Mike Cahill (Bliss) on Serving The Final Scene + The Syntax of Film

Writer-director Mike Cahill appeared on Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast The Q&A to talk about the making of Bliss, starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek. Here are some things he said that jumped out at me. (Note: This was originally spoken off-the-cuff, so I cleaned it up for readability.)

Bliss (Trailer)

On Serving The Final Scene

For me, the whole purpose of the film is the last couple of minutes. Everything is in service of that final transmission of an emotion. And everything is a path to make that land.

On The Syntax of Film

We’ve watched 120 years of cinema and it has a syntax. There is a syntax that we understand, going from wide shot to closeup shot to super closeup shot, reverse shot, it’s almost like we’re constructing sentences. The most daft and brilliant filmmakers are really great at syntax. It’s a dream language in a weird way. Somehow, we can seamlessly interpret a story from shot, reverse shot, wide, closeup. We’re at an era now where we’re pretty deep into it, and viewers are very sophisticated with their understanding of syntax. If it were a poem, we’ve been reading thousands and thousands of poems and we know, if you put this word here and this word here, it does this. It’s a visual language. You look at the end of Contagion, the final little sequence: the tractor that knocks down the trees, the bats that fly away, a bat eats a banana, drops a piece of banana and a pig eats it, and it’s a sequence of shots that don’t have words, but suddenly you understand a very tight narrative. The Coen Brothers are masters of syntax. They can be very tight with the structure of their scene sentence. They don’t even have to show you the car crash, and you know what happened. 

Final scene of Contagion

How He Played With That Syntax

Long story long, I wanted to play with syntax, and particularly POV syntax. We understand that if a person looks, and then you cut to something, you’re seeing what they’re looking at. That’s a very simple subject / verb phraseology or whatever. It’s in the pursuit of making a story where we are one hundred percent WITH the protagonist at all times. My goal is to make YOU, the audience person sitting here, and protagonist, to LINE UP and see the world TOGETHER. So what he experiences, YOU should be experiencing. If he experiences disorientation, you should be experiencing disorientation.

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