Read the book before you see the movie, people are always saying. How about reading a book that takes you so far inside filmmaking that the movie itself doesn't matter anymore? These books are so smart and literary that they are not only for film buffs, but for anyone interested in great storytelling.
By Lillian Ross, paperback 400 pages, De Capo Press, list price: $16.95
Lillian Ross, Grande Dame of The New Yorker, tells the story of director John Huston making The Red Badge of Courage. Ross is the ultimate witty observer, from the first day of shooting to the final release. Ross transforms her access to the "motion picture" industry circa 1951 into a "character study" that leaves nobody unscathed. Here is MGM producer, Gottfried Reinhardt: "I'm on the first floor. Dore Schary is two floors up, right over me. L.B. is also two floors up. I have a washbasin but no shower in my office. Dore has a shower but no bathtub. L.B. has a shower and a bathtub. The kind of bath facilities you have in your office is another measure of the worth of your position.' He smiled sardonically." Later, he adds, "Our picture must be a commercial success. And it must be a great picture." Does anyone remember the film version of The Red Badge of Courage? Doesn't matter, you will never forget this book.
Final Cut: Art, Money, And Ego In The Making Of Heaven's Gate, The Film That Sank United Artists
By Steven Bach, paperback 432 pages, Newmarket Press, list price: $19.95
Everyone loves hearing about somebody else's disaster. When Final Cut came out in 1985, it was the tell-all book about the biggest financial disaster in the film business. This book reads like a murder mystery where the dead body is the studio itself. Heaven's Gate was directed by Michael Cimino, who was given such free rein after sweeping the Oscars with The Deer Hunter that his next film single-handedly brought down an entire studio. In the month after the film was released, United Artists ceased to exist as an independent studio; and Cimino's career has never recovered. Heaven's Gate was the perfect storm that ended the era of the untouchable Hollywood director/auteur.
The Conversations: Walter Murch And The Art Of Editing Film
By Michael Ondaatje, paperback 368 pages, Knopf, list price: $21
This book is your chance to listen in on probably the most intelligent and far-ranging intellectual conversation on filmmaking. Walter Murch, the legendary film editor (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather II-III among others) met author Michael Ondaatje on the set of The English Patient and began to share a storyteller's obsession: the how and why behind decisions that ultimately define the story being told. The great fun with this book is not only the conversation between these two artists — who consider drafts of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop in the same breath as a technical detail about film editing — but you can have a mini-film festival by watching these great films as you read the book.
Brilliant and fun, smart and literary, each of these books maps the hidden terrain of an industry obsessed with itself.
Rebecca Chace is the author of the novel Leaving Rock Harbor and the memoir Chautauqua Summer. She is also a filmmaker, in addition to her credits as an actress, playwright and musician.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.