“On Film-making” Quotes

I recently finished reading “On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director” by Alexander Mackendrick. Here’s the quotes I found interesting:

“Since the money we are gambling is mostly the business men’s, the least we can do is to act as if we were reliable and responsible characters: not artists but craftsmen, highly paid craftsmen who can be guaranteed to turn out goods of standard quality.” (xix)

“‘Creativity’ will always look after itself if you are prolific in production, which means starting off by turning out masses of work that is relatively unoriginal, derivative and imitative. When productivity has become second nature, you will find you have acquired a freedom in which your particular and personal individuality emerges of its own accord.” (xxiii)

“His response to our work was so incredibly un-lazy and passionate, and there was always a kind of warning bell that I heard whenever I was with him. To me it rang: ‘I am the writer and director of films you are still watching thirty years after I made them. The determination and commitment I have shown is something you will need if you are to in the world I have left behind.’” (xxiv)

“Film is not just something up there on the screen – it’s a happening in your head.” (xxxv)

“The value of any ‘rule’ is not apparent until you have studied the exception to it.” (xxxvii)

“Cinema is not so much non-verbal as pre-verbal.” (3)

“Hitchcock is suggesting that a good film should be ninety per cent understandable even if dubbed into a language no one sitting in the auditorium understands.” (4)

“Exposition in film is much more interesting after the dramatic event as a comment (or perhaps explanation) on it.” (6)

“If the only purpose of dialogue is to provide expository information to the characters in the scene but to the audience, it is boring.” (22)

“The comic figure is a caricature who cannot feel too much pain and whose emotions are simplified to the point of absurdity.” (34)

“Screenplays are not written, they are REWRITTEN and REWRITTEN and REWRITTEN.” (40)

“Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.” (41)

“If you’ve got a Beginning, but you don’t yet have an end, then you’re mistaken. You don’t have the right Beginning.” (42)

“Character progression: When you’ve thought out what kind of character your protagonist will be at the end, start him or her as the opposite kind of person at the beginning.” (42)

“Anything that can be cut should be, because when everything non-essential is eliminated, what remains is greatly strengthened.” (46)

“Imagine yourself in the role of this antagonist. Begin to write an interior monologue in the first person, an account of the story as seen through the eyes of this antagonist.” (52)

“Choice of a story’s point of view very often determines the theme.”

“Every screenplay that finally became a film was rewritten a minimum of five and a maximum of seven times.” (58)

“Don’t wait to get it right, just get it written.” (58)

“A character is a personification of a point of view.” (58)

“A weakness in the third act is not just a weakness of the end of the screenplay, it is a fundamental weakness of the whole work.” (60)

“One of the writer’s jobs is to be the connection between two other personalities: the director speaking the film ‘language’ and the performer discovering the role.” (66)

“I urge you to avoid introducing technical jargon that is meant to demonstrate your acquaintance with problems of production for these things are not your business. While the impulse of a good director will be to scratch it all out, it also clearly indicates to the producer that you are a bumbling amateur.” (72)

“Professional screenplay shave a quality in common with good journalism: they use the minimum number of words to communicate the maximum information. A good screenplay must be not only easy to read, it should be easy to read fast.” (73)

“I find it useful to think of the audience as the enemy, to try to tell the story while always remembering that the audience has somewhere better to go and something better to do.” (77)

“A story can quickly become monotonous if tension is constant.” (80)

“They say that the most thoroughly deranged people are those who act in an utterly logical way, except that this logic is based on one insane premise.” (115)

“A line that reads quite implausibly on the printed page can be quite convincing and effective when spoken in a throwaway or incidental fashion by the actor.” (121)

“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of the writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have, learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and an utter lack of sentimentality. It takes effort, lots of effort. It means rewriting and rewriting and rewriting – a constant process of distillation.” (125)

“When a writing dilemma appears insoluble, it is not a bad tactic to push it deliberately out of your consciousness while you go off on other business, or indeed play.” (162)

“The first step in all dramatic writing is visual.” (165)

“It is the task of the writer and director to find some way of making character-action believable.” (166)

“The actor must decide what the character is saying to himself at all times, as if he were writing a continuous inner soliloquy that expresses his character’s thoughts, responses and attitudes. An actor who has mastered a role is able to speak this soliloquy out loud. He is, at all times, able to answer the question ‘What is this character really trying to say with his line?’ (even if his character is not). In this way, subtext can develop during rehearsal, quite unconsciously, as a way of controlling the inflections of words, the timing of gestures, and the length of silences.” (182)

