Let’s start with a little hypothetical situation, shall we?
Let’s say it’s Friday night. You’ve just finished a long, stressful work week, and you’ve decided to unwind though a trip to your local multiplex. You go to your favorite theater and buy a ticket to the film that sounds most interesting. You get your tub of popcorn (slathered in that wonderful-tasting fake butter) and your gallon of soda. You make your way into the dark theater and settle into a seat in your favorite part of the theater. You’re ready to be blown away!
Now that we’ve come to this point, let me ask you a question. How much time do you give a movie before passing judgment?
If you’re like most people, you’ve made your decision within ten minutes (give or take a few minutes). During the movie’s opening sequence, you’ve made up your mind about a movie’s quality, and the film will have to work really hard to change your opinion, good or bad.
What does all this mean? It means that aspiring filmmakers (like myself) need to learn how to open a story properly. If we don’t start our story with a bang, audiences will never see the magical scenes we labored over, connect with the lifelike characters we carefully created, or gasp at the surprises we cleverly planted later in the movie. They’ll be too busy sleeping to see them.
Okay, okay, so a good beginning is important. We get that. That brings up another question, however: what makes an opening scene great?
Honestly, I don’t know if there’s any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to this. It really depends on the sort of story you’re telling and the tone you’re trying to evoke. However, I do feel that there are basic guidelines that can provide some assistance, no matter what yarn you’re spinning.
Personally, when I’m starting a story (or an article or a script or whatever), I try to keep these tips in mind:
- A good opening should hook the audience. It should make them want to know what happens next.
- A good opening should establish the tone and world of the film. It should let the audience know what kind of movie they’re watching.
- If possible, a good opening should show off a little bit! It should show the audience something that they won’t see at any other movie at the theater!
Below, you’ll find five movie openings that I think get it right! Of course, however, I don’t know everything about storytelling or the movies. Tell me about your favorite openings in the comments below!
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
So you want to start your movie with a bang? How does a dead body grab ya?
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling B-movie screenwriter. While trying to avoid a pair of repo men, Gillis pulls into the driveway of a run-down Hollywood mansion. It looks deserted, but it’s not; in fact, it’s the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent-movie star who fell into hard times with the debut of talking motion pictures. Desmond wants to make a comeback, and she’s written the script she wants to make a comeback with. Desmond forces Gillis to stay at her house and re-write her script while she hides him from the repo guys. Things get REALLY weird from there!
Wilder immediately establishes the hard tone of his film-industry noir story by opening it with a murder! As the film begins, homicide detectives are pouring into Norma Desmond’s backyard, where Joe Gillis’s body lies floating in the pool. As the cops investigate the scene, Gillis’s voice-over comes over the speakers, inviting us to relax as he tells us the story of his death. Is the plot device a little twisted? Yes. It’s also attention-grabbing, and that’s just what an opening scene should be!
Touch Of Evil (1958)
In 1941, a stage/radio wunderkind named Orson Welles released his first motion picture: Citizen Kane. The movie was surrounded by a storm of controversy; newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst recognized certain unsavory elements of his own life woven into the story of Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane. Hearst didn’t want those parts of his life and personality to be splashed on screens across the USA and took steps to kill Citizen Kane. Hearst didn’t succeed, but the film did lose money during its initial release. Of course, Kane is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, but Hollywood didn’t have that foresight. After a couple more nasty experiences on other movies, Welles left the Hollywood system in 1948, determined to make his movies independently.
1958’s Touch Of Evil marked the first feature-length film Orson Welles had directed in ten years. The film tells the story of Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug-enforcement officer who has just arrested members of a major drug ring. In retaliation, the remaining members of the ring plant a bomb in a car, killing two people. During his investigation, Vargas runs afoul of Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a corrupt American sheriff in the pocket of the drug ring. Quinlan is determined to pin the bombing on an innocent young man, but Vargas stands in his way.
