The Top 10 Writer-Directors

By Martin Keady · January 7, 2015

The pure writer-director (someone who exclusively writes and directs their own movies) probably does not exist. Cinema is such an inherently collaborative artform that the roles of director and screenwriter often overlap, with a great screenplay providing many of the visual clues and hints as to how a film should look and directors often contributing, at least in part, to a film’s finished script. Nevertheless, these ten writer-directors, ranging from modern masters to all-time greats, are deserving of the title, having written (or at the very least co-written) and directed some of the most seminal films in cinema.



In the last 20 years, noone has done more to rewrite cinematic language than Tarantino, leading to the almost universal application of the term “Tarantino-esque” to describe films similar to his in style. But noone can match the early impact and sheer chutzpah of his early classics, least of all Tarantino himself. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are both blood-drenched masterpieces: Dogs taking to heart Dov Simens’ dictum of getting a dozen characters together in one place and cutting them to pieces; Fiction the ultimate snake-eating-its-own-tail act of storytelling structure. And though Jackie Brown cannot quite match the brilliance of Tarantino’s opening one-two punch, it is still a wonderfully clever and mature piece of film-making.



Surely, as is so often the case in cinema and life, the clue is in the name: “Linklater.” Often, he literally links later, with stories (or even a series of stories) seeming to wander off-piste, before somehow making it back to the main slope for the final downhill run. Having said above that noone has done more to rewrite recent cinematic language than Tarantino, I would also argue that no contemporary director has done more to represent the messy, disconnected, media-saturated, almost media-stunned nature of contemporary existence than Linklater. From Slacker’s sprawling, stoned storytelling to the Before series, which depicts a couple’s relationship as it evolves over decades, right through to his most recent masterpiece, Boyhood, which makes all other coming-of-age movies redundant as it actually shows a boy coming of age on screen, Linklater excels at simple, truthful, life-like storytelling.



Completing the trio of contemporary masters of writing-directing is Alexander Payne, and for my money he may just be the best of the lot. About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents and Nebraska may all be, in essence, the same movie – a road movie about unusual, if not downright strange, characters, set in the kind of America rarely seen in much Hollywood cinema (rural, quiet and remarkably unviolent) – but what a movie it is! If Renoir is right, and a director only makes one movie in his entire career, Payne is the exemplar of that dictum. But with such warm-hearted writing and beautiful cinematography (just think of the paradise in The Descendents, or the wine-fields in Sideways), his career-movie is one of the most beautiful and affectionate ever made.



At the other end of the cinematic spectrum to Quentin Tarantino, in almost every sense, is Eric Rohmer. Where Tarantino’s movies are fast, flashy and violent (almost the quintessential American movies), Rohmer’s are slow, meditative and philosophical (almost the definitive French films). Unlike Tarantino, however, who could not sustain his brilliant opening salvo over a whole career, Rohmer made many great films over many years. From his early cycle, Six Moral Tales, through to mid-career classics like Claire’s Knee and The Green Ray, culminating in the late series, Tales of the Four Seasons, which is second only to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in all of art for its depiction of the seasons of the year and how they correspond to the different stages of human life, almost any Rohmer film is worth seeing. The BFI is currently showing a season of his work and anyone who loves cinema should see as much of it as they can.



Bergman is the great granddaddy of European (specifically northern European) cinema, who wrote and directed a host of classics over his career. The Seventh Seal, his breakthrough, is his most famous film, with its legendary depiction of a man literally confronting death, but he maintained that extraordinary dark power and momentum over nearly three decades, culminating in his final masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander, one of the great films about childhood (both its wonder and its terror). A particular personal favourite is Through A Glass Darkly, which, as befits its title, is one of the darkest films ever made, showing how an artist (played by Max Von Sydow, and perhaps acting as a surrogate for Bergman himself) can forget his own humanity to exploit the suffering of his own family.



