Nine Secrets of Hollywood Magic – Revealed!

Even poor characters own 500 different jackets

Almost every rational person understands that there is a lot of fakery in filmmaking: that's not blood, it's corn syrup; Tom Cruise isn't driving that car into a wall, a stuntman is. Still, there are certain little behind-the-scenes secrets that a lot of people don't know, or never picked up on.

  1. Movie stills are NOT actual footage from the movie. Whenever you see a "still" from a movie in a magazine or on a website, it's likely the work of a stills photographer: you will never find that exact framing, or that exact angle, in the movie itself. Why is this done? Better picture quality. Less hassle. And often it's the only time you can see several of the film's stars looking in the same direction in one shot (usually at the director, who is talking to them off camera).
  2. Characters in a film always find excellent parking. No matter where the character is driving his car, be it in downtown Manhattan, Paris, or San Francisco, he always seems to find a free parking spot exactly in front of the place he wants to be. Now why is that?
  3. Even poor characters wear the finest clothes. My Foreign Correspondents costume designer Caroline Marx tipped me off to this: the finer the fabric, the better its texture reads on film. She said the ratty undershirt Bruce Willis ran around in during Die Hard was actually a $300 shirt from Barney's.
  4. Corollary: Every character has a billion clothes. Check out Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting: how many windbreakers does his working class character own, anyway? 500? He never wears the same jacket twice. I find this kind of costume design unrealistic. We all wear the same shirts and pants several times each month. Why shouldn't movie characters? We were good about this on Foreign Correspondents – Melanie Lynskey wears a lot of clothes, but we did a lot of mixing-and-matching, like her character would do.
  5. Day for night. You may have heard this term before. It means shooting outside during the day, then lowering the light levels on the film print so that a bright sunny day is darkened into a moonlit night. This trick was employed all the time in older movies, especially those that were shot in black and white. In short, if a scene in a movie takes place at night but the sky is not pitch black, you know they shot "day for night".
  6. Stars in the night sky: fake! Okay, so you see a movie where the night sky is pitch black. You even see lots of twinkly stars. Guess what? Unless it is a science documentary, you can bet that those stars are all fake. Starlight is too faint for most film stocks and digital cameras to pick up without seriously opening up the shutter. There's nothing but artificial "starry skies" in Hollywood.
  7. No rearview mirrors in cars. I only learned this while shooting a scene in Foreign Correspondents in which Melanie Lynskey and Wil Wheaton were sitting in an actual car with an actual rearview mirror. Somebody told me that most films have those rearview mirrors removed (except for those Silkwood-style headlights-in-mirror shots). Why? Because filmmakers think they look too distracting and alien, even though every car has one.
  8. Group photos on movie posters are rarely groups. Actors have wild schedules and wild egos, so it's often difficult to get them to all pose together for a movie poster. More importantly, studios' marketing departments prefer to have all the actors shot separately, so they can move each one around at will in Photoshop.
  9. Why actors never squint. I learned this eons ago when I was starring in my friend Robert Czech's CalArts thesis The Tinhorn. (Yes, I too have acted). We were shooting outside in the bright sunlight and a crew member imparted some wisdom, allegedly from a "how to act" video from Michael Caine: when facing into the sun or a bright light, actors first close their eyes – not tightly – as they let the light warm up their eyelids. For some reason, once they open their eyes just as the camera starts rolling, they don't squint as much. I've tried it, and it totally works. And now you know everything.