Swicord was born in Columbia, South Carolina, the daughter of Jean Carroll Swicord (née Stender) and businessman Henry "Hank" Grady Swicord II. Swicord's father was in the military, so the family moved often and she spent a large part of her childhood in Barcelona, Spain, until eventually settling in Florida. She has a brother, Steven Swicord.
Swicord said she always wrote as a child, and that later as she continued writing in college, became interested in screenplays because they were visual in nature.
She graduated from Florida State University, where she double-majored in English and Theater, with an emphasis on stagecraft. While at Florida State, Swicord worked as a photographer at the school newspaper, Florida Flambeau.
After college, while still in northwest Florida, Swicord made short films, eventually getting work as an industrial filmmaker in Atlanta, Georgia for IBM. IBM liked her work so much that they recommended Swicord for a job at their advertising agency in New York City where she worked as a copywriter.
With fellow alumni of Florida State University who were starting a theater company, Swicord wrote and helped produce two plays. An agent named Merrily Kane who saw one of the plays asked Swicord if she had considered writing for film. Swicord gave her a script called Stock Cars for Christ which was sold to MGM, a job that required that she move to Los Angeles. Although the project was never produced, at MGM she was mentored by Lynn Arost, an MGM development executive who Swicord said gave her the experience and time during which she taught herself the craft of rewriting scripts. Another early mentor was Susan Froemke, an editor who often worked with Maysles Brothers.
Her directorial debut was with the 1993 short film The Red Coat, for which she also wrote the screenplay. The film was about her grandmother and starred Theresa Wright and Bridget Fonda.
For the 1994 film, Little Women, Swicord conducted intensive research into Louisa May Alcott's personal diaries and family letters in order to recreate the period accurately. For over 12 years, Swicord worked with film executive Amy Pascal to develop the project. The studio wanted Winona Ryder to star in the project so producer Denise Di Novi, who had a long-standing working relationship with Ryder, joined as a producer on the film. Ryder wanted a woman director, which was an additional challenge, as the list of women directors from the studio was short. Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) who was on that list, was hired to direct.
During the process of writing the adaptation of The Perez Family, Swicord got to know the world of author Christine Bell's Miami.
Swicord worked with her husband, Nicholas Kazan on the screenplay to Matilda, adapted from the Roald Dahl book, which was a children's book the couple loved from reading it to their daughters. Dahl's daughter, Lucy Dahl, was given script approval.
Swicord wrote the screenplay for Karen Joy Fowler's 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club and directed the film, which was released in the United States on September 21, 2007. The film was her feature film debut.
For 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha, Swicord worked collaboratively with director Rob Marshall to adapt Arthur Golden's novel. Although the project had been with other writers and directors, and there were many previous drafts of the script, Swicord said that she and Marshall started from scratch. Swicord was able to use Golden's original research and unedited manuscripts to construct the screenplay, which won a Golden Satellite Award for best-adapted screenplay.
For over 10 years, Swicord worked on the screen adaptation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald from the 1922 collection, Tales of the Jazz Age. The project had been in development by producer Ray Stark for 20 years before she began working on the script. Swicord said that the adaptation of the short story was such a loose adaptation of very short piece that she felt that her work almost became an original screenplay. The script had a very long development period in Hollywood and was attached to many directors, actors, and studios. The eventual director of the film, David Fincher, hired Eric Roth, who re-wrote much of Swicord's original script.
Swicord has said she was influenced by the work of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) as well as Ben Hecht (Scarface, Nothing Sacred) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) because they wrote movies that she loved. Contemporary favorites are Eric Roth, Steve Zaillian, Callie Khouri.The Rivals – About Eleanor Duse and Sarah Bernhardt
The Mermaids Singing – based on the novel, The Mermaids Singing, by Lisa Carey
The Jane Prize – about a family of Jane Austen scholars
2012-present: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Governor's Board
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship Committee Chair – Writers Branch
University of Southern California Libraries, Scripter Awards – Selection Committee
Writers Co-Op, Member
Board of the Writers Guild Foundation
Writers Guild’s Pension and Health Fund Trustee
San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film Advisory Board
In 1984, Swicord married screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, who is the son of director Elia Kazan. Their daughters are actresses Zoe Kazan and Maya Kazan.1980: Cuba Crossing – screenplay/story
1987: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (TV Series) – writer, 1 episode: "You Ruined My Life"
1989: Shag – screenplay with Lanier Laney & Terry Sweeney
1993: The Red Coat (Short) – writer, director
1994: Little Women (adapted from the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott) – screenplay, co-producer
1995: The Perez Family (adapted from the book The Perez Family by Christine Bell) – screenplay, executive producer
1996: Matilda (adapted with Nicholas Kazan from the book Matilda by Roald Dahl) – screenplay, co-producer
1998: Practical Magic (adapted with Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks from the book Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman) – screenplay, co-producer
2005: Memoirs of a Geisha (adapted from the book Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden) – screenplay
2007: The Jane Austen Book Club (adapted from the book The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler) – screenplay, director
2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (story credit with Eric Roth from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) – story
2016: The Promise – screenplay (with Terry George)
2016: Wakefield – Screenplay, director. Based on the short story by E.L. Doctorow.
Swicord, Robin. Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe. New York: Samuel French, 1983. ISBN 978-0-573-61917-5 OCLC 11344745
Swicord, Robin. Criminal Minds. New York: Samuel French, 1984. ISBN 978-0-573-61942-7 OCLC 11613038
Peter J. Barton Productions, Alabama, and Alabama Public Library Service. Private Lives: Illiteracy, We Can't Afford It. Tallahassee, FL: Peter J. Barton Productions, 1980. OCLC 8467563
Swicord, Robin. "Pioneer know-how -- Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood by Lizzie Francke." Sight and Sound. London: British Film Institute. Volume 5, No. 2. February 1995. Page 36. ISSN 0037-4806
Swicord, Robin. "Blonde ambition -- All About Eve directed by Joseph Mankiewicz." Sight and Sound. London: British Film Institute. Volume 5, No. 11. November 1995. Page 59. ISSN 0037-4806
Swicord, Robin. "Scriptwriting from Soup to Nuts." Sight and Sound. London: British Film Institute. Volume 7, No. 11. November 1997. Pages 28-30, 33. ISSN 0037-4806
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Architects of Dreams: Writers on Writing: Defeating the Blank Page. Beverly Hills, CA: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2001. Academy seminar on August 15, 2001 at Academy Little Theater in Beverly Hills, California. Featured speakers Brian Helgeland and Robin Swicord moderated by Randy Haberkamp. OCLC 801281666
Swicord, Robin. "Under the Skin: Adapting Novels for the Screen." Kranz, David L., and Nancy C. Mellerski. In/Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Pub, 2008. Literature/Film Association conference at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 2005. ISBN 978-1-847-18402-3 OCLC 474017773