A WRITER/DIRECTOR’S LIBRARY
Or, the 41 books that taught me most of what I know
By Paris Barclay
These are not the only books on writing, directing and navigating your way through Hollywood: these are the ones on my shelf that I either refer to regularly, or at least think were worth their cover price.
Most can be found at Book Soup or Samuel French, both within a mile of each other on Sunset. (If you’re not LA based, you can’t beat Amazon.com). Borders, Barnes & Nobles and the like also carry a lot of these books nowadays. Some may be out of print, so if they really interest you, call the library and see if they have them.
*Denotes availability on Amazon.com (or just scroll to the bottom of the page to find all of these books on Amazon)!
*1. ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman
The author of Butch Cassidy.…, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, and the shooting script of The Last Action Hero describes how to get over as a writer in Hollywood, with wit and incisiveness that has not been equaled. Written in the 70’s, but every word is still true.
*2. WHICH LIE DID I TELL? (MORE ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE) by
Just came out this year – still funny, still vital, and still real. He takes you through his experience writing The Princess Bride, Misery, Maverick, and Absolute Power, among others. With his traditional catty asides and insightful lacerations of the commercial filmmaking process. (Plus, he writes a pseudo screenplay and has people we all know criticize it.)
*3. SCREENPLAY by Syd Field
Considered the "father of structure.” Every executive is more or less forced to read this book, which sets out a very specific, structural approach to writing a screenplay. The language you hear relentlessly at studios ("where’s the second act crisis?” "Plot Point One never materializes!”) is all here – he made it up. Not only the way to do it, but the benchmark you should be aware of.
*4. HITCHCOCK by Francois Truffaut
For the directors (and writers out there), a book-length conversation about making movies with two of the masters. Filled with frame-by-frame photographs, insight into how Hitchcock creates suspense, terror, and humor. Much info about his moral point of view, and how that influenced his work.
OTHER HELPFUL HOW-TOS ON SCREENWRITING
*5. CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: WRITING MOVIES THAT GET MADE by Alex
My new favorite screenwriting book, written by a development executive of all things! But he nails it when he says: "the essence of a movie…is 1. Someone wants something, 2. If he gets it things will be better than they are, and 3. If he fails, things will be worse that they are, 4. But there are obstacles in his way.” (That’s it, all you really need to know. Do that – I saved you $15.00 on this book alone!)
*6. HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS by Viki King
Much maligned book I liked a lot. Like a very restrictive diet, she takes you through a day-by-day plan that, three weeks later, leaves you with a taut, written and rewritten script. Funny and insightful.
*7. HOT PROPERTY: SCREENWRITING IN THE NEW HOLLYWOOD by Christopher Keane
A more contemporary view of the screenplay game, with lots of marketing and how-to-navigate-Hollywood info thrown in. Best after you’ve read other structural tomes, as his offbeat approach may not be for everyone.
8. THE SCREENWRITER’S HANDBOOK by Constance Nash and Virginia Oakley
Slightly dated, but worthwhile for the interviews and practical business advice. A little more emphasis on television writing. (Possibly out of print, but I’m too lazy to renumber everything.)
*9. SELLING A SCREENPLAY by Syd Field
He’s back! Now, buttressed by interviews with Oliver Stone, Dan Petrie Jr. and Alvin Sargeant, he’s giving you his POV on getting over. Good stuff on the psychology of agents, readers, executives, and others you have to impress.
*10. WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL by Michael Hauge
[Says on the back of the book he teaches at UCLA Extension…hmmm.]
Clever, bullet point to bullet point screenwriting theory that adds worthwhile psychological dimensions to the Syd Field model. Filled with excellent questions to ask yourself as you’re writing, to ensure you’re on the right path.
FOR THE BOSSIER PEOPLE: DIRECTING TOMES
*11. DIRECTORS CLOSE UP edited by Jeremy Kagan
Kagan knows his stuff, and has been the Directors Guild’s go-to-guy to interview the directors nominated for Best Direction of a Feature Film for almost 10 years. Here, he edits their views by process (The Script, Pre-Production, Production, Post etc.) So you get Zemeckis and Minghella, Crowe and Van Sant, Spielberg and Stresant, Benigni and Eastwood, all talking about how they do it in their own words. It’s just great, and inspiring.
*12. DIRECTING THE FILM by Eric Sherman
Almost every director imaginable quoted (emphasizing some of the earlier pre-Kagan heroes), organized by aspects of their job ("Producers and Other Strangers,” "Storyboards, Pro and Con” etc.) From Corman to Capra, from Hitchcock to Altman, from Renoir to Spielberg (he’s everywhere.)
*13. HOW MOVIES WORK by Bruce F. Kawin
A textbook. Very detailed study and analysis of movie making, from the ground up. Egghead analysis of classic films. Much technical info on lighting and cameras. Makes you feel like you’re in school, but worth wading through so you can appear to know more than you do.
