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By Kevin Nelson · March 21, 2022
Women make the world go round and often make sure it doesn’t fall off its axis.
For proof, just take a look at the contributions that so many incredible women have made to the film industry and the world. Women played an integral role in the founding of early Hollywood, often working quietly alongside the men who would find their names prominently displayed in the history books.
For example, Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the first filmmakers to create a narrative film and is responsible for over one thousand short films from the earliest days of filmmaking. She worked with the Lumière Brothers as well as Léon Gaumont.
Also, June Mathis’ screenwriting for films such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse catapulted her to be one of the first executives of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
There have been so many women who have made a difference in our lives with their creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance. Let’s take a look at some women screenwriters who are still making up that difference today.
Chloé Zhao began her career like many great filmmakers, by working within her means in short films, but she was initially intent on a career in politics. After graduating with a political science degree, she began working as a bartender and found solace in listening to her patrons, realizing the incredible stories that everyday people had to tell. She then decided to enroll in the NYU Tisch School for the Arts graduate film program.
Her first two short films The Atlas Mountains and Daughters gained her recognition for her visionary direction. Her writing and directorial style are intimately connected with characters lost in grand vistas of grandeur. She knows how to make the most with a minimal budget, being that she made her first three features on grants and edited them on her own laptop.
Her ability to capture a sense of naturalism in her work earned her plenty of accolades and ultimately led to Marvel hiring her to write and direct The Eternals.
As Zhao told AZCentral:
“I don’t believe money can limit me. I don’t believe that. That’s why we made my first film with 100 grand and ‘The Rider’ with 80. I think we can find solutions. And that limitation, that solution, is actually going to define us as a filmmaker, to allow us to find creative solutions that are going to be essential in forming our voice. And with ‘Eternals,’ the biggest key is to have discipline, give limitations.”
Zhao’s first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, earned her a debut at Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the top director award at Cannes. The film was shot featuring the Lakota Sioux tribe and she returned to the Pine Ridge reservation afterward to visit. That’s when she ran into a real-life cowboy by the name of Brady Jandreau. When she saw him training horses, there was just something about him that made Zhao know she had to make a movie about him.
She worked on different stories for him until he got injured on the job, and thus true life informed her story with a fictionalized version of reality, blending fact and fiction perfectly.Download the script
Nomadland was based on the 2017 nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. In the same way that Zhao blurred fiction with reality, several real-life nomads from the books appeared as fictionalized versions of themselves in the film.
The film earned Zhao the Best Director award at the 93rd Annual Academy Awards, making her the first Asian woman and woman of color to win the academy award for Best Director. The success of Nomadland got the attention of Marvel, who hired her to write and direct The Eternals.Download the script
Shonda Rhimes knew from an early age that she loved storytelling. As a child, her mother would record her stories on a tape recorder and her mother would transcribe. When she saw Whoopi Goldberg perform George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum live on Broadway at the age of 17, she fell in love with theater.
After college, she used her writing skills to work at an advertising agency but the fire wasn’t there, so she quit and enrolled at the University of Southern California’s MFA screenwriting program, where she graduated at the top of her class and became an intern for Debra Martin Chase, who became her mentor as a prominent and successful Black woman producer.
She went on to work as a research director on a Hank Aaron documentary, made a short film, and optioned a script with New Line Cinema. She received a co-writing credit on Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and wrote Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. In 2003, Rhimes wrote her first TV pilot for ABC but the network ultimately turned it down, but it wouldn’t be long before Rhimes dominated Thursday nights for the network.
Shonda Rhimes wrote the pilot for Grey’s Anatomy in 2002. Tired of writing about teenage girls and makeovers, Rhimes wanted to tell a more adult story about sexy surgeons and the drama between the surgeries.
ABC premiered the show as a midseason replacement of another canceled program and by the end of the season, more than 20 million people would tune it for Meredith Grey’s love affairs between Dr. McDreamy and McSteamy. As the show built steam, so did Rhimes’s career. She’d become one of the most powerful television producers in the game.Download the script
From the success of Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes went on to create and produce the spin-off series Private Practice and then followed up with Scandal. She had written a couple of different pilots for series that either weren’t picked up or were canceled shortly after airing. That is, until ABC ordered her pilot for Scandal to series.
Scandal received the time slot after Grey’s Anatomy and the debut was huge. The series maintained much of the viewership from Grey’s while also taking advantage of the free advertising of social media. The double feature of Shondaland shows would create an advertising boom for ABC, pulling in 5% of the network’s entire revenue.
Soon, Shondaland would completely dominate Thursday nights with the debut of Peter Nowalk’s How to Get Away With Murder, which Shonda Rhimes produced.Download the script
Amanda Silver works alongside her writing partner and husband Rick Jaffa. The two helped redefine the reboot with the Planet of the Apes series. The two have a knack for reimagining classic franchises and intellectual property, having also written Jurassic World and the live adaptation of Mulan.
