7 Books by Famous Filmmakers to Inspire You

A recommended reading list in support of your filmmaking journey.

More books worth reading.

If you’re looking for a required reading list to kickstart your filmmaking journey, then check out our selection of 10 best books on filmmaking for beginners, covering everything¬†from screenwriting to directing to producing to editing to cinema history. It’s a far-ranging introduction to the medium we love and a shot in the arm for experienced filmmakers.

Also consult our roundup of 5 must-read textbooks for filmmaking students the next time you’re in need of a no-nonsense, clear-cut compendium on the craft.

These are all a good start, but what if you’re ready for more?

Well, for our book-loving students and readers eager to extend their studies, we’ve created a recommended reading list that will deepen, enrich, and nuance your understanding of screenwriting, directing, and cinema.

Our 7 picks here were authored by revered film industry professionals, comprising personal reflections, meditations on craft, and of course, firsthand accounts of the actual filmmaking process! Together, they show what it’s like and what it takes to bring a creative vision to life.

Ready? Then let’s explore the perspectives of seven greats!

 

I. Making Movies | Sidney Lumet

Screenwriting, location scouting, set dressing, costuming, lighting, camerawork, acting, editing, sound design, advertising, the premiere… Making Movies was the first book to contextualize my passion for filmmaking, revealing just how much work goes into both the art and business of getting a movie made!

Legendary director Sidney Lumet, whose credits include Twelve Angry Men,¬†Dog Day Afternoon, and¬†The Verdict,¬†guides the reader through the filmmaking process in a friendly and approachable way.¬†Lumet shares what he’s learned from 40 years of directing experience, stressing the importance of imagination, adaptability, and familiarity with a wide range of fields. You can feel his love for what he does on every page, so it’s easy to believe him when he describes the film director’s job as “the best in the world”. Consider¬†Making Movies an inspiring insider’s account of the director’s role in getting a film to the screen.

 

II. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting | William Goldman

Discover why and how films get made according to a two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter. Goldman wrote the screenplays for classics like¬†Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,¬†All the President’s Men, and¬†The Princess Bride, among others, so when he describes the elements that make a good screenplay and takes us behind-the-scenes of Hollywood, it’s best to listen.

Adventures in the Screen Trade¬†is revelatory, exhilarating, and – perhaps – frustrating, if only because it’s honest about difficult truths of the film industry. “Nobody knows anything,” Goldman writes. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” Buckle up for a wild ride!

 

III. Something Like an Autobiography | Akira Kurosawa

Whether or not you’re familiar with master director Akira Kurosawa’s films (although if you’re not, you really should be), his memoire is a fascinating account of his life and career up to winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Rashomon¬†in 1951. Over 54 chapters, Kurosawa reflects on his schooldays, his older brother’s suicide, the¬†Great KantŇć earthquake in Japan, and other personal experiences and artistic influences. They provide intimate insights into the mind of an auteur, as well as filmmaking tips throughout and in the addenda.

For example, with honesty, humility, and passion, Kurosawa discusses the importance of the script, directing actors, camera placement, and why you should read. Something Like an Autobiography coalesces into a spirited, beautiful book with pearls of wisdom relevant to cinema and, really, the whole of life.

 

IV. Sculpting in Time | Andrei Tarkovsky

A genius of modern Russian cinema and one of our favorite directors here at Lights Film School, Andrei Tarkovsky is esteemed for his intensely personal creative vision. Sculpting in Time is a sort of artistic testament in which Tarkovsky set down his thoughts and memories, revealing the history of and inspiration for his films, including Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, Nostalgia, The Sacrifice, and others.

Certainly, Tarkovsky’s autobiography discusses visual creativity and filmic techniques, but it’s most notable for its rigorous theory and philosophy. For Tarkovsky, to be a filmmaker is to communicate something deeply spiritual – the function of art is “to turn and loosen the human soul.” If you’re fed up with uninspired sequels and cynical blockbusters, or if you’re deeply curious to know how cinema can do more than just entertain, then¬†Sculpting in Time¬†is for you. It’s a challenging read that lingers in the mind.

 

V. Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo | Werner Herzog

What happens when you’re an independent filmmaker determined to pull a 360-ton steamship over a mountain in the isolated Peruvian jungle for a scene in your movie? Well, if you’re Werner Herzog, you simply get the job done.¬†Conquest of the Useless is Herzog’s diary, recounting the particulars of the troubled production of his 1982 film¬†Fitzcarraldo, about a rubber baron determined to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon. Yes, really.

Much like the film, the book is monumental and hypnotic; a lyrical work of art that captures the beauty and horror of the jungle while providing breathtaking insights into Herzog’s filmmaking process. It’s rooted in Herzog’s unique personality and worldview, which naturally inform his approach to making movies. This is quite literally an unbelievable read that affords a glimpse into the mind of the director who made¬†Aguirre, the Wrath of God;¬†Grizzly Man; and other unconventional narrative and documentary films.

 

VI. Notes on the Cinematograph | Robert Bresson

French film director Robert Bresson’s Notes on¬†the Cinematograph¬†is precisely that: notes. Half philosophy and half poetry, it’s full of aphoristic fragments which – when considered together – amount to a filmmaking manifesto. Film is distinguished from theatre, sound’s role in cinema is praised, and the mysterious power of the image is affirmed.¬†Throughout, Bresson discusses his minimalistic style, characterized especially by the use of non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse scoring, as seen in all of his films from¬†A Man Escaped to¬†L’Argent. His asceticism served as inspiration for the French New Wave directors. “Robert Bresson is French cinema,” Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, “as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”

Ultimately, this is a window into the soul of an auteur, affording a clear view onto Bresson’s theory and practice. Like Tarkovsky’s¬†Sculpting in Time,¬†Notes on the¬†Cinematograph¬†is a poetic rallying call for filmmakers interested in film’s capacity to inspire humans to reach greater heights.

 

VII. Kazan on Directing | Elia Kazan

Kazan straddled the worlds of film and theatre in mid-twentieth century America, with successes like¬†A Streetcar Named Desire,¬†Death of a Salesman, and¬†On the Waterfront¬†to his name.¬†Kazan on Directing collects Kazan’s notes, journal entries, interviews, and editorial excerpts concerning these and other productions. It reveals his directing method, from finding “the spine” of a story to trusting personal experiences to inform creative decisions, and imparts ample advice to aspiring filmmakers and artists.

Also of note is Kazan’s relentless self-criticism, with which most if not all artists will sympathize!¬†‚ÄúTo read this book is to sit with Kazan as he talks about his work,” director Sidney Lumet summarizes. “You feel his energy, devotion, and openness. You are given rare and fascinating access to the insights and techniques of a great director.” Kazan on Directing¬†is a rich and practical compendium that illuminates the life and filmmaking lessons of an industry titan.

As with our first roundup of must-read books on filmmaking, this is not an exhaustive list!

Instead, we’ve focused on some of the best books by industry professionals that will help open your eyes to both the realities and possibilities of cinema.¬†Film is still a relatively young medium, after all. Perhaps, like the seven greats here, you’ll play a role in shaping the medium’s future – but only if you actually get out there and make movies! Balance reading with doing and embrace learning through practice.

So, once you’re feeling sufficiently inspired by whatever chapter you’re reading, bookmark the page and start creating a story of your own for the screen. Chances are, if your idea resonates with you, then it will resonate with other people, too.

 Michael Koehler, with


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