Looking for something to read? Here’s a whole bunch of film books we heartily recommend, and we’ll be adding to this list a lot in the coming weeks.
As we’re all in some degree of lockdown for the foreseeable future, one upside may be some extra time to catch up on reading matter. If you’re like me, you love a good book about cinema, and as such, that’s what this particular article is. An ongoing list of really good movie books that are worth checking out.
I’ve added affiliate links where possible, because, y’know, every little really helps. But primarily, this is a resource of books that I’ve personally enjoyed, and think you might too. Lots of these are available on Kindle as well, which might help in current times where delivery services have other priorities…
WILD AND CRAZY GUYS
Nick de Semlyen
A terrific account of the comedy stars and movies of the 1980s. The tales of Chevy Chase in particular make eye-popping reading, but I also thought there’s a book and a half just in the tale of Eddie Murphy’s rise to fame. Expect a longer to-watch list by the end.
MAKING MOVIE MAGIC
I’ve had this one for a while before I read it, thinking it was more picture book than something to read. Turns out that was my mistake: Richardson gives plenty of accounts of his time working on special effects across movies, dropping in lots of juicy behind the scenes stories as he goes. I found this really entertaining once I got into it, and fans of Bond, Harry Potter and Cliffhanger films aren’t going to be shortchanged either.
JOHN BADHAM ON DIRECTING: NOTES FROM THE SET OF SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, WARGAMES, AND MORE
For people our side of the fence who have never directed a movie, John Badham’s pair of movie books might not seem like obvious choices. They’re, after all, sort-of guides to directing a film based on what he’s learned across his career. Yet they’re so chock-full of interesting anecdotes, and also quite autobiographical, that they’re hard to resist. Perfect for dipping into.
As one of the driving forces of Pixar, Ed Catmull is in a strong position to talk about leadership, about movie projects, and about what goes right and wrong. His part-memoir part-business book talks about the inner-workings of the studio, and how it makes its films. It’s often a fascinating read, with real insight.
I AM SPARTACUS!: MAKING A FILM, BREAKING THE BLACKLIST
The late Kirk Douglas wrote many films, but this is my favourite. It’s not just the story of how the film Spartacus came to be, but also of Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood blacklist, and Douglas’ part in bringing it down. A very readable piece of work, and an important slice of history too.
MAGIC TIME: MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD
The memoir of producer and former chair of the Academy Hawk Koch. I sometimes found myself struggling to warm to him as a person, and he’s quite candid as to his less proud moments. His tale of trying to emerge from his father’s shadow and get his own movies going is a really interesting one, though.
BEST MOVIE YEAR EVER: HOW 1999 BLEW UP THE BIG SCREEN
Absolutely loved this. Raftery tracks down the people involved in a host of incredible 1999 movies – Fight Club, The Matrix, Office Space, Election, The Blair Witch Project, Cruel Intentions, American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, Boys Don’t Cry, The Best Man, Three Kings, Magnolia and many more – and examines how they basically managed to get through the Hollywood system. A fascinating read.
IT’S ONLY A MOVIE: REEL LIFE ADVENTURES OF A FILM OBSESSIVE
Mark Kermode has written a collection of excellent film books, but this is my favourite: the story of how he came to be a film critic, and his many adventures with the movies. It’s funny, interesting and devourable. Do check out his other film books too.
DISNEYWAR: THE BATTLE FOR THE MAGIC KINGDOM
James B Stewart
Given how dominant the company is now, it’s often overlooked how shaky things were for a while in the early 1990s, when Disney suddenly lost its direction after the loss of its president, Frank Wells, in a helicopter accident. Stewart’s book is quite dense on the business side too, but it’s a detailed, engrossing account of the battles that would dominate the company for the next decade.
THE GEEK’S GUIDE TO SF CINEMA: 30 KEY FILMS THAT REVOLUTIONISED THE GENRE
A terrific entry point into science fiction movies, as Ryan Lambie guides us through a host of brilliant movies, tells some of the stories behind them, and then offers even more recommendations. Brilliant.
THE DEVIL’S CANDY: THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
The film book that got me into film books, Salamon gets insider access to what turned into one of Hollywood’s most notable 1990s flops. I found myself rooting for it to succeed, despite the clash of egos, the many problems, and the sheer amount of cash being lavished at it. Unmissable.
SLEEPLESS IN HOLLYWOOD: TALES FROM THE NEW ABNORMAL IN THE MOVIE BUSINESS
Producer Lynda Obst’s second book about the inner-workings of Hollywood sees her charting the dramatic chances in Hollywood that were taking place as she wrote it (and even more dramatic ones have happened since). Crucially, she has lots of access, and digs up a wealth of fascinating stories. I wanted even more of them by the time I got to the end.
