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 Luis Buñuel.
When studying the great masters of cinema in school, Luis Buñuel is the easiest to define. He’s the surrealist. Of course, that’s a simplistic summation of a filmmaker whose half-century’s worth of work is quite diverse. Yes, much of it is surreal, but not all of his films continued to follow the rule put forth during the making, with Salvador Dali, of Un Chien Andalou (“no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”). There’s more to Buñuel than randomness.
With this month being the 40th anniversary of his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, we have compiled tips and advice, and beliefs about filmmaking that Buñuel shared in interviews, writings on film theory, and even through one of his movies.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Luis Buñuel
1. Mystery is essential
Many things turned Buñuel off, to where he would admit to walking out of movies that didn’t follow his set of interests or beliefs. One of those beliefs is that mystery is essential to all art, including film. In the 1977 book “Luis Buñuel,” he’s quoted as saying so, and “if a work of art is clear, then my interest in it ends.” In his 1959 essay “Cinema as an Instrument of Poetry,” collected in the book “An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel,” the filmmaker stresses how movies of the time were missing that necessary component:
“The element of mystery, essential to all works of art, is generally lacking in films. Authors, directors, and producers take great pains not to trouble our peace of mind by closing the marvelous window of the screen to the liberating world of poetry. They would rather have that screen reflect subjects that could be sequels to our everyday life, repeat for the thousandth time the same drama, or make us forget the daily drudgery of work.”
And here’s another quote, which is found in the book “Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel,” collecting interviews conducted by friends José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent in the 1970s:
“Neorealism doesn’t interest me…because reality is multiple and for different people it can have a hundred different meanings. I want to have a total vision of reality to enter the marvelous world of the unknown — mystery interest me, mystery is the essential element of every work of art. A good film must have the ambivalence of two opposed and related things.”
2. Film = a series of shots
“If everything is in the scenario, why bother making the film?”
That’s a quote by Buñuel from Jean-Claude Carriere and Mary Ellen Mark’s report from the set of Buñuel’s 1970 film Tristana in Show magazine (reprinted on Mark’s website). It’s just one of the filmmaker’s many statements regarding film only being the final entity, that is “a series of shot” or “the simultaneous separation and ordering of the visual fragments contained amorphously in a cinematic scenario,” as he writes in the essay “Decoupage, or Cinematic Segmentation,” also collected in “”An Unspeakable Betrayal.” He further explains:
“One might argue that a good film that is well shot, with excellent camera angles and performances, would still seem somewhat uncinematic as a whole if it lacked a good decoupage. It might make a good album of animated photographs, but that is as far from the notion of film as are the sounds of an orchestra tuning up from the symphony that follows…Anyone can learn pretty well the basic techniques of cinematography, but only the elect can compose a good film. Through segmentation, the script or the written assemblage of visual ideas ceases to be literature and becomes cinema. There the ideas of the filmmaker are defined, roughly subdivided, cut up, regrouped, and organized.”
3. Work because you love it
For this tip, here’s a quote spoken by the character Don Lope (Fernando Rey) in Tristana, based on the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. It’s not exactly Buñuel’s words, but in his 1982 autobiography “My Last Sigh,” he features the following dialogue in support of his own point about salaried work being humiliating:
“Work’s a curse, Saturno. I say to hell with the work you have to do to earn a living! That kind of work does us no honor; all it does is fill up the bellies of the pigs who exploit us. But the work you do because you like doing it, because you’ve heard the call, you’ve got a vocation — that’s ennobling! We should all be able to work like that. Look at me, Saturno — I don’t work. And I don’t care if they hang me, I WON’T work! Yet I’m alive! I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it!”
Of course, Buñuel often struggled financially, or he was able to lean on the support of his mother and could spend periods of time doing what he loved best, which was being idle. Still, he had to work sometimes and even had to do paycheck films, as long as he could retain his integrity in such desperate times. According to the film notes for his 1959 Mexican film Fever Mounts in El Pao, Buñuel is quoted as saying, “[I] took everything that was offered to me, as long as it wasn’t humiliating.”
Now for a video of Buñuel enjoying some leisure time, making his signature dry martini:
Obviously one of Buñuel’s tips has to do with dreams and the subconscious, as they’re integral to the concept of surrealism.
Also from the essay “Cinema as an Instrument of Poetry,” in which he affirms the similarity between a dark cinema and sleep but explains that not all movies should be fantasy and escapism, comes this excerpt on one of the ways film is a “weapon”:
“In the hands of a free spirit, the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon. It is the best instrument through which to express the world of dreams, of emotions, of instinct. The mechanism that produces cinematic images is, among all forms of human expression, that which most closely resembles the mechanism of the human mind in the way it works, or better yet, that which best imitates the workings of the mind during sleep. A film is like an involuntary imitation of a dream…The cinema seems to have been invented to express the life of the subconscious, the roots of which reach so deeply into poetry, yet it is almost never used toward that end.”
5. Hold back fascism
Coming from Spain, Buñuel was familiar with dictators and had to stay out of his homeland because of one. So, he would have something to say on how art can combat fascism with the “weapon” of cinema. He doesn’t actually mention film in this quote from a 1973 New York Times Magazine profile, but it definitely should be included:
“In any society, the artist has a responsibility. His effectiveness is certainly limited and writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. The small difference is important. When power feels itself totally justified and approved it immediately destroys whatever freedom we have left, and that is Fascism.”
6. Listen to your conscience
In the below excerpt from the 1984 documentary The Life and Times of Don Luis Buñuel, the filmmaker actually answers a request for advice to other filmmakers. Similar to his tip to only work if you love what you’re doing, he says to only make movies that fit your ideology, even if you’re starving:
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Buñuel had plenty of cinema pet peeves (another: “the camera’s presence mustn’t be felt; once the camera starts dancing and becomes the star of the picture, I lose interest and leave the theatre”). But most of his beliefs about film can make for helpful tips about what makes a good movie, how movies are tools for personal and political effect, and how filmmakers should only make movies for the right reasons. Really, all you have to do is dream, and always let your conscience be your guide.