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🎬 #18 Great Opening Gambits.
You’re a filmmaker. You’ve spent 2 plus years working on a film. You’ve written and re-written the script between your self and potentially a handful of other writers. You’ve gone through pre-production, and fought through production, making adjustments to the story map that is the script along the way. You’ve constantly had to make more right decisions than wrong ones. This is a world where there are only compromises. You’ve gone through the edit for months, maybe some scenes switch location entirely - maybe the edit lines up perfectly with the script. But one thing remains firmly in your mind as you prepare to show your film to the world. How does this film open? What's the first thing you are going to let the audience hear and see? What’s the best introduction to the world that you’re about to lay out in front of them? The lights go down. An anticipatory hush falls over the cinema, the curtains roll back. How do you grab them, surprise them? What follows are two great examples that you’ve probably already seen but are more than worth a rewatch. These are pure cinematic openings with almost no words uttered.
FILM ONE: FIRST MAN
2018 Dir Damien Chazelle
This is a personal story of an icon - Neil Armstrong - as he throws everything he has into the gigantic task of getting to the Moon. The broad strokes are something we’re all familiar with - we have the archival footage in our mind as soon as someone mentions the story. So how do you open a story that the world is familiar with? How do you show real jeopardy, the brutal mechanics and the real, physical, human reality of something that now feels like it was pre-ordained to always be a success? The first 5mins and 33 seconds of First Man is exactly how you do it.
We’re plunged into darkness and disorientated. The camera vibrating as if it’s about to break apart. We discover the setting at the same time as the character Neil. He orients himself in what feels like a terrifyingly hellish cockpit. Cramped, claustrophobic, dark, the tension ratcheting up as the minutes rattle on. We cut between Linus Sandgren’s tight close-ups, barely visible through super sonic camera shake and glimpsed POV’s. Vitally there are no master establishing shots to show us what kind of vehicle he’s in or where he is in relation to anything else. These types of shots are designed to bring a sense of orientation and comfort. Omitting them has the exact opposite effect. It literally keeps us in the dark, ramps up our heart rate - tapping into that elemental fear we all have, the dark unknown. Chazelle wanted us to feel what Neil and all the other test pilots went through. This approach puts us firmly in Neil’s position, just like us, he and the others are going through these tests for the first time.
The editing, sound editing and sound mix are what really push us to the edge. The rattling, wailing sounds of the metal straining under aerodynamic pressure, as if it’s some kind of monster he’s riding on the back of, strikes fear into us. Even more importantly it makes us realise that this was the 60’s and essentially it’s man and metal. There is the acute sense of engineering physicality to the scene. You can almost hear the rivets loosening, the metal panels flexing and yawing. Neil’s breathing isn’t calm or cool either, an acute reminder that he is human. All these choices in the first 5 minutes makes it clear that this is not the star spangled heroes’ journey to the moon where everything is picture perfect. This is a story of grit, metal, friction, heat, emotion, physics, all teed-up perfectly in a heart pounding opening.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 21 mins of my precious life watching this? Watch Chazelle and Gosling’s next outing after La La Land, as they show the brutally, real human cost behind humankind’s greatest endeavour.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Sky Store.
Fact: The film’s director, Damien Chazelle took home the Best Director Oscar for La La Land [his previous film]. He is the youngest person in history to win the award at 32 years old.
FILM TWO: THERE WILL BE BLOOD
2007 Dir Paul Thomas Anderson
The opening of There Will Be Blood always reminds me of 2001. The same dark silence with orchestral strings - supplied here by Jonny Greenwood - throw us into a similar primal and undiscovered land. But in this story it’s somewhere in America rather than the cradle of civilisation. In a film that promises blood - this opening 5 mins and 55 seconds sets us up for the brutal ambition that is to be rendered before us. A tale of brute drive, harsh landscapes and the immense physical reality of tackling geology, to contend with the earth itself and how to get things out of her and what that takes out of Daniel Plainview - the film’s protagonist.
Rather than adding a sense of comfort, the initial establishing shot provided by Robert Elswit’s camera, only serves to show the desolation, to emphasise the isolation that Daniel Day Lewis’ character chooses to operate in. He’s a man alone down a dark hole in the middle of nowhere doing whatever it takes to find his fortune. The opening sets up the stakes of the mining game efficiently, almost wordlessly. It’s a demonstration of the stresses and strains, the pain of what it takes to make it out here. It’s man versus nature, versus his nature of searing ambition. His drive to ‘get away from people’ through the accumulation of vast wealth.
The tension here is created by holding on specific actions. We dwell on the swing of a pick axe, we feel every step up a rickety makeshift ladder. We endure the tugs at a too heavy load - a pale filled with equipment, all the while, a dynamite fuse fizzes to its end. The mechanics of the action is matched by the camera placement - simple, clean - solid. Building the blocks of the story one shot at a time, taking its time because that is what it takes. The sound design too is practical not expressionistic. There is no score over the action for the majority of the opening, just like First Man - sound, not music, is what builds tension.
There is a violence to the operation that is primal - animalistic, the spit shine on a rock to see if it’s what he cherishes, the crouching on his hind legs in the evening desert. There is a simplicity of action here on display that tells us everything we need to know about this character and his story. Whatever it takes, he’s achieving his goal.
Two films, one starting high above the earth, the other deep in a hole in it - show us two men willing to do anything to finish the job. And all summed up in no more than 5 minutes a piece.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 38 mins of my precious life watching this? Watch a primal story of ambition in the wild Wild West as Daniel Day Lewis embodies the soul and body of a man fuelled by practical, pure greed.
*Available on Netflix and for a small rental fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Sky Store.
Fact: This is Jonny Greenwood’s [of Radiohead fame] first narrative feature film score.