"I never thought I could be a filmmaker," reminisces Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer. "I never thought about this as a career. I mean, I grew up the son of a dentist in suburban Philadelphia. I thought I was going to go into law or something."
That never stopped Singer from pursing his love of movies. As a kid, he particularly took to the films of one director — Steven Spielberg — and movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial were "joy and color in a somewhat drab world," he says. "I think the kid in me goes back to those movies. And then I found out, 'Oh, I can be part of making that…'"
Singer's first produced movie was 2013's The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. The Fifth Estate — "which wasn't well received," the writer admits — ultimately got him jobs scripting both Spotlight (with director Tom McCarthy) and First Man, for director Damien Chazelle. He also wrote the screenplay for The Post with Liz Hannah, which Spielberg directed. "So much of it is luck," Singer says.
"To me, the funniest thing is that Spotlight was a nothing. Nobody would touch that movie. Blye Faust and Nicole Rocklin were peddling that movie for years. They talked to the reporters, they'd gotten the rights, and then Michael Sugar and Steve Golin signed on board, and Tommy flirted with it and walked away, and then came back and tried to hire one writer, and then tried to hire another writer," he recounts. "It was only because two other writers fell out that Tommy eventually was like, 'Oh, what about the kid?'"
Spotlight wound up winning Best Picture at the 88th Oscars, while Singer and McCarthy won for Best Original Screenplay. "I just feel very fortunate," he says. "And the best part is I've gotten to work with these incredible people and I've learned so much from all of them. Tommy, Bill Condon, Damien, Steven, and Bradley, the list goes on and on."
Bradley is Bradley Cooper, with whom Singer wrote Maestro, about the composer Leonard Bernstein. At the 96th Oscars, the film is nominated for seven Oscars, including for Best Picture, while Singer is once again nominated for Best Original Screenplay. ("I'm incredibly proud of the movie and to see it be honored," he says. "It's not every day you get nominated.")
"I feel like it's a combination of luck, but mostly luck in terms of whose orbit I've been able to be pulled into and who I've been able to learn from," Singer surmises. "And I'm still trying to learn and hopefully do it better the next time."
Below, Singer shares with A.frame the five films that shaped him into the screenwriter he is today.
Directed by: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen | Written by: Adolph Green and Betty Comden
I grew up a musical theater kid. I was Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. I was Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. I love musicals. And there's so much joy in Singin' in the Rain and so much craft. "Good Morning" and "Make 'Em Laugh," and the camera work is gorgeous! It's not overly showy; it's just trying to show you what they're doing and how amazing the performers are. There's something quite beautiful in that. And for me, there's something about musicals and music that has always been key for me. Music is core. And it's funny, I've done all these true-life stories, but it all comes from the original one that I worked on, which was about George Gershwin writing Porgy and Bess. And it was the music. Music always connects me to a piece.
So, there's something for me in that movie that is the joy of movies. And moreover, I'm a huge fan of Mr. Chazelle, who I've gotten to work with, and frankly, I loved La La Land. Perhaps the greatest dream ballet since An American in Paris, which is another favorite. But what's amazing to me is to love Singin' in the Rain as much as I do, and then to see what he did in Babylon, which is to make it real and show how brutal that moment was. Careers were born and shattered, which Damien gets at. It made the movie have even more layers for me, because I wasn't really fully aware of that history. So, that is an early favorite, which has remained a touchstone.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Written by: Lawrence Kasdan
I had a real struggle here between Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters, and E.T., because those four movies have got to be the youth of almost every 40 to 50-year-old there is out there. I'm a little biased here, but I love Steven and I'm a huge fan of his movies. And Raiders is perhaps the most movie of them all. It's a great movie. And it's fun, and you sing the theme, and you're excited! There's larger-than-life heroes and larger-than-life villains and the Ark of the Covenant, this real historical piece, which they wrap this beautiful mythology around. And Indiana Jones is a real archaeologist with real skills; he's not some bulls**t superhero. He gets hit in the jaw, but he also knows how to use the staff of Ra.
There's so much great story, and of course, the execution is unbelievable. The way Steven accesses emotion and tells story in such a colorful way, the way he uses the camera to emphasize the point of a scene, the way his vast cinematic knowledge informs his work. He's a cinematic archeologist, if you will, with his own staff of Ra to shine just the right amount of light on that scene in that way. It captivated me as a kid.
