"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.

The Big Filmmaking Book List

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.

Some disclaimers:

  • 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.

DIRECTING

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.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

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 AcordJean-Yves EscofferDarius KhondjiJohn MathiesonSeamus McGarvey, and Harris Savides.

SCREENWRITING

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.

EDITING

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.

PRODUCING

So You Want to Be a Producer by Lawrence Turman
Larry Turman is another legend. The man produced The GraduateThe 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.

So that’s the list. Was there a book you were expecting to see that wasn’t listed? Perhaps it’s in my to-read pile. If you don’t see it there, please drop me a note on Twitter with a suggestion.

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.