Steven Zaillian graduated from San Francisco State University in 1975 with a degree in Cinema, and began his career as an editor on Breaker! Breaker! (aka Cindy Jo and the Texas Turnaround ), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Starhops (aka Curb Service ), Below the Belt (1980), and other films.
His emergence as a screenwriter was with the creation of The Falcon and the Snowman in 1986, based on Robert Lindsey's book on political intrigue, and starring Sean Penn. The success of this project led to his next script for Awakenings (1990) which was based on the renown Oliver Sacks book. This activity was nominated in 1991 both for an Oscar (Best Screenplay Adaptation) and for a WGA Award, and won a U.S.C. Scripter Award.
In 1993, Zaillian created the screenplay for Jack the Bear, based on Dan McCall's novel, and for Searching for Bobby Fischer (aka Innocent Moves), which marked Zaillian's directorial debut. Fischer, based on a book by Fred Waitzkin, won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and an MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker in 1994.
Zaillian's most remarkable achievement of 1993 was the overwhelmingly gripping script, adapted from Thomas Keneally's novel, for Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. This humanist plea and aesthetic tour de force garnered much attention, and was appreciated with an Academy Award for Best Writing (1994), a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Chicago Film Critics Association Award, a Golden Globe, the Humanitas Prize, a U.S.C. Scripter Award, and a WGA (Writers Guild of America) Screen Award for Best Screenplay based on material previously produced or published. In 1994, Zaillian received the ShoWest Convention award for Screenwriter of the Year.
After scripting Clear and Present Danger (1994), Zaillian was one of three co-writers who adapted the TV show Mission Impossible (1996) for the screen. This effort, however, bombed in the opinion of the Razzie Awards who nominated Zaillian for the Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million, a dubious honor shared that year with David Koepp and Robert Towne.
1998 saw the creation of A Civil Action, a powerful drama on the devastation wrecked on families by the indiscriminate dumping of toxic waste, for which Zaillian served in the multiple roles of director, executive producer, and screenwriter. The fine cast included John Travolta and Robert Duvall. This film earned Zaillian a 1999 U.S.C. Scripter Award, shared with author Jonathan Harr, and a WGA nomination. Zaillian also provided uncredited re-writes for Crimson Tide, Primal Fear, and Amistad.
Zaillian's next assignments included the scripts for Hannibal (2001) and Gangs of New York (2002), the latter of which found him Oscar nominated. After a three-year stretch without any credits, Zaillian's name appeared on the script for Sydney Pollack's political thriller The Interpreter. He directed and scripted an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning political novel All the King's Men. He wrangled an all-star cast including Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins, and Mark Ruffalo, and was savvy enough to release the film in September of 2006 during the off-year election campaign season.
After working on American Gangster, there was an abnormally lengthy four-year wait for his next project. The drought ended in spectacular fashion with two high-profile projects in 2011 when he scripted David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and co-wrote, along with Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball a project which earned Zaillian a slew of year-end love including Oscar, Golden Globe, and WGA nominations for Best Screenplay, as well as winning that award from the New York Film Critics Circle.