I’m a total whore for oversize mail. Whenever the doorbell rings, I’ll step on my kid’s neck to be the first in the house with access to the daily parcels. But imagine my chagrin one recent Monday morning when I opened my latest FedEx delivery and saw Filmmaking for Dummies staring up at me. The mind reeled, the ego sank, and the only thought I could formulate was ”F—ing Affleck…” It was only as I was packaging up a copy of ”Surviving Cinematic Bombs for Dummies” to shoot back at him that I recalled accepting a book review assignment from Entertainment Weekly. Ah. Of course.
Like herpes or the Force, the ”For Dummies” series will be with us always. Launched back in 1991 with ”DOS for Dummies,” the series has sold millions of copies and includes among its authors Andy Rathbone (1995’s ”Windows for Dummies”), who famously befriended Cameron Crowe during Crowe’s semester-long undercover stint at the San Diego-area Clairemont High and wound up as the template for Mark ”Rat” Ratner in ”Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Now joining that list of Dummies is Bryan Michael Stoller, whom the book jacket describes as an ”award-winning filmmaker.” You might remember his emotional, Halle Berry-like acceptance speech when he bagged the Bravo Award at the Burbank International Children’s Film Festival back in 2001 for his Yasmine Bleeth starrer, ”Undercover Angel.” Or perhaps you’ve seen one of his ”over 80 productions,” including brief film parodies for ABC’s Don Rickles-hosted ”Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders” or his short ”The Linda Blair Witch Project,” which depicted the actress famous for her innovative use of a crucifix as being possessed not by Satan, but instead by – get ready for hilarity – famous comedians.
No? Me neither. One can’t help but be suspicious of any author with such a résumé penning a tutorial on filmmaking. Even his pipeline project doesn’t inspire much confidence: ”They Cage the Animals at Night,” a feature he’s codirecting with Michael Jackson (yes, THAT Michael Jackson).
So it was a complete shock, then, that I found ”Filmmaking for Dummies” such a thorough and informative read: a complete A-to-Z that demystifies not only production, but pre-and post-production as well. Stoller paints a picture of filmmaking so basic that you’d have to be not just a dummy but completely brain-dead if you’re unable to make your own movie after closing the book. Indeed, even though I’ve directed six films, it was Stoller’s book that finally taught me the differences between a medium lens and a long lens. And, mind you, I’ve worked with Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.
From screenwriting to casting to blocking to digital production to distribution, Stoller so completely inspires confidence in one’s own ability to capture movie magic that you forgive him for clunky jokes like ”The only actors who probably don’t need a professional headshot are those auditioning for the role of the headless horseman in ‘Sleepy Hollow!”’
Not that the book teaches you how to make a good movie. (Hell, I’m still hoping someone writes that book, as I could use the help.) That’s up to the filmmaker. But Stoller’s easy-to-follow prose gets you over the first 100 mechanical hurdles if you haven’t got the bank to attend film school or you’re too intimidated by the wrath of the ever-excitable Chris Moore on HBO’s ”Project Greenlight.”
If I had any bone to pick with Stoller, it’s his overuse of massive studio productions such as ”Spider-Man” and ”Catch Me if You Can” as models, as opposed to, say, I don’t know…”Clerks.” Anyone turning to this book is learning to crawl, and dangling such heady, polished fare seems a bit pie-in-the-sky. Also, in a section on pitching, Stoller commits another cardinal sin by invoking the ghost of Tim Robbins with the ”Player”-like suggestion to ”identify your film with other successful films,” stating ”My own comedy parody ‘Miss Cast Away’ crosses ‘Cast Away’ with ‘Miss Congeniality,’ along with the crazy humor of ‘Scary Movie’ and ‘Austin Powers.’ Now doesn’t that paint a successful picture?” Frankly, no.
But that aside, ”Filmmaking for Dummies” is fairly indispensable for any wannabe Sundancer who’s got a dollar (or 20,000) and a dream. Now if only the guy could bang out ”Separating ‘Jersey Girl’ From the Disastrous Fallout of ‘Gigli’ for Dummies.” There’s a book a brother could really use.