Listen to Director John Sturges' 'Better Than Film School' Commentary

John Sturges is considered by many to be one of the most underrated filmmakers since the beginning of cinema. His films The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Bad Day at Black Rock tell stories about courage and the "essential decency of man," all with the noble intention and ultimate goal of entertaining an audience. Director Paul Thomas Anderson once said that he learned everything he knows about directing from Sturges' commentary on the Bad Day at Black Rock LaserDisc, so here's the opportunity, if you haven't already taken it, to listen to it and, as Anderson says, avoid 20 years of film school.

A genre-mixing western noir (or noir western -- either way,) Bad Day at Black Rock was the first MGM film to be shot in CinemaScope, and Sturges showed a talent for composing images in the widescreen format. In fact, the film was also filmed in the standard 4:3 ratio, because the studio weren't completely confident that widescreen would work. However, the 4:3 version was never released, and the widescreen version of BDABR went on to receive good reviews by critics, as well as inspire future filmmakers, like Anderson, toward better filmmaking. So, check out Sturges' commentaries from Bad Day at Black Rock below, and scroll down to see a few select quotes.

Camera Technique

When first starting out, it's understandable and expected for filmmakers to use the films that inspire them as guides for camera technique. Although this can definitely help you in many cases, it's very necessary to be aware of what kind of movie you're making, because not all camera techniques fare well for the same genre, story, tone, etc. Sturges says:

John Sturges directing

A lot of people have asked me about camera technique -- angles to use, why you use them, camera style, camera movement. One answer is that it depends on the kind of film you're making. If you're telling a story and it's told in an apartment house in New York -- really not much point in trying to see how fancy you can get the film angles. If you're doing a picture such as this one, Bad Day at Black Rock, there's a wide opportunity to use what I'll call "effective angles," because everything you look at has interest. But now you get into the purpose of the film. The perfect camera technique is one that the audience doesn't even know is existing.

Film is about reaction

We're not talking about a simple shot/reverse shot sequence here. Yes, it's important to understand that technical convention, but it's more about being fully aware that an audience gets their information about what's going on in the story largely from the reactions of your characters toward something in the diegesis.

Film is reactive. What counts is what your players react to. So, if you go past your principal actors at what's happening, then you cut around, reverse back onto that actor -- automatically you're in a close shot, which is what you wanna be, and automatically you're cutting off what happened to see how it affected him. That's the name of the game in films. Hitchcock said it all. He said, "Cutting means the ability to make an audience feel what you want them to feel by the reaction of somebody to something.

Bad Day at Black Rock


Having a good cinematic vocabulary is essential if you want to keep your films fresh and alive, and understanding what your shots and images convey is incredibly important. Not being aware could rob you of the greatest shot of your career, or say something to your audience that wasn't intended. Find out how to ramp up the aesthetic energy generated in your shots. Study aesthetic theories -- find out what the human biological and psychological responses are to certain colors and color schemes, spacial constructions, sizes, shapes, etc.

Bad Day at Black Rock long shot

Part, of course, of good photography is what you're photographing -- spectacular locations, spectacular faces, spectacular characters, a streamline in a desert is pretty spectacular. So, you start with stuff that's worth seeing -- Jack Ford, I guess the man who everyone agrees made the best western, he shot it backlight. Backlight means the mountains are dark and heavy and ominous -- that the faces of the characters are dark -- He used big big things behind people. He shot up at them to make them look menacing by taking on the character of the mountains behind them.


Here, Sturges talks about how Dore Schary of MGM and screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who wrote the script to Bad Day at Black Rock, came up with two elements for the story and how they work together to form a living narrative:

One: He was a man whose life was saved by a Japanese boy in Italy. The boy died and he was given a metal for his heroism. He's looking for the father of that boy to give him the metal in an expression of thanks. Two: He's lost the use of his arm. He feels mutilated, unneeded, defeated, and leading a pointless existence. Put those two elements in this and you have a story. And it moves. It's alive, and you identify. It goes somewhere.

What do you think about John Sturges' commentary? Do you agree with Paul Thomas Anderson, that it's better than 20 years of film school? Let us know in the comments.

[via filmschoolthrucommentaries & Cinephilia and Beyond]

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Your Comment


Yup. BDaBR was a revelation. Simple and amazing.

September 2, 2013 at 7:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Ow amazing! Really informative one!


September 2, 2013 at 11:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Alex Mand

Oh man Sturges is the best. I've been a fan for a long time. Thanks much for this.

September 2, 2013 at 11:37AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Excellent post. I was struck by Sturges saying the people who catch on to directing fastest are screenwriters because they "sweat out" movies in a room by themselves. It reminds me of a comment Woody Allen supposedly made after WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT, which he wrote and in which he acted and with which he wasn't happy in the end. Regarding directing he said he looked around the set and thought it didn't look that hard. He evidently didn't need any film school, just the experience of that one movie to be able to direct every movie he wrote from that point on.

September 2, 2013 at 12:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Woody Allen is a comedy genius...of course he can direct a movie.
Film school..? he didn't need 19 he was writing for
Sid Caesar..Ed Sullivan Show...and the Tonight Show.

September 5, 2013 at 6:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Completely off topic - apologies - but has anyone noticed that Roger Deakins' forum has been hacked?
Real shame.

September 2, 2013 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


so basically, all he's saying is be good at what you do. fascinating

September 2, 2013 at 1:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


is it perhaps John Ford referenced under the name of Jack Ford in the commentary? Of Stagecoach fame?

September 2, 2013 at 2:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


And Bobby Wise is of course Rovert Wise (The Haunting, Sound of Music, West Side Story, etc.)

September 7, 2013 at 10:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


You can listen to the John Sturges commentary 1 million times...but
it will never give you the personal and unique taste and talent of a John
Stuges. Whether you listened to his commentary live in person (ala school)
or recorded (ala DVD commentary=no film school style) makes no difference.

September 5, 2013 at 6:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Really enjoyed it....and his well..he pretty much covers all the bases of how to make a a pretty short amount of time...which is probably what Paul Thomas Anderson alluded to. In other words the cocktail you need to make a wonderful film is: a very talented director, a terrific DP, a terrific story/script, clever editor, some well placed music, an interesting location and probably some modicum of luck too.... it's a different business now, that's for sure, but the ingredients for making good pictures hasn't changed.
Alexander Mackendrick is another terrific resource for insight into directing.

September 6, 2013 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Most of Hollywood should listen to Sturges' commentary. They seem to have forgotten what he's talking about, especially during the summer "blockbuster" season.

From the timeless classic Jaws to the utter crap they churn out now at the rate of Robert Patterson novels... it's really, really sad how low we've sunk.

September 8, 2013 at 8:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Dan H

A few years back, I searched high and low to find a laser disc of BDaBR with the commentary. Found a copy on eBay, and then made a DVD transfer. Well worth the effort! A great wealth of information, and I've listened to it several times.

October 5, 2013 at 9:04AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

David Silverman

Sturges; What made me watch this was the fact that he is the director of The Great Escape. A movie that i saw as a boy in India and kind of realized the power of film-making. Like his voice :)

July 26, 2014 at 1:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The commentary (from the Criterion laser disc version, and previously only available for owner of laser disc players) can be found here as a sound file, so you can play with syncing it to the movie:

January 21, 2015 at 1:36PM


The commentary (from the Criterion laser disc version, and previously only available for owner of laser disc players) can be found here as a sound file, so you can play with syncing it to the movie:

January 21, 2015 at 1:36PM