Alexander Mackendrick On Film-Making

Alexander Mackendrick On Film-Making, 2004, Edited by Paul Cronin, London: Faber & Faber, ISBN: 0-571-21561-0.

I wish that I had found and read this book whilst doing this course. This is a very good book for a student film-maker to read. It helps the novice with writing a screenplay, planning and shooting a scene and understanding the meaning of grammar in the context of film-making. I hope that someday I will be able to put some of what this book teaches into practical use. As Mackendrick says, film-making is not about theory it is really just a practical subject that requires practice rather than theory to make a good film-maker. However, I think that he would also agree that theory helps. Alexander (Sandy) Mackendrick was a successful film director for Ealing Film Studios before being lured to Hollywood by Burt Lancaster, Mackendrick made a couple of films in Hollywood but was unable to fit in. He joined CalArt as a Tutor in the mid 1960’s and he became a very successful and influential teacher in the art of film-making to a generation of film-makers that have themselves gone on to influenced the film-making industry up to the present day. The book is introduced by one on his old students, Martin Scorsese, need I say more…

Notes and quotes.

One of the essential components of drama is tension. This tension may or may not be the result of conflict between people on the screen – it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the level of the plot (though plot suspense is not a bad thing). It is rather a tension in the imagination of the audience that leads to feelings of curiosity, suspense and apprehension (for example the audience being torn between contradictory elements of a character)….A good director, therefore, is always asking himself certain fundamental questions. What is the audience thinking? In relation to what has just happened and what might or might not happen next, is it approving, disapproving, fearing or hoping?….In trying to invent film stories that have some narrative/dramatic tension, it can be useful to recognise the factors that work against tension…I have noted elements of storytelling that a would-be screenwriter should avoid, those things that involve evasion of the more demanding task of real cinematic writing….Passivity in a character is a real danger to dramatic values. ‘Protagonist’ (the name given to the leading character indoor story) literally means the person who initiates the agon (struggle). But a figure who does not (or cannot) actually do things or who hasn’t got the gumption to struggle in a way that produces new situations and development is apt – in dramatic terms – to be a dead weight on the narrative. In effect, a bore. A scene of something undramatic ‘not happening’ will usually be undramatic unless it is presented in active terms. (pp.11-12).

Dramatic tension generally requires an element of conflict. (pp.12).

When characters are presented in a static relationship, dramatic tension is apt to be weak….Many successful screenwriters have a gift for duologues, two-handed scenes that have vigour of a single match between two strong players. There may be one character who is more important to the story, but the other (even if he or she is acting as a foil in order to provoke exposition) is kept in play to sustain the other end of the dramatic tension. An all-too-common weakness of the inept dramatist is to write a scene between two characters who are so much in agreement that there is no real conflict or cause-and-effect dramatic progression. When this happens the result is apt to be that their positions are quit interchangeable, an almost certain indication that the scene will have little tension. (pp.13).

Foil – In any narrative, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character; typically, a character who contrasts with the protagonist, in order to better highlight or differentiate certain qualities of the protagonist. In some cases, a subplot can be used as a foil to the main plot.

Exposition – Is dialogue that explains to the audience missing information required to explain missing parts of the story.


The backstory, explaining how the antagonist / protagonists find themselves involved in the start of events that occurred before the start of the film.

Explanation of events either witnessed or not witnessed in the story.

Expositions are dangerous if not used in a dramatic way and as part of the action as it can be boring and easily forgotten by the audience. Exposition is BORING unless it is in the context of some present dramatic tension or crisis. So start with an action that creates tension, then provide the exposition in terms of the present developments. (pp.41).


Movies show the tell. A true movie is likely to be 60 to 80 percent comprehensible if the dialogue is in a foreign language. (pp.40).

NARRATIVE DRIVE: the end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be…Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity may be intriguing when consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear. (pp.41)


Comic structure is simply dramatic structure but MORE SO: neater, shorter, faster. (pp.41).

PROTAGONIST: The central figure in the story, the character ‘through whose eyes’ we see the events. (pp.42).

DRAMATIC IRONY: a situation where one or more of the characters on the screen is ignorant of the circumstances known to us in the audience. (pp.42).

What is happens just before the END of your story defines the CENTRAL THEME, the SPINE of the plot, the POINT OF VIEW and the best POINT OF ATTACK. (pp.42).

Character progression: when you’ve thought out what kind of character your protagonist will be at the end, start him or her as the opposite kind of person at the beginning. (pp.42).

ACTION speaks louder than words. (pp.43).

Most stories with a strong plot are built on the tension of CAUSE AND EFFECT. Each incident is like a domino that topples forward to collide with the next in a sequence which holds the audience in a grip of anticipation. ‘So, what happens next?’ Each scene presents a small crisis that as it plays out produces a new uncertainty. (pp.43).


A SHOOTING SCRIPT IS NOT A SCREENPLAY. The beginning screenwriter should be discouraged from trying to invent stories in screenplay format. (pp.43).

A FOIL CHARACTER is a figure invented to ask the questions to which the audience wants answers (asking the question may be more important than getting the answer). (pp.43).

