Friday, March 11, 2011

Browsing my Bookshelves

When I was a little kid I started reading about film, filmmakers, filmmaking. The first book I remember getting from the library was a book on Walt Disney—not the company, the man. After that I mostly read film books and magazines. I still apply many of the lessons I learned in those books I read so early on, and I add to this vast book collection all the time.

A little while ago someone requested that I take a picture of my bookshelf and post it on the blog. To be honest, I’m not sure what would be gleaned from this, but I’ll give it a shot.

One thing you are sure to learn is that I have a crappy camera on my phone.

You will notice, in the picture above, one of my favorite books on the craft: Television Plays by Paddy Chayfesky. I seem to mention it every other posting. In fact, I will buy copies if I see them at bookstores and give them to friends. Right now, I think I own three copies.

You should know that many of the great television writers from the 1950s wrote books like Chayefsky’s where they printed their plays and wrote essays about the profession.

You should also read Rod Serling’s Patterns: Four Television Plays.

You will also notice books on the subject of magic. I am a mediocre magician, but I don’t study magic to be a magician, but to be a better storyteller. A magic trick has the very same structure as a good story, and so to know magic is to understand how to communicate. 

Orson Wells knew magic, and it helped him on Citizen Kane when his budget was cut and he no longer had the money to build the elaborate sets he’d envisioned. He often built partial sets that receded into shadow. He knew just how much information to give an audience so that they would imagine the rest.

The other great thing about studying magic is that the best tricks, the ones that blow people’s minds, are the simplest ones. Learning magic can reinforce the power of simplicity.

I also like to read old interviews with the old masters of film. They were really, really smart. If you read what they say and follow their advice you will see your work improve.  You’ll be amazed. The stuff I know I learned from them.

Chuck Jones is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. Period. I have learned as much from him as any live-action director. He admits that he stole liberally from Charlie Chaplin, and so I began to study Chaplin. Trust me, if you can learn to see the sheer genius of Chaplin, it is like the clouds parting and sunbeams shining through to the sound of Gregorian chants. Chuck Jones ripped him off shamelessly.

You can read some insightful Chaplin essays the back of a book called Discoveries: Charlie Chaplin by David Robinson.

Chaplin is so smart that he has an essay in this book about how “talkies” won’t last that even in hindsight seems to makes sense. At any rate, it does talk about the strength of visual storytelling.

Also for great lessons on visual storytelling read David Mamet’s On Directing Film.

For visual storytelling I like studying great illustrators and Norman Rockwell is one of the best artists to study for storytelling. Some people object to his subject matter and so dismiss his work—big ol’ fat mistake. Few people understand how to communicate so precisely. He knew just what to include in a picture to get an idea across. Why not learn from him? Me? I’m not smart enough not to learn from the best.

I have, in my time, read a ton of books on story-craft and have learned a lot from the construction of jokes that transfers directly to building stories.

Well, those are the highlights on my bookshelf. There were some things missing, but you get the basic idea of what’s there. Not sure if it was any help to anyone, but it was easy to write. And there isn’t much I can say that about.


Clint said...

I see a couple of mine in there: Sherman's Directing the Film and Creating Movie Magic. I actually bought the latter back in high school. I came to film through special effects more than anything, so that book and Tom Smith's book on ILM were my bibles back when. Those are the only two exact matches, but there's overlap in subject: books by and about Ford, Capra, myth, plus some I've picked up about acting, cinematography, and directing that I've found useful for understanding story from those other perspectives.

I think you're right that something like this is more a conversation-starter than anything else, but it is worthwhile if only because it highlights books others might be interested in. In my case, as many books as I have by and about the classic directors and writers, I wasn't familiar with the Conversations with Filmmakers Interviews series. I've now added Huston, Kazan, Hitchcock, Renoir, and a couple of others to my Amazon wish list. (And bookmarked several beyond that.)

So thanks for posting this, if only for that.

Joon Kim said...

And that doesn't even include all the stuff you had in storage!

Brian McD said...

Yeah, I have a rain forest worth of books in storage. Sorry about the ozone planet earth.

Anonymous said...

If nothing else, you've encouraged me to read more interviews by the masters. :)

Kaki Flynn said...

Thanks Brian.

I love looking at people's book shelves; I asked for the photo just because it's a lot more interesting and insightful than just looking at a typed-out list of books.

It's also great to have a new list of books to learn from (or use as an excuse to procrastinate). Karen Armstrong is worth a deeper look; "above all compassion" is not for the faint of heart.

The biggest insight (shock, actually)from your blog, however, is the dyslexia.

It's not a surprise now that every leader I've studied (Walt Disney is on that list), with one exception, has dyslexia.

Your blog post, combined with a series of other events that happened within a week or so of it, make it very clear I'm dyslexic.

Is this common in the world of storytelling?

I was at the Creative Talent Network Expo in Burbank in November.

While attending the workshops, I would look to the people sitting to the left and right of me, and noticed many of the people there organizing and writing down information the same way I do.


Brian McD said...

Hello Kaki.

I like looking at people’s bookshelves too; I guess I just thought mine wouldn’t be that enlightening. But people seem to like seeing the books, so thanks for the request.

Karen Armstrong is cool. She’s really great. She has a couple of nice Ted Talks you can see.

Yeah, some pretty cool people have had dyslexia, but I still grapple with my embarrassment about it. I spent so much of my childhood feeling stupid that I still have to fight that feeling. So I have decided to own it and talk about it when I feel it is appropriate.

It helps to know that people like Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Alva Edison, Einstein, Steve Jobs, John Lennon, Mozart and Picasso where dyslexic. Kind of blows the lid off that whole stupid idea. But then you get a Keanu Reeves or a Tom Cruise in there and it throws off the curve.

I do think that many writers are dyslexics. I suspect that Rod Serling was because he was a poor speller. I know that James L. Brooks is. Hans Christian Andersen was dyslexic. So was Octavia Butler and Lewis Carroll. One of my favorite writer/directors Robert Benton, who made Kramer vs. Kramer is also dyslexic.

I think there are a lot of us dyslexic writers out there. The most outspoken was Stephen J. Cannell:

I think it helps us see patterns that are harder for others to see, kind of like Temple Grandin and her autism.

I don’t think I would have been able to write my books if I weren’t dyslexic. I guess I might have written something, but I would not see the world the way that I do.