Some people learn by study and observation. Others learn by trial and error. Most of us learn through both methods. However, there are a few practical filmmakers out there who deny that they learned anything other than by experience. Let’s contrast those with theoretical filmmakers, who learned how to make great films before they ever got to touch a camera.
Quentin Tarantino. While Tarantino never went to film school, he studied film more than most film PhDs ever will. Before Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino had only written screenplays. He’d been on a TV set to play an Elvis impersonator, but he hadn’t even really directed a short film. Most of what he learned before his break out feature was from watching films, and taking evening classes in acting.
Sure, Tarantino had a smart part in making a microbudget film, but that was so unwatchable that he is said to have destroyed it.
And guess what? He continues to watch other people’s films and learn from them. You can read interviews, where he talks about the history of Warner Brothers. Or, if you’ve watched old movies yourself, you can see the influences:
Francois Truffaut. Before making his first movie, Truffaut was a kind of movie critic. Then he made 700 blows, and started a movement whereby critics made movies. This “New Wave” was very influential to the “film school brats” in America, which included Lucas, Coppola and other top filmmakers from the 1960s to 1990s. So, many of the New Wave and film brats could also be called theoretical filmmakers. As Truffaut says in this clip, sometimes works with first timers.
Sergei Eisenstein broke down films by watching and rewatching them. He may have spent more time writing about film than making films. He didn’t start the movement, of course, Poetics (the break down of craft, including film and novels, into international standards) was started before Eisenstein was born. The Kuleshov effect pre-dates Eisenstein too. But, he is its most famous proponent. He started out as a set designer, had some time in theatre, but he was more into revolutionary ideas, both artistically and politically, then in relying on his experience. Eisenstein was more influenced by DW Griffith than his own experience. He in turn has had his films referenced, and his theories influence almost all filmmakers today.
Salvador Dali and the Expressionists. Expressionist theory predates expressionist craft. Before starting a film as weird as Chien Andalou, you have to explain why you’re doing it. Now, Dali’s was a master painter before he touched the camera, so perhaps we won’t count him, but others in the movement used their theoretical ideas to get their movies made.
George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and the Film school Brats. The generation that came out of three major film schools in the 1960s started a trend for hiring film grads. Although Lucas and Coppola were able to get small jobs at the studios, it was Roger Corman who is credited with taking the big chance on Coppola while Coppola was still a student, who in turn invested in Lucas. Before that, directors seemed to work up the system, and film school grads were generally shunned by the industry.
Coppola says much about theory in his work, and his theory has changed over the years, from making film like theatre, to playing with the technology.
George Lucas’s first two works were a bit strange, and he had no confidence in himself as a screenwriter. However, he did go to film school, and much of his work seems to be influenced by what he saw and read, not just what he did. Lucas learned to write Star Wars by studying the theoretical work, “A Hero with a thousand faces.” At least, he gives credit to Joseph Campbell and his books.
There are many others, but some had art backgrounds that helped them get there, and had so much experience, that it’s hard to call them purely theoretical. And, a few of them have a poor reputation at the moment, so we’ll let the dust settle before we mention them by name.
Ed Wood doesn’t seemed to have studied the craft. He didn’t even study his own films. He just got a camera and did it. And he only seems to have learned from his own experiences, not from anyone else’s.
Boll never went to film school. He didn’t plan far ahead. For his first film, he didn’t even have a script. But, he’s a great chef.
Although he never went to film school, Ritchie did marry a pop star. But, we won’t hold that against him. Ritchie says that movies made by film grads are boring and unwatchable, but I prefer The Godfather and Star Wars A New Hope to Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Ritchie’s version of King Arthur.
Many filmmakers went to film school and got practical experience before making films. The guy who did Benji made corporate videos before his first independent feature was a smash, Ridley Scott cut his teeth in television and advertising, other started out in music videos. Then there are those who made terrible, unwatchable short films that only a mother could sit through (and sometimes, not even that good), but learned something that somehow translated to great features.
Martin Scorsese made a lot of short films. His first features were a bit clunky. Well, after watching short films, he’s said to watch a movie every day. He continues with theory.
What about Orson Welles? He had his theories, then his first film was voted the greatest ever made. But, his experience in other media (theatre and radio) no doubt helped him.
Although DW Griffith never went to film school, and worked his way up from stuntman to actor, he wrote a lot of theory to in the newspapers. Some of it, of course, was to defend or promote his own controversial films, but Griffith watched the films of others and was perhaps America’s first theoretical filmmaker.
Spike Lee watched the films of others, and continues to criticise other filmmakers. His films are not just done, but planned and thought through.
Most current film school grads make a lot of short films before starting on the features we see in the cinema. And, while they may be taught theory at films school, they don’t often talk about mise-en-scene or montage on the set.
Some theoretical filmmakers seem to mimic old films. But, the greatest innovators, in film as in elsewhere, cannot rely only on their experience. Experimentation comes from knowledge, from thinking, from study. It’s only when theory meets practice that we can really learn what a filmmaker is capable of.