Once the 20th Century Fox logo disappears into blackness, we are immediately presented with an impression of what the film will be like. A television appears in the distance, against a black background (the emptiness of the surroundings make us concentrate on the television, and does not distract us). The fact that we are shown a television tells us that it’s a modern film, and has brought Shakespeare to the present day. This is further proved by the fact that the presenter is a black woman, who until recently wouldn’t have been given such a job.
Her hair and clothes are smart (to show the time period), yet plain, so as not to distract us from what she is saying. Behind her there is a picture of a broken ring, a symbol of broken love, telling those who have trouble with the language, or need some time to adapt, what the story is about. The whole ensemble is given a very detached feel, by the fact that it’s a long shot of the television (so we are distanced from what’s happening), that her voice is lacking in emotion, and that it’s a news program (we’re used to stories of death and violence on the news, and often pay them little attention).
Although we are not told explicitly that it’s a news program, the filmmakers imply it by the colour of the studio, the emotionless tone of voice, and the way the presenter’s head moves after every few words. Although it starts off as a long shot, during the course of the prologue the camera slowly zooms in, as if we’re being drawn into the story. When it gets to a medium shot, the zooming stops, to make us listen to what the woman’s saying. After a while, towards the end of the introduction, we start zooming in again, but this time faster, to show us entering into the story.
The image on the television screen starts accelerating (as if being fast forwarded), increasing the pace to correspond with the speed of the zoom, which makes us feel that the talking is finally over, and the story is about to begin. This is backed up by the winding diegetic sound of a tape fast forwarding. The fast forward movement is continued when we enter the television and are projected down a street towards a statue of Jesus, accompanied by the words “in fair Verona”. The two together give the initial impression that the place is indeed fair (the road itself is nice and colourful).
This notion, however, is put in doubt after we are shown a close up of Jesus’ head, and we zoom out quickly to see a long shot of the statue between two huge buildings. One bears the Capulet emblem and the other the Montague crest. The buildings are a metaphor for power. They are both equal in size, and both dwarf the statue. The significance of this image is that in this city, religion is part of the city’s life, yet not as important or powerful as capitalism and business. It also helps to show the rivalry between the two families, as if Jesus were keeping them apart.
We are then given a series of shots portraying violence and guns (often involving the police), and point of view shots from a helicopter flying above the city. These shots help show us how, although from far away the city seems peaceful, almost beautiful, what happens in it is quite the opposite. The shots of it looking nice are long shots filmed from a high angle, giving them an overview quality, whereas the shots of violence are often filmed from a low angle, making them seem more in-depth. This gives us the impression that the beauty is just a superficial state, whereas the violence and cruelty play a big part in the life of the city.
During most of this, there is a voice-over, repeating what the television presenter said earlier. This time however, there is a lot more emotion in the voice, portrayed by using a low pitch, slow voice, with varying volume. This is in direct contrast to the news presenter, who merely presents the facts in a detached way. It helps add realism to the story, and the sound of his voice makes the violence seem more tragic. He also emphasises some important words such as “grudge”, “mutiny” and “fatal”. These words all have a certain theme, and help create a sombre, tragic mood (along with the quiet dramatic music in the background).
The shots of violence showing while this is playing help put the words into context, giving them more meaning, and bringing them to life. Intermingled with the shots of violence are shots of newspapers and magazines. The newspapers are serious looking broadsheets, and are presented with close ups of the headlines and the photos. The photos are pictures of violence, and the headlines match what the voice-over is saying. This provides a link between the story and the violence, giving the audience an idea of what’s going to happen in the film.
The magazines also show pictures of characters (such as Capulet and Benvolio), which set the scene for later when we see them (which associates them with the violence). At the beginning of this sequence, we are presented with some of the main characters (the members of the two families). We are shown a close-up of the Jesus statue’s head (in black and white), which then zooms back quickly to show the names and faces of the family members. It emulates a previous shot (described earlier), but now connects the powerful buildings to people.
Seeing the two families on opposite sides of Jesus tells us that they are enemies, and the fact that we know their power makes the whole thing serious. What also strikes us is the similarity between the two families. Both men are staring challengingly outwards, while both women are looking sideways at the men. This tells us that they are both patriarchal organisations, and, along with the background image of power and the way the photos are set out to look like an organised crime chart (the black and white suggest that it might be on a police computer or in a newspaper), it makes us think of ” the mob”.
