Film School on a Bookshelf: 15 Recommended Books for Aspiring (and Expert) Filmmakers
One of the reasons this site is named “No Film School” is because of the widespread availability of excellent materials for self-teaching these days: almost every movie is available on disc or online, DVD special features often make for great learning tools, and there are plenty of books on the topic. Oh, and digital cameras are cheaper than the film cameras of decades past, when access to a celluloid-shooting camera was a major reason to go to film school. While we hope this site is itself a good resource for learning, there are so many good books on filmmaking that we thought we’d start recommending and compiling them. Here are 15 of our top recommendations.
As one of our goals with No Film School is to make film education accessible to folks who can’t afford film school, we’ve also listed used prices right in the widget (most of these books also have Kindle versions if you click through). The books here are suggested by myself, Mar Belle, Christopher Boone, Joe Marine, and Justin Minich. Happy reading!
The Filmmaker’s Handbook, 3rd Edition by Steven Ascher & Edward Pincus
The Filmmaker’s Handbook is the quintessential book for filmmakers of any skill level. It is jam-packed with information on every aspect of making a movie from pre-production all the way through to post-production and distribution. For the most part the book goes into explaining the technical aspects and common issues in working with film, video, lenses, sound recording, editing, and lighting, but it is written in a style that makes these topics rather accessible. It also gives a good overview of fundamental techniques and aesthetic considerations in all the aforementioned topics. If all that weren’t enough, the appendices are full of tables on data rates for digital formats, depth of field, hyperfocal distance, lens angle/focal length, as well as instructions on how to calibrate a video monitor. And for those die hard people who still use film there is plenty of supplementary info on cement splicing, synching rushes, comparisons of running times for different formats, and splitting mag tracks. In short, like the quote from The Independent on the cover says it’s “The bible — updated”. - J. Minich
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Just because we recommend a book here doesn’t mean you should do what the book tells you to do. As I say in the comments disclaimer for this site, “you don’t have to agree with us to learn something,” and I feel similarly about the ubiquitous Story by Robert McKee, which is famously featured on-screen in in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. McKee likes to pretend that by using the word “form” instead of “formula” he’s encouraging originality, but I remember thinking after reading the book in college that Story was most useful from a “learn to walk before you run” standpoint. Whatever you want to call them, it’s helpful to know the forms/formulas/principles/rules of screenwriting, even if you’re just going to forget about them when you’re knee-deep in your draft. Besides, if you’re submitting your screenplay to producers or studios, it’s likely that whoever’s writing coverage on your script will have read Story or one of its myriad contemporaries, and if you’re getting notes on structure or form, it can be helpful to know your (fr)enemy. - RK
On Directing Film by David Mamet
This is one of the few books I read in college that really made me question everything I’d ever considered about movies. Mamet may be best known for his theater work, but he’s also come into his own as a filmmaker. On Directing Film is short and sweet, and can easily be read in a day, but the ideas that he puts forth will leave you thinking about what makes a film good long after you’ve put it down. From his ideas about screenwriting to the process of directing, Mamet encourages you to consider that film is a visual medium, first and foremost. He argues that juxtaposition is more important than what is contained within each shot — it is the meaning between shots that will move a film forward, and scenes should be composed in the least interesting way possible.
When it comes to his actors delivering dialogue, he proposes uninflected acting to Bressonian proportions. Like the French master himself, it is the connection between the images on screen that matters more than the performance of the actor. To me, it’s not a how-to book (though its title would suggest otherwise). My advice is to read it, think about it, but don’t let it influence your work unless you want it to. You may not like the book or Mamet’s advice in the end (many don’t), but it’s going to force you to think about the process of filmmaking in ways you’ve probably never thought of before. – J. Marine
The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style by Christopher Riley
I originally added The Hollywood Standard to my bookshelf based on John August’s endorsement, when he announced on his site “I’m going to cede all formating concerns to [this book] which can answer newbie questions and let me focus on other points of word-pushing.” This book is not a how-to and it doesn’t contain career advice — it is simply focused on formatting. While there is no “final word” on any screenplay formatting debate and any rule you think is an “industry standard” is just as likely to be broken by your favorite writer, I find it helpful to have a resource that can help you figure out how to deal with text message conversations, flashbacks, song lyrics, and syntactical issues. No matter what genre you’re working in, one goal for your screenplay should be for it to read well, and knowing some best practices formatting-wise can always help in that regard. - RK
In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch
In the Blink of an Eye takes it all the way back to the basics, not unlike the David Mamet book (and it’s also based on a lecture). Even if some of the techniques are outdated, the actual psychological impact of editing is just as important as it’s ever been. Knowing why edits work and when to cut is the most important thing an editor can learn, and Murch proposes that there are basic rules editors should live by.
