The Best Books by Great Filmmakers


Movie fans, rejoice: The Friedkin Connection, the new memoir by French Connection and Exorcist director William Friedkin, hits bookstore shelves today, and it’s terrific. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise when a great filmmaker writes a great book; good movies are all about storytelling, and some of our favorite filmmakers have proven equally adept at telling stories on the page as on celluloid. Some stick to their primary area of expertise, with tomes on the craft and life of the filmmaker; others take the opportunity to widen their scope a bit, with fascinating results. After the jump, we’ll share some of our favorite volumes by great moviemakers.

The Friedkin Connection by William Friedkin

Friedkin’s had rather a rocky go of filmmaking success; his first four films were flops, his next two (The French Connection and The Exorcist) were critical and commercial smashes, and then he went on a losing streak that was further complicated by his hot temper and difficult reputation. His new book is admirably candid about both the good and the bad; he’s accumulated decades of great stories, and his naming-names approach to the inner workings of Hollywood is endlessly compelling. But he doesn’t let himself off the hook, either, making this a rare memoir that’s as interested in making amends as settling scores.

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut

French New Wave leader Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers du Cinéma were, to a great extent, responsible for the general reappraisal of Hitchcock’s talents — conventional wisdom was that he was a popular filmmaker and certainly a competent one, but not the genius that we view him as today. In 1962, while Hitch was in post-production on The Birds, Truffaut made his greatest contribution to the Master of Suspense’s legacy; he sat down with him for several hours of audio interviews, painstakingly working through every one of Hitchcock’s films and engaging in detailed discussions of storytelling methods and technical tricks. He then transcribed those interviews, illustrated them with stills and storyboards, and published one of the great books about the craft of filmmaking — and about his own admiration of his hero.

Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s In It by Peter Bogdanovich

Like Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich’s early-‘70s winning streak came to a crashing halt with a series of high-profile duds, and his subsequent filmmaking opportunities have been few and far between. Luckily, Bogdanovich had another job he could go back to. He first captured attention as a film writer, penning pieces for Esquire and monographs for the Museum of Modern Art, so he went back to his old interview files and published two collections of in-depth Q&As and profiles. Who the Devil Made It (this reader’s favorite of the pair) spotlights the great filmmakers, and features interviews with Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Sidney Lumet, Don Siegel, George Cukor, and more; Who the Hell’s In It focuses on movie stars, including Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, James Stewart, and John Wayne. The books offer plenty of opportunities for Bogdanovich’s notorious name-dropping, of course, but they’re valuable and entertaining nonetheless, with the author’s love of the form and the subjects at hand vibrating from every page.

Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee

Over the past two decades, Spike Lee has been one of our most prolific and outspoken filmmakers — but everybody has to start somewhere, and back in the mid-‘80s, Lee was just another New Yorker with a dead-end job and a graduate degree he couldn’t do anything with. Luckily, he kept a journal, and that day-by-day account of how he wrote, financed, directed, edited, and sold his breakthrough movie She’s Gotta Have It is a fascinating (and inspiring) chronicle of the creative process. (It slso includes the full shooting script.)

Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez

Like Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It, Rodriguez’s account of how he made his debut feature El Mariachi is a journal-and-screenplay affair, but Rodriguez’s background story is even better than Lee’s: he entered a medical facility and became a “human guinea pig” for a drug study, using the free time to write his movie and the money from the gig to finance it. Rodriguez’s cojones are admirable; so is his populist approach to filmmaking, summarized in the book’s terrific appendix, “The Ten-Minute Film School.”

Making Movies by Sidney Lumet

Lee’s and Rodriguez’s volumes offer a nuts-and-bolts look at the process of independent filmmaking; Lumet, the esteemed director of such modern classics as Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico, fills in the studio side of that equation with this enlightening and entertaining under-the-hood examination of Hollywood studio moviemaking. Lumet’s warm spirit and love for the work shines through this slim but essential volume, and his stories about the legends he guided to great performances (Paul Newman, Al Pacino, and Katherine Hepburn among them) are unforgettable.

Getting Away with It by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is retiring from filmmaking (maybe) as one of our most acclaimed and respected auteurs, but this fascinating volume comes from an earlier, less certain moment in his career: the fallow, post-sex, lies, and videotape years, when a series of critical and commercial disappointments had him looking like a one-hit wonder. Soderbergh kept a journal as he flailed and finally rediscovered his love for filmmaking via two under-the-radar films (Gray’s Anatomy and Schizopolis). The book also features his Truffaut/Hitchcock-style interviews with his filmmaking idol, A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester. Like the best of Soderbergh’s interviews and audio commentaries, Getting Away with It is funny, self-deprecating, searching, and wonderful.

Bambi vs. Godzilla by David Mamet

Mamet’s earlier books On Directing Film and True and False are entertaining reads, and offer some out-of-the-box thinking on filmmaking and film acting — but, truth be told, much of his advice only really applies if you’re directing or acting in a David Mamet film. His best book to date is his dispatch from the Hollywood trenches, Bambi vs. Godzilla, which applies his tough, unforgiving prose style to the business of making movies. Funny, terse, and wicked smart.

Without Feathers by Woody Allen

Woody Allen was a humor writer before he was a filmmaker, and he’s continued to pen odd/funny pieces for publications like The New Yorker in the years since he became a Beloved American Institution. But this early collection of his prose (and a couple of short plays) remains his best — it’s utterly bizarre, proudly egg-headed, and unabashedly hilarious. There are too many highlights to name, but this reader has always had a soft spot for “The Whore of Mensa,” a hard-boiled detective story of a private eye investigating a ring of intellectual call girls.

A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris

The Thin Blue Line director Morris tried for years to get financing for a documentary about the trial (and, in his opinion, miscarriage of justice) of Jeffrey McDonald, the Green Beret doctor convicted of murdering his family (and the basis for the books Fatal Vision and The Journalist and the Murderer). When he couldn’t get the movie made, the filmmaker — who has recently made a sideline of writing for The New York Times, and had just published his first book on photography — decided to make it a book instead. The resulting work is astonishingly effective: crisp, well-written, and persuasive, with Morris proving himself as shrewd an investigative journalist as he is a documentary filmmaker.