has constantly teetered between the hilarity of guys like Jerry Lewis and the existential angst of a thinker like Ingmar Bergman. As such, a penchant for sharp irony found it’s way into even his earliest comedies, whether they be political (Bananas), dystopian (Sleeper), or literary (Love and Death) in origin.

Often paired alongside muse Diane Keaton, Allen was a writer/director who understood how important a laugh was in the right context. The archetypal Allen persona, an exaggerated take on his early stand-up routine, would come to marvelous fruition with Annie Hall in 1977, winning Best Picture and solidifying the comedian as the most unlikely of auteurs.

Post Annie Hall, Allen has continued to defy expectations, deftly blending comedy with elements of nostalgia (Zelig), romanticism (The Purple Rose of Cairo), and piercing commentary on modern life (Hannah and Her Sisters). Naysayers criticize his abandonment of comedy in the last few decades, but most all of his works carry a hilarity that can’t be taught, even if it be in small increment.

And when all three of the aforementioned elements come together, as is the case in films like Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), and Midnight in Paris (2011), the results are truly magical to witness. Influence may be on his sleeve, but when it’s done this well, no one particularly minds.


2. Ingmar BergmanClose-ups of the human face are notable in nearly all of Ingmar Bergman’s films. Justly so, as the Swedish auteur dedicated a sixty-year career to capturing mankind’s primal tendencies; our dislikes, our fears, our joys.

Stylistically, Bergman sought this truth through a delicate display of naval-gazing and hazy expression – a dream sequence a la Wild Strawberries (1957) or a pensive moment of regret pulled from Summer With Monika (1953). One the romantic nostalgia, the other a hardened splash of reality, yet both strung together with a storytelling sophistication that earned Bergman’s work the tag of “mature cinema.”

This often-copied, rarely-equalled display of artistry gelled to the director’s scripts, which often dished out simplicity fancied up in execution. Stories like The Passion of Anna (1969) or Fanny & Alexander (1982) aren’t very enticing upon initial pitch, but Bergman’s ability to exploit these interactions is awe-inspiring.

A short reading of his films, among which include The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), and Cries and Whispers (1972), is more than enough to solidify his reputation as one of the world’s most artful writer/directors.


1. Billy Wilder

Even with all the multitalented gentlemen who made this list, none could match Billy Wilder’s staggering resume as a writer/director. The man has more classics than most filmmakers combined, whether dabbling in comedy (Some Like It Hot), film noir (Double Indemnity), romance (The Apartment) or tragedy (The Lost Weekend).

Such variety, almost unheard of in the recent age of the auteur, was also an anomaly in golden age Hollywood, who regularly sidled directors with screenwriters and vice versa.

With Wilder, such assembly wasn’t necessary, as the German emigre not only penned his own stuff but netted three Academy Awards on the strength of his brilliant scripts. Whether working with stiff performers like Fred MacMurray or personal favorite Jack Lemmon, the ace screenwriter knew how to tailor dialogue that leaped off the page.

Conversely, Wilder’s direction always carried a quick, concise, but relatively looser style compared to German peers like Fritz Lang. Comedic pieces A Foreign Affair (1948) and The Fortune Cookie (1966) were utter silliness upon release, but reveal an immaculate taste for timing that still ranks among all-time farce.

This coming from a man who boldly composed indictments of The American Dream through films like Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953) – while somehow still netting praise and box office returns. Even Ace In The Hole (1951), an outright failure upon release, has come to be regarded as the quintessential expose on sensationalized journalism. Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the list goes on and on. Billy Wilder is the consummate writer/director, bar none.

Author Bio: Danilo Castro is a freelance writer with a specialty in all things crime. But if it’s not, that’s okay too. Contributor to multiple publications and editor of the Film Noir Archive blog when he’s not watching movies.