"On Directing Film" – The Single Best Book on Filmmaking

Although I got (mostly) straight A’s in film school, I always struggled a bit. I had a good handle on the mechanics of cinematography, lighting, preproduction and editing, but I didn’t really understand what the job of a director was until my final semester.

It was in Professor Chaney’s Senior Project class, in which we worked on the student films that were supposed to demonstrate everything we’d learned, that I was introduced to On Directing Film by David Mamet.

This slim volume – I believe I read it in a single afternoon – gave me more information about the nuts and bolts of directing a motion picture than the previous three and a half years combined. Mamet doesn’t get into the mechanics of cinematography, lighting, or editing, but what he does is teach the reader how a series of “uninflected shots” work together to tell a story. In other words, what Mamet teaches in On Directing Film is how to think like a filmmaker. After reading it, I was able to start thinking in terms of shots, not action. Not only did my Senior Project work improve drastically, but this insight has been at the heart of every narrative piece I’ve shot in the 12 years since then.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no other single source of information capable of delivering this information with such clarity. If you buy and read only one book on filmmaking, make it this one.

2 Replies to “"On Directing Film" – The Single Best Book on Filmmaking”

  1. I can’t thank you enough for suggesting this little book by David Mamet.
    I’ve always been a fan of his work, and reading even a brief book like this was worth savoring every word.

    Mostly it confirmed what I already believed that it’s more important to get in, tell a good story, and get out without overloading the audience with a lot of needless clutter and backstory.

    The only place I’d take issue with what he says is about not needing an establishing shot. I don’t disagree with him at all, but that’s become one of those things that an audience expects without even consciously realizing it until it’s gone.
    It’s a lot like shooting at 24fps or having a laughtrack on a sitcom, not doing it breaks up the flow of the picture by creating unease.

    Like anything else, it’s an artistic choice and there’s no right or wrong, but I subscribe to what John Carpenter says; that a movie should be like a song that flows from start to finish and I’m not a big enough deal yet to leave something like that out.

    The book is definitely a must read for anyone planning to direct or write a film mainly to reinforce the idea that less can be more.

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