There's perhaps no figure better respected in the film community than the writer-director, but to achieve this lauded status, is it necessary to start out as both at once? Some aspiring filmmakers might be happy to learn that the answer is no. Many excellent filmmakers have started their careers as producers, cinematographers, or even production designers, and eventually become directors. An even more prominent recipe for success, especially when it comes to smart and edgy films, can be found in the screenwriter who becomes a writer-director. Two recent examples of such screenwriters turned into directors are Tony Gilroy and Charlie Kaufman.
Tony Gilroy wrote ten theatrically-distributed feature films before he wrote and directed the critically acclaimed box office success Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney. He received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for Michael Clayton, which tells the story of a lawyer who does the behind-the-scenes "janitor" work for his law firm, rather than actual litigation. The films that Gilroy writes and directs are intelligent thrillers with both tautly measured action sequences and razor-sharp dialog. Perhaps the most notable of the films Gilroy wrote before Michael Clayton are the films in the Bourne trilogy, of which he wrote all three. He is now slated to write and direct the fourth Bourne movie. Since making Michael Clayton, he also wrote and directed Duplicity, which was made on over twice the budget of Gilroy's directorial debut.
Michael Clayton wasn't made until six years after Gilroy initially pitched the idea, because the six weeks for which he was hired on The Bourne Identity turned unexpectedly into two years of work. Gilroy was able to make the film by using his background as a screenwriter as leverage, and by getting star George Clooney on board. Clooney was at first hesitant to work on Michael Clayton because he didn't want to work with a first-time director, and he hoped Gilroy might be willing to get another director on board; however, Gilroy was firm, and two and a half years after Gilroy first approached him, Clooney decided he loved the screenplay enough to take the risk. Gilroy has spoken of gaining a wealth of knowledge by being present on the sets for films he wrote prior to directing a film himself.
Charlie Kaufman wrote dozens of episodes of television and five feature films before he debuted as a director with Synecdoche New York, which tells the story of a play director named Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who as his body strangely deteriorates, becomes completely absorbed in creating a play about his own life. In his writing and his directing, Charlie Kaufman is known for films that defy expectations, transcend genre, and bend the mind. He received an Oscar nomination for the 1999 screenplay for Being John Malkovich, which tells the story of a man who finds a portal into another man's body. He went onto win an Oscar for the 2004 screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is about a couple who erase each other from their memories, only to fall in love a second time.
Kaufman was able to make Synecdoche with the help of Spike Jonze, who produced and directed two of Kaufman's most successful screenplays, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. While Synecdoche was not a financial success, its critical response has allowed Kaufman's career as a writer-director to continue. (The critical response to Synecdoche was dramatically split, with nearly every critic either completely loving or completely hating the film). Kaufman is slated to write and possibly direct a film called Frank or Francis, which is rumored to have actors Steve Carell and Nicholas Cage already on board to star.
While Tony Gilroy and Charlie Kaufman are two very different filmmakers, their films are similar in their extraordinary intelligence and their unique voices. Both filmmakers were able as directors to build on styles and concepts they began as writers. As screenwriters turned into directors, they were able to turn the thoughtful creation of movies on the page into the more active creation of movies on screen.