*14. THINKING IN PICTURES by John Sayles
His story of the making of Matewan. If you liked the movie and him, you’ll like the book (I did.) Includes lots on how he writes and his collaboration with Haskell Wexler, the great d.p.
*15. FILM DIRECTING SHOT BY SHOT by Steven D. Katz
The most constructive textbook on this I’ve ever come across. Uses storyboards and still photographs to illustrate the basic theory behind creating, shooting and cutting a film.
Filmmakers familiar with this book and the terminology it patiently explains and demonstrates are years ahead of everyone else.
*16. MAKING MOVIES by Sidney Lumet
A recent addition – breezy, blow-by-blow anecdotal look at how the director of Dog Day Afternoon and Network (and The Wiz) does his thing. From script, through rehearsal, through shooting and post, using his own films as examples, he shows you how he has stayed among the top directors while working on a wide variety of canvasses. (He did give me one very bad piece of advice in this book, which I’ll tell you about if you ask.)
*17. THE DIRECTORS: TAKE ONE by Robert J. Emery
13 interviews transcribed and edited from the Encore Movie Channel’s series on "The Directors.” This first edition includes a very eclectic bunch: from Robert Wise to Spike Lee; from John Carpenter to John Frankenheimer; from Norman Jewison to Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams. Fascinating insights into process, discipline, and decades of know-how condense into often funny, anecdotal conversation. Inspiring.
*18. THE DIRECTORS: TAKE TWO by Robert J Emery
13 more, this time with Schumacher, Reiner, Coolidge, Friedkin, Gilliam and Pakula, among others. Not quite as good, but if you’re interested in the "second tier” of living legends, this one’s for you.
*19. WATCHING MOVIES: THE BIGGEST NAMES IN CINEMA TALK ABOUT
THE FILMS THAT MATTER MOST by Rick Lyman
Mostly directors talk about the movies they love, which makes for engrossing reading – especially when you find their choices particularly apt (or odd). Sure, Harvey Weinstein on "Exodus” makes sense, but Michael Bay on "West Side Story” or Kevin Smith on "A Man For All Seasons?” Whatever!
"BUT I’M MORE INTERESTED IN TV…”
*20. INSIDE PRIME TIME by Todd Gitlin
As close to Goldman as TV has gotten, which isn’t very close. Nevertheless, this is an insider’s view of the 70’s and ‘80’s, with much info on how decisions are made that’s changing somewhat but still mostly valid.
*21. PRIME TIME HITS by Susan Sackett
If you want to create a hit TV show, leave this book under your pillow, reading a few chapters whenever you can. A year by year ranking of the most successful shows, and lots of inside dish on how they happened and why they made it.
*22. THE COMPLETE DIRECTORY TO PRIME TIME NETWORK TV SHOWS
(1946-Present) by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh
This huge book lists everything that was ever on the air, with credits and synopses of the premises. Invaluable to make sure what you’re doing hasn’t been done yet, or to find out what other series someone has done, or to find out how long a show played or who was on it originally.
*23. HOW TO PITCH & SELL YOUR TV SCRIPT by David Silver
A better than average (but not great) book on the subject with more info on miniseries, TV movies, writing for public television and the like.
*24. TRUE BLUE by Bill Clark and David Milch
Listed not only because I’m a brown-nose – it’s the only book I’ve ever read that takes you step by step through the creation of a television series based on REALITY. How real people are evolved by very sophisticated dramatists into living and breathing characters. How real stories are reshaped to become 46-minute teleplays. How politics inside the network (and in the world at large) attempt to influence this process.
*25. THE SHOWRUNNERS by David Wild
A year in the life of television, told through meeting some of the top showrunners (largely in their place of work) around 1999. Watch Aaron Spelling play pinball and stay on top of his empire. Get some insight into what makes the South Park guys tick. Meet Scott Winant as he bashes his head into the network’s wall. Some dramas are included, but the emphasis is on comedies – some of which he didn’t know at the time would become huge: like Will & Grace and Everybody Loves Raymond. But he’s there for dramas too, including visits with the Party of Five creators, and the minds behind 7th Heaven and Seven Days. Does reveal what it takes to pitch and run a show – at least as a writer, which directors need to know.
"I’M MORE OF A PRODUCER TYPE…”
You have to read everything, but also:
*26. THE GROSS by Peter Bart
Variety’s top critic and commentator on everything that’s wrong in the movie business, and a few things that are right. While I don’t often agree with him, he’s another guy worth listening to – he sets the table in the old traditional holiday in some ways, not that we care.
*27. HELLO, HE LIED by Linda Obst
The William Goldman of producers, Ms. Obst isn’t quite the writer he is, but from the producing side, she’s tough, funny and coins a few good ones (like "Humility, faux or otherwise, is good protection.”) She made a few good movies (and developed Flashdance, a quintessentially cheesy movie that made a lotta people rich). Best when she’s talking about how to pitch to a studio, if you’re interested in that.
