Are you ready to make a film? From funding to the final product, there’s understandably, much on your mind before you set out to. But if you’re looking for some inspiration in the written word, here are 20 valuable recommendations to get you started. From screenwriting to directing, cinematography to editing, these books cover all essential aspects of filmmaking. They’ve inspired generations of filmmakers and shaped their understanding of the medium.
Did you know Tarantino, a high-school dropout, educated himself in film by working at a video rental store? Or that Nolan’s first feature film, Following, was made on a budget of just $6,000? The road to Hollywood is paved with ingenuity, grit, and a deep love for the craft. But here’s the kicker: you don’t have to learn everything the hard way. Some of the industry’s best-kept secrets are hidden in the pages of books and these books below are a definitive guide to understanding film. They aren’t just textbooks; they are treasure troves of inspiration and invaluable insight.
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1. Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices by Rick Schmidt
“If you don’t know how to make films happen with little or no money, this is a book that you must read, go back to and lend to every person in your unit. To let them know that it is possible to make films with very little money if you put your mind and heart into it. From samples of simple drafts of contracts to protect your film to solutions for production, this is a great resource that I personally found very motivating when I was making my mumblecore movies.” – Sudhish Kamath [Director: Good Night Good Morning]
2. Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
“The first book I read on filmmaking was by accident. It was called Rebel without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez. Its’ written in a diary format in first person by the filmmaker himself on how he made a film called El Mariachi in $7000 when he was just 23 and how that played a stepping stone for his career in Hollywood. I read the book and then watched the film. It was awe inspiring how he single-handedly shot the film at the time of film cameras when one also had to load the film stock. The film also had action sequences, fight sequences using guns and they were well choreographed.
Reading the book and watching the film along with the director’s commentary was like a master class in filmmaking for me. And reading how Robert Rodriguez pulled this off is enough for anyone to go and make their own film.” – Hemant Gaba [Dilliwood (a web series), Japan In Nagaland (documentary), Shuttlecock Boys].
3. Your Movie Sucks by Roger Ebert
“This absolutely brutal book makes fun of movies and comes from a man who love cinema in all ways. I love this book for its detailed explanation on why a particular film has failed, which is an eye opener for any filmmaker. I feel it’s a hand full of important instructions for anyone involved in making movies. All the reviews in here feel like you are chatting with a friend about a film. On the whole, Ebert’s reviews are sarcastic, witty, funny and entertaining. If you enjoy Ebert’s criticism you will enjoy this book.” – Lokesh Kumar [Director: My Son is Gay]
4. Guns and Thighs: The Story of my Life by Ram Gopal Varma
“This is the ultimate book for aspiring filmmakers. It talks about the process of filmmaking in the most unorthodox, brutally honest and unconventional way! Though it’s biographical, it has a good sense of humour and is a must read for today’s filmmakers.” – Shashant Shah [Director: Chalo Dilli, Dasvidaniya]
5. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
“I have always read a lot of books written by female authors that explore the female experience. I think those books have really influenced me as a person and in terms of my voice and preoccupation as a filmmaker. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Elfriede Jelinek and more recently Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elena Ferrante, Lucia Berlin are some of the female writers I love.
I think the book that gave me a lot of strength while I was making my first film Turning 30, was definitely Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. It, so beautifully, chronicles the complex interior world of a woman. I even made Gul (Gul Panag, who played the lead in Turning 30) read passages from the book as part of our prep for the film. (And I made Gul’s character read the book in a montage sequence in the film).
My advice to upcoming filmmakers would be to read what they love. And that perhaps may help them hone their own cinematic voices.” – Alankrita Shrivastava [Director: Lipstick Under My Burkha, Bombay Begums, Made in Heaven]
And here are 15 books Aadish Keluskar (director, Kaul) recommends as essential reading:
6. Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson
A seminal textbook, Film Art serves as an excellent resource for both beginners and enthusiasts in the world of film. The book offers a comprehensive and accessible exploration of the art and language of cinema. It’s divided into several sections, each of which delves into different aspects of film analysis, covering topics such as narrative structure, cinematography, editing, sound, and film aesthetics. Throughout the book, Bordwell and Thompson use a wide range of examples from classic and contemporary films to illustrate their points, making it easy for readers to understand complex concepts.
