To Make Great Films, You Must Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write, Say Akira Kurosawa and Werner Herzog

I wouldn’t presume to draw many comparisons between the work of Akira Kurosawa and Werner Herzog. There is, in both directors, a rough, masculinist daring that fully explores the tragic limitations and bloody consequences of rough, masculinist daring. This broad thematic commitment expresses itself in both artists’ films in wildly different ways. Maybe what most connects them, and connects them to their ardent fans, is a shared writerly sensibility. Film may be foremost a visual medium, yet—given the weight of thousands of years of oral and written storytelling that came before it—filmmakers cannot produce great work without steeping themselves in literature.

Or, at least, that’s what both Kurosawa and Herzog have argued—and who would contradict them? Filmmaking is a risky endeavor in the best of circumstances. “It costs a great deal of money to make a film these days,” and becoming a director is “not so easily accomplished,” says Kurosawa in his interview offering advice to aspiring filmmakers above. “If you genuinely want to make films,” he says, “then write screenplays.” Where did the ideas for his screenplays come from? From literature. It’s important, he says, that filmmakers “do a certain amount of reading. Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can’t create anything.”

Kurosawa adapted the 1951 Rashomon, perhaps his most widely acclaimed film, from two short stories by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashomon” (1915) and “In a Grove” (1921). 1985’s Ran is famously “an Eastern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear,” an author from whom Kurosawa learned much. He adapted Dostoevsky, his favorite writer, in a Japanese context, and his 1957 film The Lower Depths adapts a play by Maxim Gorky. Even his films that do not directly translate another writer’s work still draw inspiration from literary sources. Reading leads to writing, and to become an accomplished filmmaker, Kurosawa says in no uncertain terms, you must write.

This advice does not always go over well, he admits. Writing is painful and difficult, often a thankless, unforgiving task with no immediate reward. “Still,” he says, paraphrasing Balzac, “for writers, including novelists, the most essential and necessary thing is the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time.” One only learns how to do this by doing it—and by immersing oneself in the work of others who have done it. To succeed as a storyteller, the basis of the director’s art, you must “write, write, write, and read.”

Herzog, implying the importance of writing more than stating it outright, begins and ends his advice to young aspirants above with the repeated injunction, “read, read, read, read,” and so on. “If you don’t read, you’ll never be a filmmaker.” Technical considerations are secondary. Herzog’s Rogue Film School encourages students to “go absolutely and completely wild”… by reading Hemingway, Virgil, The Poetic Edda, and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. (He also suggests The Warren Commission Report and Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of New Spain.) Kurosawa does not offer specific suggestions. He grants that “current novels are fine, but one should read the classics too.” The kinds of stories these filmmakers recommend has much to do with their own temperaments and interests; whatever you might prefer to read in the course of your directorial training, Herzog says you must read as much as possible, and, Kurosawa adds, you must write, write, write, and write some more.

Related Content:

Werner Herzog Creates Required Reading & Movie Viewing Lists for Enrolling in His Film School

Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School: Apply & Learn the Art of Guerilla Filmmaking & Lock-Picking

How Did Akira Kurosawa Make Such Powerful & Enduring Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cinematic Genius

Akira Kurosawa’s List of His 100 Favorite Movies

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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