Screenwriting Role Models: Leigh Brackett
In the normally male-dominated world of screenwriting, Leigh Brackett distinguished herself as a versatile talent who worked on some of the biggest films of all time, including The Empire Strikes Back.
Brackett grew up in California and was always interested in science fiction and detective stories. In the 1940s, she started writing for magazines like Astounding Science Fiction. In 1944, she published her first book, No Good from a Corpse, a detective novel about a Raymond Chandler-esque gumshoe. Shortly after, she wrote a sci-fi novel titled Shadow Over Mars, which utilized a detective story and film noir style (and, in doing so, helped create the subgenre “science-fiction noir”). Around this time, Brackett also became a friend and mentor to science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury. Although she wrote in the detective and occasionally the western genres, it was Brackett’s work in science fiction that got her the most recognition. She was referred to as “The Queen of the Space Opera,” a subgenre she also helped to create: A space opera being a story that has heroic or tragic characters having adventures on various worlds and galaxies. Of course, this subgenre would be a major influence on George Lucas and his own space opera he created, the Star Wars saga.
In 1946, director Howard Hawks was adapting Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep to the big screen. Hawks needed a rewrite of the script (written by William Faulkner, of all people) and he had just finished reading Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse. Hawks was impressed and, according to Hollywood legend, shouted to his assistant, “Call this guy Brackett!” When Hawks met Brackett, he was surprised the writer of this hard-boiled novel was a woman, but it didn’t discourage him from giving her the job. Brackett went to work with Faulkner and helped him rewrite the script. This was quite a coup: Not only was Brackett a female screenwriter working on a major film in less liberated times, she was a so-called “pulp” writer helping a literary giant like Faulkner! The Big Sleep was not only a critical and commercial success, it’s considered a film noir landmark and one of the greatest movies of all time. This would be the peak for most writers, but Brackett was just getting started.
Hawks hired Brackett to write several of his westerns: Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970). All films starred John Wayne and are classics of the genre. Rio Bravo, in particular, is another movie often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. From John Carpenter to Quentin Tarantino, Rio Bravo has influenced numerous filmmakers.
Whether novels, short stories or screenplays, Brackett never stopped writing or getting work.
Even into her 60s, top filmmakers were still seeking her out. In 1973, Robert Altman hired her to adapt another Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye. The finished film, starring Elliott Gould, subverted the original text by placing the story in 1970s’ Los Angeles. Many critics panned the film and it was not commercially successful. In recent years, however, The Long Goodbye has been reappraised and many critics now consider it one of Altman’s strongest movies.
In 1977, after the phenomenal success of Star Wars, George Lucas hired Brackett to write the highly anticipated sequel. Initially, Lucas didn’t even know Brackett had written such classic films as The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo; he solely wanted her based on her science-fiction writing. She was, after all, The Queen of the Space Opera. After a couple story conferences, Lucas and Brackett knocked out a 55-page outline for the yet-to-be-named sequel. A few months later, Brackett handed in the first draft of what would eventually be titled The Empire Strikes Back. Sadly, Brackett died of cancer just weeks afterward. And although Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan rewrote the script, most of the story beats and the overall spirit of Brackett’s first draft remained in the finished film.
The Empire Strikes Back is not only considered by many fans to be the greatest film in the Star Wars franchise, it’s now largely recognized as one of the greatest films ever made.
A definite high note for Brackett to end her distinguished career on.
Edwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.