LEADING LADY: SHERRY LANSING AND THE MAKING OF A HOLLYWOOD GROUNDBREAKER
An authorised, albeit not sanitised, memoir of former Paramount Pictures boss Sherry Lansing, who oversaw the studio’s incredible run of success in the 1990s. From tales of getting Fatal Attraction made to the incredible struggle with the Tomb Raider rights, there are lots of movie nuggets in there, as well as the human story of being at the top of the film business.
THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVIES NEVER MADE
From James Cameron’s Spider-Man to Arnold Schwarzenegger in I Am Legend, this is a hell of a read. Hughes brings together the stories of an assortment of major films that never happened, and gets insight into why they fell apart. Scarily, the stories are all true as well. There’s also the later version, Tales From Development Hell too.
JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY
Brian Jay Jones
A long, detailed memoir of the late, great Jim Henson, that digs into his life, the genesis of The Muppets, and the creation of films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. There’s much to absorb in here, and it’s a comprehensive, definitive piece of work.
THE MEN WHO WOULD BE KING: AN ALMOST EPIC TALE OF MOGULS, MOVIES, AND A COMPANY CALLED DREAMWORKS
A gossip-y telling of what led to the creation of DreamWorks SKG, the first major Hollywood movie studio in a generation. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen’s ambitions come across, but also the struggles of getting a new studio off the ground. A fine starting point for getting into the story.
HIT AND RUN
At the end of the 1980s, Sony bought Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola. If then installed producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber as the head of the studio. Things took, well, a bit of a turn. This electric account explains just what happened…
Infamous screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ memoir is very much on the long side, but there’s an awful lot to talk about. His upbringing is a book in itself, and his movie career – and the battles over his many films – is also heavily detailed. You get no shortage of value for your money here…
THEY CAN KILL YOU… BUT THEY CAN’T EAT YOU: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT
Groundbreaking studio chief Dawn Steel took over at Columbia Pictures in the late 80s, and before that had been pivotal in the merchandising charge for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. She has amazing stories, and was taken from the world way, way too young. Her memoir scratches the surface of just what a personality she was.
The memoir of Brian Blessed, WHERE HE QUIETLY TELLS YOU ABOUT HIS FILMS AND HIS LIFE AND DOES IT IN A VERY SEDATE AND UNMISSABLE MANNER. TOP TIP: BUY THE AUDIO BOOK.
VERY NAUGHTY BOYS: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF HANDMADE FILMS
Sellers has penned a collection of movie books, but this is my favourite: a dive into the story of the legendary Handmade Films, bankrolled by George Harrison and responsible for the likes of The Long Good Friday and Withnail & I. Really enjoyed this.
REBEL WITHOUT A CREW
The story of how writer/director/editor Robert Rodriguez burst onto the moviemaking scene, with the $7000 feature El Mariachi. A fabulous account of ultra-low budget moviemaking and the choices that sometimes need to be made to get a film over the line.
THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES: OR, HOW M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN RISKED HIS CAREER ON A FAIRY TALE
A fascinating text this, that’s fallen off the radar somewhat. It caused some notoriety when first published, with the book giving an insider account of M Night Shyamalan making the film Lady In The Water. Shyamalan was critical of Disney – who’d backed his previous three films – in the book, and gave his cooperation to his writing. An intriguing read.
THE WAH-WAH DIARIES
Richard E Grant
Rightly so, Grant’s superb book With Nails is regarded as one of the best of its era. But it’s very much worth digging out The Wah-Wah Diaries, which is his account of making his directorial debut. He weaves in background on his childhood, and it’s a very complete and engrossing read. A really gifted writer.
WHERE AM I NOW? TRUE STORIES OF GIRLHOOD AND ACCIDENTAL FAME
I love the writing of Mara Wilson, and her memoir – charting her rise to fame as a child star in the likes of Matilda and Mrs Doubtfire – is engaging, moving, brilliant and sometimes upsetting. Her honesty burns through, but so does her sheer humanity. Strongly recommended.
THE EGOS HAVE LANDED
Even second hand copies of this one tend to be quite expensive, but it’s the only written account to date of the rise and fall of Palace Pictures. Palace was a British movie powerhouse at one stage, but was always it seems one bill away from going out of business. Angus Finney wrestles with the story, and the account is worth seeking out.