NEGATIVE ACTION (something not happening) needs to be dramatised in positive action terms. You show something starting to happen which then is stopped. (pp.43).


CONFRONTATIONAL SCENE is the obligatory scene that the audience feels it has been promised and the absence of which may reasonably be disappointing. (pp.43).

What you leave out is as important as what you leave in. (pp.43).

Screenplays are STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE. (pp.43).

Never cast for physical attributes. (pp.43).

Aristotle’s ‘unity of action’ means that ONE dramatic tension should dominate. All others should be subordinate to it. (pp.43).

Every character is important. (pp.43).

Using a blank postcard to describe in the minimum of words a step in the narrative. = One postcard for each scene. (pp.45)

Using blank postcards to represent/summarise one minute of the film = one page of the script. (pp.45).

A Step Outline – It is a brief analysis of plot structure of an already existing feature film, a bare synopsis of the steps of a story, a tool with which to dismantle and expose the dramatic narrative structure and mechanism at work. It is a list os the basic steps in the progression of a film narrative as on scene (meaning an episode that often has its own internal structure, minor crisis and peripeteia) moves to the next. It is nothing but plot mechanics, the bones of the narrative stripped of flesh and nerve, and should be as short as possible while still containing everything essential too the structure of the story. Length will vary according to how dense the plot in question is. An outline may be only three or four pages in length, or it may take up to fifty pages if it is important to explain a complex plot…It is useful to set down the steps in numbered paragraphs. These usually represent scenes, a unit of dramatic action. One is apt to think of a scene as being an event that takes place in a single geographic location, but a more useful way to consider it as an incidental of confrontation that contains within it the action/objective dialectic of narrative progression (the dramatic event) as seen in the larger shape of the story as a whole. A scene is a section of a narrative in which there is one clearly defined purpose and intention, the space occupied by a single predominant episode of dramatic tension, though contained within the scene might be a series of smaller steps or story beats. The idea is that each character is likely to have not only a central objective to his or her behaviour but also minor and incidental activities that are necessary to achieve en route to the main objective….A story beat might be a sequence of several lines of dialogue or certain actions prompted by a single identifiable intention. It might even be something as simple as the articulation of discrete feelings and thoughts. (pp.47).

….A Step Outline is not just a list of scenes – it is a chain of events. As you number the scenes, keep in mind that each should read as a progressive move, a step in a cause-and-effect chain. Think, for instance, of beginning each new paragraph with the unwritten phrase, ‘So the consequence of this is…” This should help you recognise the need for the drive that gives continuous energy and tension to a story. After each paragraph of a Step Outline the reader should know why he is still sitting here, wondering and waiting for what happens next. Remember: ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty’. Both factors are necessary. (pp.48).

Be sure to write in sentences with subjects, verbs and objects. This has the advantage of disciplining you to write in the language of action and relation rather than static conditions and ongoing, continuous activities that do not involve much tension and that tend to be overly descriptive and explanatory. (pp.49).

Step Outline is only a process of analysis and should not be used as a process to build a story. (pp.50-51).

Treatment: The bare bones: plot and essential action of a story. (pp.69).

Professional screenplays have a quality in common with good journalism: they use the minimum number of words to communicate the maximum information. A good screenplay must be not only easy to read, it should be easy to read fast. It is true that a script is only the blueprint for completed film and should bear to it the relationship that an architect’s plans have to the final building, the construction of which is to be done by someone else. But a screenplay, a piece of writing that deals with things emotional, should itself be a pleasure to read. The shorthand style required of you should never be so dull that it fails to spark in the reader the feelings that the finished film itself is meant to inspire. (pp.73). is often preferable to begin the story with some dramatic event and only then retrace its origins through exposition, since exposition is more dramatic as soon as there is something at stake. (pp.79).

A peripeteia, the Greek term for a turn of the wheel, used by Aristotle to describe the unexpected shift in relationships, often a form of role reversal that produces a resolution of the drama. It is likely to require a strong element of dramatic irony. (pp.80).

Invention is memory is disguise. (pp.85).

Dramatic irony is defined as ‘The dramatic effect achieved by leading an audience to understand an incongruity between a situation and the accompanying speeches, while the character in the play remain unaware of the incongruity.’ Simply put, in any situation where we, the audience, are aware of significant circumstances of which one or more of the characters on stage or screen are unaware, there is an element of dramatic irony. (pp.92).

A great part of the secret of dramatic architecture lies in one word ‘tension’. To engender, maintain, suspect, heighten and resolve a state of tension – that is the main object of dramatist’s craft. (pp.109).

An obligatory scene is one which the audience (more or less clearly and consciously) foresees and desires, and the absence of which it may with reason resent. (pp.109).

Anticipation mingled with uncertainty‘. This implies that the dramatic conflict inherent in a work may or may not be up there on the stage or screen, just so long as it sets up a tension in us, an event between our ears, a stretching forward of the audience’s mind in some as yet unresolved expectation. Obligatory scenes are hard to analyse, if only because the definition is so general it is hardly a definition at all. (pp.109).

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