If we think of it this way, then the images of violence are connected with them, and we get the impression of a viscous family feud which is bringing the city down into a spiral of violence (backed up by the way that the photos dissolve into flame afterwards, showing not only the hatred, but also the destruction brought about by their rivalry). Below the parents, in stark contrast, are the children. They are bright and cheerful, each bearing a similar smiling pose. This helps to show how similar they are to one another, and at the same time, how different they are from their parents.
They also help vilify their parents even more, as only cruel people would, given the choice, bring their innocent children up in the middle of such violence and hatred. An extra little addition from the director, which helps show the rivalry, is the naming of the characters. One man is called Ted, while the other is called Fulgencio. The first is a very plain American name, while the other is a fancy Italian name (further Mafia connexion). This is just one of many examples of how the director uses very small things to subconsciously manipulate the audience.
We later get introduced to the characters properly, one by one. The way this is done is that we see the character in a moving sequence for about a second, then it freezes and displays their names and other important information. This gives us lots of visual information about the characters. First we see how they move, telling us about their character, then we get a chance to look at them properly, which adds to our understanding of the character. The two men again seem very similar. They both have broad, strong faces with down turned mouths, telling us that they are powerful men who are not to be messed with.
The notion of power is further backed up by the fact that one man is in a limousine with blacked out windows, which slowly wind down, reminiscent of the Godfather movies, while the other is wearing a shirt with no tie, telling us that he doesn’t have to obey the rules. All this helps show that there is no clear-cut good/bad divide, and no noble cause, just two men who don’t like each other. However, we do get the impression that the Montague’s are nicer than the Capulets, as Montague’s complexion is fairer, and he is clean-shaven, whereas Capulet has stubble.
The wives, on the other hand, are quite different from each other. Lady Capulet is presented as a young, pretty girl who married for the money. She is very young, with fluffy blonde hair, and no strong features on her face. Lady Montague, however, is quite old and elegant, with died red hair, a long nose and tired eyes. She seems about the same age as her husband. Again, it seems as though the director is trying to make us side with the Montagues, without explicitly giving us any reason to. Also shown is Captain Prince, wearing a police uniform and a scowl.
We have already seen scenes of police brutality, and along with his weathered face, makes him seem very tough and powerful. He is black, to reinforce the message that the film is set in modern times, and is shot against a backdrop of the streets, which enhances his tough man image. We also see Dave Paris, a contrast to the previous male characters. He has soft, wavy hair, and sports a large smile. He is clean cut, with soft features, making him seem like he is a soft man, who has never been through anything.
We are also told that he’s the governor’s son, which tells us that he’s rich. He is made out to be the perfect husband. Finally, we are shown Mercutio, a man with a very strong personality. We see this from the aggressive way he points his finger at us while scowling, as though he is challenging us. The background is empty, focusing us on him. All we know about him is that he is Romeo’s best friend, which makes us wonder what Romeo’s like, living in the middle of a violent family feud, and whose best friend oozes aggression.
Throughout this section (since the black and white chart), we have been given dramatic choral music, which gives the voice-over a more powerful effect, and also helps remind us of the religious aspect of the town, even though we are seeing violence. While the voice-over is happening, the volume is lowered, so we can hear the man speak clearly, then, when it gets to the characters, it gets louder, to add more emotion to the otherwise almost neutral scene. At the end of the character introduction, the pace quickens to correspond with the quickly moving shots, and starts to crescendo.
After being introduced to the characters, and as the music starts to speed up, so do the shots. We are given a whole load of very quick shots portraying violence, almost all containing guns. Then, as the music comes to a climax, the title of the piece comes up. The drama is then broken off with the music turning into a drum roll, and the screen wiping from right to left. The mood suddenly changes, and we are now in a yellow (fun colour) convertible sports car (fun car), with people wearing Hawaiian shirts. The drama has now been completely dissipated, and we are left with a bunch of fun loving boys.
This is also backed up by the diegetic, loud radio music, which has a lot of bass. Even the way the camera cuts between shots with wipe effects makes the whole thing seem more fun and light-hearted. The presentation of the men also serves to point out that they aren’t very serious. They are wearing brightly coloured shirts opened at the front, and one has pink hair. This fun, goofy presentation makes the insults they’re shouting lose seriousness. The fact that one has a tattooed, shaved head and that they all carry guns make it seem as though they are trying to act tough, but failing.