Jaffa was always a fan of the original franchise and the two had been reading articles about chimpanzees that were kept as pets and how it would always end tragically. They came up with the character of Caesar and it exploded from there after pitching the idea. They wanted to touch on themes of animal abuse in experimentations to advance human medicine and show the struggles that primates go through in captivity.Download the script
With Rise, Jaffa and Silver hoped to create a platform for future films in the franchise. They planted a lot of seeds that could be expanded in future installations, such as the relationships between primates as they take control and the aftermath of the Simian Flu. Scott Z. Burns helped with the rewrite.Download the script
Misha Green worked as a staff writer and story editor on shows such as Sons of Anarchy, Heroes, and Spartacus. Then in 2016, she teamed up with fellow Heroes writer Joe Pokaski to create Underground.
Misha Green wrote the pilot and worked as the showrunner of Lovecraft Country alongside producers such as Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams, and Ben Stephenson. The show was widely praised and was released during the Pandemic. It was based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff.
The series does a great job of balancing the horror fiction of author H.P. Lovecraft with the horror of racism in the American South. Lovecraft himself was a notorious racist, so pitting black protagonists against his monstrous creations during the time of Jim Crow was superbly done by Green. Since the show has been unfortunately canceled, Green uploaded the entire season of scripts onto her website so younger writers could learn from her work.Download the script
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of those rare multi-hyphenate threats who produce, write, direct, and act. She started off in theater and began making appearances on the screen in 2009. In 2012, she wrote and starred in a one-woman play that would make her a household name. The character was created after Waller-Bridge was challenged by a friend to write a ten-minute sketch for a stand-up storytelling night.
The first full version of Fleabag premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. From there, it was produced by Two Brothers Pictures for digital channel BBC Three alongside Amazon Studios. The show demonstrates Waller-Bridge’s remarkable ability to make audiences laugh and cry within the same breath.Download the script
Waller-Bridge was approached to work on rewrites for the 25th James Bond film, as well as the final installment featuring Daniel Craig. She was reportedly hired to add more levity and humor to the script. This shows that if writers demonstrate a certain style and it’s successful, they will be hired for those skills for future projects.Download the script
Me LeFauve started her career working alongside her mentor Jodie Foster. She worked mainly as a producer in those early years, which would provide her important skills in her future positions working for Pixar, a studio known for their collaboration. LeFauve became known to many screenwriters during the Pandemic with the release of the podcast The Screenwriting Life with co-host and fellow writer, Lorien McKenna, where they discuss all the intimate intricacies involved in being a screenwriter.
Bob Peterson and Peter sign started working on The Good Dinosaur in 2009 based on an idea of Peterson’s. He was inspired by the animatronics he’d seen at world fairs as a child. The story went into a bit of development hell and Peterson left the project due to the fact that he couldn’t crack the third act.Download the script
Inside Out is proof of the ability of Pixar’s Braintrust. Filmmaker Pete Docter was feeling anxiety about his daughter’s transition into puberty. There had been a shift in his demeanor. He’d work alongside LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Ronnie del Carmen for years to develop the story. They did extensive research to understand the psychology of the character’s emotions.
They nitpicked every aspect of the story until it was just right, and the script is truly bulletproof. There’s a reason why it earned the nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 88th Academy Awards.Download the script
Diablo Cody came up with her pen name while driving through Cody, Wyoming while listening to El Diablo by the band Arcadia. On a whim, she signed up for amateur night at a Minneapolis strip club. She enjoyed the experience and went on to dance full time while writing blogs and magazine articles on the side.
She wrote a memoir at the insistence of Mason Novick, who would later become her manager. Novick saw the sharpness of her wit and was able to get Cody a book deal based on her blog writing alone. After she completed her book, Novick encouraged her to try writing a screenplay, which she completed in months. The script was called Juno and would launch her career.
Mason Novick worked with Cody on the development of her book and mentioned that she may want to adapt the memoir into a screenplay, but first she should write a screenplay sample to show studios to entice them to the project. She used both her own real-life experiences to inform the story as well as taking inspiration from childhood friends who dealt with teen pregnancy and adoption.
Upon completion, Novick sent Juno to director Jason Reitman. By the time Reitman reached the midpoint of the script, he knew that if he didn’t direct it he would regret it. Although, Reitman felt that he wouldn’t win the role of director because his own feature debut Thank You For Smoking hadn’t been released yet and he didn’t have a sample to show. The film went through difficulties finding funding because most production companies were too timid to take on the toughness of the reality behind the story.
