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Dominic Corry: The rise of films written by actors

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What happens when actors start writing their own films? Movie blogger Dominic Corry investigates.

Joy Bryant, Bradley Cooper and Ryan Hansen in a scene from the film Hit and Run. Photo / AP
Joy Bryant, Bradley Cooper and Ryan Hansen in a scene from the film Hit and Run. Photo / AP

This week sees the New Zealand release of the new action comedy Hit and Run, an otherwise undistinguished film notable for being written and co-directed by its star, minor comedic presence Dax Shepard (Without a Paddle, Parenthood).

It's Shepard's second such effort (after 2010's little-seen Brother's Justice, which is available on DVD) and attempts to evoke a Smokey and the Bandit-ish flavour with the help of his own classic car collection, which features prominently in the film.

Although Hit and Run is an independent production, it's emblematic of a larger trend in Hollywood these days for films written by their leading actors.

There have always been actors who've successfully moved into directing like Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, but in the last decade or so, there's been an explosion of films whose origins lie in their cast.

It shouldn't be surprising that most obvious examples come out of the Judd Apatow stable, as he's a filmmaker who's always been known to encourage his actors to generate their own material.

Apatow co-wrote his directorial debut The 40 Year Old Virgin with its star Steve Carell and shepherded the production of 2007's hit comedy Superbad, which was co-written by Apatow's longterm muse Seth Rogan. Rogan and his writing partner Evan Goldberg had been developing the script for so long that Rogan was too old to play the leading role when it finally went into production, so he took a supporting role as a cop.

The success of Superbad no doubt helped the studios believe in subsequent actor-driven projects from the Apatow house of ideas, like 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, starring and written by Jason Segel. The success of Sarah Marshall allowed to Segel to take on writing duties for subsequent films The Muppets and this year's The Five-Year Engagement.

And Segel's Sarah Marshall co-star Jonah Hill, another card-carrying member of the Apatow gang, co-wrote and co-starred in this year's hit comedy 21 Jump St.

It's not hard discern how these films benefit from the personal feeling the actors have for the material, and it helps to set them apart from more traditional (i.e. cliched) comedies.

Also Apatow's stated affection for improvising on-set ensures that any actors in his films get to play a role in the finished script.

The films that Apatow shepherded tend to star yet-to-be-established comedy actors, but there's long been a tradition for big comedy stars to write their own films, with people like Steve Martin (with films like The Jerk, Three Amigos and Shopgirl) and Eddie Murphy (with Harlem Nights and Norbit, among others) being prime examples. Will Ferrell (another Apatow associate) kinda falls into this category too. Woody Allen sits in his own category.

What I like about the Apatow trend though is it has demonstrated to the bean counters in Hollywood that taking a chance on a screenplay designed to showcase the acting talents of its writer can actually pay off commercially.

Scrubs actor Zach Braff parlayed his moderate TV fame into writing and directing himself in 2004's navel-gazing dramedy Garden State, which I was ambivalent towards on its release, but have since discovered an enduring and passionate hatred for.

How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor pulled a similar move with the 2010 indie Happythankyoumoreplease, which went straight to DVD here. Liberal Arts, his follow-up writing/directing/starring effort, played at this year's film festival and I thought it was pretty choice.

Another favourite of mine from this year's festival was Sound of My Voice, the script for which was written by its leading lady Brit Marling, who also performed both duties on her breakout film from the previous year, Another Earth.

One of the most oft-cited examples of actors generating their own material came in the glory days of the mid-90s indie film boom when struggling actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon starred in the critically lauded film of their screenplay Good Will Hunting, and won a writing Oscar for their efforts.

Both went on to have successful acting careers, but only Affleck has so far demonstrated a continued desire to be behind the camera, writing and directing 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010's The Town. Both were adapted from novels.

He is directing and starring in (but did not write) his next film Argo, which looks awesome.

Another actor-written film which benefitted from the mid-90s boom in independent cinema was 1996's Swingers, which was written by co-star Jon Favreau. I watched Swingers recently, and for a film so concerned with zeitgeist-y moments, it holds up remarkably well. Made, the 2001 follow-up to Swingers which Favreu wrote AND directed, remains a criminally underseen gem.

Favreau still acts, but he's built up a career as one of Hollywood's most in-demand directors thanks to the success of 2008's Iron Man.

Actor Billy Bob Thornton gave his career a boost when he wrote the screenplay for and starred in the critically acclaimed 1996 drama Sling Blade. He's written (Sam Raimi's The Gift) and directed (All The Pretty Horses) since then, but appears predominantly focused on acting these days. Although he's performing both duties on his next film, and it looks kinda interesting.

Actor Owen Wilson has collaborated with director Wes Anderson on screenplays for three films (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), only two of which he starred in. Tenenbaums garned him an Oscar nomination (with Anderson) for Best Original Screenplay.

He's always kind of vague about the specifics, but before legendary writer/director Mike Leigh starts shooting his films, he engages his lead actors in an intense workshop/rehearsal period where they play a large role in the shaping of their character's story. So I thought I should mention that.

Representing perhaps the British equivalent of the Apatow trend, Simon Pegg co-wrote the screenplay for his 2004 break-out hit Shaun of the Dead, and has since written or co-written most of his higher profile movies.

Last week I attended the media screening for an interesting upcoming film called Ruby Sparks (it releases here on September 20th) which was written by its leading lady, the disgustingly talented playwright/actress Zoe Kazan. Her being the screenwriter definitely adds an extra dimension to the story, which is about a blocked novelist (played by Kazan's real-life beau, Paul Dano) who conjures up his ideal girlfriend (Kazan) out of thin air.

Other notable actors who've taken to writing (but not necessarily directing) their own films over the years include Gene Wilder; Dan Ackroyd; Billy Crystal and Stanley Tucci.

But perhaps the true instigator of this trend though is good ol' Sylvester Stallone, who famously refused to sell his Rocky screenplay unless the studio who bought it allowed him to star in it. Since then he has gained screenplay credits on almost 20 movies, including all the Rocky and Rambo sequels. Not to mention the currently-in-theatres The Expendables 2.

Sly's best efforts as a screenwriter (Rambo, Cliffhanger, F.I.S.T.) outweigh the worst (Rhinestone).

* Do you like it when actors generate their own material? What are some other examples? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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