A good exercise when you’re storyboarding, or at least beginning to think about the shots in your film, is to try and boil each scene down to one shot. If you were only allowed a single shot to shoot an entire scene, what would that shot be? As a director, this is perhaps the most important technical question you can ask yourself in pre-production. The answer is: you identify how to find the subtext in your scene, and you shoot it. If you do this successfully, you may not need any other shots to convey what the scene is about. This was true for Martin Scorsese in “Taxi Driver.”
In “Taxi Driver,” there is an uncomfortable scene in the middle of the movie when Travis Bickle calls Betsy, the woman he is courting, from a pay phone in the lobby of his apartment building. The trouble is, when he took her out on their first date, he took her to see a porno flick.
Ever since that rendezvous, Betsy hasn’t been returning Travis’s calls. Travis isn’t a bad guy, but he’s out of touch with his society’s reality, perhaps due to his stint as a soldier in Vietnam. When he finally gets Betsy on the phone, he makes an effort to apologize and ask her on a second date. Even though we’re experiencing the film through Travis’s point of view, Scorsese employs some dramatic irony: he assumes we are aware of the societal standards that Travis is unaware of.
The camera is positioned behind Travis—as though we’re eavesdropping on the call. The frame itself is unbalanced. It is “short-sided,” meaning there is more room on the side of the frame that the character is looking away from, rather than toward (in this instance, the left side). Filmmakers often short-side the frame when intercutting between two characters in the midst of a conversation. This type of framework implies a disconnection between the two individuals. Scorsese doesn’t need to cut to Betsy to emphasize the disconnection in this scene—the disconnection is clear. We know the conversation is not going well, and we don’t even need to hear Betsy’s side of the exchange; we realize the conversation is over well before Travis does. Scorsese encapsulates this idea in a visual metaphor by tracking the camera away from Travis’s back, and then dollying it horizontally along the hall, until the shot ends at an intersecting hallway that leads to the building’s exit. Even though the camera no longer frames Travis (it now frames the door at the end of the lonely corridor), we continue to hear Travis talk to Betsy over the phone. By directing our eye away from Travis and onto the exit, we no longer focus on the intent of the conversation, but rather on the futility of it.
Scorsese has successfully translated a human emotion to his audience. We feel embarrassed for Travis. We can’t help but feel awkward as we witness him try to connect with someone who we know very well he’ll never be able to connect with. It’s so awkward that we want to stop eavesdropping.
As a result, Scorsese walks us away from the phone before Travis walks away from it. We know the conversation is over before he does—and if it was us in that scene, we would have probably gotten the hint and walked away at this very same moment. There is an inevitably about this conversation: Travis is going to lose. We know it, Scorsese’s camera knows it, and we’re both ahead of the character, so we might as well wait for him by the door, because we know that’s where Travis is eventually going to head.
And Scorsese puts us there. He is filming the subtext of the scene.
In a perfectly conceived film, every shot should be a visual metaphor that conveys the subtext of the written scene. If you plan on shooting additional shots (aka coverage), once you have determined what the subtext is and film THE SHOT that conveys it all, you can use that shot as the spine for all the other shots in the scene.
For a more in-depth discussion of subtext, check out my book, DETOUR: Hollywood – How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter):
William Dickerson received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer and director whose debut feature film, “Detour,” was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, “The Mirror,” which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, “Don’t Look Back.” His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, “No Alternative,” was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, “DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter),” is available now. He currently serves on AFI’s Alumni Executive Board and is a Faculty Member at the New York Film Academy. You can Purchase Detour on Amazon and follow William on Twitter and Facebook or www.williamdickersonfilmmaker.com