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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