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By Martin Keady · February 12, 2019
Famous Screenwriters is a new series by The Script Lab for the new year, in which our resident cinema historian, Martin Keady, looks at the great screenwriting cities of the world – those that have produced many of the world’s greatest screenwriters. Previously, he covered London.
For Part 2, he looks at “the capital of the world” – New York.
Hollywood may be on the other side of America, but many of its greatest screenwriters have hailed from New York. The gateway to America that has subsequently become the capital of the world – as was proven conclusively when the 9/11 attacks that effectively started the 21st century were concentrated there – has been home to, or at least the birthplace of, many of the finest film writers of the last hundred years.
Here are 10 famous New York screenwriters.
In many ways, Paul Schrader is the definitive New York screenwriter, whose scripts for Martin Scorsese – particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) – did so much to crystallize in the global imagination the mean and dangerous streets of NYC. And yet he was not a native New Yorker at all. Instead, he was born and raised in Michigan, where he acquired from his ultra-religious family the strict Calvinist streak that has run through all his work, and then he became a screenwriter while working as a teacher in Japan, where he wrote The Yakuza (1974), a thriller about the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia.
Nevertheless, his greatest works were written in, and about, New York. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro played the eponymous driver who takes it upon himself to try and clean up what he regards as the city’s scummy streets (even though he himself is happy to take Cybil Shepherd’s political campaigner to a porno movie on their first date). Then in Raging Bull, Scorsese’s biopic of boxer Jake La Motta, Schrader’s superbly terse script was central to the creation of La Motta’s epic (and often epically violent) world.
KEY LONDON WORK: TAXI DRIVER (1976)
For writing When Harry Met Sally (1989) alone, Nora Ephron deserves inclusion on any list of great New York screenwriters. She was born in the city in 1941, but her family soon relocated to sunnier California, where she grew up. Her second marriage, to the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein (who, along with Bob Woodward, did so much to uncover the truth about Watergate), took her back east, to the nation’s capital. However, Bernstein’s own personal betrayal of her (when he had an affair while she was pregnant with their second child) effectively made her a writer. She wrote a novel about it, Heartburn (1983), and when the novel was optioned by director Mike Nichols, she also wrote the screenplay.
Ultimately, however, it is not her own story (as told in Heartburn) that she will be remembered for, but When Harry Met Sally, her fictional account of a love story between the titular characters that plays out over more than a decade. Although it is sometimes dismissed as “Woody Allen-lite” in its depiction of New York and its often neurotic inhabitants, in reality it is one of the greatest “rom-coms” ever written. That is because in our more liberal age (at least when it comes to marriage and divorce) it is one of the few romantic comedies that has a genuine obstacle for the would-be lovers to overcome, namely Harry’s certainty that “men and women can never be friends, because sex always gets in the way”. Harry, like anyone who sees the film, eventually learns that true romantic love is sex plus friendship.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)
Like many other “New York writers”, Marshall Brickman – Woody Allen’s co-writer on arguably his two greatest works, Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) – was not a native of the city. Instead, he was born in Rio de Janeiro, as his American parents were expatriates in Brazil during World War Two. He studied in America, before becoming, of all things, a champion banjo player. (His banjo-playing partner, Eric Weissberg would go on to write the most famous banjo song ever written, “Duelling Banjos”, which was the soundtrack to the Deep South-set Deliverance (1972).) Eventually, Brickman became a comic writer, meeting Allen while they were both working in television at the end of the 1960s.
Although Annie Hall and Manhattan are apparently based largely on Allen’s own life (and in particular his romantic entanglements), Allen himself has always been quick to credit Brickman, not so much as a co-writer as a co-creator of his two great late 70s masterpieces. At a time when New York was almost literally falling apart because of rising crime and civic bankruptcy, the two men wrote what was effectively a pair of love letters to the city: the extraordinarily inventive and imaginative Annie Hall; and the more classical but no-less-beautiful Manhattan. Four decades on, they still stand as artistic “twin towers”, dizzying peaks not only in Allen’s own career but in the entire cinematic history of New York City.
