Excerpt: My Lavender Boyfriend
“Today, we’ll be discussing the great opening scene,” I said to my class. “This is the scene that welcomes the viewer to your story, and as such is of course very important. I bring it up now, near the end of our course, rather than the beginning, because when you write, you’ll probably leave the great opening scene as one of the last things you do. Once the journey is all plotted out, and your characters have survived whatever calamities you’ve thrown at their heads—or haven’t survived, as the case may be—once you know everything there is to know about your story, that’s when you know how to craft the perfect opening scene.”
My class was fairly substantial. At its fullest, my attendance sheet had forty-five names ticked and accounted for. They were a dedicated lot, too, as film students generally have to be. In professions in which there is almost zero chance of making it anywhere near to doing the work you love, the ones who do decide to pursue their dream tend to be fanatically devoted. It had its up and downsides. On the one hand, it meant I had no difficulty getting work. On the other hand, it meant endless arguments that often spilled over onto long e-mail chains with people who had passionately held opinions and couldn’t rest until I agreed with them. I didn’t mind. I’d been a film student in my time, too. I understood.
“You might decide,” I told them, “that a scene you previously placed in the middle or end, would actually be a great opening to your story. You might invent a completely new one. I doubt you’ll keep your working opening scene untouched by the time you’re quite finished. So let’s talk about great opening scenes and what makes them so wonderful.”
Several hands shot up.
“Yes, yes, I know, you all have opinions, but this is my class, so I get to give my opinion first,” I said. “Put your hand down, Paul; I can see you, I promise you. If you’re so eager to have this sort of audience to vent your many opinions at, I suggest you write something good and then never write anything else again. It worked for me.”
This made them laugh. My career path was funny, apparently.
“The opening to Star Wars Episode IV,” I said. “Whatever you think of the movie, or the franchise, that right there is a solid opening scene. The very first shot, after the scrawl and the John Williams soundtrack, we’re in space. We see planets ahead. A small space shuttle whizzes out overhead, and then, behind it, suddenly putting everything else into perspective, this massive aircraft follows in pursuit, shooting lasers at the escaping shuttle. No words are spoken. A child of three would understand what’s happening. Simple, beautiful, classic. Everything the movie is about in one perfect opening scene.”
Of course, this was bullshit. Not that the scene wasn’t great—it was. But great movie scenes, opening or otherwise, tended to come in great movies. As far as advice went, I might as well have told them to be excellent. It’s not that I didn’t have good advice to give or useful experience to impart. For example, I could have told them never to share their idea with someone who is after the same thing they were. I could have told them that once that person tells them the idea stinks, they shouldn’t listen. And if they do listen, I could have told them not to be surprised to find out that their “friend” had taken the idea all the way to Hollywood to pave the way to a stellar career, while they taught a group of wannabes how to write movies in evening class in film school.
I could have told them all this, but it would have made me look like a resentful idiot, and besides, the truth was you needed to be a little naïve to even embark on this sort of career. What use would it be to them if I shattered their belief in basic human decency? I wasn’t there to give them life lessons, anyway. My role was to focus their thoughts about movies and give them technical pointers. The rest would be sheer luck and knowing the right people, and nothing I could say would change that.
We discussed our favourite opening sequences. I allotted fifteen minutes to this part of the class, because if I wasn’t brutal about cutting them off, we’d have been there forever. There were predictable suggestions, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, and Chinatown. Some students mentioned movies I hadn’t heard of before. Sam, a smiling young blonde, suggested the opening to the 1995 BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as a good example. The men in the class let out a simultaneous groan. She lifted her chin at them defiantly, her cheeks rose in colour.
“It is good,” she said. “Two rich young men on horseback talk of a property one of them has just bought, which you can see in the distance, and then they race across the field, while Elizabeth Bennet observes them from a hill. It’s money and sex, and superiority and inferiority, everything the book is about! Of course,” here she threw a contemptuous look over her shoulder, “it’s not a group of white men shooting at each other and swearing, but it is a good opening scene.”
A sea of hands rose to offer alternative suggestions, but I said, “All right, very good. I think Sam is right, that is a very effective introduction to the story. Let’s now look at concrete examples in more detail. Here is a movie by Giuseppe Tornatore. It’s called ‘Legend 1900’. I want you to focus on what this opening scene does. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the movie, I just want to focus on the way the story is introduced, and what the words, the colours, the sounds do; what effect they create.”