What makes Film Art a must-read is its ability to provide a deep understanding of how films are constructed and the artistic choices behind them. It equips readers with the tools to analyze and appreciate cinema on a deeper level.
7. The 5 Cs of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli
This classic book breaks down the art of cinematography into five essential elements: camera angles, continuity, cutting, close-ups, and composition. It provides invaluable insights into the technical and creative aspects of capturing compelling visuals on film, for both beginner and experienced cinematographers. Mascelli’s book offers practical advice and examples, bridging the gap between theory and practice. Whether you’re a filmmaker, cinematography enthusiast, or simply curious about the magic of motion pictures, The 5 Cs of Cinematography builds a solid foundation and a deeper appreciation of the craft, making it an indispensable read for filmmakers.
8. Writing With Light by Vittorio Storaro
9. In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch
In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing is a seminal work that elevates the understanding of film editing from a craft to an art form. Walter Murch, an Academy Award-winning editor, delves into the intricacies of editing with a blend of technical expertise and philosophical insight. The book serves as both a practical guide and a conceptual framework. Murch’s concept of the “Rule of Six” outlines the six criteria for a good cut. He argues that emotion is the most important factor, followed by story, rhythm, eye-trace, two-dimensional plane, and three-dimensional space.
10. The Techniques of Film Editing by Karel Reisz
A prominent director of the British New Wave before making The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Karel Reisz co-authored this book with Scottish director and film critic Gavin Millar. An important work that delves into the art and science of film editing, it covers both theoretical and practical aspects of editing. The writing is clear and accessible, breaking down complex concepts into digestible parts. He uses a variety of examples from classic films to illustrate his points, providing a historical context that enriches the reader’s understanding of the subject. The book also addresses the evolution of editing techniques, offering insights into how technological advancements have shaped the field.
11. Audio-Vision by Michel Chion
French film theorist and music composer Michel Chion’s groundbreaking book explores how sound not only complements but also influences visual storytelling. The book is filled with compelling examples and keen insights that challenge conventional wisdom about film sound as merely an accessory to the image. Chion introduces concepts like “synchresis” and “acousmêtre,” which have become fundamental in film sound studies. Why is this book essential reading? Audio-Vision revolutionizes the way we think about film by elevating the role of sound in storytelling. It provides filmmakers, scholars, and cinephiles with a comprehensive framework for understanding how sound and image interact to create a more immersive and emotional experience.
12. Poetics by Aristotle
Poetics lays the foundation for the study of drama, tragedy, and the art of storytelling itself. Written in the 4th century BCE, this text delves into the mechanics of plot, character, and emotional impact, offering insights that remain relevant even in today’s digital age. Aristotle’s keen observations on the elements that make a story compelling — such as unity of action, catharsis, and the interplay of ethos, pathos, and logos — provide invaluable lessons for anyone interested in the narrative arts. His dissection of tragedy as a genre serves as a blueprint for understanding not just ancient Greek plays, but storytelling structures that we encounter in modern literature and film. Poetics is not merely a historical artifact but a living guide that enriches our understanding of how stories work and why they move us.
13. The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard
This one’s a comprehensive guide to the essential elements that make a screenplay not just good, but great. Howard meticulously breaks down the components of structure, character development, dialogue, and theme, providing clear examples and exercises to help the reader internalize these concepts. What sets this book apart is its focus on the “tools” rather than just the rules. It goes beyond the basic three-act structure to explore the nuances that bring depth and authenticity to a story.
