The trailer for The Man Who Wasn't There is a trailer I love that really doesn't say much of anything about the film's story. I remember how much I wanted to see it when I first saw the trailer; if you had asked me why I don't think I could've articulated it, but I'm going to try my best now.
The fact that the film is black & white intrigued me from the get go, because it's not a decision that modern filmmakers make lightly. The trailer starts with studio logos seemingly underwater, and an award laurel for the Cannes Film Festival accompanied by Billy Bob Thornton's voiceover about the various haircuts he gives.
I find the montage of haircuts hypnotic, because it's not something I'm at all familiar with, or have even seen on film. The idea that all these haircuts have their own names is also very amusing.
Trivia: I learned from my NYU sound professor Jen Ralston that Billy Bob Thornton's voiceover was recorded using a stereo microphone in order to give it more dimension.
The shots in the trailer are all absolutely stunning because Roger Deakins was the director of photography. The music crescendos on a black title graphic for the Coen Brothers that fits nicely over the cigarette smoke. Tony Shaloub's dialogue about someone being blackmailed doesn't connect to any visuals, but his delivery is rapid fire in that Coen Brothers style that it's entertaining just to listen to. The visuals seem to indicate a murder, but they don't entirely connect to the dialogue, so while very evocative you might be hard pressed to remember them.
The music crescendos again, the white background of the electric chair room makes a big impact simply because it's so much brighter than what came before. We get a couple more title cards about the Coen Brothers' previous films.
Tony Shaloub's voiceover continues with some typically abstract trailer dialogue that allows the editor to cut basically any shots that they want to. The long dissolves fit nicely with how the music flows; this isn't a trailer that is looking to draw attention by cutting to the beat. There's one shot of Tony Shaloub talking in the montage, but it looks like the lips don't sync up, so it was probably chosen more for its look.
After this we see a shot of a car careening through the air that lands on a strong piano note. This sort of shot can't help but make a big impact after such an otherwise sedate trailer; of course, I now want to know why this car is flying through the air.
Each cast member gets their own title card and a line of dialogue; we don't get much about them because the dialogue again is very abstract. The most specific dialogue is about how Billy Bob Thornton's character's life isn't so great, and James Gandolfini's dialogue implies there's something about him that he finds unsavory.
The last bit of dialogue from Tony Shaloub continues through to: "Sometimes the more you look, the less you really know." That last sentiment could almost describe watching this trailer. The only thing we can glean about the story is that there's a barber, there's a murder, a trial and possible execution. Did Billy Bob Thornton kill someone? What is happening at all?
So why is it that this trailer worked so well on me? At the most basic level it already has what I consider the minimum number of ingredients for a good trailer, which are good visuals and pretty music. I think that what it does well is sell the tone of the film with the music, and the gradual fades.
Even though the pace is slow, it never feels boring; the trailer moves quickly from shot to shot, but the music and editing have a sense of ebb and flow. Notice how the music crescendos after each section of dialogue (I consider the cast line up one section of dialogue), this gives that little spike to keep things interesting.
I feel like usually this is when I say that I never actually saw the film, but in this case I did, and I think this trailer did a brilliant job of representing the film without going into a typical plot focused trailer. I think as long as you sell the feel and tone, that can be enough for the trailer to lean on (assuming the tone of your film or game is at all interesting). The abstract trailer dialogue could just fall flat if it's too abstract or not backed up by interesting music and visuals.
The lesson here seems to be that a trailer can be great if what you have to work with is already great. Hmm, maybe it's time to do a post about how to make something look great when it's not...