Filmmaking Advice From a Guy You Should Listen To: Frank Capra

Frank Capra is one of the most beloved old-Hollywood figures. His films have become part of the fabric of our lives as Americans. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a cultural myth we revisit again and again and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is invoked during election cycles as a barometer of how far we as a nation have strayed from our own ideals.

Capra was, as you will see in the video below, a lovable figure, a sweet man. But, just as in his movies, the surface belies much deeper levels of complexity. Capra, with his insistence upon “one man, one film” (language that he would certainly amend to “one person, one film” today), helped to solidify the primacy of the director as auteur in the Hollywood system. He was as tough as nails and, even during a period mostly spent butting heads with notoriously tough studio head Harry Cohn, he managed to make a half dozen of the very finest films the art form has given us as well as an additional dozen movies that are very good, though not up to the absolutely towering standard of his masterpieces. This is to say nothing of the wartime films he supervised, which set the standard for, and largely created the language of, visual propaganda – for a very good cause.

In other words, if you’re a filmmaker, every word this guy speaks should be closely studied. Capra’s book “The Name Above The Title” is a great read, full of instructive anecdotes and Capra’s philosophy of filmmaking.

Here are some of the gems that Capra drops in this interview. If you’re a director or actor, treat these words as if they are carved on stone tablets. Even if the technology is different now, the principles are sound. Of course if you have made films better than IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, MEET JOHN DOE and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, you can safely discard Capra’s advice:

“The people should act as if everything is happening…. NOW! For the first time.”

“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”

“I found out early that the shooting of close-ups as we normally shoot close-ups is absolutely archaic. …  I’m going to fix this. I did fix it. So I did the master scene. Maybe four people in the scene. And the ones (takes) I expected to use, I sent right down to the sound department and they’d bring back a record of it. I had a record player right here. I’d play the scene for the (actor) first. So she’s hear the scene. Then, when it came to her part, I’d cut it off and she’d play her part… You could put that close up in there anywhere and it would match with the master shot. I never understood why nobody else did that. I told everybody about it.”

“In a picture called AMERICAN MADNESS, I tried speeding up (the pace). I’d rehearse a scene and it would rehearse at one minute. I’d ask the actors to play it in 40 seconds. I wouldn’t speed up the camera. I’d speed up the actors… And I’d see this stuff in the projection room and (I’d say) ‘It seems awfully fast. They’re talking a little too fast.’ But in the theater… for the first time, the audience was a little bit behind you. You were a little bit ahead of them. So they dared not turn their heads because they might miss something. And that in itself gave impetus and made the audience more interested in watching it.”

Thanks To Our Annual Sponsors