6 Filmmaking Tips from Frank Capra

Frank Capra Editing

Learn what it takes to have a wonderful life making movies from one of the great American directors.

To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.

With this week’s Filmmaking Tips column falling on the Fourth of July, I figure it has to focus on someone associated with America. The best choice, of course, is Frank Capra, director of many movies involving Americana and the American Dream and what it means to be an American. His most iconic works take us across this country or to the nation’s capital or to Anytown, USA. They star all-American actors, such as James Stewart and Gary Cooper, and America’s sweetheart actresses, including Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert. Capra wasn’t born in America — he emigrated here from Italy at age 5 — but he will always be one of the most significant filmmakers in American cinema. In honor of the country’s birthday, I’d also like to honor the man who offered these six great filmmaking tips:

Start Trends

One of the quotes attributed to Capra without a source is: “My advice to young filmmakers is this: don’t follow trends, start them.” I believe he said it even if I can’t find its origin, because there is this answer to a question about following trends, from a 1975 interview collected in the book “Frank Capra: Interviews“:

The easiest way to go broke is to follow a trend. You’re bound to go broke and you should go broke. You’re taking someone else’s material and trying to top it. But this is what the businessmen are looking for; they’re trying to find a way to capitalize on a hit, so if The Godfather is a tremendous hit, a lot of little Godfathers are made that lose their shirts. The Godfather started a trend. Now if you want to make a success, you start anew, you go against the grain. And be irreverent, be an individual. If everybody’s making tragedies, you make a who-done-it.

Have Courage

In the below interview from 1977, Capra names the one thing you need to make movies:

Say Something

Another quote attributed to Capra, quite incorrectly, is “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” Capra claims, in his 1971 autobiography “The Name Above the Title,” that Howard Hughes said that. Of course, Capra did communicate messages in his films, especially after a serious illness got him thinking he needed to use cinema to do so — leading him to such “social-minded” works as Mr. Deeds Goes to TownMr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe.

Beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, my films had to say something. And whatever they said had to come from those ideas inside me “that were hurting to come out.” No more would I accept scripts hurriedly written and count on my ability to “juggle many balls in the air” to make films entertaining; no more would I brag about my powers to “shoot the phone book” and make it funny. From then on my scripts would take from six months to a year to write and rewrite; to carefully — and subtly — integrate ideals and entertainment into a meaningful tale.

He says of his message movies, while it’s bad to just make movies on themes rather than people:

However, I had a pretty good message to tell, and if I could tell it with entertainment, and if I could do it with humor and warmth and comedy, I thought myself on pretty safe ground. I think the results show I was on safe ground.

And let’s not forget he was one of the chief propagandists for the US during World War II. He explains in “The Name Above the Title” of his realization during the war:

Communicate with film. Beats all other media. Put all your information in one film. Show that same film to all servicemen on V-E Day. Let the Chiefs of Staff explain things directly to the GIs — and gentlemen, you will avoid the SNAFU of the age.

In an interview from 1972 that can’t be embedded, Capra tells the story of nearly dying after It Happened One Night and what led him to make his message films. Watch it here.

Frank Capra In Mr Smith Goes To Washington

“One Man, One Film”

Not all filmmakers can say something so directly as Capra could, because not all filmmakers can be an auteur in Hollywood quite as well as he was. There’s a reason Capra’s book is called “The Name Above the Title”: he was given credit as being the author of his films. It was “Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” and that was unheard of at the time. He is famous for his “one man, one film” idea of a movie being ultimately the director’s art, not the collaborative company’s. He even managed to think this true even while his screenwriters, some of whom were antithetical in their politics to him, were clearly putting their ideas out there, too. He always found a way to make their messages fit his intentions. He summed it up best in a 1978 American Film interview (reprinted in “Frank Capra: Interviews”):

I believed in one man, one film. I believed that one man should make the film, and I believed the director should be that man. I just couldn’t accept art as a committee. I could only accept art as an extension of an individual. One man’s ideas should prevail.

And here from “The Name Above the Title” he admits it’s a big responsibility:

I was the maverick demanding control. That meant total responsibility. I accepted it. If a film failed, I failed. If too many failed, I was through. Okay. When an artist decides to serve man and the Almighty instead of the “picture business,” he accepts the consequences.

Here he is on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972 telling all young filmmakers, especially Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, and Peter Bogdanovich, all of whom shared the stage, they need to take back authorship:

Be Quick

In a 1983 conversation for the San Diego Film Society, Capra had this to say on what it takes to be a director:

The ability to make quick decisions. Everybody’s asking you questions, “Where do I put this?, “How do I play this scene?” Problems have to be solved and you have to be able to solve them immediately. If I take a penny and toss it, I’ll be right in predicting it 50% of the time. In show business, if you’re right 50% of the time, you’re ahead of the game. It doesn’t matter if you’re not right all the time but you’ve got to make those snap decisions, fast! It’s got to be intuitive.

In that aforementioned 1975 interview, he was asked if he’d ever make another movie. His answer relates to the above:

I still know how to make a movie. But I’m not as young as I was, and in movies you have to be able to make decisions fast enough. At my age you spend time thinking about the decisions you make, you slow down a little. And I know that I can’t make the films the way I want to make them, the way I think they should be made.

Colonel Frank Capra Of The Us Army Signal Corps Confers With Captain Roy Boulting Of The British Army Film Unit On The Editing Of The Film 'tunisian Victory' In February D

Speed Up

“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” — attributed quote.

Capra is mostly known as a comedy director, and these days it’s understood that exaggeration is one of the foundations of the genre. That includes the idea of picking up the pace beyond what is natural and realistic. In the video below from 1982, among a number of tips about filmmaking, a retired Capra explains how he discovered that having the actors speed up their action and dialogue made for greater entertainment. Note how he says this is one way to make movies, not the only way.

What We’ve Learned

Capra was a proponent of auteur theory before it was a theory, and while it’s been argued that he had less control than he claimed, he still believed a director should be the sole voice of a film. And he should use that voice and the medium for a great purpose, to communicate some sort of positive message and to be a leader of trends. That all takes guts and courage, and the job takes intuition over logical thinking. Sure, Hollywood and filmmaking in general has changed a lot since Capra’s heyday of the ’30s and ’40s and even since most of his tips were given in the ’70s and ’80s, but most of what he had to say still rings true.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.