With the writer's strike in full swing, I thought I'd pay tribute to a few of the writers who currently have films in theaters. Quite frankly, you really have to admire some of them. Take Allison Burnett, who adapted Feast of Love (2 screens) as well as this year's earlier Resurrecting the Champ. Burnett received very little love for either movie, but consider how hard it must have been to cut down a novel and expand a newspaper article at the same time? It makes my head spin. It's also quite impressive that Burnett was able to work again after his earlier script was turned into the universally panned film Autumn in New York (2000). But the thing that impressed me most of all about Burnett is his first produced script, Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight (1992), a vehicle for "Z" level action star Don 'The Dragon' Wilson. This is from a guy who studied playwriting and has published a novel. I can only imagine what it must be like to sit down and actually write something like that. Do you tape the paycheck on the wall next to your desk and keep staring at it? Good for Burnett that he made it out of that hole.

Then there's The Simpsons Movie (96 screens), which has at least eleven credited writers, and possibly more who added material without credit. Among them we have David Mirkin, who directed one of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures, Heartbreakers (2001), and James L. Brooks, who won an armload of Oscars for Terms of Endearment (1983). Most of the others are from TV, and I'd like to think they wrote this movie the way they might have written a half-hour episode: by sitting around a big table and throwing out ideas and laughing a lot. Those writer rooms are usually decorated with stuffed animals and novelty items, as well as plates of donuts and other snacks -- perhaps some kind of air freshener as well. It makes me all warm just thinking about it.

Speaking of comedy, it would also be revealing to sit in on one of Wes Anderson's writing sessions. He wrote his first three -- and best -- films with Owen Wilson, then wrote The Life Aquatic with Noah Baumbach. His new one, The Darjeeling Limited (386 screens) was written with cousins Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. Yet they still managed to get in some of that very specific Owen Wilson-type dialogue, that kind of careful drawl that always makes me laugh. Even lines like "Let's go have a drink and smoke a cigarette" have an appealingly off-kilter ring. But the question remains: who really writes these movies? How much does Anderson contribute? Does he moderate the writing sessions? Do they all write separately and fax pages back and forth? Is there another, uncredited helper? I'd love to know!

Paul Haggis, whose current movie is In the Valley of Elah (27 screens), has wormed his way up to the top of the screenwriter A-list without being funny at all. His movies are far too issue-heavy for me, but I have to give him props for writing two excellent movies, Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale. I think Clint Eastwood's direction softened the preachy aspects of the former, and at the same time I think Haggis probably added a level of maturity to the Bond picture. It's also helpful to remember -- and I hope Haggis remembers -- that he started out writing "The Facts of Life" and other middling shows for TV. Perhaps the multi-cultural aspect of that show was an early inspiration for Crash. I also want to applaud Tony Gilroy, one of the writers on The Bourne Ultimatum (203 screens) and also the writer and director of Michael Clayton -- for being able to write expository dialogue while making it sound like actual conversation. (For the uninitiated, expository dialogue imparts information that the characters should already know but speak out loud for the audience's benefit. For example: "I'll see you next Tuesday at the YMCA, where we meet every week for a swim and, afterwards, lunch."

Blade Runner (16 screens) is currently showing in limited release in its "Final Cut," though I'm not sure co-screenwriters David Webb Peoples and Hampton Fancher had anything to do with that. I interviewed Fancher once, and I know that they did not work together and that they each somewhat disapproved of the other's work. Regardless, they're both excellent writers. Fancher (mainly an actor) worked on The Mighty Quinn and his own directorial debut The Minus Man. Peoples famously wrote Unforgiven, as well as Hero and Twelve Monkeys. Oh, and they adapted a novel by Philip K. Dick, who died just prior to the film's release. His work, likewise, has been made into several good movies, and he never has to worry about a writer's strike.

Finally, one of the best writers out there, Jean-Claude Carriere, is on the charts with one of his few duds, Goya's Ghosts (3 screens). And my two favorite screenplays of the year come from relative novices. Director Andrew Dominik adapted the book by Ron Hansen for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (130 screens) -- using a lot of the original dialogue -- and it's probably the best sounding movie of the year. And in the future I would keep an eye out for the name Kelly Masterson, who wrote Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (123 screens). I can't find much information on him, but it's one hell of a job behind the typewriter.

categories Columns, Cinematical