My favorite books on filmmaking
We've watched Solaris last night and are going to talk about it tomorrow, for Mysterium Pictorum.
In preparation for the podcast, I am currently reading Tarkovsky's diaries. Depressing read, somehow, with his early death and terrible fate before that looming behind all his musings on mortality, while he struggles to make the masterpieces he made, against a system that doesn't appreciate him.
It's very interesting to read his opinions on then-contemporary cinema, the roots of ideas that lead to films like "Stalker" and in general about how educated on and involved in world cinema he was, despite the Soviet Union being supposedly completely shut-off from Western culture.
Since I'm sitting in a train, journeying to a TV job on the other side of the country, I thought I'd make a little list from the top of my head, compiling books that I personally found inspiring reads to spur me on making movies. Maybe you'll like some of them.
Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater by Carey Perloff
I read this most recently, because I've been thinking about theater a lot (something's coming up this Summer, probably) and I've started thinking about a general concept of how to approach independent filmmaking in the future, with new technology, new pressures and cinema itself disappearing, rendering the feature film potentially obsolete. This book just spoke to me, personally, in this very time, with its musings on the societal value of performing arts and descriptions of how the theater manages the challenges, that are coming up (or always have been existent and now, for the first time, could be subverted) for any kind of authentic cinema, too.
It's also always very inspiring to read books by people who are so very passionate about any kind of storytelling art form and I'd recommend for anyone to check it out immediately.
Speaking of theater, I also loved legendary German director Peter Zadek's three or four massive autobiographies, but I'm not sure if they're available in English. If you ever come across anything on theater by him, I'd recommend you read it (remembering that he was a bastard who would never have been allowed to keep working in the #metoo era - And rightfully so!)
The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
This book talks a lot about neurology and is thus very different to your usual storytelling guide ("The Hero with a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell, "Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker and Stephen King's "On Writing" being the ones I'd absolutely recommend you to read before you tackle this one). I had a lot of fun reading it and am finding myself thinking about it a lot more often and in more varied situations than I would have anticipated, going into it. I learned a lot from this one, not just about storytelling.
It Came From the Video Aisle! by Dave Jay, William S. Wilson and Torsten Dewi
A fun, entertaining history of the low budget exploitation film production studio "Full Moon Pictures" that made me want to have been working in the US in the 90's - for Full Moon!
What am I saying - I would love to work for Full Moon even NOW, never mind that the production company has kind of gone downhill due to ever decreasing budgets. I can handle having no budget!
I had never watched a Full Moon movie before reading this and was a fan when I finished. Good job, book! GOOD job!
Hollywood Animal by Joe Esterhasz
I had a hard time getting into this autobiography, because its author is a pig who would and should have been very cancelled, had Twitter and modern feminism been around.
But he's also a spectacular writer, pulling me in with his sprawling descriptions of his, admittedly, eventful life. Still, from beginning to end, the misogyny made me sick and I'm only recommending this with a big, fat trigger warning. If you were wondering how the Hollywood men could have behaved as revoltingly as we now know they have, for decades, if you were ever asking yourself "But what were they thinking!?" - This is what they were (and are) thinking. Right into the mind of the predator. Interesting predator, though.
True Indie by Don Coscarelli
I have nothing but respect for Don Coscarelli, his career and his movies. I haven't seen "Bubba Ho-Tep" (though this book really made me want to) or any of the Phantasm sequels (because I didn't like Phantasm), but I will take chances on Coscarelli films again and again, even though none of them have really clicked with me so far, simply because he describes them in such intriguingly loving ways in this book.
Here is a true auteur, a real artist, telling you about his trials and tribulations. There's a lot to learn in that.
Anything you can imagine by Ian Nathan
I didn't think a book about the production of a couple of massive blockbusters could ever truly fascinate me, but here we are.
This book illustrates so well what a good book about the making of a movie should look like, I can't help but wish there would be a prequel on Jackson's humble no budget indie beginnings, just for sad freaks like me who aren't fortunate enough to ever leave that realm.
This book make me respect the Lord of the Rings films, that I had loved as a kid and kind of fallen out of love with later, so much more and in such new ways - A complete re-evaluation!
I read this, then watched the Extended Cut of the Complete trilogy. What a rewarding experience! I can't recommend this highly enough!
Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna
The structure of this Lynch biography seems weird at first:
First, you get a chapter by Kristine McKenna, detailing the facts of a certain chapter in the legendary director's life, then, he himself comes in and gives a stream of consciousness account of that same era. Sometimes contradicting, always enlightening.
Lynch's way to see and describe the world is charming and endearing. In the audiobook, he narrates those chapters himself (sounds like his parts are the actual audio of the interviews - He's talking freely, I think), which makes the whole thing even more personal and fun to listen to.
