Dean Koontz once said, “Writing is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled.” For a writer, there’s seldom anything more satisfying than the rare moment when the seemingly random series of words, when combined, create something we know in our hearts to be unique, poignant, gripping. It’s an out-of-body experience, the orgasmic “making love” part of the whole ordeal, which otherwise mostly feels like dental surgery. The internal conflict of a writer’s mind, like any artist’s in any “industry,” is plenty: Is this any good? Will anyone like it?”, “Am I wasting my life?”, “Am I even saying anything new?” With such a Sisyphean existence, it’s no wonder a lot of writers are as neurotic as they are. All work and no book deal makes Jack a dull boy.
Since most movies have screenplays, which happen to involve writers, it’s no surprise to see these fears bubble up to the surface. Bedtime boogeyman stories for young, aspiring writers, or cautionary tales for those already trapped in the industry’s web: Turn away from the blank page you’ve been staring at for months, and let’s take a spooky look at five great horror movies…for writers at least.
(These aren’t actual horror films about writers, or actual horror films at all, so don’t expect to see The Shining or Misery here. Rather, these works are more dramas than anything else, but tell stories that ruthlessly pick at the innermost insecurities and fears of those who toil for the written word.)
Director: Billy Wilder
Joe Gillis (William Holden), the swimming pool enthusiast and protagonist of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, is such a struggling screenwriter at the start of Sunset Boulevard that he decides to call it quits and move back to Ohio. Fate intervenes in the form of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, giving among the great female performances in film history), a washed-up silent-era star with delusions of a grand comeback. Norma hires Joe to write an epic script that Joe knows is garbage, but has to stick around because it’s the only paying gig he has. Eventually, Norma’s romantic obsession with Joe parallels the script, trapping Joe in a nightmarishly fraudulent existence. Respite comes in the form of a young writer, Betty (Nancy Olson), and her exciting new premise for a screenplay that once again reminds Joe why he wanted to become a writer in the first place. The film’s surface narrative revolves around a love triangle between Betty, Joe and Norma, but Betty also represents the purity of Joe’s art, while Norma is the ugly face of commerce to which he must suck up. Eventually, Joe takes the side of artistic idealism, and like many writers in Hollywood, the choice seals his doom.
Director: Spike Jonze
The best scene in Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s scrumptious mindfuck about the inner workings of any average sad sack writer’s brain occurs when Charlie (Nicolas Cage) lets his pretentious flag fly and asks “screenwriting guru” Robert McKee (Brian Cox) why a writer can’t create a script where nothing happens, the way it nothing happens in life. What follows is a righteous torrent of anger from McKee, who goes through various “real life” dramas, concluding with, “Why the fuck would I spend two hours on your movie!?” During Adaptation, Charlie struggles with adapting the “sprawling New Yorker shit” of the book The Orchid Thief, yearning to find true art through visual storytelling. Meanwhile, his happy-go-lucky twin brother Donald is the talk of the town with his hacky serial killer script, The Three. The twins operate as split parts of the real Charlie Kaufman, and Adaptation is structured as a sliding scale between Charlie and Donald’s sensibilities, frustratingly trying to find some common ground. It starts off full Charlie—pretentious and self-pitying—and ends up with Donald: hacky and condescending. Somewhere in there lies the perfect pressure point, but Charlie spends many sleepless, masturbation-filled nights knowing that perhaps he will never get there. Meanwhile, Donald, who has never written a screenplay before his magnum opus, is making sweet love to 2002’s Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Director: Alexander Payne
In Alexander Payne’s dramedy, Paul Giamatti plays a wine-enthusiast writer named Miles who goes on a trip across California wine country with his narcissistic buddy Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) as a sad attempt at curbing his midlife crisis. Along with the many social and sexual hang-ups that plague Miles’ daily life, he eventually hits rock bottom when he finds out that a book he’s spent a chunk of his life on will not get published. The sequence in which he talks on the phone with his agent plays out like a campfire story for writers: He begins by hoping to negotiate a bigger price for publishing, only to be told that he’s just as irrelevant as the millions of other struggling writers in the world. Remember that scene in Death of a Salesman where Willie Lomax barges into his boss’s office asking for a raise, just to beg for his job back at the end? Just like all the other writers on this list, Miles is far from perfect, but it’s hard not to feel for him when he ends up gulping down his beloved 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, which he was saving for his day of success, at a fast food joint with a side of onion rings. The defeat on Giamatti’s face is devastating.
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
The Coen Brothers’ title character (John Turturro) is a pretentious, unearned ball of neuroses. An idealist “working man’s playwright,” Fink travels to Hollywood to pen a wrestling picture. Not realizing what little effort is expected of him, Fink is constantly failed by his own impossible expectations, striving to find a realistic narrative for the working stiff in the form of a B-picture. Time keeps ticking, deadlines come and pass, and he still hasn’t gone beyond the first paragraph. He sees his first few words everywhere, including the Bible, having no idea what comes next. To be fair, some of his block is his own fault, since Barton is also a bit of a self-aggrandizing fraud who actually has no interest in the problems of common folk, his ego blinding him to his shortcomings. The dingy hotel Barton stays in represents his mental decline, with John Goodman’s enigmatic insurance salesman next door an ongoing reminder of his increasing disconnect to the real world. Full of haunting surrealist imagery and a murder mystery at its center, Barton Fink flirts at least aesthetically with the horror genre, even though some of the Brothers’ stylistic touches are fairly tongue-in-cheek. However, the gradual dip into insanity that this gem of endlessly creative batshittery eventually indulges in provides prime nightmare fodder for any scribbler struggling with writer’s block.
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s Best Picture Oscar winner is so effective in visualizing a writer’s crippling self-doubt that even though I think of it as one of his top masterpieces, I am always terrified at the thought of putting myself through its existential hell. At the center of this haunting melodrama is failed writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland in a horrifyingly realistic performance), who used to be the big fish in a small pond as a promising young writer during his college days, but is eventually crushed by a mountain of unfinished work and unfulfilled expectations, drowning himself in alcohol as an unsuccessful attempt at keeping his inner demons away. Having dealt with alcoholic writers himself, Wilder sought to dig deep into the nature of addiction, creating a raw profile of deep-seated resentment and self-pity. Birnam represents the fear in any writer, that we’re not good enough, that we’ll never be good enough, and will eventually waste our lives in a perpetual roundabout of self-destruction. A superficial understanding of the film’s last scene might offer some hope, but take a closer look at the final shot: Does it resemble a much earlier image in the story?