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THE GREATEST OPENING SCENES IN CINEMA

Great movies grab you from the get-go. But where to begin? A dead screenwriter floating facedown in a swimming pool? An ominous crawl of text on a blank screen? A densely choreographed camera move that astonishes with its virtuosity and masterfully sets up the impending action at the same time? We asked a cross-section of actors, directors, writers and producers to share their favorites. Their responses include some indisputable classics (you da man, Mr. Welles) and a few surprises (would you believe…Prince?). Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere

J.J. ABRAMS (Director/Producer, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) “While the opening sequence — and single shot — from Touch of Evil comes to mind, it’s hard to deny the insane power of the opening scene from Jaws. There is something so utterly terrifying about that scene, and it sort of redefined the opening of a film. Suddenly, grabbing the audience by the throat became a standard storytelling device. It’s hard to beat Chrissy’s death in Jaws.”


MICHAEL ARNDT (Writer, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) “I will never forget watching the first few minutes of Apocalypse Now on opening day, August 1979, at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, D.C. The overlapping images of Martin Sheen’s face (lying upside down), the ceiling fan he is staring at (his POV), and the jungle on fire (his memory), together with the whisper of helicopter rotors and the opening notes of “The End” by the Doors combined to blow my mind. Film, I realized, did not have to be anchored to a single, objective, third-person reality; it could present stories in a subjective, even impressionist, manner by layering memories, dreams, and first-person audio and visual cues on top of each other. Other directors — Wong Kar-Wai, for example — have subsequently explored subjective, impressionist storytelling at feature length. But I doubt any movie will, for me, ever top the thrill of watching a medium being blown wide open by director Francis Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and especially editor Walter Murch. Those first few moments represent the moment when cinema finally cast off the shadow of theatre’s proscenium arch and embraced its full expressive possibilities.”


DAVID AYER (Writer-director, Fury, Suicide Squad) “The original Star Wars. The impact of seeing it on the big screen at age seven was profound. There had been nothing like it. The crawl in the beginning was a genius storytelling device. Then the rebel ship sailing past followed by that enormous, Imperial Cruiser gliding overhead. What scale! Then it ratchets down from the macro to the micro with a gunfight, and then one of the best entrances of all time: Darth Vader’s. It set up the world and the conflict flawlessly. It had it all — action, character and drama. Very hard to beat.”


HENRY BEAN (Writer-director, Basic Instinct 2, The Believer) “In no particular order: the fight between father and son in Marco Bellochio’s In The Name of the Father. What makes it great: the primal, passionate, unmitigated enmity between father and son. The medical clinic waiting room in Ikiru, where Kanji Watanabe hears another patient describe the symptoms of fatal stomach cancer and realizes that he has them. What makes it great: our fear and pity. The bar scene in the Duel in the Sun. What makes it great: the unbridled sexuality and romanticism that leads to three deaths. Constance Towers’ wig coming off in the opening of The Naked Kiss. What makes it great: the delirious revelations of the character’s past. Joe Gillis face down in the swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard (too obvious). What makes it great: the narrative originality. The “credit sequence” of Touch of Evil. What makes it great: the visual invention and beauty, the superb timing, the hilarious attention to detail, the explosion. The ping-pong game at the opening of Kubrick’s Lolita. One of the funniest scenes ever filmed. The kidnap-murder of the little girl at the beginning of M. The abstract beauty and terror — that we are seduced by art into aesthetic complicity with murder and sexual perversity. The restaurant “scam” in Lars von Trier’s Idiots. What makes it great: hilarious and disturbing. The documentary about scorpions in L’Âge d’Or. What makes it great: its seeming irrelevance and ultimate pertinence. The scene at the train station in Once Upon a Time in the West.”


BRANDON BOYCE (Actor/Writer, Milk, Apt Pupil)Raiders of the Lost Ark was the ten minutes of cinema that made me realize that movies could not only be something transporting, something wonderful and exhilarating, but also that this was the world that I wanted to dedicate my professional life to. I also love the opening of Michael Mann’s Heat. This was the film that gave me the language for the crime genre that I didn’t know I was searching for. And yet everything I write seems to remind me of that film.”


