A first impression counts. We all know that. And in screenwriting it’s no different. Your screenplay’s opening scene is vital.
Screenplay readers will often tell you that the first ten pages of a screenplay is key to their overall impression or even to whether or not they will continue reading.
But your opening scene is not only vital in making an impression, it can be a crucial way of efficiently and concisely introducing your characters, world and themes.
The best opening scenes have a clear agenda. They have the story’s overarching themes in sight. They might not always be clear in setting up the protagonist and the world in its entirety. But they can set the tone and atmosphere, thereby introducing the audience to the film immediately.
From the opening scene we can garner what the story might be and what kind of film this is, with or without all the main characters.
So let’s take a look at 10 great opening scenes from films. These are unforgettable scenes in their own right but ones that do a brilliant and distinct job of introducing the story they are about to tell.
We’ve picked scenes we believe are comprehensive in what they achieve, as opposed to scenes that are just striking in their imagery. We’ve also primarily picked opening scenes that exist as one, rather than great opening scenes that come in the form of a montage (such as Goodfellas or Trainspotting).
1. Little Miss Sunshine
The opening of Little Miss Sunshine does a brilliant job of efficiently introducing us to the film’s themes and characters.
It occurs in montage form because it has to in order to introduce the ensemble. This is a story in which the family as a unit is the protagonist and therefore the film introduces the family as one.
Just the opening shot conveys a great deal in terms of the film’s themes:
- Young Olive stares at the TV screen. Reflected in her eyes are the images of a beauty pageant.
- This striking image conveys how a young impressionable girl like Olive is affected by the images she sees on screen.
- She then pauses the video recording and rewinds it, trying to mimic the perfect response the beauty pageant winner has to winning.
- We know just from this that Olive idolises these beauty pageant winners and fantasises about being one. This sets up the film’s primary narrative arc.
Consequently, after the initial scene with Olive, the film introduces the rest of the characters. It does so with a similar efficiency.
- The father is shown giving an impassioned speech about success, only for it to be revealed the class he gives it to is near empty.
- The teenage son is focused on himself, reading, working out, bettering himself.
- The grandfather retreats to the bathroom to take drugs.
- The mother stress smokes in a hurried car journey towards her brother, who is in hospital.
Overall, whilst the inciting incident is yet to come, the film’s opening scene brilliantly establishes the film’s narrative drive, characters and themes. Each character is given a small introduction but it’s all we need to understand how their arcs will feature in the upcoming story.
The opening scene of Ladybird brilliantly establishes the mother-daughter dynamic that serves as the film’s core.
The opening shot shows Ladybird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion, lying sleeping face to face in a hotel bed. Then they prepare to leave their hotel room. The film’s opening dialogue exchange brilliantly captures their contrasting dynamic, as well as Ladybird’s character…
‘Ladybird: Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?
Marion: You are from Sacramento.’
Then we see them driving back home. They share an emotional moment as they finish listening to the Grapes of Wrath. It’s a touching moment.
But it’s not long before the mother and daughter are clashing, their reactions to their emotion very different. Ladybird goes to put the radio on immediately, whilst Marion wants to ‘sit with what we heard’ for a moment. This is a spark that then evolves into an argument, differing attitudes on Ladybird’s situation clashing against each other.
The scene establishes that:
- Marion wants Ladybird to go to Catholic school.
- The year is 2002.
- Ladybird wants to be a writer, hates California and wants to move to the East Coast.
- Marion worries about Ladybird’s prospects and abilities, especially in light of tough economic times.
- Ladybird has called herself Ladybird and Marion refuses to call her by this name.
Ladybird‘s opening scene hits two birds with one stone. It establishes the central mother-daughter dynamic and it lays the groundwork for the narrative. It’s a scene that entices the audience with drama, comedy and poignancy.
Spike Jonze’s Her has a melancholic, powerful opening scene.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) reads a heartfelt and impassioned love letter. It’s a compelling, beautiful letter and one that immediately hooks us into this character.
However, a twist comes as the scene gets wider and wider. We see that Theodore is in an office, filled with other people reading similar letters to their computer screens. This is a gift card company, one that writes personalised letters for couples.
What we initially thought was a heartfelt, personal confession of love turns out to be manufactured, generic and cynical.