Overall, we get the impression that their bark is worse than their bite, and that if it came down too it, they wouldn’t put up much of a fight. This is also shown by he fact that the music goes “the boys, the boys”. They are boys, not men. The shot fades in an ever-decreasing square, which centres on the Montague crest on the back of the man’s tattoo. We then see a Montague building, telling those who hadn’t already realised, that the “boys” are associated with the Montague’s, and therefore the violence also. A mise-en-sci??
ne shot of a petrol station sign follows, not only setting the scene, but also showing the danger of the situation. The way that one small spark can lead to an explosion is a metaphor for what can happen when one family makes a small transgression to the other. When we see both the Montague and the Capulet cars pull up, we know, from what we’ve seen before, that there’s going to be trouble. This is reinforced by the way that one of the Montagues (although saying it as though it were about him to the nuns), “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble”, whilst unbeknownst to him Abra is coming up in the background.
Not only do we know there will be trouble, but we also get the feeling that if there were to be a fight, the Montagues (whose side we are on thanks to their introduction) wouldn’t fare too well. This is shown not only by their appearance, but also the contrast with that of Abra. The way he delicately opens his jacket is a way of taunting the Montagues. They are under orders that whoever starts a fight will be punished, and Abra is showing off his guns to them to taunt them, but his movements indicate that he is not actually starting a fight, and therefore can’t be punished.
It also shows that he is calm and collected, not scared of a fight. This is again in contrast to the pink haired Montague, who thrusts his chest forward to show the gun, obviously panic stricken. We also get a glimpse at his gun. It is gold, indicating that it’s for show more than it is for use. Their cowardice and stupidity is shown next, when they decide to insult Abra by biting their thumb at him while he’s not looking. After they do so, and Abra sees, the tension and anger start building up very quickly and dangerously. It starts with Abra roaring the engine violently, letting out his primal fury.
He swings the car around sharply, and storms over to face the Montagues. The increasing anger and fear are shown by the changing tones of their voices as they start getting louder and more high pitched until eventually the Montagues are screaming, and showing their cowardice by denying what they did. Abra shouts at them, but adds mock respect so as not to be punished. We see now for sure that if there were to be a fight, the Capulets would win, as Abra remains relatively calm, while the Montagues start panicking and one starts jerking his gun around.
Even then there is still a small chance of a peaceful settlement, but the Montagues show their stupidity again by banking on Benvolio to save them, and by insulting the Capulet family. Benvolio is another Montague, who is presented as slightly more serious than the other two. He doesn’t fool about in the car, shouting insults, and so seems a little more serious and mature; however, he’s still with these people, and wears the same clothes as them, so he must be somewhat like them. Also, some people may remember seeing him earlier on the front cover of a newspaper, brandishing a gun.
Those who did associate this man with violence would find the argument situation more dangerous for it. Their lack of nerve and professionalism are shown many times during the following sequence of events. For example when the pink haired man screams and starts shooting wildly. After each shot we see a close up of an inanimate object being hit, showing his fear, and, along with his high-pitched screaming, his hysteria. Another example is when they start fiddling with the petrol pump, taking it out then putting it back in again.
Combined with their facial expressions and their jerky movements, we get the idea that they are panicking (further backed up by the way they subsequently fall over the car). The Capulets, on the other hand, are presented very differently. Our first glimpse of them is when they pull up in their car. It is blue (more serious), solidly built, and has blacked out windows, making them immediately dangerous. This sense of danger is backed up y the first shot of the Capulets themselves, a close-up of a black boot with metal heels coming out of the car, then crushing a cigarette stub.
The way he crushes it with quick heel movements show how he is dangerous, yet at the same time agile. It also means that we can’t see him, and what we can’t see is often the most dangerous. In addition, following Hollywood rules, the fact that he smokes makes him bad. The non-diegetic music also helps make him seem dangerous, as it is eerie, yet the same instrument that is used in the old western films. Together, they set the mood for a fight. The next we see of the Capulets is Abra. He is often shot from a low angle, bringing out his power and danger. He has black hair and a well-trimmed black beard, showing how serious he is.
He also wears smart, expensive clothes (such as a leather jacket), and has chest hair, creating the image of power, almost a beast. To show how tough he is, he also has a metal gum shield, which reads “sin”. All this gives the impression of a serious, tough man, in stark contrast to the Montagues who we see with him, thus showing to us who is dominant. The other Capulet we meet in the opening is Tybalt, who is introduced to us in the middle of a scene of high tension (when the servants on both sides are about to fight, and Benvolio is holding them at peace), being calm.
