Screenwriting – an act of torture performed in solitude while staring at a screen or typewriter, punctuated by a neurosis or two – is not an inherently cinegenic profession. Nonetheless, Hollywood has churned out a catalog of movies that attempt to capture the trade, using a dash of cinematic magic to turn the seemingly boring chase around. Here’s a preview of David Fincher’s latest “Mank” (now on Netflix), and seven other films about the craft, and how they successfully interpret the writer’s experience.
The writer: Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” into something of a love letter to the struggle with writer’s block.
How much we see him writing: He continually reads his sources and dictates his flashes of inspiration into a recording device. He even makes several attempts to sit down in front of his typewriter, before giving up after 15 seconds.
Degree of neurosis: “I’m a walking cliche,” Kaufman tells himself early in the film in a purge of awareness of his negative thoughts and impostor syndrome that continues throughout the film.
Writing time: Charlie excuses himself from a party to go home to write, but instead he drops face down on his bed because it’s easier.
‘Barton Fink’ (1991)
The writer: John Turturro stars as a playwright invited to Hollywood to write a wrestling film. This turns out to be more difficult than he had anticipated.
How much we see him writing: Although he spends much of the film staring at a blank page, when Fink launches into a fine Underwood typewriter, he smashes his way through an entire ream of blank paper.
Degree of neurosis: Fink is a bunch of writer’s traits: painfully awkward, lonely, hungry for praise, quick to despair, and driven by the idea that writing “comes from a lot of pain.”
Writing time: Desperate for company, questioned about his writing by his hotel neighbor (John Goodman), Fink unfolds a spontaneous two-minute monologue about his literary ambitions. “I know sometimes I run,” he apologizes.
“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
The writer: Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a struggling screenwriter, becomes a murder suspect when a woman who came to his apartment on business later turns up dead.
How much we see him writing: You’d think being investigated for murder, while falling in love with a neighbor (Gloria Grahame), would hamper productivity. Still, Steele writes an entire script over the course of the film, much of which we see him doing by hand on a legal notepad.
Degree of neurosis: Anger management is a bigger concern for Steele, but there are small bursts of writing insecurity, such as when he jokes with someone, “One day I’m going to surprise you and write something Good.”
Writing time: After several sleepless nights and several days of writing, Steele strikes the official pose of his profession: exhausted, bent over a writing instrument, his elbow on a table and his hand on his head as if trying to physically draw thoughts straight from his brain.
The writer: Exiled to a remote ranch to dry off and recover from a broken leg, Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) sets out to write the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.”
How much we see him writing: He occasionally dictates parts of “Citizen Kane” to an assistant (Lily Collins), but the film is more concerned with flashbacks to Mank’s past.
Degree of neurosis: Self-destructive alcoholism and gambling are combined with a desire to entertain that hints at a deep lack of self-esteem.
Writing time: Mank, on his convalescent bed, surrounded by loose, crumpled pages, a tidy symbol of a not-so-tidy creative process.
“The Muse” (1999)
The writer: Oscar nominee Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks) is fired from his contract with a Hollywood studio for losing his creative side. Desperate, he turns to a supposed muse (Sharon Stone) to get his career back on track.
How much we see him writing: The closest we get is an aquarium visit that inspires an idea for a Jim Carrey movie, followed by a montage showing him furiously jotting down his thoughts in a notebook.
Degree of neurosis: Phillips is a self-doubting mess (he is Albert Brooks), but who can blame him? Many writers tell themselves they are bad and out of place, but Phillips is repeatedly told this by others.
Writing time: Phillips, asleep on his computer, wanted to write, but preferring unconsciousness to creative difficulties.
“Seven Psychopaths” (2012)
The writer: Struggling with a script and a drinking problem, Marty (Colin Farrell) is drawn into the fallout of a dog kidnapping gone wrong, thanks to his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell).
How much we see him writing: A fair amount of scribbling on yellow notepads and in notebooks, plus a few printouts of script pages. Marty also enjoys writing via verbal storytelling, creating character stories that are visually dramatized for the audience.
Degree of neurosis: Marty is a near-alcoholic who his friends describe as suffering from a “suicidal self-loathing” that only writing can cure – or possibly cause.
Writing time: Whenever inspiration strikes, Marty doodles with the frantic desperation of a writer afraid of losing a good idea.
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
The writer: An unemployed screenwriter (William Holden) meets former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who hires him to write her comeback role.
How much we see him writing: He works on news. He pitches a baseball movie to a producer. He annotates, edits and types Norma’s script on Salomé. He even collaborates late at night – typing, proofreading, brainstorming – with his friend’s fiancee, Betty (Nancy Olson).
Degree of neurosis: Functionally doubting himself and prone to dismissing himself as “just a movie writer”.
Writing time: Sitting on a bed in a bathrobe, working on a typewriter while he questions his talent and the creditors knock on his door.
“The Truth” (2019)
The writer: Lumir (Juliette Binoche), is a screenwriter who brought her family from America to Paris to visit her mother, the famous French actress Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve).
How much we see her writing: Aside from a call discussing changes to one of his scripts, Lumir’s main output is crafting an apology for his mother to present to a scorned manager, and a few heartfelt lines for his daughter, Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) to tell Fabienne.
Eccentricity Level: Fairly balanced, though who’s to say if her difficult relationship with her mother didn’t inspire unseen neuroses that led her to turn to pen and paper.
Writing time: Before Charlotte returns from her scripted conversation with Fabienne, Lumir waits, reciting aloud the lines she wrote with the smile of someone who is satisfied with her work.