So first things first. Directing is about DOING the job – it’s hard to get very good at it by sitting by one’s self and reading a book or even taking a class. Even a great class. Directing is a collision-based learning system. You’ve got a piece of text, some actors, designers, and technicians, a space to stage in, and a plan. Your job is to see how much you can piss everyone off while simultaneously mangling your meticulously-thought-out plan. You do it, you screw it all up, you think about what you screwed up and why, then you get up and do it again. Eventually, if you keep at it, you will invent newer and more exciting screwups and those will become known as your “style.”
The best thing any book can do is to inspire the reader to consider how to maybe not create the same exact clusterfuck as the last time. Or to think about certain aspects of the job or narrative elements they get to play with in their sandbox next time. Or maybe they help the reader formulate a plan that can’t be mangled quite as atrociously and then, as the sun is going down and they have four more pages and a stunt to shoot, they can drop their plan in a blender with some fruit juice and make a nice smoothie out of it.
So I’ve already decided to write a future post that’s about books that AREN’T specifically about directing that every director should read (I’ll think of a snazzier title for that blog post, I swear), but I wanted to start with the books that are THE books that really helped me understand the art, craft, and business of directing. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some brilliant ones, and I would love to see any and all comments that suggest new ones that can help. For me, these were the ones that changed the way I think about the job, and I keep them around for reference.
Go ahead and click on that link and read Poetics if you haven’t already. If Aristotle was alive today, we’d all want to punch him in the face for being a know-it-all. Which he was. And maybe he got slapped once or twice for being such an apple-polisher for the great teacher of empirical reality. He wrote about art and science and everything really – a lot of it stuff that nobody had written about before, creating orthodoxies that, centuries later, one could be killed for challenging (granted, in the middle ages that was de rigueur). Poetics dissects drama and poetry with the same scalpel that one would use to cut up everyone who came afterward from Shakespeare to Dario Argento. The best thing is that it’s a short book. It’s hardly a book at all, practically a pamphlet on how to write or how drama works or whatever. It serves to remind me about a real truth: It shouldn’t be THAT complicated. We all want to make our work new, fresh, and in some cases complicated-beyond-belief. An important thing to remember is that we’re not going to reinvent drama by ourselves, what we bring to it is a fresh perspective on timeworn tropes that will be around for another thousand years.
This was required reading in my first semester of college, and my too-hip-for-the-room teacher (he had long hair and rode a motorcycle!) showed us some movies that underscored the Joseph Campbell “hero cycle.” These included “Alien,” “Back to the Future,” “The Highlander,” and of course “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And the list would go on forever, as pretty much every half-decent film (and lots of bad ones) use Campbell’s system of archetypes and mythological structures to form a foundation for their story. In 1998, screenwriting coach Christopher Vogler would condense Campbell’s work into his very good book The Writer’s Journey.
Campbell, a protégé of Carl Jung, worked furiously to collect the mythical stories of every human culture he could track down, then identified characters, situations, and other traits that seemed to pop up over and over in multiple cultures across continents and thousands of years. His belief is that these archetypes are hard-wired into all of us, and we have a primal reaction to these characters and situations.
Although I began in the theater and even did some acting when I was a teen, I never read or saw anything that changed the way I look at performers and performing as much as this book. As a director, it shifted my perspective from “director-as-acting-teacher” or even “giver-of-line-reads” to learning how to step back a little and facilitate the acting process. Basically, actors aren’t the meat puppets that every beginning (and many professional) directors wished they had, and we need to learn to understand their world in order to tease out memorable performances. When I first moved to LA, I saved my pennies and took Weston’s Acting for Directors Workshop which I highly HIGHLY recommend to anyone who wants to study with one of the best directing teachers working today.
Weston’s main thesis is to learn to give actors specific ACTIONS (read: verbs) instead of desired emotions (read: adjectives) to work with. It’s the actor equivalent of the old writing advice “show, don’t tell.” She utilizes an arsenal of exercises to bring her ideas across, notably some techniques from acting guru Sanford Meisner and Harold Clurman, as well as her own intuitive script analysis techniques, to help facilitate communication between directors and actors. And don’t take it from little old me, Weston has helped countless directors, writers, and producers to understand the elusive craft at a higher level.
Ah, Syd Field, the first screenwriting guru. The one everyone LOVES to hate. You’ve heard that he espouses a “formula.” You heard that if you follow his advice, your script will be a cookie-cutter version of all blando Hollywood crap. It is ALL untrue. Although Field might not have invented three-act screenplay structure, nobody would contest that he was the first (and best) to clearly explain it to the world. So as a director, why does this matter? In general, film directors are almost never handed brilliant and finished script to make – they’re brought in to put the finishing touches on the script or even to overhaul it, and to work with the writer or to tweak the writing by themselves. As a film director, understanding three-act structure isn’t an option, it’s a prerequisite.
I would also recommend his Screenwriters Workbook, which is an expanded version of Screenplay which walks the reader through a series of exercises and concrete, real-world plans to get your screenplay written, while expanding on Screenplay. This won’t be the last screenwriting book I will foist on you – even on this list – but this may be the most important one to know backwards and forwards if you ever intend to get any film made by a studio or with indie producers. If they know what needs to be in a script, they’re going to know this book.