CRAIG BREWER (Writer-director, Footloose, Black Snake Moan) “There’s the intimate opening credit sequence in To Kill a Mockingbird and, of course, the “I believe in America” prologue to The Godfather epic. But if I were locked in a theatre for the rest of my life with only one opening reel, it would have to be Purple Rain. “Dearly beloved…we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Life.” There’s so much to love in the opening sequence of Purple Rain, I get giddy just thinking about it. Albert Magnoli was fresh out of film school when he made Purple Rain. He was also a hands-on editor with a bold vision. Notice the quick insert shots in the opening refrain: couples kissing with glitter-painted faces, Prince’s eyelashes, hot girls staring you down through thick mascara. Right from the start, the film is dripping with sex. One minute into the song and we’ve already seen five tongues. Continuity? Who cares about continuity when you’re singing a song called ‘Let’s Go Crazy!’ First Prince is on stage performing. Then he’s backstage with his band getting ready. Then he’s at home blowing out his candles. Then he’s back on stage again. All this before he drives up to the club on his purple motorcycle. It’s all out of order, and it works! The sequence ends with a climax as Prince grinds out the famous guitar solo. The camera pushes in on Apollonia watching him. And judging by the look in her eyes, you can bet your bottom dollar that these two are fixin’ to get nasty.”


CHRIS “LUDACRIS” BRIDGES (Actor-Rapper, Fast Five, Crash) “One of my favorite movies of all time is The Usual Suspects. Beginning with the murder on the ship without showing the murderer’s face pulled me into the story immediately, and had me hooked. From the way the camera panned from the scene on the ship to the person watching the murder from afar, the director Bryan Singer drew me in and made me interested in finding out what had happened. It introduced the plot without giving away any of the characters involved, which made it exciting as the players and the plot were revealed. It was a great way to start a film, and in my opinion, remains one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of filmmaking.”


COMMON (Rapper-Actor, Selma, Run All Night) Pulp Fiction is one of my favorites. It wasn’t like it was so action-packed; it was more like I didn’t know what was going to happen. I couldn’t tell what the movie was going to be about. The way Tim Roth’s character and Amanda Plummer’s character related to each other in that restaurant. I had no idea what was about to go down. It was a cool introduction to the amount of crazy stuff that was about to take place [in the movie].”


FRANK DARABONT (The Walking Dead, Shawshank Redemption)“That insane sequence in The Wild Bunch when William Holden and his gang try to rob the bank, only to get ambushed by Robert Ryan’s posse. Most people, younger ones especially, have been inured to screen violence in the decades since, and therefore have no idea how impactful that scene was in its day, how shocking and revolutionary. It was the moment in cinema when Sam Peckinpah did away with all the niceties and hypocrisy of clean and painless screen violence and showed us how fucking awful and messy it was. He not only showed us, he rubbed our noses in it, even mowing down church ladies and other innocent bystanders in the street (which I’d bet good money was a screen first). And, holy shit, what a cast pops up in that opening scene! Holden, Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin. And, of course, it has the best director credit ever: with the bank customers held at gunpoint, Holden snarls, ‘If they move, kill ’em!’…at which point the image freezes and the exalted name appears: ‘Directed by Sam Peckinpah.’ And, damn, it really was. That film cannot be confused with anybody else’s. It is Peckinpah at the height of his powers.”


MICHAEL DE LUCA (Producer, Fifty Shades of Grey) Citizen Kane features one of the most memorable opening shots of any movie ever made: that dramatic ‘Keep Out’ sign over the wrought-iron fence guarding Xanadu, Kane’s sad and hollow monument to loneliness. The ‘Keep Out’ is a striking metaphor for Kane’s single-minded emotional directive and sums up his miserable life. Then Welles moves into the dying icon’s bedroom where he utters the famous ‘Rosebud’ and drops the snow globe. Dreamy and evocative, incredible opening scene.”


LINDSAY DORAN (Producer, Nancy McPhee Returns) “Every time I see the beginning of The Matrix, I remember what it was like to see it for the first time — the green tint of the studio logos, the ominous score, those hypnotic columns of green symbols, the overheard phone call (‘You like him, don’t you?’), the film noir-y flashlight beams, the graphic novel camera angles, Agent Smith’s creepy way of talking (‘Your men are already dead’), Trinity killing all the cops using impossible martial arts moves, her fear when Morpheus tells her the Agents have arrived (given what she did to the cops, why is she afraid of these guys?), the chase across the rooftops, the revelation that the Agents are just as magic as she is, the race to the phone booth, the truck that must have killed her when it crushed the booth (except it didn’t), all leading up to the Agent’s line: “The name is Neo.” It’s thrilling, it’s fun, it’s fascinating, it’s original, it’s inviting and it’s unbelievably cool. I can’t smile big enough when I watch it. And I’m always amazed by how much exposition has been packed (seemingly without effort) into those first seven minutes. By the time we meet Neo, we know he’s in danger, we know he might be ‘The One,’ we’ve sensed the beginning of the Neo-Trinity love story, we’ve seen the villains in action and we know they have an informant in Morpheus’s group. We trust Morpheus without having met him and, after an opening sequence like this one, we trust the Wachowski Brothers without having met them either. We trust them as filmmakers, and we trust them as storytellers. Like Morpheus, they are White Rabbits who offer to show us ‘how deep the rabbit-hole goes’ if only we’ll follow them. And by this point, I’d follow them anywhere.”


