We all know the situation. Someone asks you to recommend your favourite xyz… movie, book, song, band, vacation spot, etc etc. It’s impossible.
So, when we were asked to write about our favourite book on filmmaking, I knew that it too was impossible. Filmmaking is such a wide term, that the best I could do was narrow it down into ‘best in group’. I mean really. How can you compare the best terrier to the best gun dog?!
At heart I still think of myself as a creator, and for me in the movie business that means the screenwriter. If it ain’t on the page there’s no way it’s hitting the back of the CMOS sensor! I’ve taken all the big courses (McKee, Truby, etc) and read all the big books (Sid Fields, McKee, etc), but for me the one that really gave me the ‘aha’ moment was this one.
The ‘Writer’s Journey’ unlocked – read: spoiled – movie watching for me for a very long time after I read it. It felt ‘right’ and seemed to definitely mimic what I was seeing on screen in movies that I loved.
Is it easy? No. It is still tough to follow Vogler’s map with enough creativity to make something unique and compelling, but, it does give you the signposts along the way.
When I am developing a story I try to run it through a few templates, or story engines, to first give me a deeper understanding of the story I am trying to write and second to hopefully find a template that matches to make writing the script even 1% easier! I still use other templates and engines, but, my master template, the one I overlay onto any story where there is a central character, is the one outlined in Vogler’s book.
The ‘Writer’s Journey’ takes us through two significant structures. The first is ‘The Hero’s Journey’, where our central character goes through 12 steps (no addiction required!) that covers the entire script, in order, from start to finish (Vogler, 1996 : 18). (Interesting to note that these points are in script order, which may not match the unwrapped timeline of the character – i.e something may happen 20 pages in that is a flashback, but it is still 20 pages into the structure and therefore should be along that path).
The second structure Vogler covers is the hero’s ‘Inner Journey’, a further 12 steps that cover the same timeline, but delve into character emotion (as opposed to character motion). (Vogler 1996: 82)
Ah, read the book!
Vogler also has a great website that gives you a great introduction to the material. You can find that here.
Film is a language. And what I find is that in the throws of production you can sometimes forget how to speak. My next book is again invaluable. It’s actually 3 books.
The ‘Master Shots’ series by Christopher Kenworthy is like the greatest directing assistant ever. Over the three volumes Kenworthy outlines shot setups for nearly every scenario. When you are going through your script and storyboarding ideas, Kenworthy’s volumes are an amazing starting point. They cover what the audience is expecting, after a lifetime of media ingesting.
The shot list is pretty impressive, from Fight Scenes, to Dialogue, to Love Scenes (and that’s just volume 1!). The latest edition covers blocking and camera movement and even gives tips on cutting to different takes together.
I know there will be some eye rolling from the ‘serious directors’ in the audience. They want to learn and hone their craft and give and original spin on things. But, in my opinion, at least 80% of any movie that hopes to find an audience has to speak in accepted visual terms. And I feel the Kenworthy series gives that to a director.
Of course, film directing can’t be learned from a book. Sitting with this on your lap will not get over the fact that your film, your script, is different (hopefully) and will have situations and settings that are of course not covered. But it is a good starting point. If you didn’t spend $50,000 on going to film school this will still put you in very good company.
Gosh, after writing this I want to go back and read it again!
My favourite book on producing is actually one I just read. It’s one of the few books I’ve read on the subject that talks about the whole tip to tail job, not just line producing (the work done during the few weeks of production).
‘The Producers’ by Tim Adler is in essence a series of profiles covering 7 different independent producers and their styles. The book is fairly recent (2006, but I believe written in 2001/2002) and thereby gives a somewhat modern approach to the subject (though there is little talk of low budget or the internet). It is also nice that the subjects are ‘independent’ filmmakers. It puts it into the realm of the likes of ‘us’.
Adler manages to really cover a wide range – from Michael Douglas’s early days with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald’s work with Richard Curtis to Marin Karmitz producing Kieślowski’s ‘Three Colors Trilogy’.
Throughout each interview you get a warts and all look at the role of producer. The lengthy process of getting a film produced (Douglas quotes it as being on average 5 years (Adler, 2006; 62)) comes up again and again. Again and again we hear how the producer drives the production from concept, and often script creation and development, through actual production and onwards to distribution.
Each subject has a slightly different take on it. But, despite it all, I came away inspired. Producing is not for everyone. Maybe it’s not even for me, but, with every chapter I felt more and more like it was an exciting, stressful, wide ranging discipline. Quite simply, this book solidified my desire to become a producer.
What Started It All
Back in 2001 I was living in Spain and was a little bored and frustrated with my situation – personal and professional. I felt like I was missing some creative challenge or output. I surfed the internet and stumbled across Rick Schmidt, his book, and his ‘Feature Workshop’ program.
I bought Rick’s book ‘Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices’ and my mind was blown. Making movies was something I’d always dreamed of doing but also thought was beyond my reach. Rick changed all that. Rick inspired a whole generation of filmmakers in the US (including Robert Rodriquez, director of Sin City). Rick covered all the things we now take a standard in the low budget film world – getting permissions, raising money, finding cheap alternatives, getting production value, etc. He was a maverick.
I signed on to go to one of Rick’s insane Feature Workshops. A dozen strangers get together and write, shoot and edit a feature film in about 10 days. It is madness, and of course rarely is the output watchable but it is meant to give you a taste of what is needed to get the job done, and, to show you it CAN be done!
It, quite simply, changed my life.
And, not for the least of which that it was Rick that told me about Raindance. If I remember correctly he said something like ‘there’s a guy in London who has a cross between a film school and an adult education program’. It was Rick that pointed me to my first Raindance experience in 2002.
The book now seems obvious, but, there are still thousands out there who will be inspired by it.
Vogler, C. (1992) The Writer’s Journey, London: BoxTree
Kenworthy, C. (2011) Master Shots Vol 1, 2nd edition: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie, London: Michael Wiese Productions
Adler, T (2006) The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Calls the Shots (Screen and Cinema), London: Methuen
Schmidt, R. (1995) Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices: Revised Edition, 2nd Edition: 2000, Penguin Books