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Best Memoirs by Filmmakers: Akira Kurosawa, Oliver Stone, and More

A selection of 10 of the most insightful — and entertaining — memoirs from some of Hollywood's most important directors and screenwriters.

Oliver Stone - TIFF 2016

Oliver Stone

Daniel Bergeron

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There are plenty of juicy biographies and autobiographies about Hollywood’s biggest personalities in front of the camera, but just as dramatic — and sometimes even more so — are the ones that focus on the figures behind the scenes.

For those who enjoy delving deeper into filmmaking from the viewpoint of directors and screenwriters, we rounded up a list of memoirs to add to your reading list (or holiday gift list). This selection of memoirs from some of cinema’s most celebrated filmmakers, from pioneering Oscar winners to unsung figures and plenty in between, follows the making of specific films, explores the courses of entire careers, and even includes some instructional advice along the way.

Below, find a list of 10 of the best memoirs by filmmakers. For more book recommendations check out our picks for the best screenwriting books, and books that every first-time filmmaker should own.

“Chasing the Light: How I Fought My Way into Hollywood – From the 1960s to Platoon” by Oliver Stone  

This memoir by the outspoken Oscar winner covers his childhood in New York, his time serving in Vietnam, and the making of some of his biggest successes (including “Platoon,” “Midnight Express,” and “Scarface”).

From the official synopsis: “Before the international success of ‘Platoon’ in 1986, Oliver Stone had been wounded as an infantryman in Vietnam, and spent years writing unproduced scripts while driving taxis in New York, finally venturing westward to Los Angeles and a new life. Stone [now 75] recounts those formative years with in-the-moment details of the high and low moments: We see meetings with Al Pacino over Stone’s scripts for ‘Scarface,’ ‘Platoon,’ and ‘Born on the Fourth of July’; the harrowing demon of cocaine addiction following the failure of his first feature, ‘The Hand’ (starring Michael Caine); his risky on-the-ground research of Miami drug cartels for ‘Scarface’; his stormy relationship with ‘The Deer Hunter’ director Michael Cimino; the breathless hustles to finance the acclaimed and divisive Salvador; and tensions behind the scenes of his first Academy Award–winning film, ‘Midnight Express.’ ‘Chasing the Light’ is a true insider’s look at Hollywood’s years of upheaval in the 1970s and ’80s.”

“Making Movies” by Sidney Lumet  

The acclaimed director’s 1996 book is half memoir and half instructional guide to filmmaking drawn from his 40 years in Hollywood at the helm of hits like “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “Network” and “The Verdict” and directing stars including Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino.

Per the synopsis: “Why does a director choose a particular script? What must they do in order to keep actors fresh and truthful through take after take of a single scene? How do you stage a shootout—involving more than one hundred extras and three colliding taxis—in the heart of New York’s diamond district? What does it take to keep the studio honchos happy? From the first rehearsal to the final screening, ‘Making Movies’ is a master’s take, delivered with clarity, candor, and a wealth of anecdote.”

“Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker” by Barry Sonnenfeld

Film and television director Sonnenfeld never intended to direct, but his experience shooting the Coen Brothers’ first three films and a fateful conversation with Scott Rudin led him to direct “The Addams Family” — a fateful career move that led to multiple successful franchises (“The Addams Family,” “Men in Black”) and beloved work (“Get Shorty,” “Pushing Daisies,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events”).

The official synopsis reads: “Barry Sonnenfeld’s philosophy is, ‘Regret the Past. Fear the Present. Dread the Future.’ Told in his unmistakable voice, Barry Sonnenfeld, ‘Call Your Mother’ is a laugh-out-loud memoir about coming of age. Constantly threatened with suicide by his over-protective mother, disillusioned by the father he worshiped, and abused by a demonic relative, Sonnenfeld somehow went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful producers and directors. Written with poignant insight and real-life irony, the book follows Sonnenfeld from childhood as a French horn player through graduate film school at NYU, where he developed his talent for cinematography. His first job after graduating was shooting nine feature length pornos in nine days. From that humble entrée, he went on to form a friendship with the Coen Brothers, launching his career shooting their first three films….This book is a fascinating and hilarious roadmap for anyone who thinks they can’t succeed in life because of a rough beginning.”

“Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa 

Translated by Audie E. Bock, Kurosawa’s 1981 memoir not only tells the story of his life, but also reveals plenty of insight into the filmmaker’s storied career.