DOUG ELLIN (Executive Producer, Entourage) Goodfellas, because it throws you right into the shocking and callous violence of this world and plays to the dark side of wish fulfillment with one simple line: ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.’ And The Player. The genius of the first single shot being seven minutes while referencing the famous shot in Touch of Evil sets up the brilliant satire to come.”


JULIAN FARINO (Director, Ballers, Entourage) “I would go for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (U.S. title: Stairway to Heaven), made in 1946. I love most of Michael Powell’s films — they are cinematic in a way that is unusual for Britain, where the tradition of realism dominates — but this is my favorite. It starts with an image of the stars in the universe — thematically great for a film that will take on heaven — but immediately undercuts any excessive poetry with the narrator’s opening line, ‘This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?’ I love the fact there is always something playful about their cinema. Then follows the glorious sequence with Second World War pilot David Niven hurtling to a certain death (he has, of course, given the last of the parachutes to his crew) but talking cheerily to Deborah Kerr in Ground Control. Having asked her name, he says ‘I love you June, you’re life and I’m leaving you.’ Fantastic stuff. The film, by the way, was funded by the British government as a means to foster U.K.-U.S. relations after the war. To come up with this story was a genius way of doing it.”


SCOTT FRANK (Writer-director, A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Wolverine) “During the opening credits of Harold & Maude, an eighteen-year-old Bud Cort, dressed in a suit and tie, walks into a dark study, writes a note and then casually steps up onto the desk, puts his head through a dangling noose and hangs himself. But wait, that’s not even the best part. The best part is that he sits there swaying back and forth as the music and titles end. Then his mother comes into room, starts going through the desk. ‘Does she not notice him?’ we ask ourselves? The kid opens one eye, starts gagging to get her attention. Finally, his mother looks at him and admonishes him with, ‘I suppose you think this is very funny, Harold.’ And then she makes a phone call and walks out. He opens his eyes and sticks his tongue out at her. The kid’s faking it. Never had the beginning of a movie so arrested me before. Never had an entire movie so arrested me before. The writing, the music (Cat Stevens before he went all jihad-y), the cutting (directed by my hero, Hal Ashby, who began life as an editor, and it shows) and one of the greatest look-into-the-camera moments in modern cinema, all combine to make this a classic black comedy…but it’s the classic opening that nobody ever forgets. Well, that and the eighteen-year-old Bud Cort in bed with a naked 80-year-old Ruth Gordon blowing bubbles after sex.”


WILLIAM GOLDMAN (Writer, Dreamcatcher, Hearts in Atlantis) The Seventh Seal. I suppose what makes it great is the moment when the weird-looking guy appears and the knight says, ‘Who are you?’ and the answer is this: ‘I am Death!’ And, boy, do you believe him. I still remember being shaken.”


AKIVA GOLDSMAN (Writer-producer, The 5th Wave, Insurgent) Close Encounters of the Third Kind — Spielberg in perfect control. A car comes out of a sandstorm. We are somewhere in Mexico. Bob Balaban, doing his everyman best, is our guide through a sequence that occurs in subtitled French, well before foreign-language scenes in American entertainment were in vogue. The realistic details, the team members checking serial numbers by jumping on each other’s backs, the 1945 calendar, all fully engage us in the mystery of these impossibly returned World War II fighter planes. François Truffaut, as actor, is a coup, and brings compassion and authority to the role. The reveal of the mystery — that these plans have been missing for decades — is deliciously late in the sequence, and even then played mostly on Balaban’s face. Finally, rather than end, as teaser sequences often do, the sequence opens up wide, a gateway to the film to come. The old man’s face, sunburned overnight, and his claim ‘The sun came out last night, it sang,’ is a promise of mysteries to come. We are left off balance and engaged, like Balaban, stumbling backwards but unable to look away.”


ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INNARITTU (Director, The Revenant, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)) “My favorite opening scene is I Am Cuba because it’s a breathtaking first shot in which you keep asking yourself how they did that formally at that time, and you wonder how they transformed agitprop into art and poetry.”


JAMES GRAY (Writer-director, The Immigrant, We Own the Night) “There are plenty of legendary kickoffs in the history of cinema, but I’d like to put my hat in the ring with an opening shot that might not come to mind immediately: the first moments of the King of Marvin Gardens. It’s a simple thing: a close-up of Jack Nicholson, who appears out of the darkness. After a beat, he begins to deliver a macabre monologue. No opening credits, no swell of music, no background other than that black void. No camera movement, no pyrotechnics. Just the actor, talking to no one in particular. I love the theatrical incoherence of the moment. Where are we? What is this movie? What’s this story Nicholson’s telling us? And could it possibly be true, in all its banal horror? It’s impossible to see the film and not remember this gripping image. Nicholson could not be finer, and [director Bob] Rafelson teases us just enough before we can put the scene into any kind of context. Not to be forgotten is the work of great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose minimalist photography sets the mood perfectly. But perhaps the best news of all is that the movie that follows doesn’t disappoint: The King of Marvin Gardens is stirring and terrific, one of the most overlooked pictures of the 1970s.”


NICHOLAS KAZAN (Writer, Enough, Reversal of Fortune) City of God. The metaphor is simple and, depending on your perspective, either eloquent or obvious: a chicken, sensing its imminent demise, breaks free and runs for its life. Boys chase it, shoot at it (of course, if they hit it, they’d ruin the meat, but that fits the metaphor, too): we are all chickens, running for our lives, living in a violent world which we cannot comprehend…because ultimately we are pawns in a larger game of someone else’s doing — this fact revealed at the scene’s end when with the hero is caught in the middle of the street, guns aimed at him, the chicken before him…and at that frozen moment, the camera swings around and begins the cinematic magic tricks which in another movie might feel like flash without substance but here are flash and/as substance, and we hear the voice-over — so often an awkward and odious device, but here necessary and almost exhilarating as we digress endlessly, effortlessly, down one narrative alley after another, all alleys leading inevitably to the end. Now that is a first scene, and an opening worthy of the most influential — and possibly the best — movie of the last five (or is it ten?) years.”


MARC KLEIN (Writer-director, Mirror Mirror, A Good Year) “Partly for good reason — and partly out of political romanticism — the 1970s have become the second golden age of American cinema. As a New Yorker, I often think of that decade’s best movies — the ones shot in New York, at least — as gritty street films that fearlessly examined the underbelly of American urban life. Taxi Driver, Serpico, The French Connection — all of them raw, inspired movies that articulated the general belief that ‘the city that never sleeps’ was a garbage-filled hellhole; a sweltering miasma whose sole agenda was to make life miserable for its lonely inhabitants. And then, there was Woody’s Manhattan. If ever a filmmaker could completely own a city, it would be Woody Allen. Sure, Paris had Truffaut and Godard, but it also had Eric Rohmer and Jean-Pierre Melville. Rome had Fellini, but it also had Rosselini and Pasolini, and perhaps its greatest protégé, Bertolucci, made his masterpiece with a stick of beurre in Paris. No — after dozens of films in America’s greatest city — Woody Allen is more than New York’s favorite son. He’s Microsoft — the total dominating force in the market. And what better tribute to his chosen city than the opening of his film Manhattan? From first frame to last, it’s a visual sonnet, a marvel of cinematic simplicity that reminds us that if we just wish hard enough (and scout long enough), we can find the magic that’s still New York. The movie begins on Manhattan’s most breathtaking image: its glorious skyline. As Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue begins, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ perfectly composed, black-and-white cityscapes pass before our eyes. The Guggenheim and Central Park. Radio City and Times Square. Park Avenue covered by virgin snow. Yankee Stadium glowing in the night, as the D train passes beneath it like a toy locomotive. The whole damn thing is like a music video for aesthetes. But lest we get lost in the lyricism, Woody quickly reminds us that Manhattan — first and foremost — is a comedy. And so, to counterpoint all the breathtaking beauty, we get Woody’s neurotic alter-ego, narrating as an indecisive novelist who simply can’t decide on how to begin his novel about ‘decaying values.’ As the final stirring climax begins, Woody returns to the skyline — this time, at night — as a spectacular fireworks display explodes over the city, almost as if God had blessed the director with perfect syncopation between image and melody. More than an inspirational tribute, the opening scene of Manhattan was Woody Allen staking his claim as the city’s most gifted and singular storyteller. ‘New York was his town,’ Woody says. ‘And it always would be…’”


