For the purposes of this list, I’m excluding The Godfather Parts I and II, The Graduate and Annie Hall—films that would show up on most people’s Top Five list. Here are five movies that taught me how to write movies.
Aaron Sorkin is a playwright, screenwriter and director. In 2011, he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network. His new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, comes to Netflix Oct. 16.
In my 20s, William Goldman decided to take me under his wing and turn me from a playwright into a playwright who could also write movies. But even before Bill and I met, he was teaching me with his screenplay about two bank robbers who have to deal with the old west turning into the new west, for which he won his first Oscar. The structure is perfect. And even though there are long sequences that are silent (beautifully shot by George Roy Hill and his cinematographer Conrad Hall), what we remember is the dialogue. “The fall’ll probably kill you”, “You think you used enough dynamite?”, “The next time I say let’s go someplace like Bolivia, let’s go someplace like Bolivia.” There have been many imitations, but only the original is a masterpiece and a masterclass on screenwriting.
All I ever wanted to be was a playwright. I liked movies as much as anyone, but it never occurred to me to try writing one until I saw Broadcast News, written and directed by James L. Brooks. Brooks had come from television—classic television—like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and had recently taken home a pair of Oscars for Terms of Endearment. I sat in a theater in midtown Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon, watching the movie for the second time that day, and thought, “I’d really love to write that.” And I’ve been trying to write it ever since.
Alvin Sargent won the Oscar for adapting the novel by Judith Guest. I saw the movie with some friends when we were in high school. When it was over and the lights came up, we all seemed to say different versions of the same thing at the same time—“Damn…that was my mother.” The final moment of the film is so simple—just a father and son sitting next to each other and the camera pulling back very slightly and very slowly. That’s when I learned that a movie didn’t have to end with a grand gesture. A simple one—if it’s earned—can be even more powerful.
Frank Pierson won his Oscar for this incredible true story of a bank robbery gone terribly wrong. Most of the film takes place inside four walls. In other words, it’s a play that from time to time utilizes the tools of filmmaking. All of Aristotle’s parts of drama are checked off in order: exposition, inciting action, reversal, climax and denouement. When you bring home a new puppy, they say you should buy a crate that’s just big enough for the dog to be able turn around but no bigger. The dogs like the sense of security that comes with a tight space. I’m the same way and the four walls of that bank are a fantastic puppy crate.
I said I wouldn’t include The Graduate, but come on. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham adapted the novel by Charles Webb (and Mike Nichols announced himself as a force to be reckoned with) and the result was an unforgettable movie that will be passed down by generations. The dialogue is minimalist. I doubt any character has a line with more than ten words in it. It’s nice to get an assist from Simon and Garfunkel, but this screenplay’s a masterpiece.