John Malkovich’s production company eventually took the lead and the film was produced, earning Cody the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Not bad for a first screenplay.Download the script
While Juno was still in production, the script was sent around town and Cody’s voice leaped off the page. It earned her a lot of writing assignments and interest around the industry. Showtime produced her pilot United States of Tara starring Toni Collette, and Cody was able to sell a couple of spec scripts, including Jennifer’s Body.
Jennifer’s Body is a horror-comedy rooted in feminism. It wasn’t well-received upon its release, partly due to marketing mishandling. Cody sought to pay homage to horror conventions and the films she grew up loving while also turning them on their heads. Horror is inherently feminist, with the final survivor often being a woman. While exploring this exploitation, Cody wanted to speak on female empowerment, which in the wake of the Me Too Movement, provided the film with a rejuvenated appreciation from audiences and has since gone on to cult status.Download the script
Tully is the third collaboration between Jason Reitman. Cody wrote Tully to try and deal with her difficult pregnancy and acted as a place of refuge whenever she felt overwhelmed. The film acts as an unofficial third in a trilogy that began with Juno and continued with Young Adult.
The script for Tully felt like it saved Cody’s life. For so many, the act of writing is catharsis and a way to deal with the trauma and stress of our everyday lives.
As she wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times:
Download the script
“When I look back on this process, I realize my concept for ‘Tully’ could have been channeled into a much more commercial script: a goofball, bighearted Mother’s Day comedy about an exhausted mom and her wisecracking imaginary friend. This version would have had a different title: ‘Belly Laugh,’ maybe, or ‘Mom’s Gone Crazy.’ I could have gone that route and made way more money. Maybe I could even have parlayed it into a hilarious sequel. But there’s no way I could have written a ‘popcorn movie’ at the time. My commercial instincts — which are admittedly limited under even the best of circumstances — were nonexistent. I was a raw nerve, less a screenwriter in that moment than a mad diarist. I realize this all sounds totally pretentious and annoying, but if you’ve ever tapped a wound as an artist, you know what I mean. What comes out, comes out.”
Greta Gerwig initially wanted to become a playwright but turned to acting to keep the wheels rolling when she wasn’t accepted into playwriting MFA programs. She soon found herself starring in several independent mumblecore films and made a name for herself. Yet, she still couldn’t seem to break into the mainstream.
She began to work with Noah Baumbach in 2011, co-writing and starring in his films. They developed a romantic relationship over the years while collaborating on films, including Frances Ha, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.
Throughout these years of acting, Gerwig worked diligently on the screenplay for Lady Bird. Although not autobiographical, Gerwig pulled a lot of inspiration from her real-life experiences. She wanted to make a coming-of-age story centered around a young woman. To prepare for the film, she provided the cast and crew with old high school yearbooks, photos, and journals while taking them on a tour of her hometown, giving Gerwig’s directorial debut a touch of realness.Download the script
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the same name, Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a coming-of-age drama that speaks to the ambition and dreams of young women. Gerwig’s incredible screenplay breaks all the rules and has dual storylines that weave together to form a tapestry that makes the reader/viewer question what is past, present, and make-believe.Download the script
Michaela Coel performed poetry at open mic nights for many years before meeting playwright, actor, and director Ché Walker, who encouraged her to apply to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, a prestigious conservatory for the arts.
While at Guildhall, Coel wrote and performed in the one-woman show, Chewing Gum Dreams, for her senior thesis project. The play would find her performing in famous playhouses to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The play was adapted for Channel 4 as a sitcom titled Chewing Gum, for which she wrote and starred in. She won the British Academy of Television Award for Best Female Comedy Performance as well as a BAFTA for Breakthrough Talent for her writing.Download the script
While Michaela Coel was writing Chewing Gum, she was sexually assaulted. To deal with the trauma and pain from the aftermath of the assault, she put it on the page to create I May Destroy You. When Coel was shopping the pilot around, Netflix made a million-dollar offer. It must have been tough to walk away from that kind of money, but Coel knew in her heart that it wasn’t right for her.
She turned down the offer to maintain full ownership of the series. She ended up making a deal with the BBC that allowed Coel full creative control and ownership. BBC co-produced the series with HBO, which brought her harrowing tale to American audiences. The series is full of dark humor and unflinching bravery and was received with universal acclaim as one of the best shows of 2020.Download the script
If one thing is for certain, the film industry wouldn’t be what it is today without the contributions and efforts made by so many amazing women. Although this is just a short list, there are many more women keeping that legacy alive.
As more opportunities are afforded to women directors and writers, their stories will help heal the world one screen at a time. It’s way overdue that women are paid the same as their male counterparts, and they prove as much with each successful premiere.
Their stories are desperately needed.