Female Screenwriters: The new-ish and the note-worthy

 


It's no secret that the film industry (like so many others) is a very male-dominated field. Every time a female director gets a taste of success, or a female protagonist is considered 'strong' it's something to be discussed and celebrated, but never considered the norm. Screenwriting is no different, although it's true that screenwriters, whether male of female, generally go under the radar anyway. (Why is that? Surely the script is key to the success or failure of any film?) I studied screenwriting for my masters course, the class was mostly men, and it seems to me that an interest in film seems to have become a bit of a boys club. Romantic comedies (other than the cynical gross-out kind) have died the death, and cinemas are currently dominated by action flicks, particularly of the super-hero variety (I'm not saying girls don't like that stuff too, but it is more traditionally geared to the boys.) Any list of 'must watch' or 'best ever' films you'll read will predominantly feature films like The Godfather or American Beauty - clearly good films, but, you know, manly.

Since doing my MA, I'll always check Imdb after watching a film to find out who the main writer is. It's interesting to see what else they've written, and whether I've watched and enjoyed that too. Considering the ratio of male-to-female screenwriters, a surprising number of my faves have been written by women - and so for the this post I thought I'd shine a light on a few of them.



Melissa Mathison
(E.T)


I've never been a big fan of those long-winded eighties/nineties family films, and sci-fi usually leaves me cold. But for the first time in years I sat down and properly watched E.T, and it did get me. The acting from the kids is great, but it's the simplicity and heart of the story that makes E.T different from a lot of science fiction films. Focusing on the family and Elliot's relationship with E.T really makes you care, and is much better than a load of faux-science gobbledegook.




Nora Ephron
(When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail)
 
 
 Probably one of the best known names on this list, if Richard Curtis is the king of nineties romantic comedy, Nora Ephron is the queen. Likeable characters, genuine laughs and that cosy feeling you only get from settling down to a proper rom-com, where you know everything will turn out right in the end. Clichéd? Maybe, but not so much as you'd think. At least You've Got Mail (my favourite) pans out differently to the way I would have expected.
 
 
 

Karen McCullough/Kirsten Smith
(10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, She's the Man)

 
 
I've got to love this writing duo for bringing me both one of my ultimate feel-good films (if you find me sitting on my own watching Legally Blonde, chances are I've had a horrific day) and the guilty-pleasure of all guilty pleasures, She's the Man. And then there's 10 Things I Hate About You, which in my opinion is as flawless as teen comedy gets - and that's due to the writing, not just Heath Ledger's smile. Fun and frothy, but with an undercurrent of female empowerment, these two are some of the best at what they do. Just don't watch The House Bunny.
 
 

 
Jane Goldman
(Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Stardust)
 


You don't hear of too many action films written by women, but with Kick-Ass and Kingsman writer/producer Jane Goldman (and writing partner Matthew Vaughn) have had huge success thanks to irreverant humour and great characters along with fast-paced action sequences. She also helped bring us the first X-Men prequel (my favourite of those films) and adapted Neil Gaiman's Stardust, which I enjoyed better than the book, and was romantic, good fun and just a bit mad.



Emma Thompson
(Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McFee, Bridget Jones' Baby)
 
 
The first person to ever win an Oscar for both acting and writing, Emma Thompson could have proved her screen-writing credentials with Sense and  Sensibility alone.  Adaptations seem to be her thing, and I think she's great at bringing out the humour and making something classic feel fresh and new. Most recently she co-wrote Bridget Jones' Baby with author Helen Fielding and Dan Mazer, showing she can do contemporary too.



 
Betty Comden
(Singin' in the Rain, On the Town)

 
 
Classic Hollywood writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green brought us Singin' In the Rain - another one of my feel-good favourites, and one of the classic musicals that best stands the test of time. People remember the musical numbers but its a great story too, and the humour doesn't feel too dated. It makes me laugh and the characters are likeable (plus Lina is a great comedic villain). Comden was a songwriter too, the lyricist for 'New York, New York'.
 


Linda Woolverton
(Beauty and the Beast - also Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland)
 
 
The first female screenwriter on a Disney animated film (took them a while, didn't it?) Linda Woolverton brought us the first truly modern Disney heroine. Well, there's Ariel, I guess...but Belle was a bigger step forward. Making Belle into the character she became was a hard-won fight - in the re-write stage for example, a scene where Woolverton had Belle placing pins in a map to indicate the places she'd like to visit, was re-written by her colleagues into Belle, in the kitchen, baking a cake. Luckily, Woolverton managed to get her reading books instead.(Source:here ) Belle set the bar high for future independent, intelligent Princesses - Pocahontas, Jasmine, Mulan, all the way to Moana - but it was a female screenwriter who got that ball rolling.
 
 
 

Sally Wainwright
 (Happy Valley, Scott and Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, To Walk Invisible)
 
 
I couldn't do a list of women screenwriters without including the mighty Sally Wainwright, although she's a TV writer and I've been focusing mainly on film. A big name now and rightly so, she's famed for her gritty backdrops, strong female characters and incredibly realistic dialogue. I'm not big on police-dramas but Happy Valley (series 1 in particular) was an absolute master-class. Time pressure and all that.