So few books cover this material. We’re so focused on the craft of directing and storytelling (for instance, see every other book I’m suggesting), that we forget that this is a job. It’s a job with limited opportunities and fewer and fewer paying ones on the horizon. So before we get too far, it’s useful to look at the questions that a professional director is going to need to ask him/herself. How to meet people in the business, how to find an agent, how to get into the system, etc. K. Callan doesn’t whitewash the process for would-be directors, she grounds it in reality, out of the classroom and onto the mean streets of Brentwood or Sherman Oaks or wherever in the metro-LA area you tend to hang out in a Starbucks.
I will say that it’s a little out of date, and it appears that Callan hasn’t released a new edition since 2000. A lot of the Agent info in there will be useless as the whole agenting landscape has undergone some major upheavals within even the last year. Similar points could be made about Nancy Rainford’s How to Agent Your Agent (2002) or Billy Frolick’s What I really Want to Do is Direct (1997), although they both offer great substance in the boots-on-the-ground world or navigating the business portion of the business.
When I was growing up, we didn’t have the fancypants indie directors like we have today – people who can make relentlessly personal films for a small audience, telling micro-mumblecore stories that make Holden Caulfield look like Luke Skywalker. Our indie directors actually had to find mainstream acceptance for their work while putting a personal stamp on it, and The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh exhaustively accounts George Romero’s struggles to make his seminal films (“Night of the Living Dead,” “Martin,” “Dawn of the Dead,” et al) of the 1960’s through the 1980’s with varying degrees of success and creative integrity. Filmmakers today may have circled around to where Romero began, with the shut-downs and sell-offs of indie wings within Hollywood studios and the waning arthouse attendance. It might not be a bad time for indies to consider using the strengths of genre filmmaking to throw a narrative lifeline to their audiences, something Romero knew how to do on a cellular level.
Okay, this one is a little dry. A LOT dry. But it’s one of the best though-out books to look at how a director uses a camera, and it endeavors to help the director use the camera more intelligently within the confines of a short shooting day. Why you shoot a given scene from a given angle is often a matter of logistics or bad luck, but sometimes and often enough the director can pick ANY angle or method to cover a scene and has to figure it all out. Although not a compelling sit-down-on-your-easy-chair-and-gobble-it-up type of read, Shot by Shot is a reference book that I will have on my bookshelf forever. It’s the perfect book to check out when I’ve painted myself into a corner, camera-wise, and need some great ideas to shake the bullshit loose.
So much of the craft of directing comes from theater, and it seems like with the advent of Greenscreen films like “Sin City” or performance-capture like “Avatar,” some aspects of filmmaking – most notably the movies with sets which are hard to physically build or require fantastic landscapes – are in the midst of becoming more like a film/theater hybrid as far as the directing and acting are concerned. But beyond that, Ball (who founded the American Conservatory Theater in the mid-1960’s) brings to light the things that every director should consider when going into a production. My big takeaway was his advice to identify a thing called the “Predominant Element” of any production, and he identifies five: plot, character, theme, dialogue, and spectacle – and points out that most scripts are only one of those. Identifying that element is the beginning of choosing a style for the production. Granted, this idea is something he adapted from know-it-all Aristotle, but Ball brings it to a new audience in a clear way.
If The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh accounts the perils and payoffs of indie filmmaking, The Battle of Brazil takes it to the next level, studio-wise. It recounts, with a heavy bias towards the artist, the the tortured road that Terry Gilliam‘s second non-Monty Python project “Brazil” endured during its voyage from finished product to a theater-near-you (or really a theater not-near-you as it were). The truth is that both the studio and indie paths are fraught with compromises that take a toll on any creative type, and Gilliam has always tried to have it both ways. He wants the star power and toolbox afforded only to studio or big-budget filmmakers, with the creative freedoms only afforded to the self-financed or working-out-of-their-garage types. And “Brazil,” which could be argued to be Gilliam’s greatest accomplishment on film, gets both almost right – until Universal Studios decides that it doesn’t like the dark ending of his movie. What follows is the story of a filmmaker who will do anything – down to stealing the print and showing it to critics or even threatening to burn his own negative – in order to get his film released with his vision. As his tactics enflame, so do those of the studio until the fight is reduced to a playground squabble of epic proportions.
The subhead of the book is “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need!” Okay, I don’t agree with that exactly. And I also don’t necessarily agree with Snyder’s one-size-fits-all approach to screenwriting. He was not of the “bring your fiercely-personal story to the screen” school of screenwriting, he was basically writing a book that would teach you how to write to sell. His approach involved working on an elevator-pitch-style logline for your script, narrowing down your genre, and beating your script out on a page-by-page beat sheet of his own design. If you think Syd Field promotes a formula, you haven’t read Blake Snyder. It should be pointed out that Snyder only got two films made in his screenwriting career – “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot” (1992) and “Blank Check” (1994), and neither of them was exactly Oscar material – but so what. Those who can – do/Those who can’t – teach. And Snyder is an excellent teacher who will encourage the reader to go out and tackle their next script. He also drops some great tips and tricks on the writer such as the book’s namesake, “save the cat,” where the writer has the hero do something benevolent around the time they’re introduced in order to make the audience sympathize with them. There are others – “Pope in the pool” being my personal favorite.
So why should a director read this? For the same reason he/she should read Screenplay or Robert McKee’s Story – to understand what everyone who stands between you and a directing job will know. Save the Cat! may not be the best book on screenwriting, but it’s the one that executives, agents, managers, and readers are spanking it to right now, so directors should ignore its wisdom at their peril.