How Tim Burton's Ed Wood Employs Visual Storytelling to Enhance Its Story (Text/Video Essay)
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is my favorite film of all time, and for good reason. It stars Johnny Depp as the so-called Worst Director of all-tme and follows him through the production of his three most iconic movies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
It’s an extremely charming movie, rich with dorky humor, and inspirational tone and it even provided the fuel for one of the internet's favorite jokes, saying that Sara Jessica Parker looks like a horse.
I never quite found that funny, if I’m being honest.
So today I thought I’d crack open a scene from a film that changed my life. Ya know, really rifle around the guys of a scene to figure out what’s beneath the surface of it. Ladies and gentleman, let’s autopsy Ed Wood.
The scene I’m going to be analyzing today is the scene in which Ed meets Bela Lugosi for the first time. This scene leads to Ed eventually getting to make his first movie and sets up the important friendship between the two characters that is one of the pillars that this movie stands on.
However, I won’t be covering the full scene, but rather just the moment leading up to them meeting. I think that first half of the scene is the real meat and potatoes here anyway, and that the second half is a lot easier to map on your own. But alas, I’m a fickle guy, so maybe I’ll change my mind and analyze the rest of the scene someday.
What makes this scene special to me is the way in which it implements the fundamentals of visual storytelling in order to communicate an idea with the audience in a subtle way.
It also happens to do so in less than a minute and a half with little dialogue, which is kinda a flex, if you ask me.
The scene happens directly after Ed has been turned down from directing the Christine Jorgonson biopic by Screen Classics producer, George Weiss. Ed, completely despondent, heads to a bar and proceeds to participate in every struggling creative’s pastime, day drinking. Because when it’s noon on a Tuesday and you can’t find a psychic with tarot cards, you look for answers at the bottom of a bottle.
By opening on a shot of Wood at a bar with his face obscured by smoke, Burton conveys the fact that Ed will be spending the duration of this scene intoxicated and dulled by a mental haze.
Seconds later, we cut to a direct profile of the struggling director. The shot places Wood in the center of the frame, which tells the audience that we’re about to focus on Wood as a character and get into his head for a while. This plays in direct contrast with most of the movie, which elects to portray Wood as more of a charismatic enigma, than a fleshed out human being. This second shot also shows us that he’s had 3 drinks, which confirms that he’s intoxicated and that his perception of reality is going to be somewhat skewed in the scene.
Wood ends up paying for his drinks and, while walking to his car, stops at a funeral home, shocked by what he sees.
This is when the scene really starts to take off, as it kicks off a moment of transition for Wood, who’s shown standing outside the morgue in broad daylight. The shot reminds me of the ending shot from The Searchers, when John Wayne stands in a frame within a frame, before turning his back to the audience and walking towards the Wild West. Only in Ed Wood, Wood is exiting the bright and playful TinselTown, which is conveniently labeled behind him, in order to engulf himself in something darker and more claustrophobic. It’s the film temporarily transitioning from being a story in the spirit of Wood to being a peek into his subconscious mind, something we also got to see a bit of in the actual Wood’s movies, like in Glen or Glenda.
The glass door and windows of the funeral home could also be seen as hinting towards how this moment has a reflective quality to it. While we never get an insert of Wood’s reflection in the glass, this idea is played with a bit in the next shot, which is a POV from Ed’s perspective and features a dolly towards the subject of Wood’s attention. We start behind the glass and work our way closer to it until we can clearly see past it and see that Ed is staring at the face of his childhood idol, Bela Lugosi.
The weight placed on Lugosi in this sequence is undeniable, even if it is completely confounding for people watching the movie for the first time. At this point of the film, we actually haven’t met Lugosi’s character yet. We simply know that whoever this guy is, he’s important to Ed.
This shot of Lugosi and it’s reverse angle, Wood standing outside of the funeral home, play in direct contrast to one another, with Wood’s shot being bright and sunny, and Lugosi’s being dim and rich in shadows. And the closer that shot gets the Lugosi, the less we’re able to see the light from outside or the walls surrounding him, which forces us to confront Lugosi’s body.
Wood’s getting closer to the funeral home represents the character, in his altered state of mind, acknowledging the darkness in his life and dropping the entire facade the film is based around. He eventually stops advancing towards the funeral home and enters a medium close up that mirrors the profile we saw of him back at the bar. And the lighting is also the opposite of what was going on in Lugosi’s shot, which communicates a certain level of symmetry, or lack thereof, between the two of them. And this visual reference helps iron in the point of the scene, and part of what’s probably racing through Wood’s mind at this time. Because, while the audience doesn’t know this yet, Bela Lugosi’s role in Dracula changed his life
You see, Ed defied Bela Lugosi. And that isn’t even just in the movie. Like, the real Ed Wood more or less cast Lugosi as God in Glen or Glenda. So the idea of Ed drunkenly stumbling on a dead Bela Lugosi in a funeral home isn’t just a shock to him, on some level, it’s Ed being forced to confront his failures as a creative, which is something we know he struggles with, as evidenced by an earlier scene with his girlfriend, Delores.
The scene continues to build and gives us a few seconds to absorb what Ed must be feeling at this moment until suddenly, Bela’s eyes snap open and he begins to grouchily whine about the coffin.
Lugosi quickly realizes that he isn’t in a Halloween-themed-Sleepys and climbs to his feet in front of a thoroughly re-shocked Wood. Ed then follows Lugosi out of the morgue and like that, is exposed back to the bright Hollywood visage in order to befriend his boyhood idol.
The status quo has returned, Wood’s optimism and faith in humanity is restored, and he goes on to form a relationship that allows him to make some movies. He’s even later shown to be completely unfazed by not getting the Christine Jorgonson job because of his excitement over meeting Lugosi.
And that’s the scene, or at least the part of it I was looking to spread out today.
The use of lighting and framing here was used in order to paint a portrait of where Ed was mentally at this point of the story, without needing to stop the film in its tracks to explain things. The film trusts us enough as an audience to figure things out on our own, or at least be moved on a subconscious level by the scene. Because after all, we don’t even explicitly see Ed make these connections during the scene, so it’s entirely possible everything going on is going over his head as much as the audience’s. But despite that, it’s still there for us to behold in the final film. The scene works as well as it does for me because we’re able to imply that it’s important before we necessarily understand why. And in giving us the tiniest of peeks into the nightmare of ecstasy that is a drunk Ed Wood, it’s allowing us to put ourselves in his shoes and understand him a bit more.
The real Ed Wood never had much of a grasp on the skills needed to be a successful filmmaker, nor did he have the time or money to learn the craft. But what’s really cool about this scene is the way in which it employs the film theory Ed never got to learn in order to let us into his head for a bit. So while a lot of viewers may not of necessarily understood what he was thinking when he saw Lugosi in the coffin, we still know that it must have been important to him. The actual details of his thoughts are arbitrary and documented elsewhere in the movie, so they weren’t necessary here. And even without that context, we as an audience still know how this scene is supposed to make us feel, so we can inject our own personal details into the scene in order to sympathize with the character. And in some ways, that allows us to understand Ed in a more intimate, albeit abstract, way than we would have gotten to otherwise.