Vanessa Taylor
(Some episodes of Game of Thrones - also Divergent and Hope Springs)



I've made no secret of the fact that Game of Thrones is one of my favourite things on TV, but I didn't know until recently that there was a female screenwriter on the team - for a while, anyway. Vanessa Taylor (who also adapted Divergent for the big screen) wrote two episodes in series two and one in the third season. Like every episode of GOT the writing is fantastic, I especially love the scenes she writes involving Ygritte, as well as those with Margaery and Olenna Tyrell.




Phillipa Boyens/Fran Walsh
(The Lord of the Rings)
 
 
A married couple who, along with Peter Jackson, adapted Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, but the less said about that the better) for the big screen, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh brought Tolkien's world to life, I think, as well as it could possibly have been done. I mean, changing Faramir's plot was my only issue, but I can see why they did that (it isn't exactly cinematic how he just lets Frodo go, in the book... despite proving just how good a guy he is.) I was a bit surprised to discover that such a fan-boy fantasy giant of a franchise was written by women, but now I know, it makes sense. I think they did a great job of incorporating the very limited list of canon female characters - Arwen's flight to the ford with Frodo was inspired, one of the best changes from book to film.
 
 
 
Callie Khouri
(Thelma and Louise, Show creator for Nashville)

 
 
Although I'm not the biggest Thelma and Louise fan, and Callie Khouri is primarily here because I love Nashville so much (Strong, complicated female characters! And male characters come to that! The family relationships! Soapy and fun but also real and meaningful! and did I mention I'm going to the tour????!!!!) I can also see how well written Thelma and Louise is, although I find it a bit dark and depressing for my own taste (and the ending is a cop out.) There are some great scenes though, some strong messages and - like Nashville - complicated and well-written female characters. 

 
Abi Morgan
 (Shame, Suffragette, The Hour)
 
 
 
Another woman writer who veers into territory you might not expect, I've not actually seen any of her stuff, but Shame (the one where Michael Fassbender is a sex addict) was critically acclaimed, people rave about The Hour and I really really wanted to see Suffragette. Which I'm pretty sure was snubbed by all awards ceremonies partly because it was a woman's project (female director, writer, crew - and about a subject that only women seem to care about. 'You got the vote, didn't you?' They think, 'why are you still harping on about that?') But, I haven't actually seen it, so maybe it just wasn't very good? I hope not though, that would be a bit embarrassing. And Meryl Streep's in it, so it must be good! 
 
 



Tina Fey
(Mean Girls, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock)

 
 
Mean Girls is officially one of the most quotable films ever (four for you, Glen Coco, you go Glen Coco!) and my generation's Clueless, or The Breakfast Club, or whatever. Yes, it gets very cheesy and American towards the end, but it's still a classic. Therefore Tina Fey deserves a mention on this list. She's another one that crosses over into both film and television, and is currently still going strong, as the creator of Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt.
 

 
 
Nicole Perlman
 (Guardians of the Galaxy)

 
 
There's been lots of talk in recent years about Marvel and DC, and what the wildly popular and profitable comic book genre can do to reach out more to female fans. Of which there are admittedly lots, but I am most definitely not among them. We've had Supergirl (which is actually kind of fun and my sister got into for a while) and now Wonderwoman. But still, nothing doing. I like the first Spiderman, okay? That is it. I've watched plenty of the others but they're just not my thing. For a while I got sick of people telling me 'but you must at least like Iron Man?' and having to tell them 'no, that bored me more than most.' Now they tell me to try Guardians of the Galaxy and I just... urgh. But, my point is, it's a female screenwriter, so maybe that's why Marvel/DC fangirls feel it's a bit different? Whatever, I'm not going to watch it. But it's interesting that they're starting to get women writers on board anyway.


 
Nancy Meyers
(The Parent Trap, The Holiday, It's Complicated)

 
 
Nancy Meyers is another one you might have vaguely heard of. Plus, she's be on the list anyway because The Parent Trap (re-make it may be, but it's so much better than the Hayley Mills one) was one of my favourite films growing up, and I could probably recite most of the script right now off the top of my head. Fun, not particularly substantial, but very watchable, I find her films a bit hit and miss (wasn't a big fan of The Intern) but I still think she's a great writer. I loved It's Complicated too - despite being aimed at older people, I think it's one of the best rom-coms of recent years.
 
 
So your thoughts? Heard of any of these, and did any of them surprise you? Do you have a favourite female screenwriter - or a fave screenwriter in general? Let me know in the comments!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Comments

  1. Ooh Karen McCullough and Kirsten Smith's movies are my favourite feel-good films too! I've loved Jane Goodman's work too, without realising that they are her work. It is strange how screenwriters don't get recognised that much, considering how important a script is. Thanks for shining a spotlight on some of them!

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    1. Yeah, I was surprised that Legally Blonde/She's the Man etc were the same writers but it makes sense since I've loved all their films! I don't know why trailers don't often say things like 'from the writers of..", they're missing a trick I think! Thanks! :)

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