Friday, May 17, 2013

My Favorite Scene: There Will Be Blood

When I was in journalism school, I had to take an entire course about how to own a conversation. I was taught how to provoke an interviewee – entice them with questions, amuse them with facts, flatter them with confidence – all in an effort to keep the conversation in my favor. If I wanted the interviewee to be more open, I learned how to shift my body language to become more presentable. Tone, cadence, choice of words, it’s all part of the game. Even if I wasn’t interested in what the interviewee was saying, I learned how to make them the most important person in the room. After all, journalism is a business, and I was taught how to sell myself effectively.

I mention all this because it is exactly the skill Daniel Plainview possesses so effortlessly. No matter who he is talking to or what he is talking about, Daniel completely controls the conversation, and always gets what he wants. Now, whether he does this through flattery or intimidation, the fact is that Daniel Plainview is one hell of a salesman.


To back up slightly. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece of filmmaking. In all honestly, my favorite scene from the film is its nearly dialogue-free introduction, followed very closely by its bombastic conclusion. Both of those sequences have been discussed and dissected to death, so I’m choosing to highlight a far less scrutinized moment from the film.

After oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is visited by the cautious Paul Sunday, who informs Daniel where an ocean of oil lay untapped, Daniel and his son, H.W., trek to California in search of fortune. Soon into their journey, Daniel and H.W. happen upon the Sunday Ranch, where ranch owner, Abel, soon greets them.
Abel is very courteous to Daniel, offering him shelter, goat’s milk, and water, all of which Daniel accepts with great appreciation. Now, pay attention as the camera slowly pushes in on the two. Watch as Daniel inches closer and closer to Abel, leaning into him in a most welcome and warm way. And then comes the most important part of their exchange:

“Do you have bread?” a clearly exhausted Daniel asks.
“We have potatoes,” Abel quickly responds.
“Potatoes would be nice, thank you,” Daniel says.

Notice how Abel didn’t offer Daniel potatoes, and Daniel didn’t ask for them. Instead, in a brilliant effort to keep the conversation in his control, Daniel assumes the potatoes are his. It may be easy to view this conversation as insignificant, given that not much is gained beyond camping ground and food. But keep in mind that this is the first time Daniel and Abel ever speak. Daniel owns this conversation from sentence one, and he’ll own every conversation with Abel for the rest of his life.
From a technical standpoint, this scene is as subtly thrilling as anything else in the movie. How many recent, American movies can you think of in which a conversation between two people occurs in just two extended shots? Factor in that those shots are captured from very far away. Now factor in that the characters on screen are conversing mostly with their backs to us. Now notice that four other characters are on the screen at the same time. Most any other movie would cut in for close-ups of Daniel and Abel, or show H.W. retrieving water from the well, or show the timid reactions of the female Sundays. Not Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s far more interested in putting two people together and letting us take in the scene without the manipulation of camera trickery or editing.   

This brief scene can act as more than a case of superb writing and technical audacity. If studied closely, it could be shown to business students across the country as an effective way to control a conversation. It’s all about the money, right? So here’s how you get it.


18 comments:

  1. That is a great scene. I need to re-watch this film as I still remember about the screening I went to. It was a total sellout as it was very, very hard to find a seat and I managed to get one in second row. The moment that stuck out for me was that oil well explosion and I nearly went deaf.

    It's truly a masterwork in the art of cinema.

    BTW, congrats on getting those runner-up prizes. Next year, I think you and I should make the competition much more interesting.

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    1. Holy god, I can't imagine sitting in the second row during that explosion. And with Greenwood's funky music playing... that must've been amazing.

      Thanks for the congrats. Let's both bring it full tilt next year!

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  2. Wow, I really enjoyed your take on this. That's a great way to look at it. I always noticed the look Daniel gives Eli, like he can already see through him. It never occurred to me to look at their conversation this way. Great post!

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    1. Thanks Brittani!

      I love the way DDL plays this scene. Dude is so conniving - always three steps ahead of everyone else.

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  3. There Will Be Blood is pretty much my favorite film and only reaffirmed my love of PTA. "You're just the afterbirth Eli, slithered out of your mother's filth."

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    1. Nice! DDL is such a beast in that closing scene. It's really quite fascinating. And terrifying,

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  4. After reading this and being reminded of just how awesome DDL is, I'm not in the mood to go pull this out and watch it again.

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    1. Nice! (But I do hope you mean "now" as opposed to "not.")

      Ha, either way, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  5. Awesome write-up man! I love subtleties like this, and it's a great scene, no doubt.

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    1. Thanks! That Daniel Plainview is the king of subtlety. Well, until he's not...

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  6. I think every scene in There Will Be Blood is individually incredible, but I love what you have to say about this scene. I thought it was all down to DDL's performance that this scene is so engaging, but the script and PTA's decisions on how to shoot it influence it too. Great observations, Alex.

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    1. Thanks buddy. And I absolutely couldn't agree more, every scene in this movie is remarkable on its own. For whatever reason, this one has always really stood out to me. Glad you dug the post!

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  7. Great writeup here, man. I love that you spotlighted a different scene than usual, and damn if it isn't effective. What an amazing film.

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    1. Thanks buddy! I'm glad you enjoyed my take on the scene. What an amazing film indeed. Everything about it is perfect.

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  8. Every time I watch the film, Plainview's ease in controlling and manipulating people gives me shivers. It's easy to see how much he values this control in the church scene, too. He looks like he's about to explode when Eli has him on his knees.

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    1. Oh god, what a scene that is. And I agree, the way Plainview can control people is really quite terrifying. What an amazing performance.

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  9. The one character in TWBB Daniel is unable to influence is Bandy. Daniel tries to pressure him by ignoring him and then tries to bribe him. Both attempts are futile.

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    1. Yep, absolutely. Ignoring and bribing don't work, so he resorts to telling a few simple lies. "That's a pipeline."

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