4 Shots of John Ford
What is the perfect scene for the powerful Mexican director Arturo Ripstein? It's the conversation between the Sheriff and the Driver in John Ford’s classic Stagecoach (1939). Ripstein explains his choice.
January 16, 2018 | by Creative Armenia
CA: You've chosen a scene from Stagecoach. Please briefly tell us about this film and set the scene for us.
AR: Stagecoach is certainly one of the greatest films ever. John Ford is the eyes of many filmmakers. The scene is simple: a conversation with diverse heights and angles.
CA: On the surface, this is a very simple set-up scene. The Driver bursts in, mentions that he's "seen Luke Plummer in Lorseburg," and that convinces the Sheriff to hop on the stagecoach – "and ride shotgun." What is special about how this is all executed?
AR: It is a short little scene solved in four shots. The establishing shot, formidably composed with a perfectly balanced frame. A close shot of Beck (Andy Devine) from the viewpoint of Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) has the camera in a low angle. (The Marshall is sitting down and Beck is standing up). Then there is the counterpart of the first close shot. The Marshall from the point of view of Beck. The camera is on a high angle. Then there is the establishing shot again. And the closer shots. Beck informs the sheriff of the sight of somebody in Lordsburg. And then the magic of Ford begins. The Marshall is making up his mind and this closer shot is at the height of his eyes, thus isolating him from the interaction. This is extraordinary because it shows us that the camera tells the tale. Then it ends with the beautiful establishing shot again.
The 4 shotes of the scene - the established shot, a close shot of Marshall, a close shot of Beck, and an even closer shot of Marshall
CA: What did you learn (or what do you admire) about the filmmaking from this scene?
AR: I learned many things from Stagecoach. I've been stealing things from Ford ever since I saw this movie in my early youth. But the most important thing that I learned is that the way you tell the story is the story.
CA: So much action is packed into this scene of conversation. In just one minute of casual talk, we get a major decision that launches the story, we get a strong sense of three characters (including one we have yet to see), and our interest in "what happens next" is built to the max. Can you describe your own approach to dialogue and how to accomplish the most out of what your characters say?
AR: I do not improvise. I trust the good writers I've worked with. Especially Paz Garciadiego who has written about 13 of my films. The writers have polished the lines and I've discussed this deeply with the authors and the players. Since the coming of the digital platform, (I made the first digital movie in Latin America), I do not rehearse anymore. I shoot everything and I can record absolutely everything. In a while the scene comes to life, and further on, If we keep filming, the actors and the camera and the rest of the components of a scene, become the dialogue. That when it's good. And you stop.
Valery said that you don't finish your work. You abandon it.
The poster of 1939 film - Stagecoach by John Ford
CA: Ford seems to employ mystery here to great effect. We don't know what the Marshall is thinking as he ponders the gossip, but we feel it must be significant. We don't know why it so matters that somebody has been sighted in Lordsburg, but we're excited to find out. We hear exactly what we need to build our anticipation for this journey, and nothing more. Can you comment on the power of mystery and the unsaid, and how to best use it without sacrificing clarity?
AR: It is known that with no mystery, there is no Art. But to define it is complicated. I wouldn't know what it is, but if I see it, I recognize it.
Stevenson also said that enchantment is an absolutely necessary component for Art. I wish I had said that.
John Ford and Arturo Ripstein
CA: The Western has made something of a comeback as a vital genre. Why do you think that is?
AR: What would a "vital genre" be? And about the comeback, I have no idea.
I never dwelled in the vital genres. Me, I'm expendable.
CA: Is there any movie – or kind of movie – that you've always longed to make but never have, for one reason or another?
AR: Yes – I would have liked to make The Seven Samurai and La Dolce Vita or El Angel Exterminador but I could not...
Watch Ripstein's perfect scene
Arturo Ripstein is a Mexican producer, screenwriter, and director of Love Lies (1989), Deep Crimson (1996), and many other classics.