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6 Filmmaking Tips From Jean-Pierre Melville

Learn from and continue the legacy of this influential French director.
Jean Pierre Melville
By  · Published on January 4th, 2018

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one compiles the filmmaking advice of Jean-Pierre Melville.

In honor of Rialto’s re-release of the 1956 masterpiece Bob le Flambeur, it’s time to look to Jean-Pierre Melville for some overdue filmmaking tips. The French cinema icon remains one of the most influential directors of all time — during his lifetime he helped pave the way for the French New Wave, and in recent years his legacy can be seen in the works of Jim Jarmusch, Johnny To, Edgar Wright, and many others.

Most people today learn from Melville by watching his films. Regarding the filmmaker’s inspiration on his own movies, Quentin Tarantino said in an interview:

“You get a sense — there’s like an aesthetic working in Melville’s work that you get a sense that you don’t have to know how to make a movie. If you truly love cinema with all your heart and with enough passion, you can’t help but make a good movie. You don’t have to go to school. You don’t have to know a lens — you know, a 40 and a 50 and a — fuck all that shit — crossing the line — none of that shit’s important. If you just truly love cinema with enough passion, and you really love it, then you can’t help but make a good movie.”

But Melville knew plenty. And analyzing the work, as video essays do lately, isn’t the same as getting advice and lessons directly from the source. Unfortunately, the best books to glean from, such as “Melville and Melville,” aren’t as easy to come by in the US right now. We’ve done our best to share the usual six tips, though, and maybe they can help you become the next great revisionist master of genre cinema.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Jean-Pierre Melville

1. “A Film is First and Foremost a Dream”

As the forebear to New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Melville is associated with taking that same hand-held, on-location, sort of documentary approach to filmmaking. But he was anything but a realist. Here’s one of his most shared quotes, the source of which we’re uncertain, regarding his preference for the fantastic:

I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”

2. “Your First Film Should Be Made With Your Own Blood.”

Tarantino’s assumption about Melville is partly right about his early films, which were made without formal training or adherence to any rules. In the below interview, conducted in the remains of his burned down studio, Melville talks of just getting stock for his camera and going out and filming and learning while he went, which is what any first timer should do.

3. “Filming is a Tedious Formality”

In the video above, Melville also makes a confession that functions as a tip to young filmmakers naively looking forward to the shooting side of the job:

“‘[Editing] is without a doubt what I enjoy the most. That and writing. Writing and editing. In other words, the inspiration and the finishing touches. Those are the two major phases of a film…Filming is absolutely horrible. I call it ‘tedious formality.’ I hate shooting.”

4. “You can’t make films just for the sake of making films.”

Melville knew very early on that he wanted to be a filmmaker. To start out, he tried to work on other people’s movies, but when that didn’t happen he just founded a studio and made his own, independently and humbly. In part of “Melville on Melville” (reprinted by Criterion), he talks about how you shouldn’t try to be anything more than what you already are:

“This is a business in which you have to be not arriviste, certainly not that, nor yet ambitious, which I’m not, but you have to have ambition in what you do, which isn’t at all the same thing. I’m not ambitious, I don’t want to be something—I have always been what I am, I haven’t become anything—but I’ve always had, and I shall always try to retain, this feeling that ambition in one’s work is an absolutely healthy, justifiable thing. You can’t make films just for the sake of making films. If fate wills that I should make more films, I’ll try to remain faithful to this ideal of being ambitious when I start a film; not being ambitious between films, but being ambitious when I start work, telling myself, ‘People have to enjoy this.’ That’s my ambition: to fill cinemas.”

Right before that excerpt, Melville says he just wants a mention in “Great Universal Encyclopedia of the Cinema.” He also said once (albeit as a character in a cameo in Godard’s Breathless) that his greatest ambition is to become immortal and then die, and he has achieved the former through his work. Here’s another quote, via the Jean-Pierre Melville Foundation, on what kind of legacy filmmakers should achieve:

“A movie maker must be a witness of his time. In 50 years, when my films are watched over a three-day period, the viewers ought to say that the first of these films and the last one unquestionably have something in common, either when it comes to language or in respect to what they aim to say; that through made-up stories, one always finds the same author, the same guy, with always the same colors on his palette. It is absolutely essential that the last film resemble the very first one. The ideal creator is the one who forged an exemplary work. Not exemplary in the sense of virtue or quality only, and not in the sense that someone is exceptional because everything he does is admirable, but exemplary in the sense that whatever he has designed can be condensed in ten lines of 25 words each, 25 words sufficient to explain what he did and who he was.”

5. “Reject Your Own Films”

Another quote found in “Melville on Melville” doesn’t seem too in line with that last excerpt as far as recognizing your collective output, but it is still in line with Melville’s sensibility as an auteur, an artist who is indeed making similar movies but hopefully improving as he advances in his career. Maybe consider each finished film as practice for the next one. When asked how he feels about one of his early films, he tells interviewer Rui Nogueira:

“Rejection of your own films is a very healthy, hygienic attitude. It prevents you from taking yourself seriously and taking yourself seriously tragic. How do you reject a film? By making another. It’s the only way”

6. “Try Something New”

Finally, here’s something we can consider a tip in the form of a wish for the future of filmmaking. It’s a bit cynical when you consider the context of other remarks by Melville predicting the end of cinema in the early 21st century. But you can prove him wrong by pushing forward as proposed in this quote featured in an essay for a SUNY Buffalo Film Seminar presentation of Army of Shadows:

“It seems to me that all over the world, cinema has reached its definitive though imperfect form as a ‘monument,’ whose keystones are action and movement. So do we have to stick forever to the rules, followed a thousand times, which, year in year out, produced five good films? Can we not try something new? Can we not learn from the lessons of the past and try to renew this art form?”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

The tip of the iceberg on Melville, if we’re being truthful. These six tips mostly come off as common sense to the filmmaker — even with his humble attitude, he’s still a genius. He tells us that cinema isn’t reality, that it’s a tedious toil to make movies, and it should be, and that auteurs ought not to be ambitious — but they should want their own work and cinema overall to be renewed moving forward.

However, there are no lessons here on how to reinvent oneself or genre or film in general (the video interview above does see him discussing gangster films, at least). It’s not easy for true masters to give advice on how to be an artist. Like Tarantino suggests about Melville, you just have to be one, and maybe the quotes above will be encouraging to those who are.

Additional research and reporting by Natalie Mokry.

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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.