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Book Excerpt: This is How You Make a Movie by Tim Grierson

We are proud to present an excerpt from This is How You Make a Movie by Tim Grierson, available next week from online retailers. Get a copy here.

Here's the official description, courtesy of Amazon, followed by the exclusive excerpt:

Learn movie-making techniques through the movies you know and love with This Is How You Make a Movie!

Using key scenes from some of the best-loved movies of all time, Tim Grierson explores everything from cinematography to the secrets of talking to camera. Deep focus is explored through "Citizen Kane," forced perspective through "Elf," and slow motion through "Reservoir Dogs." Examples from blockbusters ("Wonder Woman") to Oscar-winners ("Rocky"), silent-era gems ("Intolerance") to recent art-house treasures ("American Honey"), give readers a glimpse of cinema's breadth and potential.

A fascinating read for movie buffs who want to understand what goes on behind the camera, and above all an essential read for students and beginners in the industry.

With sections on acting, directing, lighting and camera, writing and editing, this book includes all the technical help you need to get your movie career off the ground.


Plastic Images

Infusing inanimate objects with emotional or symbolic meaning – because, sometimes, a cigar is most certainly not just a cigar 

Almost every movie uses props, which can range from weapons to artifacts to musical instruments to fantastical creations. But some props are more important to a story than others. Here, we’ll examine what I’ll call “plastic images,” which are objects that represent a film’s theme or emotional underpinning.

The most famous plastic image in all of cinema is probably in Citizen Kane. That entire film is devoted to understanding precisely why Charles Foster Kane whispered “Rosebud” before his death.  What was “Rosebud”? Why did it matter so much to him? When we learn that Rosebud was his sled, we stop seeing it as just a childhood toy – it’s suddenly infused with profound meaning.

The movies have all sorts of plastic images. Unlocking their narrative import goes a long way towards understanding a film’s underlying message.

A Symbol of Hope 

"Bicycle Thieves"

1948

Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini; director: Vittorio De Sica; actors: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola

In Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic, Lamberto Maggiorani plays Antonio, who has landed a menial job that requires him using a bicycle. Unfortunately, Antonio’s family is poor, so they sell some items to buy back his bike from a pawnshop. Bicycle Thieves is the story of what happens after Antonio’s bicycle then gets stolen, which involves him and his adoring son (Enzo Staiola) traveling across Rome trying to apprehend the thief.

The film examines life in postwar Italy, especially for its most marginalized citizens, and it’s also a study of a father and a son. That bicycle becomes a critical storytelling element. Early on, the bike represents hope for Antonio, who just wants to make some money to support his family. As a result, when he loses the bicycle, the theft is incredibly emotional – Antonio is losing a financial lifeline. Additionally, the stolen bike can be seen as an indication of his failure as a husband and father. Antonio isn’t simply seeking the bicycle – he’s trying to restore his sense of self-worth.

Bicycle Thieves illustrates how a plastic image can be incredibly resonant. This movie may be a simple story about a search for a bike, but we understand how much more complicated it is for this man. And near the film’s finale, when he tries to steal someone else’s bike, the shame and tragedy of the scene is pointed. It represents a fall from grace for Antonio, who has given into the temptation of being as crooked and immoral as others around him.

A Darker Meaning

"Inception"

2010

Screenplay: Christopher Nolan; director: Christopher Nolan; actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

Filmmakers can infuse benign, everyday objects with darker meaning because of the context of their stories. Take, for instance, Inception, which follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb and his team of thieves, who go into the subconscious of their targets to steal or insert ideas. Such a sci-fi premise requires complicated rules, and writer–director Christopher Nolan dazzles us with the intricacy of his tale.

But much of Inception rides on a simple, but ominous conceit: Dom knows that he’s still in the world of dreams if he spins a small top and it permanently twirls. (If he’s back in the real world, gravity takes hold and the top eventually stops.) That’s a clever story beat, but we become invested in the top because, for Dom, reality is sometimes less appealing than the subconscious – and he may be tempted to enter the dream world permanently once he realizes that his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) lives there.

The deeper we go into Inception, the more confused we get about which realm we’re in – dreams or reality – and so the top becomes our only guide. Likewise, this plastic image represents Dom’s tentative grasp on the real world. When he’s awake, he must face the fact that his wife is gone and that he may never see his children again. When he’s in the dream world, she’s still alive and anything is possible. That’s why Inception’s ending is so shocking: We think Dom is happy at last, but is he awake or asleep? Fully conscious or in deep denial? The spinning top leaves us wondering, anxious.

A Voice to the Voiceless

"The Piano"

1993

Screenplay: Jane Campion; director: Jane Campion; actors: Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin

If a character cannot speak, how can she communicate with the world? In the case of The Piano, the mute Ada (Oscar-winner Holly Hunter) expresses what’s within her soul through a piano, her most prized possession. And we are catching this character at an emotionally fraught moment: As the film begins, Ada is to be married to the ineffectual Alisdair (Sam Neill), but she catches the eye of his neighbor and friend Barnes (Harvey Keitel).

Writer–director Jane Campion, who was awarded Best Original Screenplay, uses Ada’s piano for several narrative purposes. On a most basic level, the piano provides Ada with a way to convey deep longing and passion through her majestic playing. More profoundly, though, the piano is an extension of Ada – so much so that she’s wounded when Alisdair resists bringing the piano to his small house. Along the same lines, Barnes understands that showing an interest in the piano is the same as showing interest in Ada. When Ada plays for Barnes, it’s a kind of courtship, almost a mating ritual.

The piano of The Piano continues to be a crucial plastic image throughout the story, and what happens to it sometimes mirrors what occurs to Ada. In this film’s desolate, cruel New Zealand locale, the piano is a rare example of grace and beauty, just like the woman who plays it. We become as invested in the piano’s fate as we do Ada’s.

Excerpted from This is How You Make a Movie by Tim Grierson Copyright © 2021 by Tim Grierson. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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