The Secret Ingredients of 3 Great Films

By  · Published on September 24th, 2012

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It’s widely known that Quentin Tarantino worked at a video store before making it big, but it’s a widely held misconception that he earned his movie education while restocking the shelves of Video Archives. The filmmaker told MSN in 2009:

“I want to clear something up about this. People always say I became a movie expert by working in a video store. I was employed by the video store because I was a movie expert. Before I went to Video Archives, I’d get the TV guide every week and read it cover to cover. Look at every movie playing. Circle all the movies I was gonna record. When I first discovered Howard Hawks, I spent a year and a half reading the TV guide and they played about 80 per cent of his entire oeuvre on Los Angeles TV.”

Obviously, “Watch as Many Movies as Possible,” isn’t much of a secret, but it’s a more honest, tougher-to-take method for success than our vision of Tarantino soaking up movie knowledge through osmosis in Manhattan Beach. The secret involves a lot more homework.

In that same spirit, here are 3 other secret ingredients that made great films as great as they are (and in some cases, possible at all).

Learn How to Make a Human Head From Scratch

Gain Perspective

How many film essays begin, “Citizen Kane was hugely impactful because of its camera work,”? Thousands. Maybe millions. Probably hundreds of billions. So what is so impressive about what Orson Welles was doing in 1941? Being the first is one thing, but the secret is actually fairly simple. He used the movement of the camera and the design of the set to add a physical dimension to the storytelling elements and the metaphors being shown on screen. The most direct example is when we first see Kane with his famous sled.

Inside the house, Kane’s parents are arguing about his fate with the bank representative in tow. The scene builds to a shot with three layers: his mother signing his life away in the foreground, his father sneering in the middle ground, and Kane himself playing outside (of the house and of the decision). It’s a physical representation of his initial role in the decision that changed his life.

One that takes a bit more trickery is a shot which toys directly with the theme of Kane as a larger-than-life figure. This scene takes that sentiment literally. Keep an eye on the window in the background.

Keep Pushing That Boat Uphill

The studios seem a bit tighter with the leash these days, but it’s almost impossible to guess how an executive would deal with a production plagued by torrential weather, a dissatisfied filmmaker, stories of dead bodies lying all over the set, an alcoholic lead who has a heart attack and a legendary actor who couldn’t be bothered to learn lines or avoid gaining a hundred pounds.

The secret to Apocalypse Now, if there is one, is to just keep going. Even if it takes three years from cameras rolling to release. Even if millions of your own dollars are on the line. Even if the government keeps taking back your helicopters to curb a rebellion.

The litany of things that went wrong with that production would make Murphy weep, but Francis Ford Coppola eventually delivered a masterpiece of filmmaking for United Artists.

It’s sort of hard to take other complaints and excuses seriously after that.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.