One of my favorite filmmakers of all time was Frank Capra. This year, I finally sat down and read his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, and was really blown away by how he talked about Hollywood, his process, and advice he had for up-and-coming filmmakers.
If you don't know, Capra is the man behind movies like It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His list of pure classics is invaluable. He also was brave enough to pause his career and head to World War II to help the United States with the war effort.
Capra is the child of immigrants and a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made a career out of nothing when Hollywood was just getting started. He helped shape the way the industry is today and is someone whose advice rings as true now as it did back then.
Let's take a look at what he had to say.
8 Great Filmmaking Quotes from Frank Capra
1. “I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”
One of the most important lessons from Capra has to do with audience appreciation. It's not enough to have a sad story on screen, you have to know how to manipulate those emotions so they are reflected in the audience.
Film is an empathy machine, so craft characters who can transfer that empathy to the people watching. Kind of like Capra did with the emotions inside It's a Wonderful Life. The whole movie isn't sad, but it makes the audience care when it becomes sad.
'It's a Wonderful Life'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures
2. “A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.”
If you have a story burning inside you, one you have to tell, don't let anyone derail you. Your creative muscle likes to be flexed. And it knows which ways it has to bend.
If someone is pushing a note or a feeling, listen. But if your gut pushes back, follow that hunch.
Capra was a young director when he went to work with Columbia Pictures. They were broke as a studio, and he had trouble finding his voice there, but when he followed his gut and made It Happened One Night, he told a story he knew would connect. That movie made so much money it pulled Columbia out of poverty and kickstarted his career.
3. “Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream, it takes over as the number one hormone; it bosses the enzymes; directs the pineal gland; plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.”
Once you get started in this business, it will hook you. There are ups and downs, but the high you get from seeing your work on the big screen is like no other.
And Capra would know. He worked tirelessly and became one of America's most influential directors during the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards for Best Director from six nominations, along with three other Oscar wins from nine nominations in other categories. No wonder he couldn't stop!
4. “Film is one of three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.”
Film is a global experience, and more and more Hollywood is looking for stories that travel. Capra knew that inherently.
As a first-generation American, he knew that the moving image had the power to communicate to people who may not even speak the language. Think about that as you work on your next time. What can the images say that the word cannot?
5. "My advice to young filmmakers is this: don't follow trends, start them!"
So much time is spent thinking of what's "hot" or "buzzy" right now, and not enough time is spent working on ideas we think are the best iterations of ourselves. Don't seek out where you think Hollywood is, be a part of where Hollywood is going by doing your best work.
When Capra came back from WWII, he made It's a Wonderful Life, and it didn't do great at the box office, but now it's a movie known by every generation.
'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'Credit: Columbia Pictures
6. "Scriptwriting is the toughest part of the whole racket... the least understood and the least noticed."
Getting a great idea out onto paper is long and laborious. We have a free screenwriting book to help, but it still involves a lot of tough labor.
Capra agonized over his stories and his characters. When he wrote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we were at the brink of war. Everyone was so upset at the government and disillusioned. Capra wanted to make a movie about idealism and how one person can make a difference. But it took time and effort to convince others to join in. His passion got Jimmy Stewart aboard, and the rest is history.
7. "There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness."
One of the things I think we say over and over again is, "Never be boring." You have around two hours to captivate people and take them on for an emotional and exciting ride. Capra's most controversial film, Meet John Doe, was about a guy drifting around America.
While that sounds like it could be boring, Capra took care to make every interaction he had funny, interesting, sad, and beautiful. This semi-autobiographical work stands out as a forgotten Capra gem and influenced many later filmmakers as well.
'Meet John Doe'Credit: Warner Bros.
8. "In our film profession you may have Gable's looks, Tracy's art, Marlene's legs, or Liz's violet eyes, but they don't mean a thing without that swinging thing called courage."
It takes sheer guts and determination to make it in Hollywood. People with good looks and nepotism might get a head start, but the people who last a lifetime are usually the ones willing to work hard and who are bold enough to continue trying and failing until they get it right.
Capra journeyed to the top of Hollywood, becoming one of its most effective auteurs. As he says in his book, he was just a dumb kid brave enough to bet on himself. I hope all of us can channel that bravery and see our wildest dreams come true on the biggest screen possible.
What's next? Enjoy Some Film Theory!
You had fun learning about Capra, now dive into all the terms and terminology that film theory has to offer. Become a scholar or just impress your friends!