Oct 16 2013 11:00am

Filmmaking Visionaries: The Top Ten Writer-Directors


Watching Gravity in IMAX 3D this weekend, I was struck by the audacity of Alfonso Cuarón. From the precise attention to zero-gravity physics to the heart-pounding interplay of noise and silence, this movie wasn’t simply written—it was authored, from start to finish, by a visionary. In the film world, such adepts are known as “auteurs”—creatives who don’t simply write or direct a film but conjure the entire thing wholesale. While only a small number of projects are made this way, they include some of the most successful and beloved movies.

Consider the numbers. The seven highest-grossing films of all time were writer- director films: Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Star Wars I, Star Wars IV, and The Dark Knight Rises. If you look at the Best Picture Oscar nominees for 2011 and 2012, a full half of them were written and directed by one person. What does this tell us? That when a single visionary owns a project from conception to production to release, the result is a special kind of creative magic. That ability to imagine a movie and bring it to life is perhaps the most prized of all creative skills.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at ten writer-directors (many of whom are also producers) whose story worlds have established them as masters of their medium. This is not a definitive list, just a brief foray into the topic, so feel free to jump in with your own favorites in the comments at the end of the article.

#10 Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men)

Alfonso Cuarón has established himself as an auteur with a unique visual style that includes, among other things, jaw-droppingly long takes. (The opening take of Gravity lasts an incredible seventeen minutes.) In both Gravity and Children of Men (which was written by Mark Fergus but re-written by Cuarón), the director demonstrates an integrity of vision that began with the screenplay and continued to the cutting room floor. With Gravity smashing October box office records, it will be interesting to see what Cuarón tackles next. For my money, I’d love to see an entire action film shot in one epic take...

#9 M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village)

Once upon a time, M. Night Shyamalan was Hollywood’s golden child. His films The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village were eerie and amazing, the kind of movie only a writer-director could create. In recent years, he’s gone a bit off the rails; after The Last Airbender, Hollywood insiders said he’d never direct again, though he did, with this summer’s flop After Earth. So why is he on the list? Because at his best, M. Night was a true craftsman, breaking new ground, pushing the boundaries of genre work, using the camera in ways that were uniquely his. Perhaps one day he’ll reclaim the lofty heights of his golden years. If not... hopefully he won’t be remembered for Lady in the Water!

#8 Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Tomorrowland)

Brad Bird is a ten-year-old kid in a fifty-five-year-old body. His boisterous enthusiasm for storytelling is contagious, and it’s led to some of Hollywood’s most exciting action films. As a writer-director, Bird created The Incredibles and saved Ratatoiulle (re-writing the script penned by Jan Pinkava); he didn’t write the nail-biting Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but next year’s secretive Tomorrowland is entirely his own, and one of the most highly-anticipated films of 2014.

#7 Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Firefly)

A decade from now, Joss Whedon might be nearing the #1 spot on this list; he’s certainly got the talent. Firefly and Serenity had limited success during their initial airings, but they developed huge followings; Whedon subsequently wrote and directed The Avengers, which holds the record for best opening weekend and is one of the most highly-rated summer tentpoles ever made. Like Brad Bird, Joss Whedon might not be considered an auteur as such—his movies don’t have that artsy quality, they’re just extremely good—but Whedon definitely has the gift of vision. It will be interesting to see if he leverages his success on the Avengers films to launch a box office masterpiece of his own.

#6 Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums)

Wes Anderson films are so unique and idiosyncratic that they’re almost their own genre. He developed a cult following with movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but has taken his quirky form of filmmaking into new territory with Moonrise Kingdom (the most charming film of 2012) and The Fantastic Mister Fox (ninety minutes of are-you-kidding-me stop-motion animation). Anderson specializes in characters rather than worlds, but don’t let that fool you: Moonrise Kingdom is a story world, and one that even jaded Wes Anderson fans can joyfully visit over and over again.

#5 The Wachowski Siblings (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas)

Look, the Wachowskis aren’t perfect. But Andy and Lana have made some of the most ground-breaking movies in film history, most notably The Matrix, which is still front and center in our cultural zeitgeist. Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece in its own right; I’ll be exploring it in detail next week. The siblings have certainly had their low points, e.g. Matrix Revolutions and Speed Racer; but they also get bonus points for writing and producing V for Vendetta. The real test will be their next project, Jupiter Ascending; if they pull off another cinematic coup d’etat they might finally shake off the endless criticism and earn their (proverbial) stars on the Walk of Fame.

#4 George Lucas (Star Wars, Episodes I-VI)

George Lucas created Star Wars, from his imagination. I repeat: he pulled the entire Star Wars universe out of his rear end. In terms of being a writer-director, purists will argue that The Empire Strikes Back (the strongest of the films) was directed by Irvin Keshner, but the fact remains that Lucas redefined the film industry, practically invented special effects, and took the world of film merchandising by storm. Regardless of your feelings about the prequels and re-releases, you have to give George Lucas credit for being George Lucas.

