10 Best Books on Filmmaking for Beginners

A required reading list to kickstart your filmmaking journey.

Here’s what’s worth reading.

What books should filmmakers read, especially when starting out? Which ones are worth your time?

We get this question a lot from students of our online film school. They’re eager to supplement their studies with books on every aspect of filmmaking – from screenwriting to directing to producing to editing to cinema history – but aren’t always sure what to prioritize.

To point them in the right direction and help cut through the clutter, we’ve curated 10 of our favorite books for beginning – and for that matter, experienced! – filmmakers. Consider this your first film school reading list!

 

I. Poetics | Aristotle

“I promise you,” exhorts legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “If something is wrong with what you’re writing, you’ve probably broken one of Aristotle’s rules.”

Those rules are set forth in Poetics, Aristotle’s examination of the dramatic elements of plot, character, language, and spectacle through the lens of classical Greek tragedy. It may be thousands of years old, but Poetics is a timeless foundation for the fundamentals of storytelling.

 

II. The Hero with a Thousand Faces | Joseph Campbell

Although there’s no shortage of worthy screenwriting books available – among them, Robert McKee’s Story; Syd Field’s Screenplay; and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat – our favorite is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, essentially a masterclass in comparative mythology. Famous as director George Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars, this book illuminates the similarities in stories across time, space, and cultures, revealing the stages of the Hero’s Journey. It’s a difficult, scholarly read that’s well worth the effort.

After finishing Campbell’s classic, consider working your way through Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, an unofficial companion piece that explores the relationship between mythology and storytelling.

 

III. The Hollywood Standard | Christopher Riley

Have you ever wondered how to format your screenplay professionally? Recommended by screenwriter John August, The Hollywood Standard is an essential reference that details formatting conventions for screenplays and television scripts.

 

IV. On Directing Film | David Mamet

A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated filmmaker, David Mamet discusses the craft of directing in On Directing Film, based on a series of classes he taught at Columbia University’s film school.

Mamet preaches the importance of thinking visually. He draws on the teachings of many of the Russian masters, from Konstantin Stanislavsky to Sergei M. Eisenstein, and admires director Alfred Hitchcock’s emphasis on pre-planning. Ultimately, On Directing Film is a fascinating read that will challenge your understanding of how to direct and what it means to be a director.

 

V. Hitchcock | François Truffaut

A staple in every film aficionado’s library, Truffaut’s Hitchcock presents 50 hours of interviews with master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, covering his directorial career and unique perspective on the craft. First published in 1967, it’s an entertaining read full of sharp insights into cinematic questions that continue to resonate today.

 

VI. Shooting to Kill | Christine Vachon

Here is a chronicle from the frontlines of independent filmmaking that reveals what it’s like (and what it takes) to get a bold movie produced. Christine Vachon – recently the driving force behind director Todd Haynes’ Oscar-nominated Carol – reveals the guts of the filmmaking process, from developing a script to finding financing and managing egos. Along with A Killer Life, Shooting to Kill charts Vachon’s path to success balancing art and commerce. It serves as an inspiration for every independent filmmaker who’s had to realize their creative vision with limited resources and against the odds.

 

VII. Rebel Without a Crew | Robert Rodriguez

Like Shooting to Kill, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew is an anthem for everyone in the indie filmmaking world. Rodriguez shares how he made his debut film, El Mariachi, on a shoestring budget.

Although the industry has changed since Rebel Without a Crew was first published, it’s still an illuminating read with actionable insights that encourages you to get out there and start making movies!

 

VIII. The War of Art | Steven Pressfield

Novelist Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is short, but it packs a powerful punch. Honestly, this book changed my life by changing my understanding of what it means to be a creative professional. You’ll walk away from this volume rejuvenated and committed to realizing your full potential as a filmmaker. I make a point of reading The War of Art once every year.

 

IX. In the Blink of an Eye | Walter Murch

A spirited investigation of why and how film editing works, In the Blink of an Eye addresses both the aesthetic and practical concerns of cutting a movie. It’s a short but essential guide to the craft written by an Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer.

 

X. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls | Peter Biskind

Discover how studio films changed in the age of Coppola, Lucas, Spileberg, and Scorsese. Biskind conducted hundreds of interviews for this analysis of Hollywood in the 1970s, illuminating a decade characterized by brazen auteurs and cinematic experimentation.

If you enjoy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, then also read Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which pulls back the curtain on the emergence of the independent film industry in the 1990s. Both books help put indie filmmaking in context, connecting us to our past so that we can better prepare for the future.

This is by no means a comprehensive reading list, but it is a valuable jumping-off point! If you’re ready for more, consult our roundup of 7 books by famous filmmakers to inspire you, then take a look at 5 filmmaking textbooks we recommend for the next time you’re in need of a no-nonsense, clear-cut compendium covering directing, cinematography, and the world of sound.

Here’s hoping that these 10 titles stoke your passion for filmmaking and stimulate your creativity, as they have ours! Of course, please feel free to share your favorites in the comments below. We always love recommendations!

 Michael Koehler, with


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