Study Guide

Schindler's List Screenwriter

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Steven Zaillian

Steve Zaillian got the rather daunting honor of adapting Thomas Keneally's book Schindler's Ark, which unfolded the story of Oskar Schindler and his unique heroics. We can't say that he was the safe choice. Zaillian first cut his teeth on exploitation fare like the William-Shatner-vs.-Arachnids winner Kingdom of the Spiders and Starhops, the timeless tale of three chicks in bikinis who unite to save a failing restaurant. (We haven't seen it, but we're sure it's the Citizen Kane of chicks-in-bikinis movies.)

As Monty Python says, "I got better." After his foray into the nuances of drive-in silliness, he delivered The Falcon and the Snowman, the true-life story of two young men who became spies for the Russians during the Cold War. He followed that up with Awakenings, the true story of Oliver Sacks, a doctor who developed a treatment for catatonic post-encephalitis patients. Are we sensing a pattern here? After a rocky start, the man seemed to be cornering the market on tricky true-life stories. What sounded like a risk at first quickly became a stroke of genius.

Zaillian brought something else to the table that other screenwriters might not have been able to produce. As an Armenian-American, he grew up with stories of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks. It gave him an affinity for the material that let him find the heart of the story and turn the script into a blueprint for Spielberg to knock out of the park.

And you can't say it didn't pay off for the man. Zaillian scored an Oscar of his own in the Schindler's List tsunami (Best Adapted Screenplay), and his days of spiders-run-amok movies were behind him. He's since written more than a dozen other movies, including the likes of Moneyball, American Gangster, Gangs of New York, Clear and Present Danger, and the first Mission Impossible movie. It's been a heck of a run…and he owes a good deal of it to his ability to craft such difficult material into a masterpiece.

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