David Lean is one of the most influential film directors of all time. He is best known for large-scale epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter, and Doctor Zhivago.
Lean’s first major success as a director came with “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” winning the Academy Award for Best Director in 1957. Consequently, he received the Academy Award for Best Film Editing and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Director.
Below we’ve listed 25 of our favorite quotes from the English director guaranteed to inspire and help take your filmmaking to the next level.
David Lean Filmmaking Quotes
I want to make something that if I went to the cinema and it wasn’t me, I’d enjoy watching.
Film is a dramatised reality and it is the director’s job to make it appear real… an audience should not be conscious of technique.
I realise more and more that reality on the screen, which used to be the thing to aim at, is a sort of bore. I don’t mean that the audience should sit there and say, “Oh, that’s unreal”. But movies are a kind of dream and I think they should have an unreal edge to them, and that’s what I try to do. David Lean
[on Doctor Zhivago (1965)] That film earned me more money than all my other films put together. It’s a wonderful story – you want to know what happens next. And wonderful characters. And Julie (Christie)…..which was quite a face.
[on the Academy Awards] If you have no hope of getting one, they’re despised. But it you have, they’re very important.
I wouldn’t take the advice of a lot of so-called critics on how to shoot a close-up of a teapot.
Good films can be made only by a crew of dedicated maniacs.
I hope the money men don’t find out that I’d pay them to let me do this.
On Writing the Screenplay
I find dialogue a bore, for the most part. I think that if you look back on any film you’ve seen, you don’t remember lines of dialogue, you remember pictures.
I’m first and foremost interested in the story, the characters.
I like making films about characters I’d like to have dinner with.
My distinguishing talent is the ability to put people under the microscope, perhaps to go one or two layers farther down than some other directors.
These American writers really frighten me. They talk so well and write so badly. I have now worked with five of them and not one has come along with a big, original idea.
I rather like mysteries. But I do dislike muddles.
[on film adaptations] I think the best you can do in a movie is to be faithful to the author’s intention in all areas. With the two Dickens films I did – Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – they are, oh, pencil sketches of these great novels that he wrote, but I think they are faithful. I wouldn’t have been ashamed to show him the films.
[interview on the set of A Passage to India (1984)] He’s a writer, I’m a filmmaker. I like movies, and I’ve tried to make a movie that I would like to see. The end is different, certainly, but I think I wouldn’t be ashamed for Forster to read the script. I think I stuck with his characters, and on the whole, given the limitations of time, I mean what’s one doing? One’s doing something in 2 hours, a book that thick, it’s a sort of sketch of it, and I’m extracting a movie from it. Those who want to read Forster, read the book. Those who want to go to a movie, and don’t read, come and see our film.
Working with Actors and Casting
Always cast against the part and it won’t be boring.
Actors can be a terrible bore on the set, though I enjoy having dinner with them.
Casting is a nightmare because it is an eternal compromise. You hardly ever have the actor give a performance of which you say, yes, that’s right on it. They just haven’t got that sense of humour, or they haven’t got that feel about them or whatever it is. The nearest person to a perfect piece of casting was Trevor Howard in Ryan’s Daughter (1970). He was just wonderful for the tunnel-vision priest – a kind of peasant who knew exactly what was right and what was wrong and was therefore not all that intelligent.
I suppose I don’t have much contact with actors off the set because I have so much contact with them on the set. I’m trying to get things out of them – I’m squeezing them a little, I’m encouraging them – I’m a general sort of wet-nurse to actors.
David Lean Quotes on Editing
[on his background as an editor] It’s everything. I often wonder at directors who’ve never been editors. I just don’t understand how they go to work. I kind of piece it together as we’re making it. And editing is one of the, if not the, chief of the tools of my trade.
When the great actor says the line, you can put scissors precisely at the point A and it’s wonderful. When the star says the line, you can hold for four frames longer because something else happens.
I like spectacle. When I say spectacle, I don’t think you can just put on a load of spectacle and expect it to be successful with the public; of course you’ve got to have a foreground action, and it’s awfully easy for critics to say “Oh the background swamped the foreground”, but I don’t think I’ve done that.
However brilliant a scene may be, if it is not essential to his play the dramatist must cut it.
Willy [William Wyler] once said to me, “If you’re going to shock an audience, get them almost to the point of boredom before doing so…” And of course he’s right.
Recommended David Lean Books
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David Lean: A Biography, 1996
David Lean: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series), 2009
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