This sums up the film’s themes well. This is a world in which love is computer generated, as we will see when Theodore falls in love with an AI personal assistant, Samantha. Theo knows this but still can’t help but fall for Samantha.
The opening scene mirrors this juxtaposition well – the love letters are manufactured and designed but they still have a power and emotion over the reader and over us, the audience.
4. There Will Be Blood
The opening scene of There Will Be Blood encapsulates the myth of the American Frontiersman and the dream that comes with it. The scene shows us the journey of a man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), from lone oil prospector to what he will become, a wealthy oil baron.
It does this by showing the point at which Daniel discovers oil. This is not the Daniel that we will know for most of the consequent film. His hands are dirty, his beard is long, his clothes are tearing at the seams. But this opening scene shows the moment in which that all changes.
He falls and breaks his leg. But he repairs it himself and keeps prospecting a promising spot. By the end of the opening sequence Daniel is working with a team and fast on the road to becoming the wealthy, powerful oil prospector he is for most of the film.
This opening scene brilliantly shows the determination, opportunism and grit that Daniel needed to become the man he would. On top of the content of this scene acutely setting out the film’s story and themes, it does so, even more impressively, without dialogue.
The scene is so well characterised and atmospheric it doesn’t need dialogue to convey the story, themes and character it is setting up.
5. Children of Men
Children of Men‘s opening scene is certainly gripping. It plunges us into this scary, future world of 2027.
A frozen, captivated crowd watch a TV news report in a cafe. The news tells the story of how the youngest person in the world has died, aged 18. This news report sets the context for the story – a world in a fertility crisis, where babies are no longer being born.
We follow the protagonist, Theo Faron (Clive Owen), as he enters the cafe, get a coffee and leaves. He seems relatively undisturbed by the news report. An already bleak context is made worse when Theo leaves the cafe and walks down the street only for an explosion to ring out from the cafe he just left.
This opening scene is great at setting the stakes for the film. The world is in turmoil on a global scale. But it’s also locally in turmoil, shown by the explosion. This action thrusts Theo into the turmoil, suggesting he won’t be able to remain indifferent to world events in the way he was in the cafe.
There’s a lot going on in this opening scene – efficient characterisation, world-building, action. It grabs the audience and pulls them into a distressing, dystopian world – one that ultimately makes Children of Men unique.
Whiplash‘s opening scene is as chilling as the rest of the film proves to be. A distant shot of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) opens the film. Here he is isolated, obsessed by his passion for drumming, striving to be the best he can. It’s an opening shot that perfectly sums up the film’s primary motivation.
Then enters Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the film’s antagonist. Immediately, Fletcher has Andrew sweating.
- Fletcher asks Andrew ‘Do you know who I am?’, to which Andrew affirms. This demonstrates Fletcher’s authority.
- Fletcher asks Andrew why he hasn’t shown he can drum in his band yet, when he knows Andrew knows Fletcher is looking for drummers. This sets up the stakes.
- Andrew starts drumming for Fletcher, only for Fletcher to question whether or not he asked Fletcher to stop drumming or start drumming again. This demonstrates the rules Fletcher sets and the games he plays.
- Fletcher has Andrew insecure and desperately trying to impress.
This opening scene brilliantly demonstrates the setting up of a protagonist and antagonist against each other. The scene efficiently and dramatically shows us the dynamic between these two characters. We’re on edge as soon as Fletcher enters the scene. Not just because of his presence and demeanour but because of how Andrew reacts to him.
7. Inglorious Basterds
Who can forget Hans Landa’s terrifying introduction in Inglorious Basterds? This opening scene establishes one of the most memorable villains in recent cinema history.
The first thing to say about this scene is that it is a great opening scene just by virtue of the fact it is a brilliant scene. It starts the film off compellingly and grips the audience immediately, suggesting a thrilling ride is to come.
But the scene is also brilliant in how it sets up the context (both historical and plot), establishes the film’s antagonist and creates a tension that will pulse through the rest of the story.
- SS special officer Hans Landa pays a visit to a farmer, inspecting his house to see if the farmer is hiding Jewish runaways.
- As Hans gets comfortable, sharing a glass of milk with the farmer, we see a family hiding beneath the floorboards below them.
- The tension is palpable, any movement will alert Hans.