Whether you’re a novice writer or an experienced screenwriter looking to refine your skills, this book serves as a foundational text that can help elevate your work to a professional level. It’s not just about writing a screenplay; it’s about understanding the mechanics that make a screenplay compelling and impactful.
14. The Art of Acting by Stella Adler
Compiled from a series of lectures given by Adler, the book offers invaluable insights into the craft of acting. It delves into the nuances of technique, character development, and emotional authenticity. What sets this book apart is its emphasis on the intellectual rigor that acting demands; it’s not just about emoting, but about understanding the psychology and motivations of the character. Adler’s teachings encourage actors to elevate their craft through a deeper understanding of the text, the subtext, and the world the character inhabits. It provides the tools to not just act, but to think and feel as the character, offering a holistic approach to a complex art form.
15. The Lee Strasberg Notes by Lola Cohen
The Lee Strasberg Notes is an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to delve deep into the craft of acting and character development. The book offers a comprehensive look into Strasberg’s Method Acting techniques, which have been instrumental in shaping some of the greatest performances in film history. It’s meticulously organized, capturing Strasberg’s teachings in a way that makes them accessible and practical. It covers everything from sensory exercises to emotional memory, providing a holistic view of what it takes to bring a character to life on screen. For filmmakers, this book serves as a guide to understanding the nuances of performance, thereby elevating the storytelling process. It’s not just a book; it’s a masterclass in the art of acting and directing.
16. Hitchcock/Truffaut by Truffaut
Hitchcock/Truffaut is an unparalleled deep-dive into the art and craft of filmmaking through the lens of Alfred Hitchcock, one of cinema’s most iconic directors. The book is a compilation of a series of interviews between Truffaut and Hitchcock, and it serves as an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the intricacies of film direction, storytelling, and cinematic techniques. The book demystifies the genius of Hitchcock in a way that is both accessible and intellectually stimulating.
Truffaut’s incisive questions and Hitchcock’s candid responses create a dynamic interplay that illuminates the creative process behind classics like Psycho and Vertigo.
17. Notes on the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson
Notes on the Cinematographer is a rare glimpse into the mind of a master, providing invaluable lessons in crafting films that are both meaningful and enduring. Composed of aphorisms and short observations, the book serves as a philosophical guide to Bresson’s unique approach to cinema. Unlike traditional filmmaking manuals that focus on technical aspects, this book delves into the conceptual and aesthetic dimensions that elevate a film from mere visuals to art.
Bresson’s insights challenge conventional wisdom and encourage filmmakers to rethink everything from shot composition to the emotional resonance of a scene. Essential reading for filmmakers and cinephiles alike!
18. Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
Unlike other books that focus solely on the technical aspects or the glamour of Hollywood, Lumet delves into the nitty-gritty everyday details of what it takes to make a movie from start to finish. He covers everything from the nuances of script selection to the complexities of post-production, all while sharing personal anecdotes that enrich the reader’s understanding.
For anyone seriously considering a career in film, Making Movies demystifies the filmmaking process, making the daunting task of creating a film seem achievable. Lumet’s wisdom, drawn from decades of experience, serves as both a guide and a cautionary tale.
19. Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan’s candid insights into the art of directing, drawn from his own experiences, provide a masterclass in storytelling and character development. His discussions on working with actors, crafting compelling narratives, and capturing authentic emotion on screen are invaluable lessons for anyone in the film industry. This book not only offers practical advice but also explores the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by directors. It’s a timeless resource that continues to inspire and shape the craft of filmmaking.
20. Herzog on Herzog: Conversations with Paul Cronin by Werner Herzog
This one’s a look into the mind of one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. Through intimate conversations, Herzog candidly shares his creative process, struggles, and unorthodox approaches to filmmaking. The book provides invaluable insights on storytelling, determination, and the relentless pursuit of one’s vision. Herzog’s experiences and philosophies inspire and challenge conventional thinking, making it a vital resource for aspiring filmmakers.