In the end, I thought this structure was probably the only really interesting thing about this book (but it is a VERY interesting thing, and if you like Lynch's movies, you don't want to miss out on this one).
Our set designer on "F60 Kamikaze" said a very true thing about this and other artist biographies: "So, he grew up privileged, middle class, nothing really interesting or out of the ordinary ever happened to him during his youth and child hood, he went to art school, got lucky and went on to make the movies he wanted to make. That's not very interesting." And she's right. It isn't. The story told here, like the life stories of so many successful mainstream artist, is not interesting at all. But the way in which it is told, is.
Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind
Peter Biskind is more famous for his classic "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" about renegade 70's filmmakers, but I like his follow-up about American indie pictures of the 90's better.
Biskind writes in sort of a tableau style, very much focusing on the big personalities and how they interacted with each other, personally, but that never bothered me.
This book is full of colorful characters, with Harvey Weinstein being sort of the reprehensible central protagonist, connecting everyone and being what we all know Harvey Weinstein to be. Even before #MeToo Biskind thankfully resists the surely tempting urge to present him as some kind of sympathetic underdog but paints a very believable picture of one of the most influential characters in modern film history. Everybody else gets mentioned, too.
I you are, like me, interested in this time and place of filmmaking, you should also read
Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher
It's a fun hit piece on early Tarantino, written by one of the producers of the Oliver-Stone-directed "Natural Born Killers", which was based on a script by Quentin Tarantino and was quite a troubled production.
It's infuriating at times (people who snort kilos of coke per line tend to be assholes) and it's heartbreaking to see that it is the female producer who never did anything in the film industry again, while all the men involved went on to have successful careers, but sometimes hearts need to be broken to accept truths that need changing. So read it, despite the bitter tone! She probably has every right to be bitter!
Rebel without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez
This one's a given. You'll find it in every list compiling the best books on filmmaking. Every film bro owns it. It's almost embarrassing to mention it here, but it would be disingenuous not to. This is the ultimate inspirational book for no budget independent filmmakers.
Rodriguez made a hit movie that instantly made him a Hollywood player, with only 7000$!
If you want to make a movie but a list of "but"s is keeping you from it, read this. It's good. Also, watch "El Mariachi" with Rodriguez' audio commentary. Equally brilliant.
Wasteland by W. Scott Poole
This is not really about filmmaking, but it's the best book on expressionist German silent film there is - And that despite it not being exclusively about that topic!
It's a book about how veterans of the first world war developed Expressionism as an art movement first, out of their trauma, and how that lead to the birth of modern horror. It's essential reading for anyone interested in the genre, art, history, politics or being smart in general.
Go, read it! It's great!
As I've mentioned above, I'm not finished with Time within Time, Tarkovsky's diaries, but it's really good (yet depressing) so far, so consider it recommended.
Laterna Magica by Ingmar Bergman is a hard one for me to get into, because I hate the "childhood and youth" part in every artist biography, since it is always boring and irrelevant, and that particular part doesn't seem to end in this book.
Bergman being my favorite filmmaker of all time, I will of course try again and again, until I finally finished it, but it will take me a while I guess, so I can't really recommend it yet.
I wish there were more good books on German Expressionism era silent films.
Nisan and I are researching the period for a thing we're writing and all the books that have been written are hard to get.
The most important book on the subject seems to be The Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner, which I managed to track down, but haven't completely read yet (the parts I've read are brilliant, though!).
I'd love to read more about Louis Brody (a black actor and civil rights activist who was active in Germany from the 20's onwards, all through the Third Reich), F. W. Murnau, Henrik Galeen, Thea von Harbou, Asta Nielsen, and first and foremost Albin Grau.
There doesn't seem to be much, but as soon as it is possible, pandemic-wise, we'll head to the National Library in Leipzig and look for some rare tomes on these people.
I once wanted to co-write a filmmaking book myself, about the directing hero of my youth, Christoph Schlingensief.
Seeing that there are plenty of books about his later, more "respectable" work as a director of theater and opera and as a visual artist, Christian Grundey and I had conducted an extensive interview with frequent Schlingensief collaborator and close personal friend Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, in which he told us the making-of stories behind Schlingensief's notorious exploitation arthouse films. Those stories were brilliant! Unbelievable! Such adventures!
It would have become a really great book. Had someone else written it, it would probably today be my favorite book on filmmaking ever.
Sadly, around that time there was an incredibly ugly incident involving Schlingensief's widow, who is in charge of his estate, which I will never be able to forgive her and Schlingensief's producer and which is making me incredibly angry, even now, writing vaguely about it.
That incident soured me on Schlingensief forever and made me abandon the book project.
I'm almost in Leipzig now and I still have some writing to do on my current script. I think this blog entry is lengthy enough. I hope it inspires you to pick up some great reading material, which in turn will inspire you to make good art!