Jaws scared the s**t out of me. Close Encounters was freaky and scary and too weird, although now I love the little scenes where they're talking about aliens in this very academic way. There's such a reality to that movie, which also scared the s**t out of me. E.T. broke my heart. And then Raiders was just so much fun.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin
Raging Bull is a more mature love. And it's funny, because I feel like when Damien and I were making First Man, and Bradley and I making Maestro, Raging Bull came up all the time. In some ways, we're all just trying to make Raging Bull. And I think Raging Bull is probably one of the greatest biopics there is. What's wonderful about it is it's such an amazing movie, whether you know that guy or not. And there's something really quite wonderful about, obviously, the performances, the camera work, the dialogue, the brothers, Pesci and De Niro together — it just all comes together.
It's also such a brutal portrait. It goes to such a dark place, and yet just hits you in the gut. It's so human. I feel like it's all of Martin Scorsese's vast talents with this very specific focus, and it's a touchstone. I think it's definitely one of the greatest movies. That and The Godfather, those are the movies that you worship out of the '70s and '80s and, frankly, out of the last century. And to anyone trying to make a great biopic, I'd send them back to Raging Bull, because it's just a great human story at the end of the day.
Similar to what we did with Maestro — and I'd love for Maestro to be considered even in the same breath — but we're focused on the marriage and not on the achievements, in the same way that Marty focused on the man and the man's struggle to be a human, not an animal, and the achievements are all around. It's really powerful. Not to mention the music. He uses "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria Rusticana, which... talk about a needle drop. You open on that beautiful shot of De Niro boxing in slow mo to "Intermezzo." It's extraordinary.
Directed by: Sidney Lumet | Written by: David Mamet
Here's the thing, all of Lumet's work is pretty great. What I love about Lumet's work is he tries to get the camera out of the way. He tries to make something so real and visceral and verité. It's funny, I didn't watch All the President's Men while we were writing Spotlight, because I don't want to be infected in some ways, but The Verdict felt like a really good touchstone for us. Because it's so lived-in, and real, and natural. And Newman's character is so clear. There's something about just trying to get real, trying to show what people's lives are really like while telling a great story, which is something that Lumet did just about better than anyone.
That movie is the kind of filmmaking I really love. And if I ever try my hand at being a director, I will definitely return to Lumet and The Verdict. The only other movie that I did watch as we were working on Spotlight was The Insider — just because it's one of the greatest journalism movies — but really, The Verdict was the touchstone for that period for me. And Lumet, to me, he's a guy I look up to.
Directed by: Miloš Forman | Written by: Peter Shaffer
Amadeus brings it all together. To me, it's one of the greatest true-story biopics. These last three are all true stories, and that's where I really love spending time. I love unearthing a world, and exploring that world, and getting underneath it. What I love about Amadeus is the idea of telling Mozart's story from the perspective of Salieri. There's no way to tackle Mozart, so let's tell the story of Salieri, and Mozart is our supporting character. Mozart is a great pastiche, but really, the narrative is about mediocrity, which, as a writer, you understand on a deep, visceral level. Oh, that's me! I'm certainly not Mozart. I mean, there are probably some writers who feel like they're Mozart, and some of them are! That guy who created the first show I ever worked on, The West Wing, he's kind of a Mozart. But not me.
To me, the portrait of Salieri feels very much universal, and it's a story you don't know. You know the story of Mozart; you don't know the story of Salieri. Mozart's story is terrible — this great guy winds up in a pauper's grave — but it's not really all that relatable. Who can make symphonies at age three? Whereas, Salieri is the relatable, ordinary man who works hard, and is gifted but is not that creation of God or the devil, depending on what you think. So, to me, the brilliant thought is to tell the story from that point of view. And then the music! Showing the writing process, and specifically around music. It's magnificent.
Singin' in the Rain and Raiders are what propelled me into the business, and Raging Bull and The Verdict and Amadeus are my pillars. As I think about true-life biopics, these are the ones to go back to, to hold onto, to think about in terms of how do you tell a story well and make it powerful and emotional.