How do you handle your beginnings and endings?
When you're tackling something new to write or direct, the first two scenes you think about (usually) are the opening and the ending. For me, if I don't know how an idea ends, I don't think I'll be able to sit down and write it. And when I sit down, I labor over the opening sequences, because I know it has to draw the audience into the world.
Well, it turns out I am not alone. Everyone goes through this, and that includes Oscar-winning writer-director Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash and La La Land). Luckily for me, when I was digging around for inspiration, I came across five tips he wrote about in Vulture. These tips were for making your openings and endings even better, so I thought I would share them with you all here today.
Let's dive in.
How Does Damien Chazelle Handle Beginnings and Endings?
As I said up top, those scenes are probably the two you think the most about while writing. You want to inspire people to keep reading and you want them to finish reading and be truly excited by what they just finished.
His tips are wide-ranging. So let's start at the top.
Chazelle says, “The beginning is when the audience is most susceptible, the most vulnerable, the most fertile. How much do you maximize that moment? And then the other most important moment is when the lights come back on and people exit the theater, because that last scene is going to roll through their heads right afterwards.”
1. Get to the good stuff.
When it comes to openings, Chazelle takes his inspiration from what it feels like to be an audience member as the story is about to begin.
“Right as the screen is going black, the audience doesn’t know what they’re about to see—it could be Citizen Kane,” said Chazelle. “In other words, it’s the only moment you ever have them where their minds are as open as they’re ever going to be and they are truly ready to think of your work on the highest possible terms. You want to try not to fumble that ball, to preserve that sense of them thinking this could be an amazing work of art for as long as possible.”
When it comes to your own work, this is about how you can build anticipation, but not waste time. You work to create a scene that pulls people into the world and the promise of your premise right away. Give us characters, and tone, and really expose us to the world as fast as you can.
2. Treat the first scene like an overture.
This seems easy for the director of La La Land to say, but you don't have to have a musical to bring in some inspiration of overtures. In fact, Chazelle explains this by talking about his work on Whiplash.
“I was like, ‘How do I distill this movie down to a nutshell?’” said Chazelle. “It’s a relationship between a student and a teacher where the teacher has this terrifying, could-be-borderline-abusive edge but also this charisma to him, and the student wants to do anything he can to please the teacher. So how do we establish that as the basic premise right away, without wasting any time? After that, we can deviate from it, flesh out backstory for each of them, and bring them back together, because the opening will have bought us some runway.”
What is your movie about? And what can you use the opening scene to say about that theme? How do you dig into those areas and make them the foundation for the story you build?
3. Find the most impactful footage to lead with.
I thought this was one of the most interesting ideas he put forward. We often save big set pieces or ideas for the middle or end, but what if you put them right up front? What's the most visceral way of getting the audience involved? Maybe there's a camera idea you had you wanted to test out or another foundational or pivotal idea you played with saving for later. Use it at the top of the story. Hook them fast. As he said, get to the good stuff.
4. Push your climax to a place beyond words.
This is a clever maxim, but what does it really mean? For Chazelle, it's finding the pure cinema in your work—which means cutting out the dialogue and focusing on the visuals. It's something he has done with a lot of his work, especially at the endings. What just steeps audiences in the world of the characters?
His inspiration came from Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, which “has this closing finale sequence that’s just an all-timer. It’s a 10-minute stretch of all the various plot strands being solved without a single line of dialogue, purely with music and action on this hilltop with all the characters converging in [a] different place. It felt like cinema returning to its silent root—so incredibly, viscerally exciting. It also felt, intellectually, like what cinema can aspire to be when it’s lifted from the page.”
5. End early.
The old axiom of "start late and leave early" holds true here. you want the audience to want more, not feel overstuffed or overexplained. Often, movies give long endings to explain things people will assume or already know.
Chazelle said, “One thing I found I really loved in certain movie endings is when it ends a little bit before you think it’s going to end. In other words, it doesn’t close in the traditional ‘let’s tie up all the loose ends’ kind of denouement, but instead tries to end with a major sequence that gets your emotions up, and then gets out.”
This kind of surprise and subversion of tropes can make your ideas feel unique and exciting.
I hope these tips helped you rethink your endings and beginnings. Let us know if they help you take your ideas to the next level.