KEY NEW YORK WORK (S): ANNIE HALL (1976) AND MANHATTAN (1979)
Paddy Chayefsky is almost universally recognized as the first great television writer, principally for his “television plays” (or teleplays) of the 1950s, such as Marty (1953), which was so good that it was soon remade as a film. Like Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman in film, Chayefsky wrote visual love letters to his home town. Initially, in his television work, his focus was on the Bronx (where he was born in 1923) and the other outlying boroughs of the city, rather than its centerpiece, Manhattan. However, as his own career developed and he began writing and producing films in the 1970s, his focus shifted to Manhattan, where he set two of his finest and most satirical stories, which both won Oscars for their writing.
The Hospital (1971) was the story of a Manhattan teaching hospital whose senior doctor (played by George C. Scott) experiences a midlife crisis, while in Network (1976) a news anchorman (played by Peter Finch) experiences the existential crisis to end all existential crises when he threatens to commit suicide while live-on-air. In those two films, along with the later and less well-regarded (but still fascinating) Altered States (1980), in which a writer experiments with drugs to try and help him overcome writer’s block, Chayefsky created a loose “trilogy” of New York stories. They captured much of the increasing madness and mayhem of the city as it approached the end of the 20th century.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: MARTY (1953)
The two finest screenplays that Jay Presson Allen wrote or co-wrote, particularly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and Cabaret (1972), were not set in New York but in other great cities (Edinburgh and Berlin respectively). Nevertheless, she qualifies as a great New York writer because it was in the city (or more precisely, just outside it, in the country) that she first became a writer. She turned her own experience of being a suburban housewife into her first successful play, The First Wife, which was filmed as Wives and Lovers (1963). Then her stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), became such a Broadway smash that she was eventually commissioned to adapt it for cinema.
On the back of her Broadway success with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Alfred Hitchcock personally invited Presson Allen to write his next movie, Marnie (1964), the story of a kleptomaniac whose compulsive stealing is gradually revealed to be the result of a traumatic childhood. Although it was not nearly as artistically or commercially successful as the masterpieces of Hitchcock’s “golden decade”, from Rear Window (1954) to The Birds (1963), it made Presson Allen a screenwriter and she always claimed that the lessons she had learned while writing it stood her in great stead for her later and far more successful screen adaptations of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Cabaret.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) (WHICH WAS ORIGINALLY A BROADWAY PLAY)
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The kind of luxurious but boring suburban lifestyle that prompted Jay Presson Allen to become a writer was also one of the foundation stones for Matthew Wiener’s televisual masterpiece, Mad Men. In effect, Betty Draper, whose husband is the brilliant but unfaithful copywriting genius, Don Draper, was the woman who Presson Allen would have become if she had not become a successful writer instead. And the tension between chaotic-but-creative New York City and its pretty-but-dull suburbs runs through all the series of Wiener’s 1960s-set drama, eventually destroying the Drapers’ marriage and sending Don into his own personal tailspin.
Before conceiving Mad Men, Wiener had already cut his teeth as a television writer on one of the other two great works of the early 21st century’s golden age of television, The Sopranos. (The Wire completes TV’s “holy trinity”.) However, Mad Men is arguably even greater than The Sopranos or The Wire. That is because the other two shows were effectively a gangster drama and a cop show that could easily (and entirely legitimately, given America’s gun violence) fall back on the easy drama of gunplay. By contrast, Mad Men, from the moment that its extraordinary opening credits (in which a man falls from a skyscraper in an eery foreshadowing of the 9/11 “jumpers”) began playing was the great workplace drama, making it infinitely more universal than either The Sopranos or The Wire.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: MAD MEN (2007-2015)
While he was writing for The Sopranos, Matthew Wiener was clearly paying close attention to its creator, David Chase, who both conceived the show and wrote or co-wrote more than a third of its 86 episodes. However, unlike Wiener, who had no previous connection with the advertising industry before beginning to write Mad Men, Chase’s own early life provided the inspiration for The Sopranos.
Like Tony Soprano and his mobsters (and most of his mistresses), Chase grew up in New Jersey, outside New York, and it is that sense of outsiderdom that is at the heart of The Sopranos. New Jersey has always felt itself to be in the shadow of New York and obviously, that extends even to its criminal fraternity, as Tony and his crew spend much of the show’s six series simultaneously resenting their New York counterparts and yearning to be them. Inevitably, it all comes to a head when a “war” breaks out between the New Jersey and the New York mobs, culminating in the extraordinary final season, in which Tony fights for his own life and that of his two “families” (his biological family unit and his extended “family” of cons).
