I write this blog for a specific audience. It’s all written to be appealing to the “me” of ten years ago. By that, I mean the young eager person who loves film and is avidly trying to absorb as much knowledge and experience as possible. I hope I can help share some insight, and help people realize that everyone in this industry is still trying to learn how to make a good movie.
In that spirit, these are some books that I’ve read over the last decade or so that helped shape my approach to filmmaking and my understanding of the film business. I think these books all have considerable educational value to the aspiring or working filmmaking. The list is broken into categories, but I recommend cross-pollinating your knowledge. I find that breakthroughs in one filmmaking discipline often come from knowledge and experience acquired in another. The art, craft, and businesses of filmmaking are not orthogonal; they intertwine and it’s expected for an expert in any field to at least have a basic understanding of how their work impacts their colleagues.
This list is just a starting point. I will spend a lot of my free time in 2012 reading more books related to filmmaking. Check out the list of filmmaking books on my “to read” queue, and if you want to recommend a book please shoot me a note on Twitter. I will update this list if I find a book of exceptional value, otherwise you can follow my responses to other books by browsing the “film books" tag.
- Obviously I have not read every book on filmmaking, and please don’t take the omission of books from this list as a sign that the book does not have value.
- That said, I have omitted some well known books intentionally because I think they don’t have any meaningful value. For example, most screenwriting books.
GENERAL FILMMAKING / PERSONAL ANECDOTES
Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
At the age of 23, Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000 (excluding post-production and delivery). This book contains his personal journal from that period, and is a fascinating read. It also includes many wonderful practical tips on guerilla filmmaking.
Getting Away With It by Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester
This is my favorite film-related book of all time, and one that I have revisited a few times over the years. At a low point in his career, before the huge success of the Ocean’s Eleven films and his studio system re-entry of Out of Sight, Soderbergh sat down for a series of interviews with legendary director Richard Lester. This book is a fascinating look at both artists, and you can see the conversations shape Soderbergh’s future path as a filmmaker.
Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
This is the single most useful book on directing that I have ever read. Lumet is obviously a legend, and this book contains priceless nuts-and-bolts wisdom. If you are going to read one book before shooting your first film, this is the book.
My First Movie edited by Stephen Lowenstein
If you are going to read two books before shooting your first film, this is the second book. This book contains interviews with twenty directors exclusively on the subject of shooting their first film. It covers the anxiety and stress of making your first film, and contains priceless tips that will help any aspiring filmmaker get over that hump. Note: there are two volumes in this series, and I think that the first volume is vastly superior to the second.
Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steve Katz
Another book that I read a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure helped to formulate by thoughts on visual storytelling. This book analyzes many of the options and reasons for planning composition and shot selection for a film. I haven’t revisited the book for well over a decade, so I’m not sure if my opinion would change today, but I remember liking it as a novice.
On Directing Film by David Mamet
It’s fascinating reading Mamet’s thoughts on directing. He has some opinions that I definitely disagree with, and I think his approach to directing has also limited the cinematic potential of his films. That said, there are some real gems of insight, and I recommend it mostly as a divisive book that can help foster your own original thought on how to approach the art and craft of filmmaking.
Painting With Light by John Alton
Supposedly the first book on cinematography written by a working director of photography (in fact one of the inventors of the film noir look), this somewhat dated book is a true classic that focuses on the use of light on film.
The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V Mascelli
To be honest, I read this book a very long time ago, but I remember it shaping my thoughts on cinematography and the fundamentals of visual temporal storytelling.
New Cinematographers by Alex Ballinger
OK, so you’ve had enough of these old books with old fogies talking about classic cinematography. New Cinematographers contains interviews with six cutting edge current cinematographers: Lance Acord, Jean-Yves Escoffer, Darius Khondji, John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey, and Harris Savides.
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
This memoir by William Goldman is a must read for any screenwriter. It covers the early part of his career in great detail, and even includes the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is one of the essentials.
On Writing by Stephen King
This is not a book about screenwriting, but it is a book about writing. Many of the insights and thoughts that Stephen King shares in this book are wonderful. A lot of his suggestions will be totally misleading when applied to the craft of screenwriting, and when reading the book it’s important to keep in mind the differences between the two forms. However, on the whole I think this is a fascinating read on the process of a writer.
In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch
If you only read one book on film editing, this is the book. Walter Murch is a master, and covers all the fundamentals of editing with wonderful expertise. This is a book to come back to again and again over the years, always gleaning new insights.
First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham
This book consists of interviews with 22 amazing film editors, and provides a huge number of insights into their creative and technical process. As I’m sure you can tell by now, I am very drawn to first-hand information from filmmakers, and this is a treasure trove of information on film editing.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje
After reading “In the Blink of an Eye” get even more Walter Murch in this series of interviews by Michael Ondaatje. Walter reveals even more secrets and insights into his trade, making this a must read.
When The Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story by Ralph Rosenblum
There is a trend that my favorite film craft books are written by expert craftspeople, and Rosenblum is no exception having edited films like The Pawnbroker and Annie Hall (both of which I consider to contain some of the finest picture editing of all time). This book is a fascinating insight into his process, but most importantly I think it’s the best source for information on the art of cutting for comedy.
So You Want to Be a Producer by Lawrence Turman
Larry Turman is another legend. The man produced The Graduate, The Thing, and American History X and now runs the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. There aren’t many good hands-on books on film producing, and Larry’s book is by far the best I’ve read.
THE BUSINESS OF FILMMAKING
Ovitz: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Most Controversial Power Broker by Robert Slater
At one point in time Michael Ovitz was the most powerful agent, and perhaps the most powerful person in Hollywood. This official biography was published in 1997 so you won’t hear about his stunning fall from power or any real dirt. What you will hear about is how he helped form CAA (Creative Artists Agency) into a powerhouse, and a brief understanding of how agents and agencies derive their power and influence. The book is so hugely one-sided about what a great person Ovitz is, it actually exists as its own proof of how much power Ovitz could once wield.
Storming the Magic Kingdom by John Taylor
Maybe I have a thing for old books on the film business. The book covers the period in the early 80s when Michael Eisner and his team took over Disney and reshaped it to be the current media powerhouse that it is. It’s a fascinating read, and has a lot of detailed information and analysis of how things work at the top of an entertainment company.
Hollywood A Go-Go: The True Story of The Cannon Film Empire by Andrew Yule
Published in 1987, this book is about the rise and collapse of the Golan-Globus film empire. It goes into some detail on their business model, and holds no punches as it’s clear that the author doesn’t like what he has to see. It’s one of the few books that actually has insight into the world of international independent film finance, production, and distribution. It gives you a sense of the types of people you will end up dealing with if you get into the film industry. Unfortunately this book is long out-of-print, and isn’t even listed on Amazon’s website. The above link should go to a search for the book on AbeBooks, but if the link is broken you’ll have to search for it yourself.
Note: After writing this in January 2012, I decided to read a lot of other filmmaking books, in the hopes that I can help recommend some other gems. You can find the full series of reviews at the “film books" tag, but here are links to other books that I consider to be essential.
- On Film-Making by Alexander Mackendrick [Added February 21, 2012]