A Master Class in Staging: Raiders of the Lost Ark in Black and White

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Last week, Steven Soderbergh did something very cool: He took Raiders of the Lost Ark (read the script) and removed all of the color and all of the sound. He then laid a groovy electronica soundtrack over the whole thing for some mood music. The result is an amazing class in staging.

One of the hardest things to do as a screenwriter is to get across a sense of how you think a particular shot should look without adding in camera angles — something you should almost never do. Mastering this skill is tough, but it’s worth the effort, because effectively staging a scene can add a new level of drama, comedy, or interest. This task ultimately falls on the director and his cinematographer, but the clever screenwriter gets to add in their say first.

Imagine, for example, a scene in which two people are sitting in a living room having a passive aggressive argument. The dialogue is sharp, but the shot is stagnant. Now imagine the scene introduced like this: “Steve and Carol stew on opposite ends of their over-sized couch. Overhead, the whirring blades of the ceiling fan cut through the thick air.” This isn’t a perfect example, but you get the idea.

But back to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Watch just a few minutes and you’ll be hooked. You’ll notice things you never noticed before, like how dramatic it is when Indiana’s face is revealed for the first time after we’ve been following him around for three minutes. Or how tension is built by shooting the adventurers through thick brush, giving the impression that they are being watched… Bryan Curtis outlined more lessons from this cut of Raiders over on Grantland.

As Soderbergh puts it:

I value the ability to stage something well because when it’s done well its pleasures are huge, and most people don’t do it well, which indicates it must not be easy to master (it’s frightening how many opportunities there are to do something wrong in a sequence or a group of scenes. Minefields EVERYWHERE. Fincher said it: there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong). Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount.

Beware: You can spend a whole day watching this film, then watching it while reading the script. Watch Steven Soderbergh’s Raiders here.

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