“If you avoid eye contact by looking only during those brief instants when you have a real need to see seomthing, then your mind is constantly at work. Thus to scrutinize an object with extreme concentration, you must keep the focus of your attention in constant motion.” (184)

“Try the fixed look at your partner again but now keep the look moving from the mouth to the yes, the left eye to the right, the eyebrows to the chin. This will, on film at least, appear as a fixed concentration of your attention.” (184)

“A screen actor’s performance is likely to be much more useful to the director and the editor if his looks are no sustained but are rather a series of sharply defined flicks of the eye to check for information.” (185)

“The character who is ‘almost angry but a bit pitying’ will achieve this effect with more vitality if he shows an impulse to anger, quickly checked by a contradictory moment of pity, then by another flash of annoyance. If the girl who is resentful but intrigued alternates between moments of resentment and moments of interest, it is much clearer for the audience.” (187)

“This is perhaps the primary function of the director: to provide his actors with the same kind of support and stimulus the stage actor gets during a live performance.” (189)

“This is the reason why, in the vast majority of cases, the director who demonstrates to the actor by acting the role himself, by reading the line of dialogue for the actor to mimic or by performing the gesture so that the actor can copy it, has already failed.” (190)

“One of the most helpful things the director can do is invite the actor to improvise scenes that do not appear in the script but that in narrative terms have taken place just before the scene that is being presently explored.” (191)

“Questions are often more helpful to the actor than any answers the director might be able to offer (a good example being something like, ‘What happened to your character after the last scene and before this one?’). (191)

“A director contributes not by instructing the actor but by inspiring him.” (191)

“Every entrance is an exit from a previous situation and every exit is an entrance to somewhere else. Indeed, if this is not the case you should ask yourself whether or not the scene is necessary.” (193)

“You should know your story so completely that there is no question any actor can ask you about a character (including aspects of off-screen life and back-story) for which you cannot instantly improvise a convincing answer.” (193)

“The way to make a cut seem smooth is to make the jump of the mind’s eye one that the audience wants to make.” (199)

“The motivation for every cut should always be built into the preceding angle.” (199)

“It might not be too much to say that what a film director really directs is his audience’s attention.” (200)

“Making something eye-catching is not always a matter of making it bigger. Rather, it is about being that little bit different form everything else.” (201)

“We see the start of every action, then cut away and almost immediately reintroduce the action at a more advanced stage. It will appear to the audience as though it is all one uninterrupted process.” (211)

“A scene that involves very complicated and expensive logistics, crowds, special effects and elaborate production design can very profitably be planned in very precise detail beforehand. But if you are working on a scene with a lot of dialogue and the possibility of complex movements of actors during a sustained scene, it can be a mistake to plan the camera set-ups in advance in any rigid way.” (218)

“If one character is seen in close-up and the other in medium shot, our feelings of sympathy and/or identification are with the figure seen at the closer distance.” (225)

“IF one character is on screen for longer than another, and especially if edits are timed to capture the thoughts of that character, then the scene will often appear to be from his or her point of view.” (225)

“When cutting from a long-shot to a closer angle, it is generally a good idea to change the angle.” (249)

“When the edit is equivalent of a visual enlargement of the preceding picture, the problem is likely to be that we do not really see anything we haven’t already seen.” (249)

“If suspense is aimed for, the spectator must first be shown what to wait for. If a shock is intended, the pre-warning must be, so to speak, negative: the spectator must be deliberately led away from the significant event before it can come to him as a surprise.” (254)

“When editing, don’t try to preserve every aspect of both performances.” (256)

“Once the audience understands what is about to happen, when the impulse to act is clear, it’s time to make your cut, so the audience is able to see the consequences of that action.” (256)

“It makes good sense to begin by shooting the master-shot of a scene, even if it is not the first shot in continuity.” (260)

“When shooting a scene, always ask yourself, ‘If I was allowed only one close-up, where would it be and which character would it feature?’” (260)

“The experienced director will line up the closer angle with the actors in position and then instruct them to step out of the frame and move into position only after the camera is rolling.” (260)

“Theory will not usually help you to do work that is good, though it may be of some help to identify your mistakes, and thus can sometimes be useful for corrective purposes.” (289)

If you found these quotes helpful, please buy and read the book here.

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