Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Charlie Chaplin.
The 124th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birthday was yesterday, and the date represents both the birth of a man and the birth of a cultural icon. Perhaps the biggest of them all. Chaplin made a name for himself during the early years of cinema where silent films had a natural global appeal and became a worldwide name as an actor, producer, writer, and director. He took comedy seriously, building upon silly slapstick with The Tramp and taking on Hitler with The Great Dictator. It’s more than likely that the world will never see anyone rise to his kind of prominence.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Charlie Chaplin
1. Become a Clown
“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”
It’s so much easier to sit around not attempting anything. The danger in trying something where you’ll potentially fail seems rooted in the way the outside world will see you: unpolished, goofy, unserious. Anne Lamott described it in “Bird By Bird” as a scenario where you write a rough draft only to be hit by a bus when you leave your house, and when searching your things, everyone reads your terrible draft zero, believing it’s your best work.
This is the secret, horrifying fear of every creator. Chaplin was right. It seems so simple, but it really does take bravery to risk appearing like a buffoon. Of course, he also described his funny little bowler-hat-donning character as wearing “an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking death, but his feet won’t let him,” so maybe being a fool takes more thought than previously assumed.
Go out there. Dare to be an idiot.
2. Don’t Have a Process
“No, there is no process. The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink]. I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn’t expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light, and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh.
But there was a lot of agony, too. Miserable days of nothing working and getting more despondent. It was up to me to think of something to make them laugh. And you cannot be funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.”
3. Figure Out What Kind of Story You Want to Make, Then Make It
4. Deny The March of Technology
By 1931, sound had already gained so much popularity in films that it made silent pictures outdated. They were instant antiques. Chaplin didn’t care. He put out City Lights, a silent film that became his most celebrated work as the Tramp and earned three times its budget. With the onslaught of popular new technology, Chaplin chose to go against the tide, and it paid off. He would have dropped a mic, but he didn’t have to use one.
Of course, Chaplin would go on to embrace talkies and continue dominating as a storyteller ‐ particularly with Modern Times and The Great Dictator — but he maintained a certain style of delivery that echoed that prominent early era.
5. Stick To Your Idea, But Move Beyond It
“When I started on [Gold Rush] I sweated hard to keep the original thought. That is where many of us go wrong. We sell ourselves an idea and then leave it flat ‐ with the result that we have nothing in the end but hodge-podge.”
One idea, no matter how brilliant, does not make a movie. Don’t lose focus on your concept, but realize that you’ll need a dozen more interesting ideas to fill it out.
6. Dream and Experiment
“When I am not working, I just sit around and dream mostly. I get a lot of ideas that way. And sometimes, when I haven’t any special idea in mind, the cameraman and a few of us with our makeup on, go out to a location. For instance, we go out to the races, take a few scenes (whatever happens to suggest itself), then other things suggest themselves until the story is built, All the time this is going forward things pop into my head which help to make people laugh.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Admittedly, it’s tough to gather too many stones from Chaplin’s career because he was notoriously secretive about his true processes and because we’re a bit beyond the time where you could walk right into a production office and get acting work by sheer will. It’s also difficult to parse information from a man after he’s already found towering stardom.
But there are a few fundamentals here. More reminders to get out and do the work, fears be damned. An invaluable note about building on top of already great ideas. Many filmmakers ‐ pros included ‐ tend to forget that a clever hook, gimmick or twist has to survive (and thrive) in two hours of story in order to work. They believe they’ve come up with the film even when they’ve only just created a logline.
It’s ultimately important to remember that Chaplin wasn’t always Chaplin. He worked ridiculously hard and kept creative even when he wasn’t working (which was rare). All of that started with a few first steps into show business, confidence in his abilities, and the humility to know he could always be better.