6 filmmaking books filmmakers recommend

Books make great gifts. Here is a short list of a few classics that many professionals who write and direct movies actually have read and shared.

It will come as little surprise that the authors of the best books about filmmaking have a number of screenwriting credits to their names. But on thing that makes this collection unique is that each author has also made some amazing movies.

Making Movies – Sidney Lumet

Making Movies is that rarest of combinations: a well-respected, highly successful director of popular and classic Hollywood films writes a book.

Part memoir, but also a guide to the art, craft & business of motion pictures, this book draws on the 40 year directing career of a true mensch of cinema.  Seeking insight into how an auteur guides a large team of talent and crew? this is your book.

Sidney Lumet (1925-2011) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director four times, for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict. He felt that the film director’s job is “the best in the world.”

Who will appreciate this book most?

Making Movies is great gift for anyone who loves Hollywood movies, including avid filmgoers curious about how they are made. Much of the information is timeless in describing the dynamics of a major production. A solo low-budget writer/director looking for technical information? Maybe not so much.

 Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan – John Sayles

John Sayles is the independent’s independent. Like Scorcese and Cameron, he started with Roger Corman, but he went a different direction—his own.

Sayles chose to use the proceeds from writing scripts for bigger budget movies to make films on his own terms. His collaborators include Stephen Spielberg and Joe Dante. His films achieved wide art-house distribution in the 1980s-90s: Lone Star, Passion Fish, Eight Men Out, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Matewan. The first two won him Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay. Thinking in Pictures is an account of the making of Matewan.

This book recounts the thinking and decisions that go into transforming a script into a film. It visits the writing, shooting and editing stages of completing the project. His saga lays bare the tensions between creative inspiration and logistic and financial realities.

Who will appreciate finding this in a stocking?

John Sayles is an inspiring figure for filmmakers who love the kind of movies that Hollywood rarely makes. Before Sundance was even a thing, he was writing and directing independent films about ordinary humans in extraordinary circumstances. Anyone trying to realize a vision on a tight time and money budget will appreciate this book.

On Directing Film – David Mamet

David Mamet started as an opinionated, iconoclastic playwright. He went on to become an opinionated, iconoclastic writer/director who loves movies and is not shy about sharing his opinions.

Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow won Mamet a Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations. He adapted Glengarry Glen Ross to the screenplay that contains one of the single most powerful speeches in film history. Alec Baldwin’s ABC “always be closing” speech has only gained popularity over the years as one of the most replayed monologues in film history.

Nevertheless, On Directing Film is about how to think like a filmmaker. He understands that a film is made up of shots that tell a story. Telling stories with pictures, that is what this book is really about. Doing this effectively requires discarding a lot of stuff that writer/directors tend to think is important.

Who needs this book?

Every filmmaker understands what makes David Mamet cranky. In this book, he is restless with the same things that make you restless. Like you, he hates story choices that are merely “interesting” but lose the engagement of the audience. This is a great gift for the iconoclast who loves nothing more than to cut through the bullshit.

On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director – Alexander MacKendrick

If you sought the ultimate author of a great book on filmmaking, who would you choose? Writer/directors are too busy, and teachers only know how to teach. What if you could recruit someone with a storied writing and directing career who became a beloved teacher?

You may never have heard of Alexander MacKendrick. However, many film lovers widely consider him among the greatest British film directors of all time. Brilliant films like The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit and Sweet Smell of Success cemented this reputation.

A more familiar name is on the foreword to On Filmmaking, Martin Scorsese. Says Marty, “I can easily imagine a college without a film program building a curriculum around these writings,”

The book was assembled posthumously.MacKendrick served as the first Dean of Film at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), from 1969 to his death in 1994. When he passed, he left behind treasured lectures and handouts that became this book.

In it, he demonstrates how to structure and write the story you want to tell. It also informs you how to use the medium of film in order to tell that story as effectively as possible.

Who will benefit from this book?

It’s not always true that those who cannot do, teach. Mackendrick proved himself as a filmmaker, then chose to put his full energy into teaching. His approach appeals to filmmakers who care most about story. He focuses on how to use film grammar in service of the narrative.

Give this to someone contemplating film school, or how to avoid film school. Anyone excited about learning how to think about the process will appreciate it.

The Film Director – Richard Bare & James Garner

Who was Richard Bare? He directed nearly every episode of Green Acres, and several episodes of The Twilight Zone (including my personal favorite and the first one I ever saw, “To Serve Man“). His career stories include encounters with Hitchcock, Wilder, Kubrick, Spielberg and Lucas.

Rather than focus on creating a great work of art, Bare less pretentiously preferred to focus on the technical aspects of filmmaking, and how to manage actors. The James Garner listed as co-author is the lead actor from long-running 1970’s television series The Rockford Files.

Who will appreciate this book most?

The Film Director is a fantastic resource for the novice contemplating a film career. The stories will be savored by anyone who loves movies, and it’s an enjoyable read. But it can also help the practical minded young director get a job. Anyone interested in the challenges faced by a director to make it in Hollywood is a great recipient for this one.

Rebel Without a Crew – Robert Rodriguez

As someone who has worked on his films, I can attest that Robert Rodriguez has his own special brand of genius. Rebel Without a Crew is an account of how he made the lowest-budget movie ever to get wide studio distribution. It’s worth reading and understanding because Robert is one of those few filmmakers, along with Woody Allen, who gets to keep making films because he always returns his investor’s money.

But more than that, he is a lively, inspiring and very human guy with a Mexican/Latino voice that was all but unrepresented in cinema before he came along.

Robert’s special genius is in knowing that if decisions and details don’t matter to the story, they don’t matter period. Working for him, we would sometimes have to “un-final” shots that he had approved because we wanted to fix mistakes that he simply didn’t care about. By being decisive with what works to keep his audience engaged in the story, Robert may be the most clever director out there to keep a movie below budget. He might be the only filmmaker I myself would finance and expect to get my money back.

Who is this book for?

Like Sayles, Robert is writing for the independent filmmaker. He believes that making a movie is meant to be fun, and takes great glee in the thriftiness that leads studio executives to leave him alone. He’s also an inspiration to filmmakers who are culturally under-represented in mainstream cinema, including Vincent Cortez, who wrote about his encounter with Robert for this blog.

Special thanks to Andrew Stanton, writer and director of Pixar films including Finding Dory, WALL-E and Finding Nemo, and actor/writer Mark Redfield for inspiring this article with a twitter conversation.