Film Fund-amentals: By the Book

I once had a film professor tell me that a paper of mine gave him a “vague sense of nothingness.” I learned several things from this experience. First, he was right. I wasn’t exactly getting the point of “film theory.” Second, the same could be said about many of the lectures. It was the mid-1970s, and film academia was just beginning its nosedive into the dreadful cellar of contemporary post-modernist theory and criticism, the darkness from which it never returned.

Which is too bad. Film school used to be a place where a person could get some basic experience. Film making is one of those things that can only be learned by actually doing. Books, classes, and theoretical arguments are, at best, limited in value. The most important thing you can get at any film school is the chance to work with the equipment. Hands-on experience is the key.

But while book learning is a wee bit of a secondary thing in film making, it’s still extremely useful. Especially books that are based on nuts and bolts, hands-on experience. This is the focus of 30 Quintessential Books for Independent Filmmakers, posted last October by the Independent Magazine website. The list they provide is extremely useful, though I would trim it down to an even handier short list.

Obviously, inevitably, and all too predictably, the first and foremost must-have is Dov S-S Simens’s From Reel to Deal: Everything You Need to Create a Successful Independent Film. From the moment this book was first brought down from the mountaintop, it has been the independent filmmaker’s bible. Personally, I have a few arguments with the book, though mostly on minor points. But I also highly recommend the book because it offers a solid framework for a filmmaker to successfully develop a project. Heck, you can pretty just much use the chapter headings to map out the entire process.

However, while using the Bible you might also want some backup support from the Quran, which in this case is Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept Through Distribution by Gregory Goodell. It never hurts to have two solid books to cross-reference. Oddly enough, this is the guide that is highly touted by David Lynch, while Simens is the guy referenced by Quentin Tarrantino. I have no clue what that means, but thought I should mention it.

Once you’ve gotten your footing with these two books, you should move on to Shaking the Money Tree, 2nd Edition: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video by Morrie Warshawski and The Independent Film Producer’s Survival Guide: A Business and Legal Sourcebook by Gunnar Erickson, Mark Halloran and Harris Tulchin. Warshawski’s book is a good guide to finding money for your production. The other one is an essential guide to covering your butt legally while you’re raising the money. Trust me, you’ll want them both, side by side.

Independent Magazine provides a long list of titles under the heading “Direct From the Masters.” They are all good books by and/or about some very interesting filmmakers. By the way, are you looking to make a movie or simply bone up on film history? If you want to make a movie, then skip this section. Putting it bluntly, the changes in the industry have been so enormous that most of what the old masters have to tell us is actually just a tad irrelevant. Instead, go straight to Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player by Robert Rodriquez. It has nothing to do with the man’s talent (and personally, I’m not a big fan of his work), but Rodriquez has successfully carved out a solid, contemporary, independent niche in the business that works.

All of the books listed about directing and cinematography are fine selections. I have to admit I’m sorely tempted to ask: If you don’t know anything about cinematography, then why are you trying to make a movie? Maybe you need to find yourself a cinematographer. That would be my recommendation. The same goes for editing. And sound. Also, it should be noted that when you’re making a small-budget independent movie, a lot of what you learn is going to get thrown out the window as you to try to get the job done. But a guide book to the process is always a good way to know what you may (or may not) want to throw out of the window, which is why I would recommend Shot by Shot: A Practical Guide to Filmmaking (3rd Ed.) by John Cantine, Susan Howard and Brady Lewis. With this book, you’ll at least know what you’re screwing up.

Not included on this list is a little book that I would recommend: Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set by Tony Bill is a bluffer guide to insider lingo. This dictionary of Hollywood and film industry terms is designed to help people fake it, but it’s also extremely useful to understand what the heck is being said by some of the people you’re (hopefully) going to be dealing with. From “The Abby Singer” to “The Zone,” Bill covers an extensive range of technical terms and Hollywood blather.

Last, and by no means least, I would also include If Chins Could Kill by Bruce Campbell. If you want to make a low-budget (or even no budget) movie and get it out to a theater, then Campbell is your guide to the underworld. In the book’s long section on the making of the original Evil Dead film, you get a solid study in the pure hell of making a movie with no money and few clues. As the six-week shooting schedule evolve into 12 weeks (and more) of mayhem and confusion, Campbell and Sam Raimi (along with their high school pals) manage to plow their way through the gutter of low-rent cinema and stumble their way to street level. Ironically, the movie is now considered a modern horror classic and is in the process of being re-released in selected theaters across the country.

In some strange way, it’s almost inspiring.