The Opening

The opening of the film has to do two things very fast. First, it has to catch or "hook" the viewer's interest. Second, it has to define very quickly what the film is about and where it is going. These are good artistic rules and also good practical rules in a world where documentaries are seen primarily on television and have to compete for viewers with many other programs. The only real exception to both these rules occurs when you are dealing with well-known, presold subjects. If I were doing a film titled Sherman: The Greatest General, The Real Elvis, or Clinton: The Early Years, then I might ignore the two golden rules. In all three cases, most viewers would know something of the subject matter once they heard the title. Knowing what to expect, they might not mind a slower introduction. This is exactly what occurs in the film about cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

The opening "hook" should play into the audience's curiosity. You present an intriguing situation and say, "Watch me! You'll be fascinated to see where we're going to take you." Let us imagine, say, a film that opens with a very serious, middle-aged man dressing up as a woman. In another film, a rather prim and proper teenage girl is seen loading her revolver and then shooting at objects in her basement. Immediately, we are struck by the strange, even bizarre quality of these situations. We want to know who the man is and what he is doing. Is he an actor, a transvestite, a spy? And what about the girl? Is she practicing self-defense? Does she want to commit suicide? Is she about to kill her parents? Is she the best revolver shot in the state? What is she going to do?

At this point, the curiosity is piqued, the imagination stimulated. We want answers to our questions, so we decide to stay with the film for a while, but only so long as there is a payoff from the first two or three shots. They had better be leading somewhere interesting. Thus, the core assertion assures us that we are going to be treated to a fascinating topic that we would be utter fools to miss or ignore.

The hook does not have to be as tremendously dramatic as the two just suggested. In fact, sometimes we can play against the very ordinariness of the situation. For instance, a quiet man is seen in a library reading a book. He writes something down and then takes another book from the shelf. Another film opens with a frail woman chatting with a middle-aged Indian woman. Neither of these scenes is visually very interesting; in fact, they are rather boring. But they take on a completely different dimension once we add commentary. Over the visual of the man, the commentary might go as follows: "He plays chess and football. He has a wife and two daughters. Not one person in a thousand would recognize him, yet he has saved millions of lives. His name is Professor Jonas Salk." And over the visual of the two women, the commentary might go like this: "She's seventy-five. She lives in two small rooms and earns the equivalent of two thousand dollars a year. Yet beggars bless her, parliaments have honored her, and presidents carry her picture. Her name is Mother Teresa."

In these cases, most viewers would know that Salk discovered a vaccine against polio and that Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the poor of India. Even if they did not know these things, there would probably be a certain intriguing ring of familiarity about the names, so the core assertion accompanying the opening would not have to do very much. But most times the assertion and the hook have to be well fused and balanced, working hand in hand with one another.

Let's look a little closer at the core assertion that sets the film on its way. Sometimes the assertion appears in the form of a statement:

At first they were heroes, and America worshiped them. Then they were villains and the world abused them. They were the most famous parents the world has ever seen. One fathered the atom bomb, the other created the hydrogen bomb.

Tonight in A Is for Atom, D Is for Death, we discuss the careers of Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller and what their discoveries mean for the world today.

Obviously, there is a bit of hyperbole in calling them the world's most famous parents — after all, what about Adam and Eve? — but it is the kind of exaggeration that is acceptable in script writing.

In contrast to the above, we find many central statements presented in question form. Using that technique, A Is for Atom could have opened this way: "When they split the atom, they promised a brave new world. Fifty years after Hiroshima, has the promise dimmed? Will nuclear physics bring destruction or deliverance? A new universe or an abandoned planet?" Sometimes you might want to make the opening question deliberately provocative and disturbing: "He came as a prince of peace, yet his followers rampaged, massacred, and destroyed in his name. They said Jesus inspired them, but was that true? Were the Crusades a holy mission or the last barbarian invasion?" These opening sentences, whether statement or question, establish clearly where the film is going. They are the written counterpart of the visual hook, but if the visual hook dangles the promise, then the statement has to guarantee that an hour's viewing will fulfill all expectations.

If the film is about some charismatic figure, a historical personality, or even a fictional central figure in a sponsored film, it helps to introduce these characters very early and to hint at the conflicts surrounding them. You want to dangle all the goodies in front of the viewer and get their mouths watering over the intrigue and the passions that will be presented to them in the next hour.

While revising this book, I was asked by German TV to do a film based on the secret diaries of a Nazi war criminal. By chance, both he and the young Hitler lived in the same town, Linz, in Austria. Because of this, I wasted a week or so drafting an opening that compared the fate of the two. Then it struck me that I was totally blind. A fantastic opening was already there, waiting for me, in the diary pages.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment