Music & Drama » Film & Cinema

The best books on Filmmaking

recommended by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Filmmaking involves lots of different disciplines, says the acclaimed English screenwriter and author. And the secret of making good films is to look outward – for instance, by reading the history of railways

  • 1

    The Best of Satyajit Ray
    by Satyajit Ray

  • 2

    The Empire Express
    by David Haward Bain

  • 3

    The Thirty-Nine Steps
    by John Buchan

  • 4

    Keaton
    by Rudi Blesh

  • 5

    Karoo
    by Steve Tesich

Filmmaking involves lots of different disciplines, says the acclaimed English screenwriter and author. And the secret of making good films is to look outward – for instance, by reading the history of railways

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a screenwriter and the award-winning author of several novels for children. After writing for Coronation Street and Brookside, he turned to feature films, and has worked with diverse directors such as Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle and Alex Cox. He wrote the screenplays for 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, and Welcome to Sarajevo.

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You’ve chosen five books on filmmaking.

Yes – the thinking behind the list was that one of the things that goes wrong when people start becoming involved in film professionally is that they only think about film. So you have these conversations where people say to you: ‘Well, it’s sort of It’s a Wonderful Life meets Apocalypse Now’, as though films are made like breeding dogs at Crufts, and you just keep crossbreeding until you end up with a freakishly large dog that can’t breathe properly.

I was working with Danny Boyle for ages on a film that hit the buffers, and we were having conversations with producers who would talk like that – but he would produce bits of poetry or paintings from all over the place, and I think that’s very important. You need to look outwards, and you should read other things, and watch other things, and bring those to film.

So with that in mind I thought it would be worth reading Satyajit Ray’s autobiography The Best of Satyajit Ray, because he painted, he devised fonts, he wrote children’s books, and he’s as important as a children’s writer in India as he is a filmmaker. I think he’s amazing, and because we have Hollywood as such a landmark, we forget that people in other parts of the world are able to be creative in lots of different ways – you don’t just get sucked into that industry. It contains interviews, essays, drawings, little bits of storyboard, stuff about his other writing, and it’s quite a chunky book. Ray is such an inspiring figure: he’s a proper artist – someone trying to say something rather than just trying to make another movie.

Where does he place movies for himself?

They were crucial to him, but his children’s writing’s really important as well. He’s just someone who wants to tell a story, and some stories you tell like this and some stories you tell by inventing a new font. He did three fonts, and they’re all called ‘Something Ray’. Because a much more important thing is that he was a polymath, and actually making films is poly-creative – there are a lot of different disciplines involved. And you should be able to think in sound and pictures and in how to run meetings and how to deal with people and all that stuff. That whole auteur thing I hate – it’s like wanting to play football on your own, it’s just a completely meaningless thing, because a really good film comes out of the chaos of lots of people working together.

Next book?

Continuing with the idea of not looking at films but at something else, it’s a book called Empire Express, which is a history of the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. This book is just the best way of reading about the film industry – it’s like reading about it in a mirror. It’s about this massive project that took a humungous amount of money, which had been prised out of people with hype and with lies and with bribery and, above all, with spectacle. Of course there’s a great John Ford movie about building this railway anyway, but the book feels really cinematic, not just in the sense that it’s a great spectacle, but it’s like reading about cinema. These railway guys travelled around in fantastic state, they had huge egos and they were all like the Great Oz – little men who pretended to do magic and were therefore able to – and the railway goes all over the place to please people, just as films are always chasing the audience. It’s full of amazing scenes. There’s a fantastic one where they take people from the East out to the Midwest to try to persuade them to invest, and they do things like staging an Indian raid. They pay some Indians to raid the train to show that they can rebuff it, and they burn chunks of the prairie to produce a fantastic spectacle, and they have people round up massive herds of buffalo and bring them down to the railways.

Like a D W Griffith film.

Exactly – they were making a movie to look at out of the train window. Trains and cinema are so closely intertwined: the very first story that we have of an audience reaction is of the Lumière Brothers’ film of the train arriving. Reading the history of railways is like reading a transmogrified version of the history of cinema, I think. I can’t remember the guy’s name but one of them had a sort of special Pullman car built for his meetings, and it was every bit as luxurious as those they had for the Tsar, and he would turn up in these little tiny towns like a maharajah and, of course, people did what he said. It’s a brilliant book.

Next book?

The Thirty-Nine Steps, because it teaches you anything you wanted to know about adaptation. It’s actually not a particularly great book.

You mean read it in conjunction with watching Hitchcock’s film adaptation?

With the Hitchcock. It’s quite a good book, nothing particularly fantastic, but it’s got one great idea in it, and Hitchcock ran – literally ran – with it. I think Hitchcock’s 39 Steps is one of a handful of perfect scripts: it never touches the ground, it just goes boom! flat out, and never lets you question it. It’s full of delight, it’s incredibly romantic, incredibly tense – it’s just got everything a movie should have. I think if you read the book and then watch the film you can see that what makes a great movie is in the difference between those two things: the whole alchemy is there in the gap between that book and the film. You see that Hitchcock’s taken something and really explored it and made it live, with the courage not to pause and explain things or fill in any background. I think when people are adapting a book or an idea they often try to do justice to it. And actually it’s just much better to take the thing that’s brilliant about it and polish it and make it shine. I guess the other thing about cinema is that it’s really very kinetic, and what Hitchcock took from that book is just running, keeping moving, and the whole process of jumping on trains, into taxis, running across moors. He just found the whole physical movement in the story, and he doesn’t let anyone stand still and talk.

The film’s been remade several times

People are always making it. I think the other versions are just not very good. But more to the point is how ideas get passed on – Mission: Impossible is The 39 Steps, the Die Hards, Bourne, and any mistaken identity or innocent man on the run film is The 39 Steps. They’re all hugely indebted, and in the way I’ve just been talking about as well. They’re hugely kinetic: don’t wait for the explanation, don’t wait for the back story, just go, ‘Bloody hell, we’d better run’. In Hitchcock’s version there are very believable characters and the love story between them’s amazing – it’s swooningly romantic and brilliant. But there’s never those horrible clunky bits you get in Mission: Impossible films where somebody sits down and says, ‘Right, there’s a CD with all the names of the FBI agents, blah blah,’ and you just switch off. It never does that: it just goes, ‘39 steps’, and you never find out what they are until the end and the guy says, ‘The 39 steps are a criminal organisation’ and bang! he’s dead.

Next book?

Back to trains again in a way – it’s a biography of Buster Keaton. I just think if you’re going to think about films you should think about how good they possibly can be, and that is probably The 39 Steps and Buster Keaton’s The General, which is about a train. To me Keaton is the Michelangelo of cinema. He created films in his head: if anyone ever was an auteur it was him, and his masterpiece is The General. But it’s just that other world – it’s so different now. Keaton physically cut those films together and, well, you know the scale of those stunts and how much he put himself on the line. I do think he’s a really great artist and that he is underestimated, so I just think it’s worth reading about Buster Keaton. And worth reading about scripts that are perfect and brilliant and don’t have direct dialogue in them.

Tell me about Karoo.

All I can tell you about Karoo is that it is just way, way, way the best fictional story about modern filmmaking that you’re ever going to read. And it’s one of the best novels you’re ever going to read. It’s set at the time of Ceausescu’s fall, and it’s about a film writer called Saul Karoo who’s fighting against the cynicism that he can feel seeping into him. He knows what he should do and what he shouldn’t do, and ends up doing what he shouldn’t do. That makes it sound incredibly depressing, but it’s not: it’s a very, very funny book. I should say that Tesich was a really great screenwriter. He wrote Breaking Away and the screenplay for The World According to Garp and was really successful. And he’s written this book about someone who’s not a successful screenwriter, who’s a script doctor, who comes across this masterpiece of a film, and he knows there’s nothing wrong with it, but he deliberately destroys it to do some greater good. It’s incredibly complicated emotionally and morally, but I’m making it sound like it’s really heavy going: actually it’s a very sprightly book and it’s about family relationships and you recognise a lot of the characters.

Although Hollywood seems exotic, in the book the people in it are really easy to relate to. But things that would be completely normal at home are all wrong out in Hollywood. There’s this scene where he takes his son’s sweetheart out to dinner – a completely normal, nice thing to do – but seen through the prism of Hollywood it’s really creepy. The thing is, you’ve read loads of books with those types of characters in, but even when they’re written by people who’ve worked in the cinema they seem oddly unconvincing and over the top. But everything in this book is really convincing.

Tesich has got a great eye for detail. Karoo calls all the apparatchiks of Hollywood ‘Brad’: ‘He’s got a new Brad’, or, ‘I like the new Brad better than the old Brad’. There’s a bit where Karoo’s waiting for a meeting and he realises that everyone in the building is incredibly young and good looking, but they don’t look at each other at all. But people are looking at him, because he’s a fat, baldy, paunchy, middle-aged man, and that means power. And then the book pulls off something that you could never have in a film by ending with this amazing coup. Because Karoo’s own dream project is a version of The Odyssey set in space, and the book fulfils the dream that he can’t fulfil for himself. It ends with this amazing prayer, this hymn of praise, and it’s just a fantastically uplifting, or maybe rather moving, ending.

It’s full of classical references, but that makes it sound off-puttingly clever.

Except that people who work in cinema are constantly going into those things. If you look at The Lion King, it’s full of Hamlet. People who work in cinema are not averse to stealing things from the classics – on the contrary they tend to be into going to the classics to loot and pillage. But in the book, all the way through, you’re expecting Karoo’s version of The Odyssey to be a bit crap. And then you see it and it’s absolutely amazing. And it does make you think: gosh, cinema sometimes is breathtaking. That’s what I found uplifting.

It’s sort of the opposite of how this conversation started – that you mustn’t only think about movies. Actually this book goes somewhere else – and makes you think about movies.

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Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a screenwriter and the award-winning author of several novels for children. After writing for Coronation Street and Brookside, he turned to feature films, and has worked with diverse directors such as Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle and Alex Cox. He wrote the screenplays for 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, and Welcome to Sarajevo.