Spielberg's Table Scenes Are a Masterclass in Clever Filmmaking

Is there anyone who does table scenes better than Spielberg?

That might be up for debate, but what is definitely, absolutely true is that director Steven Spielberg knows how to use a dinner or lunch scene in a movie to propel his stories, introduce exposition, increase tension, and build characters.

We recently stumbled upon a ranking of Steven Spielberg's best 10 dining table scenes from The Bearded Trio. And the list is pretty good, but I've got a few additions of my own, along with some analysis of what makes them so amazing and how we can learn from them.

So, let's dig into what we can learn from these incredible scenes!

Jurassic Park
Credit: Universal Pictures

Why the Table Scene Matters

Chances are, you'll probably need a table scene or two in your own project. Characters realistically will want to sit and eat sometimes, but there are some pitfalls to scenes like these.

First, they're incredibly static. Characters aren't moving. The cameras probably won't be moving much, either. And a group of people sitting around reciting dialogue can get dull and heavy pretty quickly if you aren't careful. You want to make sure the audience remains interested in whatever your characters are discussing.

So, you need to make sure that you're maintaining energy in your table scenes. That starts on the page, with strong dialogue that contains tension, conflict, subtext, and personality. The characters need to be fully fleshed out, so you can understand where each of them is coming from, as well as how they each view the conversation.

This will come through in performance, and the tension will guide the direction.

You also need to make sure the scene adds something to the story. Is it moving the plot forward? Is it expanding the audience's understanding of the characters or their situation? If it's not, it's going to stop the movie dead. And that's no fun!

Keep all this in mind and you might be directing a Spielbergian table scene soon! Now, let's look at a few of his best.

Hook
Credit: TriStar Pictures

The Best Spielberg Table Scenes

The minute I heard "top 10 Spielberg table scenes," I thought of the father and son moment from Jaws, and thankfully that makes it onto Bearded Trio's list.

It's such a simple but effective scene. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his son are sitting together after a long day.

Without any dialogue, the audience can see how the stress of a man-eating shark is affecting Brody and bleeding into his home life, with his son mirroring everything he does. It becomes a tender, real moment between father and son that helps us understand who Brody is as a character and a parent.

One problem with a list like this is that you can think of a table scene from a movie, but then remember an equally strong table scene from another part of the same film.

For instance, later in Jaws, you have Quint (Robert Shaw) telling that horror story about the wreck of the Indianapolis. And that's a heck of a scene, too. It's tense because Shaw's performance is so amazing, and getting to learn anything more about the incredibly intense Quint is mesmerizing. We learn about his firsthand experience with sharks, and what motivates him.

Another personal favorite of mine is the family dinner from early in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

It works because of the conflict built into the scene. Elliott has seen E.T., but no one believes him. There's comedy here, but Elliott's pain feels genuine. The family fight devolves into who would believe him—his absent father, who is off in Mexico with another woman.

In this scene, you establish the dynamics of the family. Elliott is struggling to be heard, Gertie serves as the innocent comic relief, Michael is the older, bullying brother, and their mother is fragile and hurting. You get exposition about the divorce, which affects everything going on between the characters. It's almost 3 minutes long but moves incredibly fast.

The list also includes that banquet scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but I don't like that scene very much, for a lot of reasons. It feels a little empty to me, because of the vaguely racist comedy relief and the lack of drive it contains.

I much prefer the scene from the opening of the film, when Indiana (Harrison Ford) enters the Chinese nightclub to face off with the gangsters.

This scene gets a lot more done, like meeting Willie (Kate Capshaw) and launching Indiana into another adventure.

The scene has stronger tension because you know what everyone wants here. Indy wants a diamond, and those gangsters want the remains of an ancient emperor. They also want Indiana dead, which becomes a very real possibility after he is poisoned, and his goal shifts to getting the antidote.

Also, the use of that lazy Susan adds some nice, unique dynamism to the scene while everyone remains seated.

Finally, I feel like the list is lacking this amazing moment from Schindler's List.

This is the first time Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) meets Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), which is a huge storytelling moment. By this time in the movie, we've seen Schindler as a businessperson and social butterfly. Remember that opening table scene where Schindler easily becomes the life of the party?

But there's something different about this small-scale lunch with Nazi officers, where Schindler's charm is more muted, and his anger simmers in the subtext of the dialogue.

Goeth is suspicious and resents this stranger for being late, even as Schindler greets everyone else at the table as a friend. The tension between them makes this table scene more interesting.

The scene also has motion. Schindler moves all the way around the table and speaks to everyone. He gets his food, while Goeth has his plate removed. This is a scene that establishes them as quiet enemies and showcases Goeth's vanity and Schindler's ability to manipulate.

I know these are just a few of Spielberg's stellar table scenes, but they are endlessly educational and so fun to watch.

What are your top Spielberg table scenes? Let us know in the comments!

What's next? Read more about creating dynamic dinner scenes

Check out how television shows like Barry and Big Little Lies are reinventing dinner scenes. And here's how to make table scenes more cinematic. Finally, here's how you can light your table scenes    

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May 14, 2020 at 3:13AM, Edited May 14, 3:13AM

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