Saturday, March 2, 2024

Reel Adventures 6 - Get Out Talk

Each Reel Adventures at R.W. Norton Art Gallery is a new and unforgettable experience. Last night was such a treat as it marked numerous firsts, including a new genre of film (social thriller) and the first time we've had a co-presenter, the wonderful Dr. Kenna Franklin, Vice Provost for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement at LSUS.
Here was my talk from last night. More to come over the next few days:

"One of my favorite filmmakers and one of the filmmakers I consider among the greatest of all time, the French director Robert Bresson famously said:

'A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.'

At the end of 2021, the Writers Guild of America published a list of the 101 greatest screenplays of the 21st century so far. At the top of the list, at #1, was tonight’s film Get Out. Get Out was also the first ever screenplay written by an African American to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Writing screenplays is an exercise in distillation. You have 120 minutes or so, generally 120 pages, to say what novels can take 10-12 hours and 300 plus pages to say. So, one of the most difficult aspects of writing a script and making a film is the rigor required to make every word count, every shot count, and every scene count.

I think Get Out has a brilliant script, one that is incredibly layered, that manages to say a tremendous amount and make us feel a tremendous amount because of the skill with which it’s all put together. But tonight, because like writing a script or making a movie, my time up here is limited, I’d like to focus my talk on the other two 'lives' of Get Out, the shooting and editing, and more specifically the opening scene.

16 years ago I taught a number of film courses as an adjunct professor at LSUS. My introductory course was entitled 'Reading Movies: Gaining a Better Filter for the Images in Our Lives'. I felt
that most people lacked a few critical tools that prevented them from understanding why a film made them think and feel a certain way.

First, I felt that most people lacked the ability to deconstruct a film scene. And I felt that, even if someone could deconstruct a moment in a film, they lacked the basic vocabulary to talk about it. So I set out to provide some of these basic skills.

I provided a list of 17 film elements (that I’m also giving to all of you tonight on your way out) that I felt were the 17 most important formal elements for understanding how film is put together. I then worked, alongside the students, to provide different words and ways that each element could be used.

For instance, I provided the film element “Camerawork”, explained how it could be flashy, unobtrusive, steady, shaky, dynamic, or still and then showed the students what each of those looked and felt like. I then did the same with the 16 other elements like “Editing” and how it could be fast, slow, jumpy, or invisible. And “Lighting” and how it could be moody, natural, bright, dim, or shadowy. And I proceeded to do this for all 17 film elements.

What I’d like to do tonight is break down the opening scene from GET OUT, deconstruct it with the goal of showing what it feels like when we begin to become better “readers” of film.

Show the opening scene

So, if I were to break down the scene, I would start by taking out a list with the 17 components I mentioned earlier. They are Camerawork, Editing, Lighting, Sound, Music, Acting, Storytelling, Color, Production Design, Wardrobe, Make-Up, Hair, Props, Special Effects, Locations, Direction, and Shot Selection. Then I would proceed to describe the scene in each of the 17 categories.

• Under camerawork

I would note that it is mostly a slow movement accomplished with a Steadicam.

• Editing

I would list long take.

• Lighting

I would note that it is dark, moody, mostly lit by streetlights, lights from suburban homes, and the lights in their bushes and yards.

• Sound

Primarily quiet, with the sounds of crickets and the talking of the main character on a phone or to himself.

• Music

In contrast with the rest of the scene and heard seeping through the Porsche that arrives.

• Acting

Simply very natural in style.

• Storytelling

Post-modern, of the horror genre, with references to both The Shining and the first Halloween film.

• Color

Primarily muted.

• Production Design

Very natural.

• Wardrobe

Contemporary, natural.

• Make-Up


• Hair


• Props

Strange-looking helmet, cell phone, White Porsche.

• Special Effects


• Locations

Real location in suburbia.

• Direction

Choreographed, self-conscious but controlled.

• Shot Selection

Fairly wide.

Now that I had my list I would then look it over and see what I could decipher from it. From the two-minute opening scene, for all the elements where I noted natural, I would deduct that this director probably wants us to believe the story he is telling is actually taking place or that it could take place. I would feel that I am in the hands of someone who knows his film history – paying reference to the film The Shining with the words “hedge maze” in the dialogue and to the first Halloween film by starting the movie with a long take set in suburbia shot with a Steadicam-like device. And I would make note that we’re probably in the hands of a director who has interest in being artistic and thoughtful as the long take requires great choreography and any director simply interested in entertaining an audience wouldn’t even dare it. Lastly, I would note that I am probably in for an experience that is an offbeat combination of horror and comedy.

In addition to the references to The Shining and Halloween, I see that the director is using typical techniques of the horror genre like filming a character from behind, depriving them the full ability to see what may be lurking nearby. Or the way the director shoots the car turning around, outside of our main character’s POV, letting us the audience know there is a threat before our main character is aware of it.

As for the immediate introduction of more comic elements, there is the strange offbeat music contrasted with the more ominous elements and some of the lighter delivery of dialogue like the pronunciation of 'suburb' or the 'not today, not me' line.

Every one of the elements I mentioned above is a choice the director made in an effort to communicate his vision. So my hope for all of you is next time you watch a film, you begin to separate out some of what the director is doing and start asking why the director is making that particular choice. In doing so, you will slowly become better readers of film and ultimately find the whole experience of watching film, deeper and more rewarding."

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