Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz, 4/5
This book offers a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the film director’s craft, laying out the many tools, visualisation strategies, camera angles, movements and stagings that are available to the person intent on transferring a story from script to film. The book format is obviously not ideal for the topic and it is up to the reader to imagine how a shot might flow between the still images that are provided, but the author is a clear communicator and most of the concepts are not difficult to understand.
Why I read it: I came across it while browsing through books at the thrift store and thought it looked interesting.
This substantial follow-up to the hilarious, brilliantly-structured Adventures in the Screen Trade focuses rather more on the trade and less on the adventures, a fact that will please those looking for practical insight into the realities and technicalities of screenwriting, but perhaps disappoint those looking for pure entertainment.
This book is packed with information, opinions and examples, but there are three basic concepts that remain with me most vividly a few days later:
1. Screenwriters should enter a scene (and by extension, the story) as late as possible. Scenes should generally be crafted to communicate as concisely and efficiently as possible, taking every opportunity to utilize context and subtext without wasting time on the page. I know this is probably the first thing you learn in Screenwriting 101, but it was a novel concept to me.
2. Directors are overvalued and writers are undervalued. Goldman is not unbiased on this point, of course, but there is a lot of evidence that directors often receive excessive, exclusive praise for aspects of a film that were almost entirely the result of someone else’s work. For example, a writer can create a powerful scene, specifying every detail from the timing to the camera angles, but once filmed, the scene becomes inextricably tied to the director. The example Goldman uses is the famous crop duster sequence in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. It is clear from the script that Hitchcock contributed almost nothing, creatively, to the scene, but what was the writer’s name? I certainly don’t remember.
3. Protect the spine at all costs. Goldman believes that every story has a spine–an irreducible core that should not be altered, no matter how much the surrounding details might change. I thought it was fascinating how, in his example, he boiled each vital part of a book down into one word, creating a short list of essential words that drive the story. His goal, when translating a book to film is to find and preserve the intent of the original material, which allows a great deal of latitude in how the peripheral aspects are treated. This idea will provide much food for future thought whenever I encounter films based successfully or, more likely, unsuccessfully on books.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Goldman’s first book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, very much.]
Two things must accompany the reading of this book, besides an appreciation of the more technical side of films: immediate access to imdb.com and an empty list entitled “Films to watch.” For me, this was a good introduction to many iconic directors with whom I am regretfully unfamiliar and a fascinating glimpse into how others watch, enjoy and are influenced by a variety of films. An example of the book’s power… after reading the interview about Citizen Kane, I am inspired to re-watch the movie (despite hating it the last three times I saw it). The only thing I didn’t like was the inevitable inclusion of spoilers for many of the movies.