If you type in ‘filmmaking’ into Amazon, you’ll get a billion titles. There’s tons of books available on the industry and craft, and in the past ten years I feel like I’ve read just about every one. Generally, the ‘making it in the film business’ books boil down to one thing - write / procure a good script. That’s common sense. No need to drop twenty to thirty bucks on a book to learn that.
But there are some books that just transcend common sense and either inspire or enlighten, and I find myself returning to these books all the time. These are books that are worth their weight in gold and are, I feel, essential references for all filmmakers. Here’s my must have list:
1) Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz and Grammar of the Film Language by Daniel Arijon.
In this blog I’ve always stressed that any craftsman / tradesman must first learn her grammar before trying to speak the language. These two books are highly academic but completely thorough in their covering the language of film. They are classic staples of every film school and should be considered required reading by all filmmakers.
1) Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.
There’s a heavy emphasis on mythology in these books, but that doesn’t mean they teach you how to write stories about monsters and gladiators. Instead they dissect classical story structure, of the standard templates that every story, regardless of how avant-garde or experimental, follows. In fact it’s impossible to create avant-garde cinema / stories without knowing these archetypes. Any writer that tries to experiment without knowing the fundamentals will come to a rude awakening, and that is that their “experiment” has actually been done before, and done exceptionally well. These books are accessible, straightforward and are pillars of writing structure.
Also know that they emphasize structure, and none of them tell you how to write. How to write is something born from you, your experience, and the fundamentals of your education. And it only comes to fruition when you do it over, and over, and over again. Write every day, even if it is nonsense. Start a film blog and use it as a way to write as much as you can. ;o)
EDIT: There are many books on screenplay format, but there are tons of websites that’ll give you the information you need. The best is John August’s amazing screenwrting blog: www.johnaugust.com.
1) Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and pretty much everything ever written by David Mamet.
Getting tutelage directly from working filmmakers is, in any instance, better than getting taught by a film studies professor (apologies to all my film professors, you’ve impacted me in so many other ways). Lumet and Mamet are two of the finest directors when it comes to performance and extracting the human element of film, regardless of the genre. Furthermore, reading their books, especially Lumet’s, will give you an insight to the everyday process of directing a film, and while it can never replace physically being on a set, it’ll give you a heads up on what to expect.
2) Directing, Fourth Edition: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger.
A tome to the technical elements of direction, it also has invaluable resources for rehearsals, thinking ahead for the edit, and physical / mental preparation.
3) The Art of Acting by Stella Adler.
What I love most about Stella Adler’s book is her clarity on the preparation of the actor rooted in the Stanislavky techniques of method acting. Adler turns acting into a physical and metaphysical activity, and it is, in my opinion, the definitive methodology to extracting the truth out of a performance. Adler’s approach has a sensitivity to the artist and the material, and if anything her demeanor alone is a guide for all directors and their initial approach to actors. An invaluable book.
3) The Director’s Vision: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Filmmakers by Geoff Andrew.
If you read the comments on the Amazon page, the reviews for this book are all over the place, but I don’t really see the purpose of this book to provide pointers on how filmmakers like the Coen Brothers or Walerian Borowczyk technically make movies. What I love is that Andrew takes a singular image from a film, and from that extracts the essence of the storytelling from that visual. It is, to me, the core of filmmaking, which is telling a story through image. And seeing how each filmmaker uses elements of performance, framing and composition to extract emotions is the real lesson here. It highlights that the key to competent direction lay within the details and the skillful execution of unique ideas. This is one of my favorite film books, both as a filmmaker and cinephile. I never get tired of reading it and it never fails to inspire and enlighten me.
4) A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies
by Martin Scorcese and Michael Henry Wilson.
Today’s European film may be the true director’s medium, but let us not forget that the French New Wave was inspired to greatness by the heart of American cinema, and it is this cinema, from the director’s perspective, that Martin Scorcese dissects with the elan and enthusiasm of a true fanboy. We get insight to the hurdles, challenges and, most importantly, the solutions of the great American directors like John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks and Arthur Penn among many others. Scorcese also breaks down American cinema’s penchant for genre cinema, which can be argued is America’s greatest contribution to global filmmaking. There’s also a companion television documentary to the book, but the book suffices for me.
1) The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film and the 7-volume Screencraft Series by Focal Press.
I’ve written about Walter Murch’s editing bible before, so I won’t write too much about it here other than that it is required for every filmmaker to own. But of equal importance to me is the invaluable Screencraft seriesfrom Focal Press.
The Screencraft series is broken into individual departments of filmmaking: screenwriting, directing, production design and art design, cinematography, costume design, film music and editing and post-production. Each book profiles anywhere from seven to ten top artisans from each department, and exhaustively breaks down each filmmaker’s process, references, methods, and philosophy. I can’t gush enough on how absolutely gorgeous these books are, packed with images and work documents on luxurious heavy paper stock. I return to these volumes the most for both technique and inspiration. They are very expensive books, and I collected the series over many years of visiting Strand Books in NYC and finding hard-to-come-by used copies. But if you can spare the expense, they are simply worth every single penny. Indispensable.
Film business and producing:
1) Filmmakers and Financing, Sixth Edition: Business Plans for Independents by Louise Levison
As aforementioned, there are a glut of film business books out there, but I personally recommend Levison’s book for one reason: it has the most complete business plan templates I’ve ever come across. It’s very similar to the plans found and taught at the University of Southern California’s prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program, and it is an absolutely invaluable resource for indie producers to have.
2) Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry: From Negotiations to Final Contracts and Contracts for the Film & Television Industry by Mark Litwak.
By no means are Litwak’s books a replacement for an actual entertainment attorney, but it’s vital that before you get an attorney for your deals, you should have a comprehensive knowledge of the terms, terminology, and laws of the entertainment / intellectual property industries. Litwak’s contracts are excellent templates to compare to those drafted by an attorney, and a great place to formulate questions for legal professionals or when dealing with other possible investors / production collaborators.
3) Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept Through Distribution by Gregory Goodell and The Guerilla Film Makers Movie Blueprint by Chris Jones.
Both books are one-stop-shops for production of low budget independent films, and are both refreshingly realistic about expectations, but are limitless on ambition. Goodell’s book has an excellent appendix of realistic independent film budgets for movies $5 million and under.
There are countless other books on my shelf that I turn to, from my prized treasure Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made to numerous books on individual filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa and Krzystof Kieslowski, but the books I’ve listed are the ones that are for general filmmaking as a whole.
Lastly, I cannot emphasize more the importance of reading trade magazines, but I would only subscribe to one: American Cinematographer. If you want to know the latest of technique, infrastructure and philosophy of cinema, then AC is heads-and-shoulders above the rest. AC also dedicates tremendous amounts of coverage to the latest in digital cinema, including the experiences of the best cinematographers in the world as they use RED ONE and other digital platforms. An absolute must, and a joy to read every month.
Of course all these books cost money, and I highly discourage anyone from buying all these books in one foul swoop. Build up your collection slowly, and the used book is a boon to filmmakers. But as great as these books are, they still can never, ever replace the educational value of going on a set and working. Even as a PA fetching coffee you’ll learn more in a day than you will in a week reading a book about filmmaking!