‘PAPER MOON’–THE SINGLE TAKE CAR SCENE

This past Saturday the Directors Guild of America gave a memorial tribute (via Zoom) to the late great Peter Bogdanovich. I was the moderator and the guests included Frank Marshall, Bennett Miller, Cybill Shepard, David O. Russell, Chuck Workman, Doug McGrath and –via tape (or whatever we call whatever captures our image now) Richard Linklater and Barbra Streisand. We asked participants to pick a few scenes from Peter’s movies to show and discuss and the above scene from “Paper Moon” was chosen by both Frank Marshall (who worked on the film) and David O. Russell. It’s a single take that runs two minutes of Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal arguing while driving and it’s a masterful moment in cinema. The car was mounted on a ‘process trailer’ (which is a flatbed with cameras mounted on the car and/or bed as well). Using the process trailer requires a lead car to clear traffic and another car preceding the process trailer on which the director and their team sit, listening to the scene through headphones. Marshall recalled that it took two days to do because one or the other of the actors would blow a line which required the caravan to have to drive a further five miles out of town to the next turnoff, in order to go back and restart the scene on the piece of road they chose to use. It says something about Peter’s diligence as a filmmaker (and I guess his power at the studio) that he refused to break up the scene into closeups in the hopes of just getting enough lines to work with and cut around any mistakes. He persisted and finally got a perfect two minute take halfway through the second day and it really does make the difference–you’re not just listening to the argument unfold and eventually resolve, you are IN the car with them, stuck in their world, without any artifice (like a cut to another shot) to remove you even just a little bit. This led to a rewatching of the entire movie last night and I highly recommend you do so as well. Sometimes–in fact, most of the time–watching fondly remembered films from forty or more years ago can be a slightly depressing experience…but ‘Paper Moon’ is as perfect now as it was in 1973.

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