Book Review: Directors Tell the Story is Beach Reading for Fun and Profit

Truly comprehensive books on directing are difficult to find, for one obvious reason: Those with the practical knowledge to write such books are usually too busy practicing their craft to have time to write.

Thankfully, there are exceptions, and Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli’s Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing joins Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies and Alexander Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking as one of the handful of essential volumes written by working directors.

Between them, Rooney and Belli have helmed hundreds of hours of episodic television (ranging from episodes of The Wonder Years and Ally McBeal for Rooney, to Sister, Sister and Monk for Belli), as well as several made-for-TV features. This experience permeates every page of their book. Logically enough given the authors’ credits, Directors Tell the Story focuses largely on television directing, but its most valuable lessons—on blocking and visual design, working with actors, organizing the shoot, etc.—are equally applicable to feature work.

What really separates this tome from other books on directing is its accessible description of the kinds of things more technique-oriented publications leave out. While Rooney and Belli are certainly attentive to technical and aesthetic issues (with a multitude of useful tips and tools they’ve acquired), they also devote a great deal of time to things like set politics, getting and keeping jobs, and figuring out the economic and artistic hierarchies on any given show.

Their material is clearly and concisely organized, taking the reader through each step of production from script through post, and each section has overviews at the beginning and end that can be used as checklists on set and during prep. (The succinct quality of these overviews and of the book as a whole makes it useful not just for beginners but also for more established directors, who will find their own experiences and theories crystallized in a useful manner here.) Along the way there are dozens of contributions from other film and television professionals, not just directors, but also show runners, actors, script supervisors, producers, editors and others who offer their own perspectives on the topics under discussion.

Perhaps the book’s most compelling section, in this regard, is a chapter on getting started, in which numerous directors share the stories of how they got their first jobs—a wealth of information for aspiring filmmakers, particularly those looking to make the transition from other disciplines into episodic TV. All of these sections have been expanded and improved upon in this new second edition of Rooney and Belli’s book, which was first published in 2011, but has been thoroughly updated for 2016. The result is a vital addition to any moviemaker’s library. MM

Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing Second Edition was published in 2016 by Focal Press. 368 pages.

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