We should all learn from the best, and in the domain of cinema, that means studying under masters like Akira Kurosawa. Though now nearly twenty years gone, the Japanese filmmaker known as “the Emperor” left behind not just one of the most impressive bodies of directorial work in existence — Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Ran, and much else besides — but a generous quantity of words. In addition to the voluminous materials related to the films themselves, he wrote the book Something Like an Autobiography, gave in-depth interviews, and offered filmmaking advice to established colleagues and young aspirants alike.
“If you genuinely want to make films,” Kurosawa tells the next generation of directors in the clip above, “then write screenplays. All you need to write a script is paper and a pencil. It’s only through writing scripts that you learn specifics about the structure of film and what cinema is.”
This brings to mind the story of how, long unable to find funding for Kagemusha, he wrote and re-wrote its screenplay, then, still unable to go into production, painted the entire film, shot by shot. Such persistence requires no little strength of patience and discipline, the very kind one builds through rigorous writing practice. Kurosawa quotes Balzac: “The most essential and necessary thing is the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time.”
Take it one word at a time: apparently creators as ostensibly different as Balzac, Kurosawa, and Stephen King agree on how to handle the writing process. And to write, Kurosawa adds, you must read. “Young people today don’t read books,” he says, echoing an oft-heard complaint. “It’s important that they at least do a certain amount of reading. Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can’t create anything. Memory is the source of your creation. Whether it’s from reading or from your own real-life experience, you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.” Or, as Werner Herzog more recently put it: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read… read, read… read.” But per Kurosawa, don’t forget to write — and when the writing gets tough, do anything but give up.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.