Inglorious Basterds is a film that places its antagonist, Hans (and the Nazis in general) at the very heart of the film. Introducing him in this way suggests just that.
This opening scene is a great example of how starting a film with a strong, compelling, tension riddled prelude can effectively set tone. The scene immerses the audience in the wide-ranging context in an intimate, scary and tragic way.
8. The Godfather I
The first introduction to the world of The Godfather proves to be much more than it seems on first glance.
- A man, Bonasera, comes to the titular Godfather, Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), for advice.
- In a monologue, Bonasera outlines how his daughter has gotten into trouble with a boyfriend. The boyfriend, along with some friends took her out one night and brutally beat her.
- Bonasera comes to Don Corelone to seek justice on the men that beat his daughter and got away with it.
At face value, this is a man coming to see Don Corleone for help. The scene establishes who Don Corleone is, a man who is to come to for these sorts of problems. Bonasera outlines how regular justice has failed him. He now seeks alternative justice. This suggests Corleone is a man responsible for this kind of thing.
In this way the scene effectively sets up the story, context and characters. But the scene also penetrates much more than this…
The journey reflected in Bonasera’s monologue reflects the journey of the film’s protagonist, Michael (who we will meet in the next scene). It’s a journey from belief in the American system to resorting to working outside it. Michael starts the story as an American war hero and ends it (spoiler alert) as the head of the Corleone crime family.
Within this monologue, many themes are touched on – American capitalism, the immigrant story, justice. When we first see it we learn about the nature of the Godfather (Corleone) and see one man’s story (Bonasera). But on second glance there are many clues within this opening scene as to the purpose and intention of the story overall.
For more of a deep-dive into the brilliance of this scene, check out our article on getting across theme.
9. Silver Linings Playbook
The opening scene of Silver Linings Playbook effectively establishes context and character as well as tone and themes.
- We see Pat (Bradley Cooper) facing away from us, crammed into the corner of a room, talking.
- Initially we think he’s talking to someone but we then realise he’s talking to himself, reciting a rehearsed imagining of what he’d say to his ex-wife.
- The film has already told us Pat is in a psychiatric facility and so these two pieces of information give us the context and the reason (or part of it) for this context.
- Pat is impatient when told by an off-screen voice to hurry up. This helps illustrate his characterisation.
- Pat is in the corner of a room looking down as he talks. A window is nearby, suggesting light and redemption. But Pat is only half turned towards it, suggesting that he’s coming out of negative headspace, if not fully there yet.
We will go on to see Pat in the wider context of the psychiatric facility, confident in group therapy, swallowing pills only to spit them out.
But this first glimpse of Pat is enough to know why he is where he is (his ex-wife and a break up), his characterisation (impatient and unresponsive to orders) and the state of his recovery (closed off, turned half towards the light but not fully there yet). It’s a beautiful image and its efficiency starts the film atmospherically and engagingly.
10. The Matrix
The Matrix starts in a way that is familiar within the context of the action genre. The opening scene is in its own mini-movie, an action scene that serves as prelude to the main story.
But it also does something much different than a regular action movie. Not only is there a story but there is mystery threaded throughout this scene.
The scene introduces the audience to many of the key elements that make the movie so distinctive – Trinity, Morpheus, the Agents, reality bending action (jumping between buildings, suspending in air). We don’t know what these elements mean at this stage but enough clues are given in their characterisation to hint at a direction and peak our intrigue.
- We don’t see Morpheus. But he is an authoritative voice on the other end of the phone to Trinity.
- The scene establishes Trinity as a force to be reckoned with. Even before we see her escape from and kill a group of police officers, Agent Smith forewarns this to a Police Lieutenant: ‘No Lieutenant, your men are already dead’.
- We see that both Trinity and the Agents have superhuman abilities. They’re a match for each other in this respect. And they surpass and exist well above the regular police officers. This suggests some sort of hierarchy.
- By Trinity disappearing down the phone line in time to avoid an oncoming truck, we see there is a world outside this one. Trinity is a transient visitor to this world, there for a specific purpose.
The Matrix‘s opening scene is soaked in mystery. What does this all mean? Why can these characters transcend reality? But it’s an action scene that encases this mystery. It tells a simple story, woman evades capture, but peppers complexity throughout.
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