A wise man named Adam Tobin once told me that the first five minutes of a movie teach you how to watch it. Watch any classic movie and you’ll see that he’s still right. Those five minutes act as a microcosm for everything else to come, whether it be the white ‘wombs’ of the ship in Alien, or Trinity fleeing Agent Smith in The Matrix. The ‘five minute principle’ informs all my filmmaking today, whether on script or on screen — particularly the first two or three shots presented to the audience.
The first shot of a film should feel like that moment you first remember your dream from last night. Like a gasp. A little shard of clarity that you cling on to, both close and distant, reflecting a fragment of a life lived many realities away… You should be able to taste the first shot, inhale it, rub up against it’s texture like a dog nosing in the grass. And in the process of investigating, another glimpse comes to you — what delight! The jigsaw is coming together. That’s how much it has to do. When a film gets it wrong, I deflate, a wrinkly balloon futzing into its movie seat. When a film gets it right - I am incensed! A flame leaps up in my gut, as if I have suddenly been presented with a feast of medieval proportions - 40 hens! 100 newborn lambs! Endless tankards of beer! The first shots can be so powerful as to keep me engaged for at least the first 30 minutes. Though of course, the greater the promise, the bigger the demand that the movie makes good on its word.
I’d like to compare two shot sequences that are intimately related - one gets it absolutely right, the other absolutely wrong. They are the opening shots of Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049. In the first Blade Runner, a ghastly, industrial metropolis stretches out before us. There is a sense that this grey, mucky twilight is always the time of day here. Out of nowhere — a human eye, the horror reflected in its unblinking stare. In two shots, Blade Runner makes us not only recoil at such a future, but weep at the realisation that human life must endure that future — a future of its own creation. We feel, intuitively, that the film is talking to us about the ennui of humankind’s impact, and the burden of creation.
Blade Runner 2049 begins with an eye, as well. Instantly, we know this is a reference to the first film. For me, the film has already lost me, for it exists within a meta-texture, like an adolescent pleading to a parent that they really are old enough now. Regardless, the image is sterile - there exists none of the contrast of humanity and its monstrous offspring, the texture is surgical, we merely see an eye, a symbol rather than a visual metaphor. I am reminded, worryingly, of the opening shot of Alien: Covenant — also an eye in close up belonging to an android. This is late Ridley Scott at his most banal and glib, trading off such maxims as “the eye is the window to the soul”, when the film itself is soulless. Beyond this shot of the eye, I remember nothing more in sequence. What am I supposed to have felt in this shot? It is intellectual, not narrative.
So seek out those first shots; find them in your heart and in your gut. Let them overwhelm you with their majesty, their urgency, and never settle for less again.