Before I became a film director…first and foremost, I was a fan of the movies. That remains the case. I love movies. And when I first watch a film, the “fan” in me dominates the working artist. It’s as if the kid in me rises up and orders the eager professional side of me to sit down, shut up and enjoy the ride. Sure, I notice a few things here and there that go above and beyond how I experienced a film for the first time when I popped in those ancient VHS tapes as a youngster. But I’m not one of these artists who feels that peeking behind the curtain has somehow eliminated the magic of a filmgoing experience. No. If anything, I feel like appreciate movies more now (and I definitely have more respect for the credit scroll, seeing just how many collaborators it takes to make the film, knowing how hard they worked).
But now that I’m prepping this second feature, I need to watch movies not just for fun, not just as a fan, but for inspiration and to better understand the mechanics of shotmaking, story and character that might be applicable to my own film. So I’m trying to consciously ask myself a few questions about each film I watch in preparation to make “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” We’ll see if this works for me in identifying some specifics about the way the films I research are crafted and in improving my own film.
So for each film, I force myself to answer the following questions: Why are you choosing this film as part of your research? What was your favorite shot? Why? Who was your favorite character? What did that character add to the film? What was your favorite scene? Why did it work for you? What was your favorite moment in terms of the acting? Why? What is your favorite piece of dialogue? Why?
The following answers are from the film “Le Grande Illusion” (1937), directed by Jean Renoir.
Why are you including this film as part of your research? I knew I had to see Renior’s “The River” since it was one of the first studio films to shoot in color in India and my film also takes place partially in India. So I saw “The River” and really enjoyed it and decided it would be worthwhile to then take a look at “La Grande Illusion.”
Favorite shot: The opening shot. We open on a shot of the record player, then tilt up to a medium of our protagonist, who starts singing along to the record as soon as he hits the frame. As he’s singing, we see (out of focus) a few guys sit down to play cards in the background and another guy passes through the frame (this part is crucial – it helps to set up the bar location even in a medium). Then, the camera pans to the right as our hero walks in that direction and becomes a wider shot of the bar accommodating about 10 French soldiers between the soldiers we see now and those we saw in the blurry background previously. Our hero has a brief conversation with the bartender, then heads back towards the record player as another soldier walks in the door. We follow the new soldier back to the record player, where our protagonist has already settled and the shot becomes a two-shot as our hero takes one step back to frame it up (we still haven’t cut). They have another brief conversation. Then the camera pans right once more to follow these guys as they leave the bar. The shot runs about 55 seconds.
Why I like it and what can be learned from it: It’s just classy when an opening shot of a film runs a minute without cutting, managing to seamlessly sneak in a shot of a record player, a medium of our hero, a wide and a two-shot all in the same continuous shot. Somehow, in a very subtle way, such a shot announces to the audience: you’re in the hands of a master who’s thought things through…and this is a film worth watching from start to finish. Buckle in. On a story level, I feel like the shot sets up our protagonist’s relationship to his group – his fellow soldiers. This fluid shot establishes him as an individual who has a voice (indeed, a voice that sings) yet he’s inextricably connected to the group of soldiers. Lt. Marechal can’t just break away from the army, any more than the actor playing him can break away from this shot. It contains him for a full minute. And by the way, there is nothing expensive whatsoever about that shot. It’s all ingenuity in the design and perhaps some good ole fashioned trial and error on the set to get the timing, blocking and focus exactly right.
Favorite character: I personally loved the Lt. Rosenthal character, played by Marcel Dalio, perhaps because I related to him most.
What does this character add to the film: Rosenthal is a former Vaudeville performer stuck in the army, who even produces a drag show in the barracks. [Side note: Certainly the most provocative scene in the film is when a young man enters dressed as a woman and the entire barracks falls completely silent as the other guys (presumably) cycle through feelings of both attraction and consternation at being attracted to a pretty boy dressed as a girl.] And that expressive element of the men captured just would not have been possible without the character of Lt. Rosenthal. His humor, his showmanship and his almost annoyingly upbeat energy opens the door to a sense of fun in spite of danger that the movie needs. It also reminds me of the “Orchestration of Character” chapter in Lajos Egri’s book about playwriting. Lt. Rosenthal balances out the traditional aristocracy of Captain Boeldieu and the salt of the Earth Lt. Marechal.
Favorite scene: Erich von Stroheim’s character bemusedly calling out the guys for previous escape attempts. I know it’s not the most profound or gripping scene in the film, but it’s a soldiers’ spin on the “honor among thieves” in the sense that every military officer prides himself on his valiant attempts at escape from the opposing side’s prison camp, something von Stroheim’s character can appreciate, even if it’s his duty to make sure these guys stay locked up.
Favorite moment in the acting: This movie would be a treasured French film, rather than an international classic, without Erich von Stroheim. His humanizing performance as the German captain is not only the best in the film, but effectively empowers Renoir to depict a world in which opposing soldiers have more in common than what divides them by circumstance. To this end, I could easily have picked von Stroheim’s brilliant moments of wry humor mixed with self-confidence in the previously described scene where he reads off all these escape attempts of his captives. But instead, I will choose his touching moments at the bedside of his dying French counterpart, Captain Boeldieu.
Why that acting moment? First of all, it’s the small touches that sometimes make for a great moment. Erich von Stroheim captures all of the physical pain of his character, the war injuries, in his stiff movements towards the bed. There’s even a slight grimace of pain as he sits down next to Boeldieu, which he hides even from himself. Those details make the moment when he tenderly touches Boeldieu’s shoulder even more moving. He says his first line of dialogue here, “Forgive me,” with the simple tones of someone who means it, no extra dramatics to call attention to the weight of the statement.
What was your favorite piece of dialogue in the film: Well, I don’t speak French, full disclosure. So, I’m sure some of the subtle humor in certain moments of the dialogue was lost on me. But, just a few hours after watching it, I only clearly remember one line of dialogue. [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT] It’s the scene when, after Boeldieu is shot, he tells the German captain who shoots him, “I would have done the same.”
Why I liked that bit of dialogue: First off, it obviously stayed with me. Also, it just drives home this feeling that war is absurd, even more than tragic. If one side isn’t morally superior to the other or more just than the other, then it seems so stupid that they’re fighting in the first place. I mean, if all you learn after years of war and escape attempts and lost lives is, “The other guy is just like me,” then that seems both cruel and an undeniable step towards enlightenment.
Best Takeaway for my Own Film: That opening shot. Finding just a few cheap, fascinating shots that have that sort of variation and purpose, uninterrupted, would be pretty rad for my own film.
Feel free to let me know in the comments other aspects of a film that are worth serious thought and observation as you’re prepping your shot list.
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink, an open source production company. Our filmmaking blog charts the progress of each of our projects. If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).