Fall 2019


For Starters

Michael Mann, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ang Lee expound on their opening sequences for The Last of the Mohicans, Love & Basketball and Sense and Sensibility

By Carrie Rickey

(Photos: Patrick Harbron; Photofest)

The Last of the Mohicans | Michael Mann, 1992

"I like parachuting the audience right into the movie," says Michael Mann, whose adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel begins under the opening credits. "How do I drop the audience into 1757? I show the landscape and indicate the political economy. Every shot is a distillation, impressing the audience with data they don't know they're absorbing."

Accompanied by a rhythmic drumbeat, intertitle cards tell us the time frame, the third year of the war between England and France for possession of the continent.

And that "three men, last of a vanishing people, are west of the Hudson River."

"The first shot, the mountains shrouded by mist, suggests the limitless frontier, a virgin land where man can be free," says Mann. "It's Rousseau's idea of the New World, a new beginning, an idealized state of nature." (For inspiration, Mann studied works by Hudson School artist Albert Bierstadt.)

We first hear, and then see, a flowing-haired man in deerskins running through this forest primeval, carrying a musket as he vaults over rocks and streams. He is Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), son of Europeans, adopted by Native Americans. Is he pursuing or being pursued?

A second flowing-haired man in a dark shirt catches up to Hawkeye. He is not an enemy, but Hawkeye's half-brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig), likewise armed with a musket. A third man—older, earringed and wearing an indigo shirt—appears to be after the two younger men, who pause to scope the object of their pursuit.

"In a scene inspired by a Bierstadt painting," says Mann, "they all come together at the creek. Then you realize they're hunting." The older man is Chingachgook (Russell Means), father of Uncas and adoptive father of Hawkeye.

Their prey is a majestic bull elk. Hawkeye aims his musket and fires, proving worthy of his name. "With a musket you only have one shot, then you have to reload," Mann reminds us.

Mann's opening sequence establishes the lushness of this American Eden and the familial relationship among the three characters. His last scene likewise has three people (two of whom were in the opening sequence) beholding the mist-shrouded range and contemplating the future of the continent.

"There are no rules for an opening scene," Mann says. "Each narrative needs its own beginning." The opening of Mohicans is relatively straightforward. "Yet there are movies where you need to misdirect the audience because you want to surprise them."

(Photos: Jessica Antola; Photofest)

Love & Basketball | Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000

"I like movies that just start without a ton of credits. I like people to lose themselves in the movie as soon as possible," says Gina Prince-Bythewood of her feature debut about boy- and girl-jocks-next-door who mature from frenemies to friends to intimates to college hoops stars.

For her, "The opening shot had to establish two black characters in suburbia, neighbors, and their fraught dynamic."

With its sexy groove, Al Green's "Love and Happiness" accompanies a wide crane shot above a leafy street in the Ladera Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles on a bright summer day. It is 1981. Over a hedge and other assorted greenery, there's a Mercedes and three preteen boys, one in an L.A. Clippers jersey, playing basketball in the next driveway. "It was important to signal that this is a prosperous L.A. suburb, a different environment from South Central," says Prince-Bythewood.

"The crane gentles the audience into the scene, like a welcoming arm," she adds.

As the boys shoot hoops and talk about the new neighbors, suddenly a kid wearing an L.A. Lakers cap appears, asks to join them and gets the nod. The cap comes off to reveal an abundance of hair. The boys groan, "He's a girl, girls can't play ball." Quincy, the one in the Clippers jersey, assigns partners for two-on-two.

He assigns Monica to the other team. In an exhilarating hand-held camera montage (to the bubblegum beats of New Edition's "Candy Girl"), Monica disproves the boys' initial verdict, as she's faster on the rebound and sinks more shots than Quincy. On the defense, he gets physical and pushes Monica to the asphalt. Quincy and Monica grow up to be Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan, competitive on the courts and in their courtship.

"I knew this scene—I knew how a girl in sports always has to prove herself," laughs Prince-Bythewood, once a teen athlete herself. The film's coda echoes its first sequence, except at the end, the grown Quincy and Monica are playing one-on-one.

(Photos: Everett; Photofest)

Sense and Sensibility | Ang Lee, 1995

"Setting things up during the credits sequence enables me to establish tone, to convey narrative background and to show the texture of time and place," Ang Lee says, crediting Emma Thompson's adaptation of the Jane Austen novel for its concision and wit in telescoping two chapters of the comedy of manners into three droll minutes of screen time. "The script was the map to ease moviegoers into Austen's world."

In five brief and sprightly blackout scenes set to wistful piano music, Lee takes the audience from a deathbed farewell and promise through successive rationales of why that promise will not be kept. In a candlelit room of a country estate, a dying man (Tom Wilkinson) entreats his heir (James Fleet) to financially help his half-sisters who together will inherit a modest £500 a year because his estate cannot be divided.

Cut to the heir's elegantly appointed London home in the light of day, where he informs his tight-fisted wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) of his intentions to gift his half-sisters £3,000 annually.

As the pair are in a stagecoach on the way to their newly inherited country estate, Fanny whittles her sisters-in-law's inheritance down to £1,500 a year, saying, "What brother would do so much for his real sisters?"

In front of a country inn on their journey, Fanny observes with a sigh, "People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them."

Back in the coach travelling across a scenic hillside, Fanny successfully negotiates the annuity back down to £500, Lee having shown us the city, the country, and the changing landscape in between. As he prepares moviegoers for the near-complete disinheritance of the Dashwood sisters, he likewise leads them from tragedy to droll comedy in four edits, the last two cutting between characters in motion.

To capture that "double-edged comic tone," Lee's visual references included the 17th-century satiric paintings and prints of William Hogarth, who lived roughly a half century before Austen and, like her, was enormously popular.

"For me, I like quiet, slow beginnings," Lee says. "The best movies, you don't know what hit you, that requires a good setup at the beginning." In his opening scenes, the director likes to seed surprises that will pay off over the course of the film.

That payoff occurs at the film's close during a wedding where coins are thrown at guests for good luck. One coin lands in Fanny's eye, which gets a laugh. And then Lee gives us a glimpse of a remorseful suitor of one of the Dashwood girls, which pricks the heart.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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