KEY NEW YORK WORK: THE SOPRANOS (1999-2007)
Robert “Bo” Goldman was born in New York in 1932 and although his greatest screenplays – in particular, “The Insanity Trilogy” of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980) and Shoot The Moon (1982) – are not actually set in the city, they nevertheless embody the kind of nervous energy that flows right through “The Big Apple”. And later in his career, he actually wrote two New York-set films, Scent of a Woman (1992) and City Hall (1996), which may not match his earlier masterpieces but are still fine films in their own right.
Like Paddy Chayefsky, Marshall Brickman and many other successful screenwriters, Goldman began writing in television in the 1950s, experiencing an extremely long apprenticeship in the “Playhouse” television (usually adaptations of plays or short stories) of the time. He finally got his big break in cinema when he was asked to adapt a book that was thought to be unadaptable (at least for screen), Ken Kesey’s magisterial account of individual and institutional madness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The extraordinary success of Cuckoo (it became the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to win all of the five most important Oscars: Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Actress; Best Director; and Best Screenplay) propelled Goldman forward for the next decade, during which he wrote and co-wrote many films, most notably Melvin and Howard (the story of an ordinary man’s encounter with Howard Hughes) and Shoot The Moon (which is still probably the greatest film ever about the misery and madness of divorce).
If, like most writers and indeed most artists, Goldman lost a lot of his early steam later on in his career, he still managed to conjure up his own cinematic tribute to New York in Scent of a Woman, in which Al Pacino’s blind ex-soldier experiences one last wild weekend in New York, with a much younger man (played by Chris O’Donnell) acting as his eyes.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992)
David Angell was not born in New York (he hailed from Providence, Rhode Island) and he spent most of his career in California, writing (and later producing) first for Cheers and then for its even more successful spin-off, Frasier. However, he began his writing career on the enormously successful US sitcom, All In The Family (based on the British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part), which was set in New York “blue-collar borough”, Queens. And far more importantly, if tragically, he died in New York, as he and his wife, Lynn, were on the first plane that was crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The Angells’ tragic deaths were just two of the thousands of individual tragedies on that most infamous of days. However, they were particularly keenly felt in the writing room of Frasier and it is arguable that the show’s relative decline for the next three series (before its triumphant return to form in its final season) was at least in part down to the absence of David Angell. If that is the case, it is the ultimate tribute to this most genial of geniuses, who I know from the first-hand account of a friend who briefly worked with him on Frasier was every bit as lovable (and a lot less cantankerous) than Frasier’s father, Martin, the former policeman whose verbal sparring with his psychiatrist son was one of the major reasons for the show’s extraordinary success.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-1979)
The great Ben Hecht is the earliest screenwriter on this list and in many ways he provided the pathway for so many of the screenwriters who followed him. And that is literally true of what might be the most famous thing he ever wrote (despite the fact that he wrote about seventy screen stories or screenplays, let alone all his journalism and writing for the stage). That is the legendary telegram that he sent in 1926 from Hollywood to his friend and fellow writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz (who went on to write Citizen Kane): “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Hecht was born in New York in 1894. However, he first made his name in the 1920s as a writer in America’s second city, Chicago, where he worked as a crime reporter (in the age of Al Capone!) before becoming, first, a successful Broadway playwright and then a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Over the next four decades, he wrote, co-wrote or “doctored” (i.e. rewrote) some of the greatest movies ever, from The Front Page (1931, which was based on his stage play of the same name) to Roxie Hart (1942) to Guys and Dolls (1955). However, amid all these other masterpieces, his greatest screenplay, which may just be the wittiest screenplay ever written, was His Girl Friday (1940).
Once again, His Girl Friday was based on Hecht’s play The Front Page, but it was more thrillingly realized on screen by Howard Hawks than the earlier film had been. The tale of a newspaper editor and his star reporter (who is also his ex-wife), and their attempt to stop the wrongful execution of an innocent man, it might just be the greatest New York-set film ever made, and in its machine-gun dialogue it captures all the intensity and insanity of the world’s greatest city.
KEY NEW YORK WORK: HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/