If Bergman is Scandinavia (remote, dark, magnificent), Fellini is the Mediterranean (sun-drenched, romantic, illusory). They are the two poles of post-war European cinema and it is fascinating to think of a cinematic heaven in which the two would collaborate. (Woody Allen, for one, would consider that worth dying for.) From La Strada to La Dolce Vita and (perhaps his three most personal films, and a hat-trick that any other film-maker would struggle to match), and even in late films such as Amarcord, Fellini examined art, showbiz and the circus (including the modern media circus that is the paparazzi, the phenomenon he himself christened), but above all himself: the illusions and delusions of the artist.



Has there ever been a father-son duo like Auguste and Jean Renoir? If the likes of Julian Lennon and Jakob Dylan think they have it hard following in the footsteps of a famous father, how much harder must it have been for Jean Renoir to follow his father, the great Impressionist painter? And yet, arguably, Renoir achieved even more in his chosen art-form – cinema – than Auguste did in his. La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu alone merit his inclusion in this list (even if they were both co-written with other screenwriters), but there are many, many others, from the classic early comedy Boudu Saved from Drowning to the late masterpieces, notably the India-set The River.



John Huston, “the Hemingway of Cinema,” wrote most of his classic movies, which just gives him the edge (in this list, at least) over two other great American directors of the golden age of Hollywood, Howard Hawks (who had the superlative wordsmith Ben Hecht to assist him) and John Ford (who was “just” a great director). Huston adapted such classic novels as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, and to continue the father-son theme his son, Tony, adapted James Joyce’s sublime short story, The Dead, for his last film, and arguably his finest masterpiece.


The top two on this list are pretty much unassailable, at least in American cinema, which has obviously been the dominant national cinema for the past century.  Interestingly, however, and perhaps to prove my point about the difficulty of being a pure writer-director, both of them made some of their best movies while working with a co-writer. In Wilder’s case, there were several co-authors, including the immortal I.A.L. Diamond. Diamond himself apparently claimed that his initials stood for “Interscholastic Algebra League,” but I prefer to believe that they stood for “I Am Life,” because his and Billy’s screenplays are imbued with life. The best of them are among the best screenplays of all time, particularly Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Of course, Billy also worked with the brilliant Charles Brackett on The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, and with Raymond Chandler himself on Double Indemnity. Nevertheless, despite these stellar collaborators, Wilder, being the director as well as the co-writer of these classics, was the dominant creative force – the great writer-director.



The Oscars are not the sole, or even the best, index of cinematic greatness, but the fact that Woody Allen and Billy Wilder top the list of most nominated screenwriters in Academy Award history does give some indication of the scale of their achievements. The fact that Woody, now approaching his ninth decade, is still making masterpieces such as Midnight In Paris and Blue Jasmine is a testament to his sheer longevity as a movie-maker, and it is that longevity that puts him at the top of this list. Where many other singular talents (notably Orson Welles) have been broken, or at least brutally diminished, by the American studio system, Woody has always survived, indeed thrived, in his own micro-universe, somehow outside the studios’ hold while still benefiting from their money and celebration of his achievements. His own foil as a screenwriter on some of his greatest works, notably the knock-out double bill of Annie Hall and Manhattan, was Marshall Brickman. But Woody has also self-penned numerous classics, from brilliant “early funnies” such as Play It Again Sam (based on his own stage play) to mature masterpieces such as Broadway Danny Rose and Crimes and Misdemeanours. Woody himself would be appalled (and no doubt nauseous) to see himself heading a list above his own personal heroes, Bergman and Fellini, but he is deserving of such an accolade – even though, like all the Oscars he has won, he would never show up to collect it.


Author’s Note

One final, and very personal, point. As a screenwriter, I marvel at the very idea of being a writer-director. Although I completely understand that a screenwriter would want to have ultimate control of his or her script by directing it, at the same time the two roles seem to require different, and perhaps contradictory, skills. The writer is, ultimately, a word-person; the director is, ultimately, a people-person (or at least they should be, if they want to direct people). As someone who is infinitely more comfortable in the world of words than the world of people, I tip my hat to those who can comfortably exist in both worlds.