This immediately tells us that he is dangerous, as he is not afraid or even tense, giving him a psychopathic feel. The first we see of him is him lighting a cheroot, the sound of the match being the only one that can be heard. This creates great tension, and helps enhance the sense of danger, as we know what a lighted cigarette or match can do in a petrol station. We also know he has great power, as he immediately stops the violence without having to resort to it himself. His looks also tell us a lot about him. He has black hair, like Abra, and has a very small, well-trimmed beard, making his face seem blacker.
He is called the “Prince of Cats”, telling us that he is agile and dangerous. This is backed up by his pointy teeth, and, later, the way he twirls around whilst gun fighting. Even his gelled hair and well-trimmed beard give him a more catlike appearance. Overall, this makes him appear all the more dangerous. His voice also adds to his aura of danger, as it is slow, thoughtful and teasing. As he speaks, we see the match falling in slow motion, making us very aware of it, then, when saying the line “all Montagues”, he crushes it slowly, showing how he is ready to crush the Motagues.
His clothes are also of interest. He wears a stylish long, black coat (showing his vanity as well as his evil), with a top showing Mary. This is very strange, as it contrasts totally with what we’ve seen of him, but it helps make him seem even crueller. This idea is continued later, when we see that his gun also bears a picture of Mary, which he kisses before shooting one of the Montagues. It makes him seem very twisted and perverted. One last show of his aggression, cruelty and violence before the gunfight is when he pretends to shoot the little boy.
This is a totally senseless act, serving only to amuse him, showing just how twisted he is. The characters’ personas are again shown during the fight by the way that they shoot. Apart from the previously mentioned hysteria from the man with pink hair, the Montagues also show their fear by the fact that the fat, bald one doesn’t shoot at all. This helps build the drama during the fight, as we know they could never win. Tybalt plays with his guns (the fact that he has two makes him even more dangerous), gunslinger style, constantly twirling them around.
He is obviously very adept at gunfights (unlike the Montagues), and seems to enjoy it, showing how strange he is, and therefore reflecting a bad image onto the family for later. The way he twirls confidently across the battlefield leaves us in no doubt that he will not be shot, making the Montagues’ situation even worse. Abra, on the other hand does not seem to enjoy it. He holds his gun with two hands, steadying his aim. He is shooting to kill, reminding us that the fight’s not all about acrobatic displays, and comic entertainment, but also has a very serious side to it.
One technique Baz Luhrmann uses to create tension in the build up to the fight is the use of close-ups and extreme close-ups of people’s faces, accompanied by silence or slow talking. He often points the camera at people to see how they are reacting, telling us the varying amount of fear in the group. All seem afraid, except Tybalt, who seems to relish it. He uses two extreme close-ups one after the other, of Benvolio’s and Tybalt’s eyes, showing the two enemies come face to face, and reminding us once again of the old cowboy movies, setting the scene for a gunfight. The silence or slow speech help accentuate the tension.
Another technique he uses is contrast. To introduce Tybalt, and to give him a more dangerous feel, he makes him create calm in the middle of a heated argument. This has a very profound effect on Tybalt’s image, and thereby the Capulets’ image. He also uses the contrast of the Montagues and the Capulets to help show their enmity before they speak. , giving those who hadn’t understood the introduction the sense that something bad’s going to happen. He also uses slow motion to great effect during the end sequence. He uses it twice, both times when Tybalt drops something.
The first time, when he drops a match, helps extend the high-tension moment for a bit longer. The second, when he drops his cheroot into the petrol, does the same thing, but also tells the audience it is significant, and gives them enough time to work out why. It also reminds us of the first time, shortly after which a gunfight erupted, making us cautious as to what’s to come. To create the right impressions in this film, Baz Luhrmann calls upon a wide variety of film techniques, such as camera angles and slow motion, as well as making use of things such as sound to create a tone or mood for the images.
He also includes smaller things, such as costume and character appearance to present information about the characters, and bring out certain aspects of their character; with little touches such as the golden gun to create more layers of understanding of the characters and the story. He does all of these things extremely well, sometimes subtly, other times not so subtly, and brings them all together to create an exciting introduction which is simple to understand, yet full of information, plot and subtleties.