Coming Attractions: The Makings of the Modern Movie Trailer

The man who whetted your appetite for some of the best films of the past twenty-five years tells us how a preview comes together.

Mark Woollen shares a fairly common attitude among filmgoers when it comes to the anticipation of seeing a soon-to-be-released motion picture. “I’m someone who loves going into a movie knowing as little as possible,” he says. Woollen’s job, however, makes the reality of remaining spoiler-free a difficult endeavor. He makes movie trailers. And over a twenty-plus year career, he and his company, Mark Woollen & Associates, have become a go-to source for some of Hollywood’s most finely edited previews. “You’re taking something that exists as one form and then finding a way to take that, break it apart, and rework it into a smaller version of itself and still capture a bit of the essence of the bigger thing,” says Woollen. “It’s a challenge.”

The movie trailer has come a long way since the silent era. Once just templated adverts attached to the end of an audience’s feature presentation (hence the term “trailers”) filled with hyperbolic narration, screen-wiped transitions, and overlaid text, these promotional pieces have transformed into one of the most popular and at times artful forms of marketing in the world, expanding into a niche industry with numerous competing production firms. Previews even have their own celebratory accolade: the Golden Trailer Awards.

For his part, Woollen’s interest in film, editing, and video production began when he was in high school. At just nineteen he landed jobs editing documentaries and TV shows, eventually working on trailers for Disney and then Universal. It was at the latter studio that Woollen made his name, cutting together an emotionally stirring trailer for Steven Spielberg’s eventual Best Picture winner Schindler’s List. “[It] only had a line or two of dialogue,” says Woollen. “It was very impressionistic.”

This impressionistic point of view is one Woollen still embraces. “The language that we use now—the editorial language or filmic language we use in trailers—is vastly different from how it used to be,” he says. “When you look back at older trailers, it was a voiceover or copy that was really carrying you through every beat of the story. It used to be this thing like, ‘Tell them what they’re going to see. Tell it to them. And then tell them what they just saw.’ It was that kind of communication. You didn’t see things that were a little bit more complicated, with editorial style, and the juxtaposition of image to dialogue. I think the kind of creation that goes on now is something the viewers aren’t necessarily conscious of.”

Mark Woollen / photo by Daniel Bergeron

Mark Woollen / photo by Daniel Bergeron

Even Woollen’s contemporaries have come to adopt this shift in presentation. “We are constantly trying new things in order to find interesting and novel ways to engage people,” says Adam Rosenblatt, Executive Creative Director at mOcean, a firm that has produced teasers and trailers for a wide range of films, from Marvel and Pixar’s popcorn blockbusters to prestige television series such as Fargo, The Americans, and Stranger Things. “Audiences have become more sophisticated. The world is saturated with video and images all competing for attention. The old template telling people how they should interpret what they’re watching is less effective with discerning audiences in the Internet age. Whenever possible, we try to let the film speak for itself and hope that we’ve done our job well enough that audiences will come along for the ride.”

As someone who specializes in director-driven, Academy Award–vying films—and who has a client list that features the likes of David Fincher, Terrence Malick, the Coen Brothers, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, and Steve McQueen—establishing a sense of mood is crucial to Woollen. More often than not, it’s music that draws out the mood that feels the most appropriate.

Perhaps one of the finest examples of Woollen’s audio/visual pairings is the Golden Trailer Award–winning clip for Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network. Providing the first taste of the future Best Picture nominee, Woollen doesn’t show any footage from the actual film until a minute into the preview. Instead, he introduces (or reacquaints the viewer with) the very thing the movie hinges on: Facebook. He fills the screen with what look likes genuine shared photos, status updates, friend confirmations, and comments, all leading to a pixelated portrait of Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg. Gliding this entire sequence along is a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian women’s choir. Accompanied by nothing but a piano, the swell of voices turn Thom Yorke’s (TV-ready) words “You’re so very special” into a powerful indictment of what social media has become, how it allows us to present the side of ourselves we want people to see. Even as the trailer transitions into various scenes from the film, the “Creep” cover continues to be heard in the background, an undercurrent to everything that is being teased to the audience, inevitably all ending with the phrase “I don’t belong here.” “Music is like eighty percent what gives a trailer its pulse,” says Woollen. “It’s sometimes the place where we really start to figure out, ‘OK, how are we going to start to assemble this?’”

Woollen often experiments with non-musical sound as a complementing force, too. This can found in the repetitive thud of a head banging against a chalkboard in his trailer for A Serious Man, the barreling horn of an approaching locomotive in Little Children, or the exhausted, labored breathing of Leonardo DiCaprio’s survivalist protagonist in The Revenant. Woollen always manages to establish a sense of sonic rhythm to match his subject’s visual rhythm.

All the while, he’s sifting through the film’s grammar and vocabulary. “It starts to become a process of figuring out what’s special about the film and what you’re going to want to highlight,” he explains. “How important—depending on the film—is story? How much of a driver is that going to be? How much of it is going to be performance oriented? How much of it is going to be about the filmmaker? And sometimes all of those things are important and you’re trying to balance all those elements. Sometimes they lean one way or the other in terms of what you feel is the most unique thing to feature.”

“[Movies are] always these large jigsaw puzzles, essentially, and it’s just trying to figure out how to fit those pieces together.” — Mark Woollen

While it’s difficult not to note the level of artistry in his work—Woollen’s trailers sometimes deliver a heavier emotional blow than the finished film—Woollen and others like him don’t tend to go so far as to call themselves artists. Their job is to get people to the theater and into seats. Still, pride in one’s work certainly has a way of pushing the boundaries between art and commerce.

“Every cut I feel like you should be able to defend and give reasoning for,” he says. “There’s a reason these things are in this order. It’s not just clips from the film, like, ‘Oh yeah, we pulled these four or five pieces and kind of smashed them together.’ There needs to be a storytelling or emotional sequencing. That’s why we spend weeks and months on these things. We’re trying to find out what the successful patterns are. [Movies are] always these large jigsaw puzzles, essentially, and it’s just trying to figure out how to fit those pieces [back] together. And so [our job is to ask] what are the little looks and moments or snippets of lines that can be joined and bumped up against each other in a different way.”

And somehow—just like that—a trailer shows you everything you need know, even if it doesn’t say anything at all. FL

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