If you’ve seen Inglourious Basterds, you know how incredibly powerful the opening scene is. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and get thee to Netflix.)
A farmer and his family are hanging out washing and chopping firewood when Nazis pull up to their humble dwelling in the French countryside. The Colonel, played Oscar®-ly by Christoph Waltz, asks for a glass of milk. The farmer obliges, and the two men trade niceties back and forth. But beneath the pleasantries, tension is building.
Tarantino, though, is in no hurry to cut to the chase. He’s content to simply sit in that tension. Scratch that: he revels in it. Over the course of fifteen minutes, he builds the suspense in tiny increments.
Fifteen minutes. Of two men sitting and talking.
While it’s not uncommon in improv, it’s unheard of in feature films. And we are riveted for every deliciously agonizing second.
This is drama at its finest, and great comedy works the same way.
“You don’t have to keep explaining every little detail. You’re there to enjoy the discovery as much as the audience.” – David Pasquesi
The Nazi Colonel could have got what he came for in the first three minutes. But then we’d be deprived of the slow – and terrifying – realization of the farmer’s situation for ourselves. (Not to mention one of cinema’s greatest scenes.)
Most of us have been trained at some point to get the “who, what, where” out there, sometimes in the first three lines.
This might rid the scene of ambiguity, but it also takes away a lot of the discovery.
TJ and Dave know who they are to each other right off the top of a scene, simply by the way they are sitting, standing, or moving in relation to each other.
You’ll never hear David blurt out “Hey John, as your boss I just wanna congratulate you on fifteen years working here at Wal-Mart as a greeter!”
Take a tip from the masters: make assumptions, as opposed to declaring everything overtly.
“Slow down and taste your food.” – Susan Messing
Just as Tarantino isn’t afraid to stay on one scene, don’t be afraid to sit in your scene as it unfolds. Instead of being in a hurry to get through it, look for ways to slow down.
Remember how the Colonel took out his pen and ink, unscrewed the ink bottle, unscrewed the pen, dipped it ink, and screwed the lid back on the bottle? How the farmer unwrapped his pipe from its pouch, filled the bowl with tobacco and lit it? All of this happened in real time.
The time it takes to fill a pipe and light it is the scene. It’s not “getting in the way of” the next thing.
Object work can help ground you on stage, so reach out into your environment and find something, then let it inform your character.
Enjoy The Sounds of Silence
The conversation between Nazi and farmer is punctuated by pauses. Strong verbal initiations are great, but sometimes silence is the strongest response of all.
How many times have you walked into a scene and waited for your partner to speak, only to have them stare at you and say nothing?
There’s a difference between staring blankly because you’ve got nothing, and staring silently because staring silently is your thing.
If you can push through the initial discomfort, when one of you finally does speak, it will almost always produce explosive laughter as a result of tension being broken.
Hold Your Fire
Tarantino films are famous for blood, knives, and Mexican stand-offs. But unlike a Bond film that opens with all guns blazing, Tarantino plays it slow. So he shows us a bunch of guys dissecting a Madonna song, long before we see Mr Blonde sever a cop’s ear.
Sometimes it’s fun to go all James Bond. But when you start your scene at a 10, the only place to go is down.
Try building your scene one brick at a time, and before you know it, fifteen minutes will have flown by.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go watch Django again.