Murch develops a few ideas that are extremely useful to editors, with the most interesting being the rule of six. Basically, there are six criteria to make a cut in (in order of importance): emotion, story, rhythm, eye-trace, two-dimensional plane of screen, three-dimensional space of action. The audience should be able to ignore all of the individual aspects of a movie and remember how they felt while watching it –which is why emotion is number one. Throughout the rest of the book, he introduces many other intriguing ideas about editing, and thankfully, they’re all technology-agnostic. - J. Marine
The Name of this Book is Dogme95 by Richard Kelly
Years before Lars von Trier espoused the virtues of Nazism at Cannes he sat down with Thomas Vinterberg and drew up a filmmaking manifesto comprising ten rules dubbed the Vows of Chastity which they christened Dogme95. Fellow Danes Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen joined the two originators and the Brotherhood was formed with its mission to strip filmmaking back to a level of purity not dissimilar to the work of the French New Wave’s practitioners.
In The Name of this Book is Dogme95 journalist Richard Kelly sets out his journey of initial discovery of the movement and documentation of its main players through interviews captured for the documentary The Name of This Film Is Dogme95. Regardless of your feelings about the films released under the Dogme95 charter — the initial crop (The Celebration, The Idiots, Mifune, The King is Alive &
Julien Donkey-Boy) are amongst some of my favourite cinema — the central concept of stripping cinema back to its fundamentals without a reliance on the bevy of tools filmmakers have at their disposal, is a very empowering message to take onto set with you. - MB
Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
In the days before Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, the options for funding an indie film were limited: you could max out your credit card(s), take out a loan, ask family, friends, or whoever you thought had money and might give you some, or if you were lucky you could get a grant. Robert Rodriguez on the other hand, subjected himself to medical experimentation to raise the $7,000 he needed to make El Mariachi. And he made the entire movie with minimal equipment and no crew. We’ve all heard stories about directors’ humble beginnings and their rise to success, but I think all too rarely do we get a detailed account of just exactly what they went through to get where they are, and that’s what I love best about Rebel Without a Crew. It’s essentially his semi-daily journal that he kept starting from his guinea pig days all the way through his feverish dealings with Hollywood and festivals. Rodriguez went through a lot physically, emotionally, and financially, but he persevered by virtue of his hard work, thorough planning, and creative problem solving. If ever there was an inspiring example of what an indie filmmaker can do on a low budget, this is it. - J. Minich
The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film by Reed Martin
If you want to make your mark in the film industry from an independent angle, Reed Martin’s The Reel Truth contains real-world knowledge interspersed with interviews with everyone from directors like Doug Liman to producers like Christine Vachon, to multitudes of agents, managers, executives, and distributors. With so many books on filmmaking already on the market I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book titled “everything you didn’t know you need to know,” but this was all stuff that I wished I’d known years ago. Some of the technical aspects of the book are already dated due to how rapidly cameras and software have changed since the book’s 2009 release (though Martin also makes the unfortunate mistake of repeatedly mentioning 3K as if it were an actual format based on the assumption that RED’s “$3K for 3K” SCARLET would come to fruition), but overlook these small quibbles and you’ll get a very helpful insider’s look at the machinations of the indie film industry. I don’t know if they make this required reading at any film school, but they should — this is not a book about theory or craft but about how the industry actually works. I can’t recommend The Reel Truth highly enough if you’re at all interested in the independent side of the industry. - RK
Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter by Christine Vachon with David Edelstein
So many people, including DIY filmmakers, don’t really know what a producer does. Christine Vachon, producer and founder of Killer Films, shoots straight in this memoir about exactly what a producer does – which is whatever it takes to get the movie made. Shooting to Kill chronicles Vachon’s experiences of becoming a producer in the 90’s with honesty and wit. Vachon gives readers an intimate look behind-the-scenes to understand how she and her producing partners practically willed into existence some of the more challenging and memorable films from the decade – Poison, Kids, Safe, I Shot Andy Warhol, Happiness, Velvet Goldmine, Boys Don’t Cry – shepherding the careers of Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz and Mary Harron, among others.
Part how-to, part diary, altogether engrossing, Vachon brings her passion for making daring independent films to this book, making this a fast and necessary read for all aspiring filmmakers. -CB
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind
Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film
by Peter Biskind
Confession: I hated history in high school. It was my least favorite class. I really could’ve cared less about the dates and key figures that my history books deemed worthy to know. Why? Two reasons: first, high school history books cover topics that interest me very little; and second, textbooks aren’t exactly known for gripping prose. Shocking, I know.