NEIL LABUTE (Writer-director, Billions, Death at a Funeral) “It’s always difficult and a little maddening to pick the ‘greatest’ or ‘best’ of any given category — is anything more subjective than what any one of us thinks about movies or sports or politics? That said, it’s fun to do, so here I go! It would be easy to be seduced into choosing an opening as audacious as the one in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, or in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or even the amazing credit sequence/first scene in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, as this kind of work is both eye-catching and startling, setting a perfect tone for the respective pictures that are to follow. However, the film that immediately comes to mind for me (maybe because I saw it so many times in the theatre) is Warren Beatty’s Reds, with its wonderfully stark close-ups of several ‘witnesses’ — historical figures used to propel and strengthen the narrative — who give us snippets of recollection about the American journalist John Reed and then, suddenly, we get our first taste of the film that is to follow: Mr. Beatty (as Reed) is seen running behind a dusty wagon, trying desperately to catch up to the Mexican troops that remain just out of reach. It is a brilliant metaphor for the outsider that Reed remained during his professional life, always commenting on and chasing stories that were happening in countries other than his own. Beatty actually repeats the image late in the film, as his character chases after a Russian machine-gun cart — and it is a dark, fitting echo to this original sun-drenched moment at the start of the picture. Beatty takes a stab at creating the kind of smart, vivid epic that became the bread-and-butter of director Lean and manages to create a kind of homage while maybe even bettering the master — a brilliant start to an utterly singular and breathtaking film.”


LAURENCE MARK (Producer, Last Vegas, Julie & Julia) “I’ve always had a certain fondness for the opening sequence of All About Eve that takes place at the Sarah Siddons Awards Banquet, which will ultimately end the movie. How brilliant to show where the movie is going, and pique our interest as to how it will get there! The trenchant, witty, worldly wise voiceover provided by Addison De Witt, played by George Sanders, introduces us to the major players, and then Karen, the playwright’s wife played by Celeste Holm, takes over and transports us back to where and when she started it all. This scene gives us the taste of a tangy after-dinner mint before the dishy, delicious meal has even begun.”



LYNDA OBST (Producer, Interstellar) “The scene that changed my life was the compound opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I first saw it sitting on the carpeted floor in front of the sold-out seats in Loew’s Orpheum on 14th Street some time near its opening week (these things weren’t so closed tracked in those days) among a throng of tripping hippies all of us pulsing to the strains of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. The Lunar Eclipse aligned our minds as one, as the camera wipes of the Dawn of Man began a series of dioramas that take us through millions of years on Earth: first without life, arid desert, then to the emergence of peaceful apes who live in boredom until dwindling resources bring on the arrival of a competing band of apes who scare them off; then the terrifying eclipse at night and the arrival of the monolith in the morning, and with it the grasping and reaching for understanding, which brings curiosity and consciousness. In the wake of the monolith’s arrival, the alpha male discovers that animal bones can be made into tools for weapons, consciousness can solve problems, the first one being the problem of The Other. This scene is astonishing for its ability to translate big ideas in pictures and music only. In the eyes of the apes, in the design of the monolith, in the majesty of the photography and the music, Kubrick captures the epic nature of birth of thought and intentionality and uses film as it rarely can be used — to convey ideas, wordlessly. As Europeans were making small, personal, existential movies, Kubrick shot the moon, literally — and made an epic movie about the birth of the universe, the dawn of man, the universality itself.”


JASON REITMAN (Writer-director, Whiplash, Labor Day) Jerry Maguire. In a ten-minute montage starting on a shot of Earth from space and ending on a blue mission statement, Jerry takes us through his world to a live rendition of the Who’s ‘Magic Bus.’ In this short span, we are given access to an entire life with incredible momentum. It’s human, revealing, hilarious, and it turns on a dime. In these few minutes, Cameron Crowe reinvented first-person voiceover for an entire generation of young filmmakers, starting a decade of movies (including my own) that use this technique as their primary storytelling device.”


