Yes, film is an audiovisual medium. Yes, the best way to learn is by doing. Yes, a book can’t give you feedback on your work. But, Werner Herzog says that filmmakers must, “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read….” So if you are looking to consume printed words and still images (after all, reading is faster than listening/watching), here are fourteen recommended books on film and filmmaking, all of which I have read at least part of.
I have focused on books about craft and storytelling, rather than practical nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, as I believe this is the area in which studying texts is at the very least equal to practical exercise, as a method of learning. Remember also to watch films to deepen your learning, going back and examining the texts which are mentioned by the authors and interviewees.
I have included Amazon Japan affiliate links to most of these books, but if you are not in Japan, or do not wish us to make a minute percentage commission from Amazon from your purchase, feel free to buy from a different vendor.
If you wish to read about where cinematographers seek inspiration, how they collaborate with directors, and the transition from analogue to digital technologies, this is the book for you. Interviewees include Luciano Tovoli, Vilmos Zsigmond, Roger Deakins and Benoît Debie.
An anthology of the best cuts from the first 14 years of Faber & Faber’s journal-cum-magazine-cum-book series featuring conversations, interviews, and essays by filmmakers, on filmmaking, for filmmakers. Highlights include Paul Thomas Anderson in conversation with Mike Figgis, Jonathan Caouette on the making of Tarnation, and Robert Towne talking with Mark Cousins about writing Chinatown.
Pick the department you are interested in and get the book. Featuring filmmakers talking about their work, explaining their choices and influences, the FilmCraft series are full of stunning images that illustrate the points made in the text. You can dip in and out as you wish, or read from cover to cover. Their titles include volumes on screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, editing, production design, and costume.
Another solid book of interviews with directors, similarly to the above listed texts, the critic Michel Ciment, talks with some of the past few decades’ greatest directors, my personal highlight being the chapter interviewing Kitano Takeshi.
Weston has apparently taught the likes of Alejandro González Iñárrutu, Ava DuVernay, and Steve McQueen (the British director, not the Bullit star) and this book has become the go-to guide for working with actors. Full of practical advice on building performances through script analysis, exercises and rehearsal.
A very readable introduction to three-act structure, more accessible than the biblical Story by Robert McKee. Save the Cat! will get you started on your feature-writing journey but won’t actually teach you how to write well, and writers should approach Snyder’s advice as tips rather than rules. The book offers similar content to the likes of Syd Field or Christopher Vogler, all of which should be taken with a pinch of salt. What I do like about Save the Cat! is that it encourages writers to actually get writing, breaking plot down into small sections.
Published in 1946, Painting with Light was apparently the first book written on cinematography by a major working cinematographer. Some of it may be dated, particularly technically, but it is a good starting point, especially for DoPs looking to build that film noir look which Alton is perhaps best known for.
If you own this trilogy of books penned by the great Vittorio Storaro, you are either very lucky or very rich, as it is not easy to come by. He describes it as an “encyclopaedia” of “the mystery of vision”, with each volume covering light, colour, and the elements, respectively.
Michael Herr recounts his experiences working with Stanley Kubrick, describing their personal friendship and Kubrick’s working methods, including their often three-hour-long telephone conversations. Herr, of course, wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket (1987) loosely adapting his own book 1977 Dispatches.
I stumbled across this book by chance at the BFI shop in London. Whilst it may be from a critical and academic perspective, Purity and Provocation is definitely worthy of your time as it offers deep insight into the Dogme manifesto. The history, context, and ethos of Dogme should be of interest to low-budget filmmakers as an example of budgetary and technological constraints manifesting in formal innovation.
If you wish to create Brechtian cinema, following in the footsteps of greats including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ōshima Nagisa, and Jean-Luc Godard, this book is a good primer in Brechtian theory, translating and transcribing Brecht’s texts into plain English. Whilst this volume is about theatre, the theories and techniques can be applied just as well in film, and I would recommend reading it as a companion piece to the above text, Purity and Provocation.
Bordwell and Thompson’s perennial undergraduate-course favourite is an introduction to the film history, how films are made, and how to analyse film form, prompting the reader to become a more critical film viewer, asking how filmmakers’ choices affect the film’s reception, and starting to think of form as part and parcel of content.
Whilst studying film theory is not for all filmmakers, many directors from various global ‘new waves’ have utilised theory heavily in their filmmaking. I may be cheating slightly by listing this giant anthology, so I shall single out the following essays as particularly valuable for filmmakers: ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’ by André Bazin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ by Laura Mulvey, and ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’ by bell hooks.
14. The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting, edited by Stuart Friedel and Godwin Jabangwe
This last one is free! Born from a concept by screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride), the book does exactly as it says in the title. Assembling the top questions from his platform screenwriting.io, a searchable database of commonly asked screenwriting questions and their answers, The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting combines these into a readable, portable, and free ebook.
It is easy to get bogged down in the eternal quest for knowledge and to never actually make one’s film. These days I tend to seek out specific texts that can inform my choices working on specific projects, rather than trying to read everything ever written. Feel free to approach these texts critically, take what you like from them and discard whatever you don’t. Apply what you learn to your filmmaking; I’ve listed the theory books here not so you can write eloquent essays about existing films but to incorporate some of the ideas into your work, should you so wish.