Academic books and essays about movies use lofty phrases and multi-layered interpretations to make the fact the authors have watched movies too many times seem like an insightful and meaningful practice. Anyone who has spent much time on a movie set realizes that’s usually giving filmmakers a bit too much credit. In fact, as we’ll be able to see with today’s list, many important moments brought to us by movies have been the result of blind luck or unintended consequences.
10. Apocalypse Now’s Brilliant Time Waster
Francis Ford Coppola point blank describes the lyrical beginning to Apocalypse Now as “a total accident” on his commentary track. What happened was that one day during editing he saw buckets of extra film that was going to be thrown away and apparently on a lark decided to watch some of it. As a joke, he said “it would be funny to play the song “The End” here, if this were going at the beginning of the movie.” That joke resulted in one of the best movie openings of all time.
9. Accidental Social Significance and Zombies
While George A. Romero’s 1968 horror/action film Night of the Living Dead is more respected than fear-inspiring in these shock horror days, it was daring in its day in ways that were more significant than the shocks. Most widely cited and discussed among these innovations was the fact the male lead was a black man named Ben played by Duane Jones, and yet no one in the movie commented on this. This was at a time when in Roger Ebert’s review of the film he called the character “the negro” instead of by the character’s name, to help you get a sense of what kind of a social climate this happened in. But Romero wasn’t trying to drop an “important message” on anyone. He just felt Jones was the best actor who auditioned. It’s certainly understandable that people read more into that than Romero intended, given that the movie ends with the character being shot in the head by some blue collar white guys and this was only a year after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in a similar way. Just goes to show that it can often work better to go about your business as an enlightened person than to try shoving enlightenment down the audience’s throats. Unfortunately Romero started doing the latter every other film he made after NotLD.
8. Laziness Innovates Movie Making
Jean Luc Goddard is one of the best known French directors from a period called the “New Wave.” This reputation was garnered in large part from his 1959 hit Breathless. One of the aspects of the movie that was held up in many glowing reviews as a stroke of brilliance was something called “jump cuts” where within an action, he would cut to later in the same action in the same shot. What was perfect about this was Goddard did it just because his financier on the movie told him the movie was too long, so rather than go through the process of restructuring the movie or removing scenes or anything so time consuming, Goddard just chopped the middle section out of shots to shorten the movie and save time.
7. Walter Murch Is Accidentally Forced to Reinvent Sound Editing
In 1968, Francis Ford Coppola was making a movie called The Rain People, and future academy award winning editor Walter Murch was called in to do the sound for it. Not being a big prestigious editor yet, he was not permitted access to any major studio sound effects libraries, so he had to create his own sound effects. It turned out Murch was so brilliant at the process that the studios pushed him into doing sound designs that greatly advanced sound mixing for movies. The results would make most of the studio sound library obsolete or at best quaint. This could have been completely avoided if they’d just let him in.
6. Messing Around Makes Film Printing Possible
In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schultze was working at the Caesarian Academy in Colditz, Germany. One day he was mixing together silver nitrates and other silver salts in his lab (typical male.) Light came in from an open window hit his nitrates and darkened it accidentally; marking possibly the first time a nerd ever saw direct sunlight. It was the first step in the development of the entire photographic process, which obviously is pretty vital to the making of movies. He personally didn’t extend the use of this technique beyond letter cut-outs for creating shadow prints, but it’s not a bad yield for something that was a complete accident.
5. Easy Rider Bungles into Being Legendary
One of biker blockbuster Easy Rider’s most famous sequences is an acid trip that stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. To capture the event, Hopper went with some of his filmmaking friends lugging 16 mm cameras. As Hopper and others would later describe it, his friends were basically running around popping off shots of whatever happened to interest them at a given moment, usually not bothering with focus. At one point, Hopper lost his nerve to an extent that he got in a fight with camera guy Barry Feinstein. The fight included breaking a guitar over Feinstein’s head and throwing a TV at him. As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, the film was accidentally exposed to sunlight before being developed, which would have made it unusable for a sober movie, but here it was just spliced into the trip bit and was considered by many to give the sequence a significant element of authenticity.
4. A Camera Jams & A Career is Launched
In 1895, Parisian Magician George Melies was filming a shot of a street scene that was going to be edited into his magic show. Then his camera jammed and stayed jammed for a few minutes. After finally tapping it with his magic wand a couple times, the camera started up again. When he looked at his footage later, he noticed something: at the spot where the camera had stopped and then restarted, it looked like a carriage that had been going down the street was replaced by a hearse. Thus Melies made his first special effect, and special effects would define much of the rest of his significant career (which included such masterpieces as the highly influential A Trip to The Moon.)
3. A Run Red Light Sparks a Catch Phrase
The bit from Midnight Cowboy where Dustin Hoffman as Rizzo Ratso and Jon Voight as Joe Buck are crossing the street and are nearly hit by a cab whereupon Hoffman says “I’m walking here!” has become the most famous part of the movie. The American Film Institute rated it the 27th best quote in the first century of US films. It also endangered the two leads, because the bit was completely unplanned. What had happened was the cab had run a red light and almost hit the leads. Hoffman was pissed off because it had been the first good take up to that point. So he was thinking “I’m acting here” but it came out better. Notice that when he delivers it, he drops the thick fake accent for the rest of the scene.
Admittedly, this is not the best clip in the world. Check out our playlist for a better one.
2. The First Sound Synch Dialogue
While most film students have heart at some point of another that synch sound was introduced to movies in The Jazz Singer. What’s not nearly as widely known is that actually, the movie actually is mostly just another silent film. While the songs are synchronized, all of the non-sung dialogue that Jolson sings (such as “You ain’t heard nothing yet”) was unscripted. Initial critical reaction to the sight of an actor talking was limited, but audience reaction to Jolson actually talking and not just singing was so strong that silent movies were commercially dead by 1931.
1. Mother Teresa’s Stardom is Launched
In 1968, British intellectual Malcolm Muggeridge was making a movie for then not-very-famous missionary Agnes Bojaxhiu (she took the name Teresa much later for PR reasons) that was going to be called Something Beautiful for God. During a bit where they were filming one of her “Homes for the Dying,” Muggeridge and his camera person thought it would be too dark to film inside, so they tried using an experimental new film from Kodak which worked excellently. In fact, footage shot outside the Home was apparently murky and dark, but the footage from inside the Home was described as having a particularly beautiful golden light. Muggeridge claimed that what had happened was a “photographic miracle” and began promoting the hell out of Teresa’s mission with what he felt was divine purpose, and basically pushed the nun on the world and made her internationally famous. The event was taken into evidence by the Catholic Church for Mother Teresa’s candidacy for sainthood.
List by Dustin Koski