Films That Inspire Me to Make Films

The other day, I found a list on LifeHack.org entitled 30 movies you should watch before you’re 40. It had some terrific choices (Fight Club, Pulp Fiction), some not-so-great selections (Shutter Island) and some surprising pixels-aren’t-dry picks (X-Men: Days of Future Past).

This seems to be big business on the internet lately: creating so-called “definitive” lists. These films didn’t have much in common, other than the author seemed to enjoy them and wants you to enjoy them too.

So I’ve decided to spend some time creating my own lists – but try to bring certain themes to them. Also because it’s good blog pieces for when I don’t have any better ideas. One rule though: I consider clear trilogies and continuing stories to be a single film.

Today, we’ll start with: Films That Inspire Me to Make Films

Gravity (2013)
Talk about seeing the entire thing from inspiration to the big screen. Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón dreamed up the idea seven years before the film was completed. He and his son wrote the screenplay – then realized the technology didn’t exist to create what they had in mind. So they spent years developing what they needed to execute what they had dreamed up. Once the tech was ready, they shot for months, often with Sandra Bullock spending 10 hours in a box the size of a phone booth. Finally, Cuarón was in the editing room every day with Mark Sanger – ultimately producing an uncompromised version of his vision. And we all saw the result – stunning, exhilarating visuals combined with a minimalist survival story with surprising depth. For those who like to speak hipster and trash this film for not having a story: it’s about a woman getting over the death of her family and finding the will to live again. What did you think it was about?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
This classic is going to show up on just about any “definitive” list of films that I’d create. Butch and Sundance has it all: action, adventure, comedy, character development and story. The interplay between Paul Newman and Robert Redford is really what makes this film sing though – both in the writing and the chemistry between the two actors. Screenwriter William Goldman researched this film for about a decade before it hit the big screen, and had a clear definition of his characters before he even put pen to paper. As someone who is trying to write films, that lesson resonates every time I open up Final Draft. Once you know your characters, it’s a lot easier to ask yourself every time you hit a dead end – what would this character do?

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008 & 2012)
I am a self-admitted Christopher Nolan fan-boy. As an aspiring writer-director myself, his films always resonate with me. None so much more than The Dark Knight trilogy. These films portray the fraying of society around the edges, a world in which politicians are bought and sold, and true justice is in short supply and the gap between the rich and poor grows ever wider. In short: Nolan took a big-budget superhero film, full of terrific action and stunning visuals, and make it an allegory for the America in the 21st century. All while creating a deeply flawed, almost anti-hero in Bruce Wayne and one of the best villains in crime film history with Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s fitting that in today’s Hollywood, where so much is driven by marketing, that great films can be created by anyone with the drive, even wrapped within what, in the hands on a lesser filmmaker, would be just a popcorn flick.

Before Trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) (1995, 2004 & 2013)
Another one of my writer-director inspirations is Richard Linklater who, despite being an amazing filmmaker, has stuck completely to making indies (if you haven’t seen his latest, Boyhood, get to a theater now!). The Before Trilogy tracks the progress of two 20 somethings who meet by chance on a train to Vienna. As minimalist as films get: these films are literally all talk. Through their conversations, we get insights into life, love, philosophy and much more. It’s so much fun to watch the conversations develop as Linklater revisits them every nine years at different stages in their lives. As a writer, one of the things you learn is that a conversation is much more interesting when you can show a character’s true self through dialogue, but while sounding completely natural. Only Aaron Sorkin can write dialogue this good.

The Paper (1994)
Almost all of these films have come from writer-directors, so its fitting that I end this piece with a film from one of the most celebrated writer-directors in Hollywood history: Ron Howard. The Paper is a tightly-wound whodunit chock-full of great performances, rich, deep characters and enough subplots to fill a network TV series. But Howard manages to accomplish this all in under two hours, without feeling like anyone was jipped. Even the casting was terrific: Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Randy Quaid, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei and a whole host of others. For me, I watch this film and hone in on the rhythm that Howard creates; the quick cuts, the constant perspective shifts, and the underlying, constant theme of the continuing drumbeat of time – and how that drives everything we do.