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.