Filmmaking is a tough gig. It might look glamorous from the outside, like directors and writers and producers spend their days cackling over champagne with Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, gliding down red carpets, and cashing fat checks. If you want to be a filmmaker, though, and that’s your vision of the future, it’s time for a reality check.
A career in film takes time (16 hour days anyone?), persistence, and perseverance. It’s about being able to beg people for money and remain calm under crazy pressure. It’s not like you’re saving orphans from a pack of rabid wolves or anything, but it’s still hard. It’s even harder for female filmmakers (just ask Ava DuVernay), but hopefully that's starting to change.
If you want to become a director or writer or producer (or editor, sound mixer, production designer…) you could pay a ton of money and go to film school, but who wants to graduate with a load of debt and a screenplay in hand? A smarter way to learn, IMHO, is to read books, work on sets, and make your own damn movie. Granted, lots of indie filmmakers take out a second mortgage on their houses and rack up plenty of debt making their first movie, but at least you’ll have a film to show for it at the end of the day, right?
So, if becoming the next Jill Soloway or Kathryn Bigelow is your dream, here are 10 books you need to read immediately. And when David Lynch’s memoir comes out in 2017, you can add that one to the pile too.
Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
Lumet was nominated for the Oscar five times for directing classics like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon (where Al Pacino robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery and screams “Attica!”), and Network (which has Faye Dunaway doing a killer 1970s Resting Bitch Face). It’s part memoir, part inspiring how-to about all things directing: working with actors, making decisions, and staying calm in a crisis. He was one of the greats, and thankfully he left the world this book.
On Directing Film by David Mamet
Playwright and director Mamet happens to be the father of Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna on HBO’s Girls), but that’s just a little bit of Hollywood trivia. He’s also an Oscar nominated filmmaker with a knack for dialogue. The book takes you through every stage of making a movie, from writing to filming to editing and beyond. The book is based on a series of lectures he gave while teaching at Columbia. So see — a (much) cheaper alternative to film school.
Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan
Kazan was also one of the greats, with films like East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire, and my personal fav, Splendor in the Grass, which stars Natalie Wood and a young Warren Beatty, who was a super hottie. The book is made up of letters, notes, and interviews, and reading it will no doubt make you a better director.
Hello, He Lied by Lynda Obst
Here’s a question: Why are so many books on filmmaking written by men?! Where are the books by Diablo Cody and Gina Prince-Bythewood? Until that day comes, you can check out this one by producer Lynda Obst (Interstellar, Hope Floats, Sleepless in Seattle), because she has some solid advice and some pretty juicy stories. In her newer book Sleepless in Hollywood, she looks at the problems facing today’s movie business, so you can check that one out too.
Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
Before he was making tons of cash on movies like Sin City and Spy Kids and Machete, Rodriguez was a kid in Texas with a dream and barely any money — the classic Hollywood tale. Every aspiring indie filmmaker has read this one, and with a subtitle like Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, you can see why.
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
The Princess Bride is one of the best movies ever, end of story. William Goldman wrote the book and the screenplay it’s based on. So that’s pretty much all you need to know about this one, except maybe that he also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and All the President’s Men. So, when it comes to screenwriting, the dude knows what he’s talking about.
Shooting to Kill by Christine Vachon
Hooray — another filmmaking bible written by a woman. This time it’s from one of the best indie producers around, who is responsible for things like Carol (the movie Cate Blanchett will probably win an Oscar for this year), Still Alice (the movie that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for last year), and Mildred Pierce with the always-awesome Kate Winslet. She champions films with interesting, complex female leads, which is not an easy thing to do. So read her book!
Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa
It helps if you love Kurosawa movies (Rashomon, Seven Samurai) but even if you don’t this one will teach you where to put the camera and why, how to cast a movie, and why being a voracious reader will make you a better filmmaker (and person).
In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch
This one is a classic, and it’s required reading in any decent film program. Editing has changed a lot since Murch first wrote this (like, no one uses actual film anymore) but it’s still relevant. You can’t be a good writer, director, or producer without understanding the editing process, so learn about it from the guy who cut little movies like Cold Mountain, The English Patient, Ghost, Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather parts II and III.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
This is the book for aspiring screenwriters, and it talks about mythology’s influence on story structure. Sounds simple, but it has blown the minds of oodles of successful writers. It’s basically a must-read if you plan on writing the next Trainwreck or Orange is the New Black or 12 Years a Slave.
Forget film school — you now have 10 books to read, reread, and memorize before you go out there and make your movie. Here’s hoping some more of these filmmaking how-to manuals are written by female directors in the next few years.