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6 Filmmaking Tips from John Milius

The Don of the USC Film School Mafia helped make some of your favorite movies better, so check out some of his advice.
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By  · Published on May 7th, 2020

John Milius used to be one of the most influential and outspoken filmmakers in Hollywood. After attending film school with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he broke into the industry through American International Pictures, making exploitation movies until he hit the big time.

His stock rose quickly after contributing to the Dirty Harry and Jaws screenplays, in addition to penning The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Apocalypse Now. The latter earned Milius an Oscar nomination and resulted in him becoming one of the highest-paid writers in the entire industry at the time.

Milius also isn’t a stranger to the director’s chair, having helmed such movies as Big Wednesday and Conan the Barbarian. In 1984, he helmed Red Dawn, which was so controversial that it led to him being blacklisted by Hollywood — or so he claims. But even during his exiled years, he was still able to make a living as a writer.

Milius has been there and done it all. He’s experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during his storied career. But he’s survived in a system that’s extremely difficult to navigate while marching to the beat of his own drum. And his experiences have led to him sharing some wisdom for filmmakers.

Tell a Good Story

In Milius’ opinion, this is the most important aspect of any film. He’s never been all that interested in the technical aspects of cinema, but when it comes to telling stories, he’s a master of the craft. In an interview for Creative Screenwriting, he says the best stories come from the writer’s heart, and aren’t based on trends or what’s popular at the time.

“Write what you want to see. Because if you don’t, you’re not going to have any true passion in it, and it’s not going to be done with any true artistry.”

Milius also believes that all filmmakers should read Moby Dick. His brand of storytelling has been more influenced by novels than screenplays, and it’s worked well for him throughout the years. Which brings us onto Milius’ next piece of advice…

Don’t Read Screenplay Books

In the same interview for Creative Screenwriting, Milius opens up about his hatred of screenwriting books. He says that the people who write them have no literary credentials, and the advice given in the books is detrimental to the artistic process as it encourages writers to adhere to a set of guidelines.

“[These books have] turned people into idiots. In the old days the writer’s greatest fear was always, this time out, it just isn’t going to happen. I just won’t have the stuff. Now the fear is that I’ll have it, but those little jerks from Harvard Business School won’t be able to understand it. Because these MBAs can follow instructions, they read these books and say your script has to have these characters and those turning points. They ask questions like, ‘Who are you rooting for at the end of the first act?’ I was never conscious of my screenplays having any acts. I didn’t know what a character arc was. It’s all bullshit.”

Attention to Detail Goes a Long Way

For Milius, this factor can elevate movies quite significantly. In one interview, he praises S. Craig Zahler’s western Bone Tomahawk as an example of a recent movie that overcomes its budgetary constraints due to its attention to period detail. He noted how everything from the weapons to the costumes is authentic to the era in which the story takes place, and stated that filmmakers who are detail-oriented tend to be pros.

“[Y]ou don’t need a big budget to get that stuff right. If you’re trying to get those things right, you’re usually paying attention to the acting, the camera work, and everything else.”

Let the Action Dictate the Shots

In an interview with John A. Gallagher for Film Directors on Directing, Milius highlights the importance of planning action scenes before shooting them. According to the director, creating scenes around shots just makes life harder for filmmakers.

“A lot of people make a mistake about the action by designing the shots and trying to get a battle out of the shots. That’s backwards. If you design the battle, then just shoot it, the shots are always going to fit in. You’ll know whose side everybody is on, why that guy is shooting that guy.”

Be Willing to Die for Your Movie

As a self-proclaimed zen anarchist, Milius isn’t a fan of authority in general. But he especially dislikes studio executives who try to interfere with his creative process. Furthermore, he believes that all filmmakers who care about their vision being brought to life are willing to “die” for their movie. Milius explained this point-of-view in a 2003 interview with IGN:

“[Real filmmakers are] willing to die to make a good film, what they think is a good film. Once they’ve made that decision that this is the film, this is the way this film should be, they’re willing to die out there. They’re willing to put their life, risk everything – and a great example of that is Francis Coppola. He said, “I’ll stay here, in the Philippines, I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll go mad, I’ll do anything, because this is my job and life is to make [Apocalypse Now].’”

Never Give Up

What We Learned

Milius is the product of a bygone era, but his lessons are timeless. He’s stayed true to a perspective and creative process that’s uniquely his own. By doing so, he’s created a body of work that boasts his own distinct stamp, which has been key to his longevity. Refusing to compromise and making what you’re passionate about can take you far, and good movies made with this mindset will stand the test of time.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.