We’ve all seen the bad death scene in movies and on TV. There’s usually a lot of coughing, dragged-out final “last words” that inevitably mean nothing or are so riddle-iculous they end up kicking off some huge mystery, then more coughing and — zap! Frozen eyes, limp body. Or worse, eyes suddenly close, body goes limp.
“All actors love having a death scene,” screenwriter and actor Robert Schenkkan told me. But as I explored in the article, it’s not always easy to get it right. So how do actors and filmmakers keep from going full-on cliche when it comes to making their characters do death? I wrote this article about it for the L.A. Times’ Envelope the other week, but there was so much great material left over I wanted to share it with you here.
What you may not realize is that Schenkkan, the writer behind this year’s Oscar-buzzed-about film “Hacksaw Ridge” is actually the same guy whose head exploded on “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” classic “Conspiracy” episode:
Yeah, he totally loved playing baddie Dexter Remmick, but he noted that the head ‘sploding was apparently too much for one country’s broadcasters.
“For its time it was a very special effects ridden for television,” he said. “It was so violent that that particular episode was banned in Britain. Imagine that. Within the moment the real acting part was the build to this moment; the actual death itself, because it was so heavily effect-ridden, was all about me accommodating myself to the needs of the camera and the prop master and effects team.”
Of course, Schenkkan recalled other non-effects-ridden deaths, and noted that it really is a fine line between doing it right, and doing it hilariously wrong. “In school I did a lot of Shakespeare, so I died as Hamlet,” he said. “That’s a great death scene because the language is so extraordinary but it’s challenging because the stage is littered with bodies. The scene is so extraordinarily heightened, the tension is enormous and you have three deaths there and then Hamlet dies and how do you make that fourth death the capper, without tipping it over? The tension is so much the audience humanly seeks a release and if you manage it right it’s cathartic – pity, sorrow, horror. And if you don’t do it right what you get is a giggle, a nervous giggle and that’s not good, that’s the challenge.”
What might surprise many about death scenes in movies is that even at their most bloody, they’re probably not realistically bloody enough. Tate Taylor, who directed both “The Girl on the Train” and “The Help” noted that he shot Jessica Chastain’s character in the latter film with a miscarriage.
“The blood issue came up in that movie, too,” he said. “The producers said I had too much blood with her, and they said it’s unrealistic. But two female actresses came forward and said, ‘This has happened to me and it’s three times as much, leave it alone.’ That was pretty powerful.”
That all said, a death scene really is like no other in the movies; it can exact a toll on the filmmakers and the actors, assuming everyone is taking things as seriously as they probably should.
“Hell or High Water” director David McKenzie says he still carries some emotional scars from a scene in his first film, in which someone was put out of their misery after being “nastily tortured,” he said.
“I found the making of that deeply traumatic,” he recalled. “You know it’s fake but you’re inhabiting that world and it really got to me. I don’t like going to those places, but I don’t like the idea of suggesting that I’m being muted over cowardice. [In “Hell or High Water” the characters are] happy with the thrill of the chase and there’s an excitement between them and then there’s an instantaneous snuffing out. Ben has gone beyond the pale and the audience knows his death coming, you know that’s inevitable. I’m just not spending a lot of time with the actual dying.”
Then he added, “Both of my parents died while making this film, so that has double resonance for me.”
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