#3 Peter Jackson (The Lord of Rings, The Hobbit)

Peter Jackson (along with writing partners Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens) might not have pulled The Lord of the Rings from his back side—that honor falls to JRR Tolkien—but his visionary approach to adapting the epic books stands as one of the great feats of modern filmmaking. Only love and devotion could have led his trilogy to become the most successful film series ever produced (factoring in box office receipts and industry awards), and while Jackson has been hit or miss on other projects (the jury’s still out on The Hobbit), the sheer scale of his work in Middle Earth earns him this number three slot.

#2 Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy)

Christopher Nolan is perhaps the most impressive writer-director to emerge in Hollywood over the last decade. His range is astounding: along with his writer brother, he has been the visionary behind Inception (smartest sci-fi film of the decade); The Prestige (best magician film of all-time), and the Dark Knight trilogy (two installments of which are among those top seven biggest money-makers.) But the best thing about Christopher Nolan: he’s just getting started. Fans are quivering in anticipation of next year’s Interstellar. I can’t wait to see where he goes from there.

#1 James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, Terminator 2)

Call it cliché, but James Cameron is the best writer-director of them all. He’s the Steve Jobs of film: he knows exactly what the world wants long before we know we want it. He created the two highest-grossing films of all time (Avatar and Titanic), one of which swept the Academy Awards and the other of which ushered in the era of 3D. His legacy extends far beyond those two of course: with ground-breaking movies like Terminator, The Abyss, and Aliens under his belt, it’s clear that Cameron is a one-man industry capable of pushing any envelope. Are we excited for three years of Avatar sequels beginning in 2016? You bet. Anyone with that much talent and ambition is a gift to the art they pursue.

There are many, many more writer-directors producing popular material in both mainstream and independent film, from Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen to the Cohen Brothers and the much-maligned Terrence Mallick. Who do you consider the best (or worst) writer-directors in Hollywood?

Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, take a second to like his page on Facebook and/or to check out his blog. He also has a new Twitter account that he is trying to remember to use.

Derek Broughton
1. auspex
Let's not go overboard. I saw Gravity on Monday night, and I loved it, but "precise attention to zero-gravity physics" is quite the overstatement. The zero-gravity physics was "good enough" (though the fact that Bullock didn't get bashed in the head with that fire extinguisher, even once, was driving me nuts!) but hardly precise.

Cuaron's depiction of orbital physics was terrible! You can't just "point and shoot" to reach another orbiting object. At one point Kowalski says (of landing the Soyuz) "It's not rocket science", and I'd have to agree that Bullock's handling of rockets certainly wasn't (though I was pretty impressed with her eventual use of the fire extinguisher). Still, as my wife said: "but Star Trek's OK?"
2. Glenn23
To put the time in to create this list and leave off Tarantino, who is a shoe-in for the #1 or #2 spot, is remarkable. He writes and directs all of his work. The movies always do big box office, alway win academy awards and always garner some sort of controversial or polarizing attention. He has, as yet, had zero box-office and critical busts -- unlike each of the other filmakers listed -- and he takes remarkable pride in artistic integrity, even limiting his work to one film every couple years. Appalling.

Apparently Brad Kane is not a fan, so he goes to extreme lengths to work around Tarantino. And I didn't even mention the Cohen Bros. Wow, Wachowski weirdos over Cohen. Do yourself a favor and enroll in any (ANY!) generic film class at any generic liberal arts school. Because you are sorely uneducated.

And really, man? M. Night and no Tarantino. Yikes. It's too much. Make this story go away.
3. olethros
The Coens belong near the top of this list.
4. olethros
Oh, and not even mentioning Sam Raimi is criminal, the sins of Spider Man 3 notwithstanding.
Stefan Mitev
5. Bergmaniac
There are films being made outside outside of Hollywood, and plenty of non-US/indie writers/directors who are better than those listed here. Michael Haneke, Wong Kar Wai, Kim Ki-duk - just to name a few obvious examples.

Besides, unless we are talking about someone like Cameron's later moves when he was a superstar and a main producer, in Hollywood being the writer and director doesn't really mean it's a single vision at all. The producers have huge power.
David W
6. DavidW
I came to declare that Speed Racer is in fact an incredible film and is filled with excitement, humor, an engaging story, and wonderful visuals. It's a perfect balance against the trend towards gritty and dark which is needed.
Greg Parker
8. WaggaWagga
Needs more P.T. Anderson.
Also Jeff Nichols.
Brad Kane
9. bradkane
Clarification: I'm a huge fan of Tarantino (and many other writer-directors, including the Cohens and Woody Allen) --but for the purposes of this article, I'm looking specifically at writer-directors who create "Story Worlds" that touch on science fiction, fantasy, and high concept film. Apologies to the great Quentin for not making that clear!
10. Ryamano

Good to see someone else liked Speed Racer, as I did.
Tucker McKinnon
11. jazzfish
... Terry Gilliam? Time Bandits, Brazil, Munchausen, Dr Parnassus, etc etc ad infinitum?
12. Architeuth
Oh look. There is only one woman on the list and she's part of pair.
13. Reginald Horsecock
Men should be outlawed.

