3 Filmmaking Thoughts I Took From Watching “Moonlight”
Let it be known that I’m a real film geek. I love cinema, I love watching films, I love watching how films are made, I love, love, love them. I’d say my favourite films are psychological thrillers, those that have a twist or make you think the story is going in one direction before grabbing you and taking you in a completely different one. I like a good drama, and when I want to switch off, i’m up for an all out action no-brainer. Every year I make a list of all the films I’ve seen (in 2016 I counted 66 new films) and each year I make a top top 10 list of my favourites of the year. So whilst we’re just a third of the way through 2017, I think I already have a contender for favourite of the year.
Many times we go to the cinema, watch a film and walk out and it doesn’t really stick with us, because after all, one of the great things about going to the movies is that it provides escapism for a couple of hours. But one film that has stayed with me is Moonlight, the story of a young man growing up in Miami shown in three stages of his life, against a backdrop of family tension, self discovery and the influences of our peers and role models (or lack of). So while I took a lot from it personally, I also watched it through the eyes of a filmmaker, and here are three main things it made me think about. I’ll try keep the following as spoiler free as possible.
Story is Everything
I’ve often heard friends and filmmakers talk passionately about the films they are planning to make. They often talk about the cameras, the technical equipment, the talented crew and the impressive budget they have in place for their project. But what makes me want to roll my eyes with disappointment is when they talk about the film’s story, which often sounds limp, predictable or like something a primary school child could write.
It often seems like the story is the last thing they have thought about, like they are more excited about shooting in 4K or with the latest camera on the market, and then just thought, “hey let’s come up with an idea then”. There are so many action films that have great cinematography, cool drone shots and scenes where the camera was put in a clever position, but have forgettable storylines. Cinema goers rarely remember great shots, but they remember great storylines.
Moonlight has great pacing, and often what you think is going to happen in a scene didn’t happen or happens in a different way. I love that, as I’m genuinely being taken on a journey where I’m not sure where I’m going, and that’s exactly what you want a film to do.
Leave Your Camera Tricks at the Door
I honestly believe the best shots are the one you don’t notice, because you’re so gripped with the story. There’s an unbroken shot in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1 which follows the Bride (played by Uma Thurman) through the house where she’s about to fight the Crazy 88. The first time I watched it, I didn’t realise it was one single unbroken shot. On a similar note, Children in Men has a great single shot scene inside a car where it’s passengers are attacked by rebels in a scene that is so gripping you can’t believe what is happening before your eyes, which is probably because the camera never cuts away from the action for a second. That’s what good filmmaking does, if there’s a great shot, you should be so focused on the story that you barely notice it. It’s only when editing is so choppy, like the fight scenes in Taken 2 that it becomes noticeable.
Apart from a few interesting camera shots, Moonlight plays it reasonably straight. Or maybe the story was so engaging that I barely noticed some amazing shots, which I’ll pick up on again on future viewings. The truth is, I’d rather watch an interesting story as opposed to an attempt to wow me over amazing camera trickery. It is down to personal taste, and for example, if you’re making an action film, keep the camera moving, but not at the expense of a really good story.
Don’t Show Us Everything
As I mentioned above, I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I’m going to do my best not to, but one character who appears near the beginning of the film, gives such a great, subtle but powerful and moving performance, who does all they need to do and then we don’t see them again. However that character’s influence is all over the film. We get the impression that something else has been going on in that person’s life, that could be shown on screen and would be an interesting shoot for the filmmakers to capture, but the fact we don’t see what is going on in that person’s story is quite powerful. So many times, everything is spelt out for us on screen, which removes all the mystery. I believe the way a plot thread stays with us is that if an event happens and we have to imagine for ourselves our minds go into overtime. In reference to another Tarantino film, in Reservoir Dogs, we never see the bank robbery which is the premise of the whole film, but we have to imagine for ourselves what has happened. Moonlight has several moments like this, which make you sympathise and try to imagine what the characters have been through, as we don’t get to visually see the events for ourselves, we only get to see the impact of what they have experienced through how their characters have been affected.
Overall, this was a great film, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time and one I’ll definitely be owning once its released on DVD/Bluray…I recommend you do too!