Inspired by the release of the full (and excellent) trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk this week, I thought I’d take a look at what makes a good trailer, and why Nolan’s films are great examples of these.
The trailer needs to entice the viewer into wanting to see the film, but not give so much away that you feel like you’ve seen the whole film already…the main issue I find with trailers nowadays. The film also needs to introduce you to the characters, but not reveal too much about them (i.e. don’t show their whole character arc, so there’s less of a point in seeing the film). Finally, of course, they should represent what the film is about. Too often, trailers can be entirely misleading in their attempts to attract a certain audience, meaning that people go in with different expectations that will impact their viewing of the film.
Of course, as trailers are primarily a marketing tool, the best ones manage to find a balance between the commercial and artistic requirements of a trailer. One of the main elements used to draw audiences to films is the actors. Big names are often emphasised in a trailer as it often gives the film a sense of credibility, or viewers an idea of what to expect. However, sometimes trailers take this a little too far, almost focusing solely on the famous name at the expense of story or accurately representing what the film is about (or how big of a part a certain actor has in it). Here is one point where I think the Dunkirk trailer really succeeds. The film appears to be an ensemble piece, featuring numerous big names mixed in with many unknown actors, but whilst the film gives glimpses of the famous faces, it doesn’t overly state the involvement of any one in particular. This is likely more representative of the ensemble nature of the film, placing story over marketing value. For example, you might not even notice Tom Hardy in the trailer due to the mere split-second presence of his face before it is covered by an oxygen mask. Likewise, the trailer doesn’t sacrifice the film’s integrity by focusing on Harry Styles’ involvement in the film – something that other trailers may do, as whilst Nolan, his actors, and the astonishing true story will no doubt be enough to draw huge audiences, Styles’ presence will likely draw in crowds that are, potentially, less likely to be interested in those aspects. Nolan has even gone so far with the secrecy that shrouds his trailers (more on that in a minute), that for certain films, he has completely omitted big-name stars from the trailers, or any promotion for that matter, in order to keep a surprise that heightens the actor’s impact when they appear in the film (think Interstellar).
Of course, all of this is easier to do when the name Christopher Nolan carries so much weight that it almost doesn’t matter what other recognisable names there are involved in the production. He himself is the main draw, a man whose body of work is so incredible and well-known, that people trust his film’s to reach a certain (high) standard, and can trust to be great without the added credibility coming from actors (who are often the only recognizable names to the average film-goer who may know less about those behind the camera).
Secondly, Nolan certainly fights against the epidemic of revealing too much in trailers as his are, famously, quite cryptic, and reveal very little (especially the earlier and teaser trailers released for each of his films). His trailers create great atmosphere (and atmospheres really indicative of what the film is actually going to feel like), and plot enough points to really strike intrigue in their viewers. Of course, this is very different for Dunkirk as the first film he has done based on real-life, but it still only gives flavours of the various plot lines (it looks to be made up of many plots following many characters a la The Thin Red Line), and gives no hints at the stories’ resolutions.
If you look further back to Interstellar’s teaser trailer, it consisted of Matthew McConaughey’s ambiguous narration over shots of corn and old historical footage, all undercut by Hans Zimmer’s haunting score. There was very little footage from the film itself yet its themes and protagonist were introduced, and its out of context clips cite intrigue but we are kept from their full meaning, as they are not even in the basic context of story in the trailer. Even the main trailer for the film featured relatively little footage set in space, and what was shown was abstract interior and exterior shots, showing nothing of the plot points. It also hinted at the fact that the film’s focus on family ties may add a layer of emotion, but nothing was amplified to actually reveal the extent of the punch the film actually packs.
All of this allows Nolan’s films to have a greater impact upon viewing, as you know relatively little about what you are going to see. You know enough to get you interested, but you barely know the plot beyond the overall concept (which are often huge and intriguing enough on their own with Nolan’s stories). Similarly, they are also very representative of the tone of the overall film. Too many trailers try and make films out to be something they’re not, simply to entice viewers, which can then negatively impact a person’s viewing of a film. If a film is made out to be a light comedy, but is in fact something that contains many dark moments and themes, the audience may constantly be analyzing whether it is funny or not, as that is what they have been told to expect, and thus are confused when it is not what is delivered. Great trailers, like those for Nolan’s films, manage to create an atmosphere, often using the film’s score (not just generic trailer music – although, somewhat ironically, the Inception ‘brawwwmm’ has become the go-to trailer noise), to create an ambiance that carries through to the film itself. You can trust you will get what you are expecting (and so much more).
Finally, and this is only possible with certain films, but trailers with outstanding visuals or striking frames (there are certainly a few in the Dunkirk trailer) add to their brilliance, as these distinct images are more likely to stay in your mind, keeping the film’s presence there as a way to build your anticipation.
For a lot of films, staying away from the trailers may actually enhance your viewing (especially if it is for an older film with the cringe-inducing ‘In a world…’ or ‘Bob was just a normal guy, but…’ narration). Trailers should give you a taste of what’s to come, incite your curiosity, and get your attention (the trailer is Django, you are Calvin Candie). They shouldn’t spoil their own film for you, or mislead you in your expectations. Ideally story would triumph over the commercial aspects of the medium, but of course, they are there to get your bum in a seat. It is often the most cryptic and least revealing trailers (great examples by, you guessed it, Christopher Nolan) that lead to the most satisfying viewing of the films they are trying to promote.