Also, saying Tarantino writes his own material is, in itself, absolutely hilarious. If by writing you mean appropriating choice bits from other people's work without actually *doing* something productive with it, then sure. He writes his own stuff. Real original. So, don't go totin' around "artistic integrity" with his name attached. I will guffaw at you, good sir!
Michael Grosberg
14. Michael_GR
I was amazed Spielberg wasn't on the list but turns out I overestimated his involvement in the films he directed. He's an amazing director but doesn't have as many writing/story credits as I assumed. With my newfound knowledge I can now add Indiana Jones to the list of things Lucas imagined.
Allana Schneidmuller
15. blutnocheinmal
I also agree on Speed Racer. I really enjoyed that movie. I was sad afterword because I'd never gotten to see it in the theater.

Agree on no Terry Gilliam? Brazil and Time Bandits, Parnassus was flawed, but I feel he did well considering the circumstances.
Jason Parker
16. tarbis
John Carpenter is a must.
Woody Allen could count on the same magical realism grounds that you used to let Wes Anderson in.
On the basis of his kids movies I could see an argument for Robert Rodriguez, but I wouldn't make it myself.
While I'm not a huge Tarantino fan if you think he doesn't build story worlds then your history teachers completely flubbed the units on the second world war.
Sean Tabor
17. wingracer
Del Toro?

Even if you don't like Pacific Rim, writer, director AND producer of Pan's Labyrinth is an automatic bid for the hall of fame.
18. olethros
@12 - Perhaps you should direct your world weary sarcasm at the film industry instead of the article. Also, hell yes, Terry Gilliam.
19. Alright Then
John Carpenter.
Dan Rice
20. driceman
Not sure how Cameron and Shyamalan even made this list; I don't think they're talented in the slightest personally. Cameron can pander to an audience, but is he a visionary? I'm skeptical on that one. With how bad his later movies are, I almost feel like Shyamalan just got lucky with Sixth Sense. I also think Lucas gets a lot more cred than he deserves on the original Star Wars trilogy, but that's up for debate.

However, Nolan, the Wachowskis, Jackson, Whedon, Bird and Cuaron are great picks, each with their own distinct style, and the first three in particular have made big contributions to modern film as a whole in my opinion As others have said, I think Tarantino and the Coens would've been great choices.

I guess it's all opinion, but Nolan, the Wachowskis and Jackson are by far the best of this list to me. Like he said, the Wachowskis have had their low points with Revolutions and Speed Racer, but Cloud Atlas is easily their best in my opinion and it's their most recent work, which bodes well for Jupiter Ascending.
21. graftonio
Put another check mark in the box for "Why no John Carpenter?!?"

Maybe even Wes Craven although he tends more towards Horror but come on Swamp Thing was great and The Hills have Eyes has mutants.
22. Eugene R.
I'm tossing in Stanley Kubrick, who does have screenplay credits on most of his films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Oh, and Terry Gilliam, hell yes.
Charles Hamlyn
23. cbhamlyn
I'm not saying the Lord of the Rings movies weren't great, they absolutely were. I'm taking issue with your praising Jackson for his ability to turn the novels into movies. Go watch the 1978 animated Lord of the Rings. It only goes through the two towers (they ran out of money) but there are SO many scenes that Jackson flat out ripped off from that. It's startling. Angles, dialog, etc. I'm willing to bet the animated version had more direct influence in the first two movies than the books did!
24. AlanHK
George Lucas created Star Wars, from his imagination. I repeat: he pulled the entire Star Wars universe out of his rear end.
It was a mishmash of sword and sorcery sci-fi, taking bits from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, Frank Herbert's Dune, Flash Gordon, etc, etc. It was wonderfully put together, (the original Star Wars, now called Part IV), wonderfully entertaining, but there is nothing original Lucas pulled out of his ass in the Star Wars universe. Not one thing. Well, maybe Midichlorians and Jar-Jar.
25. Havok
26. donjon69
Not having Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coens on here is a joke, right? Hell, I think Tarantino probably deserves a spot for his first three films alone, even though his track record post-Jackie Brown is a lot more spotty.
27. Chucky
Tarantino deserves a spot on here. I'd toss M. Night Shyamalan for what he did to The last airbender he shouldnt of touched it, but im a fan of his previous work. @23 Intresting comment about Jackson though, didnt know there was an animated film - not a suprise after finding out Lucas was just remixing instead of "pulling stories out of his ass". My vote goes to Tarantino

- To be honest i wasnt expecting to see Cameron at #1 also intresting.
28. hitman 83
Guillermo del Toro , david lynch ,tim burton,
Tarsem Singh, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Zemeckis

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