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The Art of Screenwriting: Steven Zaillian

No one can deny the difficulty that’s tied to writing a great script. Though many writers can write a decent script, hardly any will have the longevity and success script-wise as Steven Zaillian. Having spanned around 40 years in the industry, Zaillian has worked with iconic directors Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg.

Learning from the best is a critical point and process in becoming a successful screenwriter. As a result, below will focus on the art of screenwriting, and we can learn from Zaillian. We’ll discuss his background, understanding the character’s behavior, the importance of details, and much more. Let’s take a look!

Photo credit: ICG Magazine

The Genius of Steven Zaillian

Born January 30th, 1953, Steven Zaillian laid down a good foundation for himself as one of the top screenwriters working in Hollywood and directing films like Looking for Bobby Fischer (1993).

Zaillian is primarily known for his writing, including his work on Steven Spielberg's Holocaust drama Schindler's List (1993) that procured him his first Academy Award. From that point, he composed various high-profile projects like Undeniable Danger (1994) and Mission: Impossible (1996).

He got back to the directing seat for the remarkable court thriller A Civil Action (1998). He worked together with directors like Ridley Scott on Hannibal (2001) and Black Hawk Down (2001) and Martin Scorsese on Gangs of New York (2002).

After an ineffective third cut at directing with Every one of the King's Men (2006), Zaillian got back to essential recognition by writing Moneyball (2011) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), demonstrating that he was one of the best screenwriters working in the business. So, what can we learn from the genius of Steven Zaillian?

Understand the Character’s Behavior

Zaillian’s scripts have a fascinating angle with the character’s behavior. Zaillian follows the method that a character's actions, dialogue, and decision-making craft the story. Though the general plot points are imperative to the story's success, great characters are what people fall in love with.

No one will jive with a story if they don’t find the main characters intriguing. Take Moneyball (2011), for instance. A story about a baseball GM would be boring to most, even the most avid baseball enthusiasts. However, Aaron Sorkin and Zaillian made a baseball GM in Billy Beane extraordinarily compelling and engaging through his behavior and storytelling.

The Importance of Details

Details are critical in any screenplay, with them being a heavy focus in a Zaillian script. Zaillian understands the necessity of crafting a story filled with detail, especially in a writing sense. Take Schindler’s List as an example. Right from its first page, it’s filled with detail to precisely imagine the scene.


TRAIN WHEELS grinding against track, slowing. FOLDING TABLE

LEGS scissoring open. The LEVER of a train door being pulled.

NAMES on lists on clipboards held by clerks moving alongside

the tracks.


...Rossen... Lieberman... Wachsberg...

BEWILDERED RURAL FACES coming down off the passenger train.

FORMS being set out on the folding tables. HANDS straightening

pens and pencils and ink pads and stamps.


...When your name is called, go over

there... take this over to that


TYPEWRITER KEYS rapping a name onto a list. A FACE. KEYS

typing another name. Another FACE.

Brutal Stories With Compelling Characters

Zaillian is a highly versatile writer who isn’t afraid to take serious subject matter into his story. Frequently, amateur writers get lost with their story, sticking with the basic theme and not developing the characters. Zaillian understands the necessity of characters in film, especially in brutal or dark stories.

Whether it’s the brutality of the holocaust in Schindler’s List, early gangs in Gangs of New York, the criminal career of Frank Lucas in American Gangster, or the neo-noir psychological thriller in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, all of these stories have great characters despite the story being so dark and disturbing.

Feeling Relatable in Settings That Aren’t Relatable

Many argue that a great story has relatable, likable characters, or makes us convey sympathy or empathy. However, most of Zaillian’s scripts are told in a setting that isn’t relatable, be it an older setting or a character that is out of the ordinary from the everyday person. Still, the dialogue and characters themselves end up feeling relatable even though the setting itself isn’t.

Not Sitting In One Genre

Though this isn’t necessarily a specific writing lesson, Zaillian is an excellent example of a writer who hasn’t stuck in one genre. Although some of his work didn’t pan out as he envisioned, that’s better than being a writer who went the comfortable route their entire career. The lesson is to take risks, even if it’s out of your comfort zone.

Best Steven Zaillian Scripts

● Schindler's List

● Searching for Bobby Fischer

● Gangs of New York

● American Gangster

● The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

● Moneyball

● The Irishman


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