Per a Variety review at the time of publication, it’s a “first-rate book and a joy to read…It’s doubtful that a complete understanding of the director’s artistry can be obtained without reading this book…Also indispensable for budding directors are the addenda, in which Kurosawa lays out his beliefs on the primacy of a good script, on scriptwriting as an essential tool for directors, on directing actors, on camera placement, and on the value of steeping oneself in literature, from great novels to detective fiction.”

“I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections” by Nora Ephron

Ephron’s followup to “I Feel Bad About My Neck” is filled with the director’s insights about life. Per the official description, she takes “a cool, hard, hilarious look at the past, the present, and the future, bemoaning the vicissitudes of modern life, and recalling with her signature clarity and wisdom everything she hasn’t (yet) forgotten…Filled with insights and observations that instantly ring true — and could have come only from Nora Ephron — ‘I Remember Nothing’ is pure joy.”

“The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography” by Frank Capra

The director’s autobiography reads like “having Capra sitting in your living room, regaling you with his anecdotes.” The man about town’s colorful stories are collected in this book, which revisits the Golden Age of Hollywood through Capra’s personal story.

From the official description: “Although Frank Capra (1897–1991) is best known as the director of ‘It Happened One Night,’ ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,’ ‘You Can’t Take It with You,” Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ‘Arsenic and Old Lace,’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ he was also an award-winning documentary filmmaker as well as a behind-the-scene force in the Director’s Guild, the Motion Picture Academy, and the Producer’s Guild. He worked with or knew socially everyone in the movie business from Mack Sennett, Chaplin, and Keaton in the silent era through the illustrious names of the golden age. He directed Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, and others. Reading his autobiography is like having Capra sitting in your living room, regaling you with his anecdotes. In ‘The Name Above the Title’ he reveals the deeply personal story of how, despite winning six Academy Awards, he struggled throughout his life against the glamours, vagaries, and frustrations of Hollywood for the creative freedom to make some of the most memorable films of all time.”

“Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir” by Terry Gilliam

Never-before-seen artwork, photographs, and commentary are all included in the colorful director’s story of his life (so far). “Telling his story for the first time, the director of ‘Time Bandits,’ ‘Brazil,’ ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,’ ‘The Fisher King,’ ’12 Monkeys’ and ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ – not to mention co-founder of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – recalls his extraordinary life so far. Featuring a cast of amazing supporting characters, including George Harrison, Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Uma Thurman, Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger and all of the fellow Pythons, ‘Gilliamesque’ is a rollercoaster ride through late twentieth century popular culture.”

“The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir” by William Friedkin

You’ll get 16 pages of black-and-white photographs included in the memoir from the Oscar-winning director of “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and “To Live and Die in LA.”

According to the description: “‘The Friedkin Connection’ takes readers from the streets of Chicago to the suites of Hollywood and from the sixties to today, with autobiographical storytelling as fast-paced and intense as any of the auteur’s films. William Friedkin, maverick of American cinema, offers a candid look at Hollywood, when traditional storytelling gave way to the rebellious and alternative; when filmmakers like him captured the paranoia and fear of a nation undergoing a cultural nervous breakdown.”

“Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” by William Goldman

In another memoir/instructional hybrid, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and author of “Marathon Man,” “Tinsel,” “Boys and Girls Together,” and other novels, “takes you into Hollywood’s inner sanctums…on and behind the scenes for ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘All the President’s Men,’ and other films…into the plush offices of Hollywood producers…into the working lives of acting greats such as Redford, Olivier, Newman, and Hoffman…and into his own professional experiences and creative thought processes in the crafting of screenplays. You get a firsthand look at why and how films get made and what elements make a good screenplay.”

“The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life” by Robert Evans

A memoir so outrageous it became the basis of an award-winning documentary is required reading — and this edition features black-and-white photographs from the author’s archive and a new introduction by Evans. “An extraordinary raconteur, Evans spares no one, least of all himself. Filled with starring roles for everyone from Ava Gardner to Marlon Brando to Sharon Stone, ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life’ is sharp, witty, and self-aggrandizing, and self-lacerating in equal measure. This is a must-read for fans of American cinema and classics of the canon, including ‘The Odd Couple,’ ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘Love Story,’ ‘The Godfather,’ and ‘Chinatown.'”

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