Features and Columns

6 Filmmaking Tips from Stephen King

Sometimes the best advice is given by those who failed.
Kinopoisk Ru
By  · Published on August 1st, 2017

Sometimes the best advice is given by those who failed.

Considering Stephen King only directed one movie, Maximum Overdrive, and it is generally seen as a failure (though not by me), the iconic horror novelist might not seem appropriate for a Filmmaking Tips column. But he can share lessons learned from that erroneous attempt, as well as advice from his experience dealing with Hollywood for more than 40 years. Also, he has written movie and TV scripts, and some of his best tips for aspiring authors is applicable to any sort of writing or other creative endeavor.

Study the Mediocre

Since part of this column is going to deal in what not to do anyway, here’s one of King’s tips from his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” that isn’t typically included in lists of his best advice for writers.

“We read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done.”

Of a similar nature is his advice to the creator of the new Spike series The Mist, which is based on a King novella. Here’s Christian Torpe telling Cinema Blend about the email he received from the author of the source material:

“He was just incredibly kind and generous and said as long as I didn’t do anything ordinary, then he was completely on board with allowing me to fire away and do what I wanted. That was such a generous thing and so kind of him.”

A Good Story Will Work for Any Audience

Hollywood likes to aim for all demographics with a lot of movies, and often we think that’s a bad way of creating art. But King recognizes that good storytelling is good storytelling and should always be able to reach a broad audience.

Here’s an anecdote on his experience seeing Carrie for the first time in a preview attached to a blaxploitation movie:

Give the Source Material a Fair Shake

In a 2016 Deadline interview, King is asked what a major author deserves from Hollywood when his or her work is adapted into a movie. This is an interesting perspective where the advice is being given to filmmakers from the other side of the table. His answer to that and follow-up questions:

“[Authors] deserve a fair shake and, okay, I’ve always said to myself, I can’t understand why any filmmaker wants to spend $1 million for a book and then do something that bears very little resemblance to that book. So, I think they deserve a fair shake. Let me say one thing, Mike. The ideal movie…the writer that got the fairest shake that I know of, was Ira Levin. He wrote a novel called ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ And that movie is the book. To the point where you can say to people, if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t need to read the book.

“Because they’re exactly the same. Exactly. Right down to the point where Roman Polanski calls up Ira Levin on the phone and said, in this one scene you’ve got a thing about ‘The New Yorker’ and there’s an ad for Burberry coats, and I want to find that issue and I haven’t been able to find it because I want to put it on the coffee table in the apartment. Levin laughed and said, I made that up. So, Polanski doped up one exactly like in the book and put it on the table.

“What happens, particularly when you have a long book, is you get this miracle where the book that is 450 pages long becomes a two hour movie, and it’s perfect.

“I mean, I know writers – and I’m not going to name any names – that I wouldn’t let within 2000 miles of a movie I was trying to make, because they’re such gremlins. They want to get in and tinker and all this. But the book deserves a fair shake. The writer? Nah.

“What the writer deserves is a fair accounting if the movie’s a success.”

Watching Movies Isn’t Enough

One piece of advice that a lot of today’s filmmakers give is to watch a lot of movies, to study how they work. And maybe to watch some behind-the-scenes stuff to see the process of how those working elements came to be.

In a Master Class event at UMASS Lowell in 2012, he tells students of when he decided to try his hand at writing movies. He confesses that screenwriting books are “bullshit” and that just watching movies is, too:

You Don’t Learn Just By Jumping In

Another myth about filmmaking is the idea you can learn by doing. Yes, practice makes perfect, and yes some screenwriters and others have been given a movie to direct and they’ve had their hand held along the way, but King was not.

Perhaps that’s because he was too famous and therefore intimidating. There’s a quote from him on IMDb regarding his gig directing Maximum Overdrive that has no attribution but sounds about right:

“I didn’t get the job because I went to film school. I got the job because I’m Stephen King. If you become famous enough, they’ll let you hang yourself in Times Square with live TV coverage.”

And here’s a quote from King from the 1986 magazine special “Stephen King at the Movies” (as reprinted in the book “Guide to the Cinema of Stephen King“):

“I wish someone would have told me how little I knew and how exhausting it would all be. I never expected to learn so little about the mechanics and method of making movies. People circle around the director as if to say ‘Don’t wake the baby.” No one wants to tell you this, that, or the other thing, if it’s bad news about the film.”

Don’t Overplan

Here’s King going even further on his mistakes with Maximum Overdrive, particularly with regards to overplanning, which isn’t even something he does as a novelist:


What We Learned

Stephen King is a master storyteller and knows the movie industry from a lot of different angles. Some of those angles were from the bottom looking up, as in from a deep place of error. Fortunately, he’s quite honest and vocal about what he’s done right and wrong and has tips to share from both sides. There are tons of resources, mainly taken from his book, on the advice he has from positive experience and a place of genuine talent and success. In this column, we focused on what doesn’t work, including that which is tossed out as general advice from others. A lot it can be summed up as this: stick to what you’re good at or figure out a way to adapt yourself to what you’re not.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.