BAMBI VS GODZILLA: ON THE NATURE, PURPOSE, AND PRACTICE OF THE MOVIE BUSINESS
A really interesting insight into the movie business, at a point in time in the early 2000s. Mamet, an acclaimed writer of course but also with excellent directorial work to his name, dissects how the industry works – or worked – with intelligence and wit. Worth seeking out.
EASY RIDERS RAGING BULLS
The best of Biskind’s film books – although his Warren Beatty biography is really something – this popular tour through 70s cinema is engaging, gossipy and pretty far removed from an academic text. Instead, it’s a book that’s bound to lead to you discovering at least five more films (and change) that you want to watch. Chances are, they’ll be bloody good films too.
MUSTS, MAYBES, AND NEVERS: A BOOK ABOUT THE MOVIES
David V Picker
Not a book that many have had the pleasure of, yet David V Picker has plenty of stories to tell from his career as a movie producer. He’s been involved in high profile films such as Midnight Cowboy and Lenny, but also he’s got anecdotes about a film such as Leap Of Faith too. Like an interesting pub chat with someone who has first hand movie stories to tell.
HIGH CONCEPT: DON SIMPSON AND THE HOLLYWOOD CULTURE OF EXCESS
Legendary producer Don Simpson died in the 1990s of a drugs overdose, leaving behind a career full of hits: Footloose, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys, to name but a few. This tabloid-y telling of Simpson’s life doesn’t skimp on lurid details, but throws some diverting movie nuggets in there too. Not least the production of Days Of Thunder and its catalogue of excess.
A LONG TIME AGO IN A CUTTING ROOM FAR, FAR AWAY
A tremendous insight into the world of movie editing, but also a book full of behind the scenes stories. Hirsch takes us from Star Wars through to working with Joel Schumacher, and is a natural storyteller. I like that there’s a mix of high profile films and less heard of projects, that Hirsch attends to with real diligence. He has a different perspective to many, and gets that firmly across on the page.
FINAL CUT: DREAMS AND DISASTER IN THE MAKING OF HEAVEN’S GATE
Couldn’t be a list of film books without this particular epic on it, a jaw-dropping expose of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a movie that actually sank a movie studio. The documenting of a slow moving ego crash is expert, the book utterly gripping.
WHEN I STOP TALKING, YOU’LL KNOW I’M DEAD
Late producer Jerry Weintraub may have indeed stopped talking, but he left behind this very welcome memoir. It tells the stories of him working with huge acts in the business, but also how he got many of his films motoring. It’s a candid and interesting piece of work.
YOU’RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR NEXT ONE: 100 GREAT FILMS, 100 GOOD FILMS, AND 100 FOR WHICH I SHOULD BE SHOT
Medavoy engaging recounts his time as a studio executive, and choosing the films to pursue and greenlight. As the title suggests, he won some battles, he lost others. Very much a Hollywood insider, Medavoy has the benefit of perspective and insight that makes this a very welcome read.
THE SECRET LIFE OF MOVIES
Well, if you can’t plug one of your own books in the midst of a list like this (although obviously I’ve not included it in the total at the top of this page!)
ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE
Still one of the definitive and most readable books on the movie business. William Goldman’s style is chatty and reasoned, and the book is a delight. If you like this, do check out the sort-of sequel too, What Lie Did I Tell? That’s better than it tends to be given credit for.
A genuinely superb biography of the late Mike Nichols, that covers his Broadway work, and his movies too, from The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge to Wolf and Charlie Wilson’s War. Harris’ books come very strongly recommended.
THE FUTURIST: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF JAMES CAMERON
Until James Cameron writes his own memoir, and he’s got 84 or so Avatar films to do before he can get to that, this is the closest we’ll get. Rebecca Keegan penned this in 2010, and had access to Cameron in doing so, so it’s an interesting read. She brings a perspective of her own too to the dissection of Cameron’s work, and the book is great in particular discussing the likes of The Abyss and True Lies.
WHERE DID I GO RIGHT? YOU’RE NOBODY IN HOLLYWOOD UNLESS SOMEONE WANTS YOU DEAD
Not many books by agents on this list, but the late Brillstein left us with a really engaging, interesting memoir. A really good, human show business story, that manages to go via John Belushi, The Muppets and The Sopranos.
BLADE RUNNERS, DEER HUNTERS AND BLOWING THE BLOODY DOORS OFF: MY LIFE IN CULT MOVIES
You go via Blade Runner, The Deer Hunter and The Italian Job here. Producer Michael Deeley is your guide, on the challenges of getting the movies off the ground – and in particular, the wonders of Hollywood studio accounting!
I’ve got another 40 or so books to add to this, that I’ll do in the coming weeks…
Lead image: BigStock
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