Nevertheless, I believe if you are pursuing a career in filmmaking, you need to know your history. To that end, Peter Biskind’s pair of books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures are absolute must-reads to understand how studio films completely changed in the 1970’s (arguably the best decade for daring, evocative, independently minded studio films) and how the independent film industry emerged with such force in the 1990’s. From countless interviews with all of the key players from both decades, each of these books provides a fascinating chronicle of the stories behind the stories. These are two history books you won’t want to put down once you start to read them – and yet another lesson in good stories, well-told. -CB
Poetics by Aristotle
Countless books have been written on how to write a screenplay. You can read any number of them, and they will mostly tell you the same things. I don’t really recommend any books on how to write a screenplay. Anyone can search the interwebs and figure out the screenplay format. Reading screenplays of produced films will teach you more than any of those books. The real question is, “Can you write a good story?”
The basis for all of the advice on storytelling comes back to Poetics by Aristotle. If you listen to successful screenwriters talk about what you need to know about how to write a screenplay, they repeatedly tell aspiring screenwriters to go back to Poetics:
Aaron Sorkin: “The rules are all in a sixty-four-page pamphlet by Aristotle called Poetics. It was written almost three thousand years ago, but I promise you, if something is wrong with what you’re writing, you’ve probably broken one of Aristotle’s rules.”
John Logan: “If you want to be a successful screenwriter, here’s the secret…Here it is, I’m going to tell you. This is what you have to do, it’s great – don’t tell anyone. You have to read Hamlet and you have to read it again and you have to read it until you understand every word. And then you move onto King Lear. And then maybe you treat yourself to Troilus and Cressida. And then you know what? Then you’re going to go back and read Aristotle’s Poetics until you can quote it.”
Craig Mazin here: “Frankly, I would much prefer to see people go online and read a free public domain copy of Aristotle’s Poetics, which I think has more actual philosophical meat behind it about what the point and purpose of drama is, both good and bad.”
And Craig Mazin here: “What is useful when you are writing a movie is what Aristotle, going all the way back to Poetics, called ‘unity.’ And that is, at its core, an argument, and what I call a central dramatic argument: an assertion that is the answer to a question, that you could agree or disagree with, but ultimately is at the… It is when people say, “What is this movie really about?” It’s about that.”
So, don’t take my word for it. Take theirs and study Aristotle’s Poetics. Again. -CB
True Fiction Pictures & Possible Films by Hal Hartley
Whether you agree with the idea of the director as auteur or not there are filmmakers whose work is clearly theirs through and through and Hal Hartley definitely belongs on that list. In True Fiction Pictures & Possible Films Kenneth C. Kaleta and Hal Hartley work through the director’s body of singular work across a series of interviews and email correspondence conducted between 1999 and 2004, discussing his progression as a filmmaker outside of the mainstream.
This isn’t a book that will instruct you how to make a film, rather its interviews illuminate how Hartley makes his films and how he’s continued to do so on his terms and in his voice for almost 30 years and at the end of the day what’s more inspiring than that? - MB
Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul by The Film Collaborative, Jon Reiss, and Sheri Candler
We blogged this book during its free release, but even though it was available for free I spent a few bucks on the Kindle version (which is listed separately for some reason) so I could keep track of my highlights for later reference. Like The Reel Truth, Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul is a practical book about the vagaries of the independent film industry — it isn’t designed to improve your storytelling skills, it’s designed to improve your knowledge of all the distribution options currently available. Real-world experiences and numbers are hard to come by, but this book finds a way to provide them through interviews, case studies, and guest chapters aplenty (not to mention the considerable collective experiences of co-authors Jon Reiss, Sheri Candler, and The Film Collaborative). Don’t let your film leave home without it. - RK
The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose
As I wrote about The Art of Immersion previously, the book “provides an overview of all the changes taking place in our connected, interactive, game-ified culture, more than justifying its lengthy title in the process. As someone who’s interested in interactive storytelling in addition to more linear film narratives, I found the book to be packed with flavor crystals of brain candy (how’s that for an endorsement?).” To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky (as famously quoted by Steve Jobs), “don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where it will be.” If you replace “puck” with “storytelling,” The Art of Immersion effectively traces the path of the puck and points to where it’s going. - RK
These fifteen books are really just the starting point of a conversation. What will really make this post a valuable resource is if you chime in with your own favorites. So, how about it — what books on filmmaking would you recommend to fellow filmmakers?
[Bookshelf photo by Maarten Takens]