Essential Directors: An In-Depth History Lesson from UCLA's Film Historian - Musicbed Blog
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Essential Directors: An In-Depth History Lesson from UCLA’s Film Historian

Want to be a better filmmaker? Step one should be brushing up on your film history, and we have UCLA’s Jonathan Kuntz to help us do just that.

As filmmakers, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. No matter how original or visionary you think you are, you’re borrowing an idea from a filmmaker who borrowed that same idea a half-century ago. 

Quentin Tarantino once said, “I steal from every movie ever made.” And, as we covered before, it’s not even a necessary evil—it’s an essential beauty of filmmaking. This format is constantly evolving, borrowing, molding, inventing, and re-inventing. Which is exactly why it’s so important to know our roots. 

And no one knows the roots of filmmaking better than Jonathan Kuntz, a lecturer and film historian at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (UCLA TFT). He’s been teaching film history to the next generation of film students for over 40 years because he sees the value in knowing the history of film and recognizing the shoulders upon which we stand.

“There are people in my classes who completely understand what cinema is all about. Their very first film in their filmmaking class, they understand how to speak cinema,” Jonathan told us. “Then, there are others who think cinema is just talking heads. But, they learn. I think one of the ways you can learn is by working at it. You consume as much as possible. You watch a lot of quality stuff. You see the classics and try to understand what they did and why they did it.”

It’s a cliché to say, “The classics are classics for a reason,” but we so often forget what those reasons are. Jonathan’s watched Citizen Kane a hundred times for a reason—and it’s not because of Rosebud. Ok, maybe not all because of Rosebud.

By knowing, and revisiting, our history as filmmakers, we’re able to not only learn key aspects of quality filmmaking, we’re also able to glean a mindset. We’re able to break apart why a director decided to tell this particular story, and how they began to extract its themes.

“To me, it’s about looking at how filmmakers handle what a film is about. What a fictional story is about,” Jonathan says. “It’s not just about telling the story; it’s about telling us the lives of people and getting us to relate to the individuals and setting some sort of context.”

Jonathan knows the ins and outs of film all the way up to current day. But, his true passion lies in the roots of cinema, up to about the ‘50s and ‘60s. Up to this point was a time of rapid growth for film, both technically and creatively, and Jonathan had plenty to say about which directors we should pay attention to. 

Some of these directors may seem obvious to some, and not so obvious to others. But, one thing is certain, they’re always worth paying attention to. A moving image doesn’t accidentally appear on the screen. By paying attention to how and why these directors decided to make a movie the way they did, we’re time-traveling into the mind of a genius.

Here’s UCLA TFT Film Historian Jonathan Kuntz on the essential directors every filmmaker should know.

Silent Era

If you want to experience filmmaking structure in its purest form, go all the way back to the beginning. The lack of technology in the Silent Era created all sorts of constraints for filmmakers, and the greatest of them thrived because of it.

I would start with the basics, silent films and early sound films. You’ll see the filmmakers who first learned to structure a picture, how to use image and editing to put things together. Look at films by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the comedians who created their own movies. It’s really a crash course in making movies from a visual standpoint. They had to find a way to use images to say everything they wanted. 

All of the filmmakers back then had to create powerful visuals. At the same time, in the ‘20s, were the great German filmmakers who really brought the visual language of film to its peak. People like F.W. Marnau, with ‘The Last Laugh’ and ‘Sunrise’, and Fritz Lang with ‘M’ and ‘Metropolis’. Every single shot is something you want to frame and study.

Post-Sound

While limits were still a big part of production, the addition of sound meant filmmakers could begin to create films that were multi-dimensional. The dialog and editing of the 1930s began to entertain and inspire audiences in new ways.

Once they added sound dubbing, you had filmmakers exploring things in a new dimension. Everyone’s got to see the movies of Ernst Lubitsch. The way he structured his films, the way he used cinema with sound, was so effective. And Josef von Sternberg, the visuals in his films were just amazing. 

Of course, if you’re going to make movies you’d better see films from Orson Welles. It’s a cliché, but you’ve got to see ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Touch of Evil’, and those films. He showed how you can take cinema to a whole new level. Just the flamboyance of Orson Welles is using everything there is in movies—picture, sound, and editing to their absolute max.

Golden Era 

By the time the ‘40s and ‘50s rolled around, major studios had caught fire and the restraints were taken off. Spectacle was the name of the game in many regards, but still, visionary directors were using the medium to say things and do things that had never been done before.

With the modern studio system, [filmmakers] could do almost anything they wanted to do on the stage and in the backlots. There were these amazing filmmakers, people like John Ford. Not many people think of him for his visual style, but every picture in a Ford film is just something to treasure. His films around ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘How Green Was My Valley’. Then, he starts shooting in color with ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ and ‘The Searchers’. He was fundamental in 20th century American cinema. His characters were always very thoughtful. Plus, he’s dealing with all of the conflicts and problems from our history.

Then, you have Howard Hawks. He showed how you can use your dialogue to create a whole new world in your films, and there’s great sound. ‘His Girl Friday’ and ‘Only Angels Have Wings’ are some of his best films, I think.

And of course, there’s Alfred Hitchcock. He’s a textbook for filmmaking. He reaches into that filmmaking toolbox, pulls out everything that’s in there, and figures out how he’s going to use it. His visual style, editing, sound, structure—he’s just so original and so identifiable. You’ve got to study up on your Hitchcock a bit. Don’t forget ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’. Then, of course, you have ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘Vertigo’. 

Unsung Heroes

Just like any other artform, there are always going to be those who don’t get their fair share of attention. And, for every person mentioned in this section, there are hundreds more who have been passed by entirely. But, Jonathan mentioned a few names who are worth digging into.

There are some great people in the ‘40s and ‘50s working on lower budgets and film noir movies. These are great crime movies with distinctive cinematography and low-key lighting, and what you see in them is a lot to study. Directors like Otto Preminger, Carol Reed, and Nicholas Ray are well worth checking out. There are so many directors in that era who aren’t as well known, like Jacques Tourneur, who made ‘Out of the Past’, which may be the greatest of all film noir. Then, you have Anthony Mann and Sam Fuller. These films are barely more than exploitation films, but they’re amazingly made.

Then, we can’t skip over Europe. Some of the most influential films or film types came out of countries like Italy. I’ve heard filmmakers, from Woody Allen to Charles Burnett, say what an influence ‘Bicycle Thieves’ by Vittorio De Sica was on them or ‘Rome, Open City’ by Roberto Rosselini will open your eyes to a whole new way of looking at cinema. These Italian films are much more street-level. They don’t have the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but get down to the human level of things.


It’s worth noting that this is not an end-all-be-all list of important directors. Jonathan mentioned several times in our interview that there are far too many to list. But, that’s the exciting part, right? There are so many great filmmakers to explore. 

These icons are great starting points, but as Jonathan mentioned, he recommends quantity first and foremost. The more films you watch, the better filmmaker you’ll be. It’s as simple as that. You’ll know what works, what doesn’t, what you like, what you don’t like, and how to apply all of those things moving forward.

A huge thanks to Dr. Kuntz for taking the time to share his thoughts. To wrap up, we’ll list out the directors he mentioned, along with a few key films from each. Happy watching.

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