Touch Of Evil begins with a close-up on a bomb being set, a strong image meant to immediately draw our attention. The film moves into one of the most famous one-take scenes in history. It’s all the better to keep the suspense rising and story flowing smoothly. As we marvel at the technical achievement, we follow the car – waiting for the inevitable explosion – and are introduced to Vargas and his new wife (Janet Leigh). It’s an exciting and elegant way to open this dark story!
It’s summer, and that means that the east coast’s Amity Island is gearing up for the yearly influx of tourists. This is extremely important to the community; most of the city’s money comes from these summer months. Unfortunately, a gigantic great white shark has established his feeding ground in the water off Amity Island’s beaches. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but Amity’s mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), strongly objects. After two more deaths, however, Vaughn eventually agrees to pay Quint (Robert Shaw), a grizzled fisherman, ten thousand dollars to kill the shark. Quint, Brody, and shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) take to the ocean in Quint’s woefully inadequate boat – the Orca – to do battle with the monster shark.
Jaws was only Steven Spielberg’s second film, but he was already a sure-footed filmmaker and storyteller! That shining talent makes itself known immediately through the first sequence of the film. Spielberg shows an artistic flair by not showing us the shark’s doings below the water. Rather, through John Williams’s fantastic score, the shark’s POV shots, and Chrissie Watkins’s (Susan Backlinie) death throes, Spielberg puts our imagination to work conjuring up something much worse than the movie could possibly have shown us. It’s a fantastic way to start a fantastic film!
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
When it comes to starting a film, Twilight Zone: The Movie presents two interesting challenges for the screenwriter. Problem The First: The Twilight Zone is a huge cultural landmark, and most people have at least some familiarity with the show. Audiences are going to come in with preconceived notions, and those are difficult for a writer to overcome! The second issue has to do with the fact that TZ: The Movie features not one story, but four. How does one construct an opening sequence that accommodates everything?
Here’s how writer/director John Landis handled the challenge: write a beginning that doesn’t really connect to anything! Instead of trying to explain what the Twilight Zone is (Rod Serling’s classic intro already does that) or setting up a frame story, Landis created an opening sketch that’s all about setting the tone of the film (and scaring the pants off us in the process)!
On a personal note: this opening scene scared the tar out of me when I saw it as a child. In fact, it scared me so much that I didn’t finish Twilight Zone: The Movie for many years. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I revisited and enjoyed the film. As a matter of fact, this opening sequence – the one that warped me so badly – has become my favorite part of the movie!
Oh, and by the way: You wanna see something really scary?
The Lion King (1994)
I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’ to describe anything. I’ve found that, if one looks hard enough, one can find flaws in almost everything. They may be small flaws, but almost anything can be made better with a little extra care and effort. Therefore, the P-word is rarely accurate, and so I rarely use it.
That being said, let me tell you this. The Lion King’s opening IS PERFECT.
In a little over four minutes, the “Circle Of Life” sequence does everything an opening sequence should do. It sets the tone for the film that follows; with all the different animals converging, the wide assortment of camera angles, the dynamic lighting, and bold music, we know that we’re in for a big, sweeping epic. It introduces a ton of our central characters. It grabs our attention right away with that epic opening line “NYAAAAAH SVENATYAAAAAAH!” (Feel free to correct my spelling on that one.) On top of all that, the sequence does a fantastic job of establishing the theme of the film. More specifically, that theme is the message that each of us are valuable, and that each of us have a purpose and mission in life. Pretty heady stuff, no?
That’s a lot of ground to cover in a few minutes. The Lion King pulls it off, and it does it without any dialogue. How amazing is that?!
The Lion King‘s opening scene is a perfect example of what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema:” a sequence or a bit of storytelling that couldn’t be done as well in any other medium. Right off the bat, The Lion King lets us know that we’re in the hands of master filmmakers. The film continues to prove it all the way to its end credits!
…Yes, The Lion King‘s opening is a work of art, but then all the scenes in this article are. Not all of them are masterful on a technical level, but that’s okay. All of them are showcases of fine storytellers plying their craft, showing us how to work in the magical art of cinema!
What are your favorite film opening sequences? Let us know in the comments below!