"On Film-Making" by Alexander Mackendrick

Back in January, I wrote what is easily the most popular post on my blog: The Big Filmmaking Book List. While I was writing that piece, I solicited other filmmaking book suggestions from Twitter, and I put together my Film Book reading list. My hope is to spend a big chunk of my free time in 2012 working my way through this list, and seeing if there are any gems to share with the rest of you. You can see all of my film-making book reviews at the Film Books tag page.

So that brings us to the first in the series…

On Film-Making" by Alexander Mackendrick

This is by far the best book I have read on the topic of traditional narrative filmmaking. How is that for a hyperbolic compliment? But seriously, the book is incredible.

Mackendrick worked in the film industry as a storyboard artist, screenwriter, and director. He directed SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and THE LADYKILLERS, among others. He was a studio director at Ealing Studios, and when they shut down he moved to LA to work as an independent director. Facing frustration at the Hollywood studio system, Mackendrick left to become the dean of the film school at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). After about a decade, he gave up the position to focus on teaching. He taught at CalArts until his death in 1993.

On Film-Making was not designed to be a book. It’s a well edited collection of materials that Mackendrick created for his classes. It’s an incredible collection of study plans, handouts, storyboard examples, and essays. The book is broken into two sections: Dramatic Construction and Film Grammar. While both are full of gems, it’s the Dramatic Construction section that contains chapter after chapter of brilliant insight into narrative fimmaking. Mackendrick manages to cover screenwriting from both the writer’s and director’s perspective, creating an invaluable resource for the aspiring filmmaking.

It’s a waste for me to try to paraphrase Mackendricks’ insights, so I’ll just give you some quotes directly lifted from the book.

  • "Your only mistake, as you work in this medium of communication, is to produce in your audience an effect you didn’t intend, or fail to produce the effect you did."
  • "Primitive magical rituals use rhythmic movement, repetitive gesture and musical noise to give sensory unity and comprehension to some otherwise disturbing and fearsome mystery. A myth, it is said, is the verbal equivalent of a rite that serves the same archaic need: to help the primitive mind take hold of a mystery. Stories, even in the contemporary context of mass entertainment, would seem to be successful when they, too, fulfil such a need, something audiences need not even be aware of."
  • "Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mixed with uncertainty’. A good director, therefore, is always asking himself certain fundamental questions. What is the audience thinking? In relation to what has just happened and what might or might not happen next, is it approving, disapproving, fearing or hoping?"
  • "A dramatic character is definable only in relation to other characters or situations that involve tension. A dramatic scene is usually one in which something happens: an incident or an event takes place, the situation between the characters is different at the end of the scene than from what it was at the beginning. The equilibrium has been altered and there is some narrative momentum that drives the characters (and us the audience) to a new situation in the next scene."
  • "Most stories with a strong plot are built on the tension of cause and effect. Each incident is like a domino that topples forward to collide with the next in a sequence which holds the audience in a grip of anticipation. ‘So, what happens next?’ Each scene presents a small crisis that as it plays out produces a new uncertainty."
  • "The task of a storyteller is thus often the invention of a structure along the principle of Chinese boxes. A situation is created where our curiosity is whetted by the desire to uncover or disclose a solution, or to unravel a knot of tension, but when the discovery is made or the knot unravelled, it shows only another box, another hiding place."

And these are all before page 50. The book is a treasure trove for the aspiring filmmaker. It gives you a skillset for analyzing your own work, and methods for pushing against the limits of your current abilities. Mackendrick pushes a philosophy of understanding how an audience interacts with a film, and developing the skills to shape an audience’s reaction.

I can tell this is a book that I will come back to over and over again in my career, as I struggle to get a grasp on my own path as a filmmaker. Mackendrick opens the books with a simple concept: “Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.” Well, I’m well on my path of self-education, and I feel like I made leaps and bounds thanks to this book.