On Directing Film

I read this book by David Mamet yesterday. It’s a concise 107-page summary of directing for motion pictures, based on a course he taught at Columbia in 1987, after he had finished his second film (following many plays and stage productions). Here are a few excerpted paragraphs:

The job of the film director is to tell the story through the juxtaposition of uninflected images – because that is the essential nature of the medium. It operates best through juxtaposition, because that’s the nature of human perception: to perceive two events, determine a progression, and want to know what happens next. […]

If you aren’t telling a story, moving from one image to another, the images have to be more and more “interesting” per se. If you are telling a story, then the human mind, as it’s working along with you, is perceiving your thrust, both consciously and, more important, subconsciously. The audience members are going to go along with that story and will require neither inducement, in the form of visual extravagance, nor explanation, in the form of narration.

[Michael J. sidenote: Alfred Hitchcock once said, “When the screenplay has been written, and the dialogue has been added, we’re ready to shoot.” The implication being that you write as little dialogue as possible, after you have told the story through images first.]

They want to see what’s happening next. Is the guy going to get killed? Is the girl going to kiss him? Will they find the money buried in the old mine? […]

If we don’t care what happens next, if the film is not correctly designed, we may, unconsciously, create our own story in the same way that a neurotic creates his own cause-and-effect rendition of the world around him, but we’re no longer interested in the story being told. […]

That’s when it stops being interesting. So that’s where the bad author […] has to take up the slack by making each subsequent event more diverting that the last; to trick the audience into paying attention.

The end of this is obscenity. Let’s really see their genitals, let’s really endanger the actor through stunts, let’s really set the building on fire. Over the course of the movie, it forces the filmmaker to get more and more bizarre. Over the course of a career, it forces a filmmaker to get more and more outre; over the course of a culture, it forces the culture to degenerate into depravity, which is what we have now.

This book was originally recommended to me by Robert Fritz, to help cultivate the skill of thinking visually. It’s a good read for that alone. But it’s obviously helpful for the budding storyteller, to focus energy on the story, and not the “message,” the cleverness, or the ironic self-consciousness. Two of the chapters demonstrate by example using transcriptions of dialogue with students, deciding on a few scenes and beats to express the idea of an imaginary film’s throughline.
If you’ve never seen one of Mamet’s films, a good place to start would be either Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, winner of a Pulitzer prize), or The Spanish Prisoner (1997, a fantastically intricate story).