ADAM RIFKIN (Writer-director-actor, Underdog, Zoom) “In considering the countless options of classic film opening sequences to write about, my mind, of course, immediately went to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. I instantly rejected such an obvious choice. Ever since it had been voted Best Film by judges Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, fans, film students and critics alike have exhaustively cited the celebrated opening three-minute-and-twenty-second continuous tracking shot as cinema’s go-to example of a cool way to start a flick. But I wanted to be more original. After all, Touch of Evil’s opening hasn’t only already been the subject of countless essays and articles, but it’s even been parodied (though not outdone) by Robert Altman in 1992’s The Player, in which two characters ironically discuss Touch of Evil’s opening shot during the course of the film’s own opening eight-minute tracking shot. Determined to be creative, I diligently combed every era for the one perfect opening that was equal parts entertaining, influential and unforgettable, but after hours of thought and long handwritten lists of titles, I found myself right back where I started. There’s a reason that Touch of Evil’s opening shot is so legendary, and if the assignment at hand is to examine fifty of the greatest movie openings of all time, it would be a tragedy to ignore it just because it’s so goddamned famous. The film, a seedy tale of police corruption on the Mexican border, opens with an unseen man placing a bomb in a car. The camera follows the bomb down unsuspecting streets and above multiple city blocks. As the tension builds, the camera finds our leads, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as they walk obliviously beside the car that teasingly drives in and out of frame. The camera work, timing and choreography make the suspense palpable. Much publicized battles with Universal led to Touch of Evil being radically re-cut. In 1998 the restored director’s cut finally gave viewers a chance to see Welles’ version of his opening shot as it was originally intended, without superimposed credits and stripped of its TV cop show-style score. Touch of Evil may have been Orson Welles’ last Hollywood film, but the opening shot is the first word in movie beginnings!”


RICHARD SCHIFF (Actor, House of Lies, The Affair) Betty Blue. The camera spiraling down from above. A man and a woman naked, in the act. No sheets, no covers. No words, no sounds. She reaches down and helps things along. Which tells a good part of the story, as it turns out. I couldn’t get more drawn in and ready for what’s in store.”


PRESTON WHITMORE, II (Writer-director-producer, This Christmas) The Big Chill has one of the greatest opening sequences because over the course of a three-minute song, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine,’ eight diverse characters are introduced without uttering a single word, including the deceased Kevin Costner. A brilliant piece of writing and directing by Lawrence Kasdan.”


ZHANG YIMOU (Director, House of Flying Daggers) “I often find myself being asked these types of questions: ‘Who is you favorite film director?’ ‘What is the most unforgettable film you have ever seen in your life?’ or ‘What film has had the greatest impact on you?’ I have always had a difficult time responding to these types of questions. I have always been more inclined to watch large numbers of films, which I usually only see once, and I never go out of my way to remember any one particular film, let alone the opening sequence of any one film. I’m really sorry, because I would hate for my answer to leave you disappointed. So I decided to take a hint from the old Chinese saying, ‘A melon peddler always claims his melons to be sweet,’ and simply say a few words about the opening sequence of my most recent feature, Curse of the Golden Flower. The reason I am so fond of this film’s opening is because I used a series of short shots to convey a feeling of tension across different environments. These include shots of two groups of troops on horseback, each riding in different directions, and a scene featuring large numbers of palace women getting out of bed and putting on their makeup. These are scenes that have virtually never appeared onscreen in previous Chinese period costume dramas; it was something brand new that I brought to the film. Everyone knows that in traditional China, the emperor always had numerous concubines — sometimes tens of thousands of them. I wondered what the scene was like when they all woke up, got dressed and made up; it must have taken a long time and been quite a spectacle. I’m sure the whole process was very interesting. It is a shame that there are no historical records that tell us exactly how they did it, so I thought it would be fascinating to use this series of shots as an attempt to depict that process. Amid this series of opening shots, there is also a shot of the empress, portrayed by Gong Li, putting on her makeup. We also added a shot of her illness suddenly acting up, showing her hands trembling as she struggled with her pain — this serves as a visual hint that we wanted to convey to the audience early on. This series of different shots juxtaposed against one another with fast-paced editing creates a form of suspense. I love these kinds of openings; they are visually stunning, and immediately get the audience to quiet down and start paying attention. In Chinese we call this approach, ‘overcoming others with your first move.’ My apologies for using this forum to talk about my own film, but it is actually only because the opening sequence I remember best right now is this film, which was just completed and is still so fresh in my mind. There are certainly numerous films with much more powerful opening sequences than my own, including many classic film openings, it is just that I can’t remember them off hand. Once again, please accept my deepest apologies.”



TOM SCHULMAN (Writer-Director-Producer, Me, Myself & Irene, Indecent Proposal) “I love the opening of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, where we see an X-ray go into a light box and the narrator says something like, ‘This is the X-ray of the stomach of the main character of this story. At the moment, he is not a very interesting person, but soon that will change.’”

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