As a writer, films about writing can come across as inspiring and rejuvenating, or as extremely hokey, or, I admit, both (looking at you Finding Forrester…"you the man now, dawg" still makes me cringe). When I’m feeling uninspired, ill, depressed, tired, or suffering through writer’s block (thankfully, this is rare), settling in for a good quiet film alone can help take my mind off things, while at the same time stoking the desire to get back in front of the keyboard. Here are some of my favorite films that make me want to sit down and write.
Additional note: I should say this is not what I’d call the BEST films about writers or writing, but movies that get me feeling better about wanting to writing. They’re a bit of an endorphin shot in the creative arm, a cinematic sugar high to get me started, if you will.
Final note: I’m always open for suggestions about other inspiring films about writers/artists, especially since this list is admittedly narrow in its scope (white male writers of the 20th century). So please fire away with your favorites and I’ll be sure to watch!
5. Big Sur (2013)
Based on the Kerouac book, this movie flew under the radar and hit about seventeen screens across the US when it was released. Despite having a gorgeous trailer, the film itself came and went with little fanfare. I know plenty of detractors, and some have their points. The film gets muddled, and basically becomes Kerouac sitting in the woods complaining about sitting in the woods, but somehow the film still pulls at me. There are incredible sequences of Kerouac look-alike Jean-Marc Barr murmuring stream-of-consciousness soliloquies as he explores the seaside or stares into the forest. I believe the film, as does the book, is able to walk that fine line between the clichéd romanticizing of the idea of a writing alone in isolation and the risks and rewards of actually doing so, and it also speaks to the mind of a writer who is tired of writing and burned out (as we all sometimes get), and who is disillusioned by all the trappings of fame, especially fame for something he no longer truly believe in. It is an imperfect gem that speaks to me more and more the older I get. For all its faults, it remains a beautiful escape.
4. Wonderboys (2000)
The magic tends to wear off on this one after repeat viewings, the jokes becoming a little more contrived, the situations a little more clichéd, but the main bones I picked with this movie when I first saw it (the female characters have zero to do, academia/literary circles are an old boys club, etc.) end up being the film’s most honest attributes, because those things are unfortunately true in the writing world all too often. That probably wasn’t the film/book’s intentions, but there they are anyway. For a light literary comedy, the clichés are inadvertently accurate. The reason I watch is to see this semi-hapless burnout writer search for his reason for being, and in this film it isn’t the writing so much as the living. I find when my life is a chaotic mess, poetry comes easy and fiction is a struggle. When I can’t see the way, the writing turns to mud. So watching Michael Douglas struggle with his novel while his life unravels—I get it, I feel it. It’s a reminder that when writer’s block strikes (or when the words keep vomiting out but they don’t add up to much), it might be a sign that I need to focus on getting life in order instead. Plus who wouldn’t want a polysexual Robert Downey Jr as their lit agent?
3. Local Hero (1983)
Now this isn’t a film about writers or artists, but it is such a deceptively well-orchestrated assembly of characters in such a gorgeous unique locale that a writer can’t help but think, “I want to write a novel JUST LIKE THIS.” At least that’s what I think every time I watch this film about a wheeling-dealing Houston oil exec who travels to a remote Scottish coastal village to buy up every spec of land in sight for a new refinery, but instead falls in love with the town, its eclectic inhabitants, and their simple way of life. I also love the film’s symbolism, the allusions to the sky and the sea, the music, and that red phone box! It’s amusing, sweet, calming, and thoughtful. I always feel better after watching this film, and I always feel inspired to try to match its charm. It gets me typing, and that’s what matters most.
2. Midnight in Paris (2011)
This is the only Woody Allen film I’ve ever enjoyed, and while it has its flaws, I get a kick out of it because I’m that writer who would love to get lost in the ex-pat lifestyle, drink with Zelda and F Scott, squint at Hemingway, share a table with Dali. It speaks to my struggle with wanting to be in a past I feel I’d like better than the present, even though I probably wouldn’t after being there for a while. And the scene with Hemingway giving an aw-shucks Owen Wilson writing advice? It’s great stuff if you can see past the typical Hemingway machismo. And while it’s true that the character Rachel McAdams plays is sadly one-dimensional and exaggerated here, she does serve a purpose, to me at least. Because I know people like her. I have dated people like her. I've wanted to continue dating people exactly like her, even though I knew it wasn't good for me. It’s a conflicting thing to be in love with someone when you know they don’t truly understand you and never really will, regardless of their efforts to try (or not). Do you get out? Are your reasons strong enough? Are you a bad person for feeling these conflicting emotions? Maybe this isn’t what the film is intending with these characters, but it’s something I feel whenever I watch them interact. Most of all, I believe it’s a film about passion, that even if your passion is not accepted or popular or current, or even if you’re not sure where it’s leading you, you have to chase it down. You have to be true and honest and stick with it. If your efforts can match the level of your passion, anything can happen. If it happens in Paris, all the better. The ending is a little too easy, too Hollywood, but the journey is a fun one.
1. Paterson (2016)
While watching this for the first time, I didn’t think it would stick the landing. It felt…okay. Until I left the theater, and then I felt magical. I felt at peace. I wanted to write as much poetry as I possible could. It’s a simple film, not much happens, a week in the life of a bus driving poet, each day worn into a comfortable groove of tedium: wake up, walk to work, drive a bus, walk home, dinner, walk the dog, go to bed, and write snippets of poetry in between. The poetry in the film is also better than I thought it might be, and gets better with repeat viewings, as are the side characters we meet—each giving a little more every time I watch. But beyond the film being an ode to poetry from simple roots, it’s an ode to love. The relationship in the film, I realized after watching, is all I’d ever want. Golshiftah Farahani’s character is not just the typical stock “supporting girlfriend” or “disillusioned needs-something-more girlfriend". Instead, she has her own life and her own artistic passions. She’s busy painting or designing or baking or learning to play music. She’s always growing. If Adam Driver wasn't around, I get the feeling she'd be just as busy. Yes, she’s supportive, but also pushes him to continue to grow on his own. They are two people who don’t “need” each other but want each other. They are better for being together, and they know it. They leave little notes for each other. They share their creations with each other. They talk. They listen. They give each other space. It’s a simple, trusting, calming sort of relationship I’m envious of, and I think this is what makes the film transcend it’s “writer movie” or “indie rom-dram” pigeonhole and become something more like a “Life Goals” film. I see this movie and I think, “That’s all I want,” and then I get up and work toward that.