Movie trailers are the tip of the sword, the first thrust of the persuasive statement that asks, “should I see this movie?” The standard convention of a movie trailer is that it’s going to tell you what the movie is about, its genre, and who’s in it, and that will either be interesting to you or not.
A trailer’s not just informational, though. You’re supposed to feel something. It’s supposed to be the hook on the end of the line – compelling, drawing you in. It usually takes a skillful blend of carefully chosen dialogue and character snapshots, showing just enough leg when it comes to the plot to tantalize, but not make mundane.
The very best movie trailers can accomplish this without uttering a single word.
Showing, not telling, is one of the hallmarks of good storytelling. With a little over two minutes in a standard movie trailer, there’s usually just not enough time to do anything other than wield a blunt instrument by having a character grab another character’s shoulders in the beginning and telling him, “Jeff, you’re the best damn neurosurgeon in Southern California.” Most trailers, in other words, end up leaning pretty heavily on some pretty well-trodden devices.
So what does a trailer have to do to work while not having any of those standard explanatory devices? For me, it’s all about mood. And if you’re not going to have dialogue in your trailer, then the music and sound effects that go with the visuals takes on an even more important role.
With no words, you can pull back and really appreciate the color and tone of a trailer, the way it ebbs and flows, pulls you in, shocks you out.
The Classic: Alien
Now that’s how you build tension. You’ve got that steady percussive beat in the background, you’ve got those creepy strings, and you’ve got the slow reveal with the tilting letters spelling out the film title. And then you’ve got the snap – otherworldly howls, quick cuts to cat eyes, and that loud, almost siren-like wail that never quite comes when you think it will.
Even if the plot or characters are mostly ignored in favor of tension and mood, that doesn’t seem to matter. Watching Alien is a lot like the trailer – it’s tense, and quiet, and scary, then loud and scary. The trailer is a perfect microcosm of the film, and they didn’t have to utter a single word.
The Least Bad Best Option: Watchmen
If you were pitching the Watchmen trailer, what would you do? You know there’s two main groups: people who have read the graphic novel, and people who haven’t. For the latter group, you’d need about a 10 minute trailer to unpack the essence of the plot – I’ve read Watchmen a couple time and trying to explain the plot to someone is a study in “wait, let me back up…”
So what do you do? You pick one single element, the tone. The desperation and fear that comes from the looming threat of global destruction, and you hammer it while showing sleek visuals and intriguing characters. For those who’d read it, you got the thrill of recognition without getting into too many specifics, which opens you up to fan nitpicking, and for those who hadn’t, it creates a thread of conversation – “what is this?”
And yes, I suppose I’m cheating a bit with this one. There actually is a line of dialogue; the muttered “God help us all.” You could lose that line and not lose anything, though.
And the music? Pretty perfect. The Smashing Pumpkins did the whole “beautiful foreboding” thing pretty damn well, and the stately pace of the particular song makes the trailer even more gripping and tense.
The Jarring Contrast: Shame
I don’t know exactly what it is about Carey Mulligan that makes me really, really like her work, think she’s a talented actress, and yet never quite shake myself of the feeling that I’m being duped in some way. For some reason, I’m reminded of the classic scene in Season 3 of Mad Men when the Sterling Cooper crew is watching the intro to Bye Bye Birdie, and trying to pin down the ineffable “quality” that Ann-Margret has as she throws herself into the opening song with extreme earnestness. No one can quite place it, until Peggy snarks that it’s “the ability to be 25 and act 14.”
Carey Mulligan singing a stripped-down, haunting rendition of “New York, New York” over images of Fassbender’s descent into quiet, depraved, fetishistic eroticism is probably one of the most effective “contrast in opposites” trailers I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is fan-freaking-tastic, too.
And yes, cheating again. This time, it’s a bit harder to handwave away. Fassbender’s curt “slowly” as a woman strips in front of him is actually pretty key to the whole trailer experience, as it’s very informative of his character.
The Hanging Curveball: Blue is the Warmest Color
I’ve covered this movie before, and it’s a huge winner in my book. It’s also tailor-made for a wordless trailer. Seriously, mute the trailer and add your own music. The movie’s lush, close visuals and lovingly intimate reaction shots make this a pretty easy pitch to hit. I’m actually not a huge fan of the song they chose. It’s pleasant enough, but I don’t think it’s quite evocative enough to really match the beauty of the movie.
The fun thing about movie trailers with no words is that it would be pretty easy to re-cut with a different song. I’m thinking Al Di Meola’s “Mediterranean Sundance”would work pretty well here. Anyone want to take a swing at it?
The Gold Standard: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I’ve probably watched that trailer a couple dozen times. It’s like a master class on what you can do with just music and images. Notice how the quick cuts between scenes are timed exactly to the beat of the song? Notice how the first half of the trailer builds and builds to a point when the lyrics kick in, and on that beat, it’s a shot of Lisbeth Salander – one of the most compelling fictional characters of the last decade, and certainly the one everyone’s showing up to see – quickly turning and almost facing the camera?
Even with all the quick cuts, some continuity is created as, for a few beats, the visuals switch back and forth between two scenes, like the slowly approaching house, or Craig slowly taking off his glasses in realization. There’s the beauty of it, right there. If you’re totally unfamiliar with the source material, you don’t know what he’s realizing, but you get a sense of that moment all the same. You’d come away from the trailer with zero sense of plot – you’d know it would be a mystery, with suspense and tension. All you’d have is that clear, compelling-as-hell sense of mood and tone.
Getting Karen O, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross to cover Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” was a pretty solid move, too.
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is what I consider the top of the heap when it comes to wordless trailers. It drips with attitude, it’s entirely memorable, and it makes me want to see the movie while giving nothing away.
Anyone else got one?