"The first time I really thought about writing films as a profession was the day I convinced my dad to accompany me to a sneak preview of E.T.," screenwriter Dana Stevens remembers. "He agreed, as long as I would do the waiting in line."
So, wait she did. "Spielberg and the film were already on the cover of Time, so the line was long," she explains. "We sat in the third row. When writer Melissa Mathison's credit appeared, it made a bold impression. A woman wrote this. I went on a search to find out more about her. I don't remember what sources I turned to without the internet, but I found out that not only did she write the film, she was dating Han Solo. I was hooked."
Stevens made her own screenwriting debut with 1993's Blink, going on to adapt 1998's City of Angels for Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan and 2013's Safe Haven, from the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Her latest is The Woman King, which Stevens scripted, Gina Prince-Bythewood directed, and Viola Davis stars in as General Nanisca, leader of the all-female Agojie warriors.
"From the first film I wrote, a thriller called Blink, to the warrior epic, The Woman King, it is always thrilling when the credits roll and you see your name on screen," she says.
Below, Stevens shares with A.frame the five films that have made a lasting impact on her writing style and shown her new paths of cinematic storytelling.
Directed by: Sydney Pollack | Screenplay by: Arthur Laurents
Sydney Pollack's love story is my favorite film. I saw it in the theater as a child, too young to understand its nuances, but it glued me to my chair. I watched it whenever it was on television as I grew older. After I had started writing movies, I gave it a fresh look and realized I was actually copying the scene style in my own work.
The rhythm of the dialogue — the subtext of two people who want something different from their affair — circling each other intimately before one or the other finally speaks their truth, usually causing hurt and pushing us toward the next crisis in their love story. Hubbell (Robert Redford) wants freedom and Katie (Barbra Streisand) wants Hubbell. The structural bookends of them running into each other long after their romance has ended was an influence, as well as the sweeping canvas of World War 2 and McCarthyism. This movie showed me that a love story could be epic.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed and written by: Agnès Varda
Agnes Varda writes and directs a movie about a young woman's life that takes place in real time. It taught me that the smallest details, a mere slice of a life could hold our attention and tell us so much about a character. Cleo is supposed to find out medical test results inside this two hour span. She’s waiting and wondering if she might have cancer, and this gives every moment of the two hours suspense, poetry and potency.
Directed and written by: Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh's breakout movie is all about the power of secrets. For a writer, its a lesson in how an inciting incident, in this case the arrival of James Spader's character into the lives of a married couple, starts the entire story in motion, and slowly unravels the careful construction of lies the couple's marriage is built on. The dialogue and Spader's fetish of videotaping keeps revealing new depths to the characters and complicating their dilemmas. The tension builds to each character confronting each other and making bold discoveries about themselves.
Directed by: Michael Apted | Screenplay by: Thomas Rickman
Writing a film about a real person, adapting a whole life into two hours, has its own special pitfalls. And the music star biopic has recently become a genre unto itself. This film, about country star Loretta Lynn, is brilliantly told because it takes time to create the world that Loretta came from, coal-mining Appalachia.
It doesn't rush through her life, it doesn't rely on montages or flashbacks. Actress Sissy Spacek, who won the Oscar for this role, plays Loretta from age 13. No other actress plays the role in the film. Rickman makes the choice that the main story engine is Loretta’s relationship with her husband, Doolittle Lynn. This takes the movie away from being an episodic survey of a life and makes it a dramatic story between two people and their conflict.
Written and directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
One has to admit that since this film came out, every writer in pursuit of a twist thinks about Shyamalan's. Extremely well-crafted, going back to watch it after you know what really is happening is such a treat. Nothing is missed, and no "rules" are broken. Suspense and tension succeed because the little boy, Cole, is on an emotional journey that both the psychologist (Bruce Willis) and the boy's mother, played by Toni Collette, are helping him navigate. A very satisfying two hours of suspenseful story-telling. Any time a movie has a line of dialogue that enters the culture ("I see dead people") a writer gets his wings.