*28. - *29. EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS and DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES by
Easy Riders looked at the ‘70’s golden era of filmmaking, and in his new (and controversial book) Dirty Pictures dissects the whole independent film/Sundance era, while destroying Harvey Weinstein and Robert Redford in the process. Both are essential to understand the mechanics of low-end film production, and too exhilarated by the possibility that this living hell could be yours, for the asking.
*30. THE MOVIE BUSINESS BOOK edited by Jason Squire
Everybody writes a chapter on their specialty: Mel Brooks does "My Movies: the Collision of Art and Money.” William Goldman does "The Screenwriter.” Peter Geiger does "The Bank and Feature Financing” etc.
*31. HOW I MADE A HUNDRED MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD AND NEVER LOST
A DIME by Roger Corman
Funny, crazy book by the cheapest man in Hollywood (that’s how he did it, by the way.) Essentially his autobiography, with a lotta lessons on how much can be done for how little.
*32. BOX OFFICE HITS by Susan Sackett
A producer’s dream: a year-by-year look at the top money makers, with the author’s explanation of how and why it happened. Insightful, and sometimes inspiring ("if they can do it…”).
GOOFY RELATED BOOKS I USED FROM TIME TO TIME
*33. PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS by Frank J. Bruno, PhD.
A relatively simple, easy to read reference book on common mental and emotional problems. Very helpful guide through the psychoses that plague us. Bruno not only covers everything from alcohol abuse to workaholism, but also demonstrates how they manifest themselves and how can we learn to cope with them. He tells you the psychological cause of things like indecisiveness, irrational fears, obsessions and compulsions, self-destructiveness, even shyness.
*34. THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO SURVIVAL HANDBOOK by Joshua Piven &
(My new personal favorite. I really shouldn’t be telling you about this one, but I like you, so…) This is a small book that tells you in practical terms how to do things people need to do from time to time in movies, but most of us would be at a loss to figure out without pesky research. Like: how to escape from quicksand, how to land a plane with no experience, how to wrestle free from an alligator, how to deliver a baby in a taxicab, how to escape from a sinking car…
*35. THE HERO WITHIN by Carol S. Pearson
She uses some of that Joseph Campbell myth theory to talk about the six archetypes for characters. Helpful in crafting stories and characters, particularly in action films and comedies that work on very primitive levels.
*36. WHO’S WHO IN MYTHOLOGY by Alexander S. Murray
Any mythological survey book will do here. It’s just good to have when you’re stuck on a character or story – I read old mythological stories and heroes and see if it takes me somewhere fresh but still pinned to basic cross-cultural beliefs.
*37. THE BEST PLAYS OF…(THE OTIS GUERNSEY/BURNS MANTLE THEATER
YEARBOOK) edited by Otis Guernsey and Jeffrey Sweet
Comes out every year, and is always in the library. They select the ten best plays/musicals of the year, and synopsize them. I like to read them because the theater is five-to-ten years ahead of the movies, and sometimes the stories inspire other ideas I have for screenplays. (Also, since they’re synopsized, I don’t have to wade through the whole damn play.)
*38. THE BILLBOARD BOOK OF NUMBER ONE HITS by Fred Bronson
I use a lot of music in my scripts, and I want it to be right in terms of year and time. This source book tells you what was on the top of the charts when, from ’55 to ’88 (there’s probably a more recent edition, but I don’t have it.) Sometimes just looking at the song titles reminds me of times in the past, relationships I’ve had, places I heard the song or lived in I’ve long forgotten. It’s the beginning of a story, like the first time I heard…
*39. NOTES ON THE CINEMATOGRAPHER by Robert Bresson
No, he’s not just talking about how things are lit. The famous French director writes casual, poetic, almost Haiku-like thoughts on the process of filmmaking, reflections that you may find either illuminating or impossibly pretentious. He’ll say things like, "No (or hardly any) harsh criticism or praise that is not based on some misunderstanding.” Ooooh. What does that mean?
*40. 20.0001 NAMES FOR BABY by Carol McD. Wallace
This one’s obvious. How many heroes named Jimmy can we have? Why not Kyana, Claremond, Gideon? And thousands of other choices in alphabetical order, with origins and translations of the foreign ones.
*41. THE ART OF LOVING by Erich Fromm
Okay, don’t laugh. Often thought of as the progenitor of all self-help books, this slim 1956 work by a renowned psychoanalyst has answered many of my own personal story problems, helped me clarify roles when I’m dramatizing families, and made it much easier for me to understand what I’m aiming at when I’m trying desperately to show you how two people are falling in (or out) of love. "Love,” he says, "is the only satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” (You might quibble with that, since death can be a pretty good answer too, but take it for what it’s worth…)