How to Get The Perfect Shot in Your Movie: Filmmaking Lessons from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’

A lot of films have the perfect shot— the shot that all other shots in the film are measured against. It’s this shot we talk about, rewind and watch again, and labor over its visual meaning and methods through which the filmmakers brought this magic to the screen.

For many cineastes and non-cineastes alike, it’s de rigueur to point to the famous Steadicam shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas as one of these shots. However, as a follow up to my piece on subtext in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, I think it is fitting to discuss subtext in this particular shot.

As a refresher, a good exercise when you’re beginning to design the shots in your film, is to try and boil each scene down to one shot. If you were only allowed a single shot to shoot an entire scene, what would that shot be? As a director, this is perhaps the most important technical question you can ask yourself in pre-production. The answer is: you identify the subtext in your scene, and you shoot it. If you do this successfully, you may not need any other shots to convey what the scene is about. This was as true for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver as it was for him in Goodfellas.

Michael Ballhaus, the director of photography on Goodfellas, admitted to not shooting much coverage for the film—this is because Scorsese knows his subtext and knows how to shoot it. As a filmmaker, if you know both of those things, there is no reason to shoot anything else. Shooting additional shots in the name of “safety” is not an adequate enough reason—it’s simply an indication that the director may not know those two things.

After standing Karen (Lorraine Bracco) up on a date, she unleashes her fiery side on Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), humiliating him on the street in front of his mafia colleagues. Clearly, Karen revealing this side of her—this explosive, unpredictable and rebellious part of her—excites Henry, which leads us into the next scene, in which he “makes it up to her” by taking her on a night out to the famed Copacabana.

The scene begins with an extreme close-up of a hand extended from a suited sleeve handing a set of keys into the hand of a valet. As The Crystal’s pop tune “Then He Kissed Me” kicks into the soundtrack, Scorsese pulls his camera back to reveal Henry Hill with Karen, leaving his car with the valet, and walking across the street toward the Copacabana, outside of which boasts a long line to get in.

The entrance to the Copacabana is lit up; it’s a target of the well-to-do’s Saturday night, and Henry is leading Karen right toward it. Until, that is, he walks through the line, down a back staircase and enters the nightclub through its basement.

The halls are dark and blood red; it’s not nearly as inviting as the club’s opulent entrance. The bright, first-date, 50’s purity that’s transmitted through the song is juxtaposed to the dark, literally shady, grit of this off-limits club entrance.

Henry and Karen emerge from the darkness, entering the kitchen, which is bustling with staff—cooks, servers, busboys and the like. These blue-collar workers—the diametric opposite of the presumed professionals waiting in line on street above them—laugh and smile when Henry greets them. These are his people, despite the “twenty dollars each” he hands to several employees along the way.

When Henry and Karen emerge onto the floor of the Copa, they are ushered to the front of the in-house line and a table instantly appears, floating to the very front of the room, where Henry and Karen are seated.

Karen asks, “What do you do?” Henry replies, “I’m in construction.” To which Karen replies, “You don’t feel like you’re in construction;” however, her smile and tone imply much more than a simple observation.

He kissed me in a way/

That I’ve never been kissed before/

He kissed me in a way/

That I wanna be kissed forever more.

What is the feeling you get when you watch this scene? You’re impressed. You’re impressed because Karen is impressed, and that’s because Scorsese is putting you into her emotional point of view as she’s experiencing this moment.

However, wouldn’t Karen, and therefore you, the audience, be more impressed if Henry whisks her past the line-up of people and enters through the main entrance, leading her, and us, into the elegant foyer of the Copacabana? Surely if Henry has enough influence to be allowed access through the back and is ushered right to the stage, he has enough influence to walk right through the front door of the place? If his objective is to impress her, why wouldn’t he do just that?

What is the subtext here?

Well, what does Henry do for a living? It’s certainly not construction. Remember, in a perfectly conceived film, every shot should be a visual metaphor that conveys the subtext of the written scene. Henry is not a member of society at large—i.e., those members of society on line outside—he is a member of the underworld, the mafia, the “goodfellas.” By choosing to have Henry not enter via the steps of the front entrance, but down the backstairs to the basement, Scorsese conveys that Henry is a part of the under-world, as opposed to the above-world, in this film.

Here are the two definitions of “underworld”:

  1. The world of criminals or of organized crime.
  2. The mythical abode of the dead, imagined as being under the earth.

The first definition is obvious; the second, I would argue, is also implied. Scorsese is no stranger to using locations and lighting to convey a visual metaphor of a hell. He did just that in his film, Mean Streets. The basement bar in which Harvey Keitel and his cronies frequent is a blood red, smoky and seductive metaphor of hell—not only as an idea, but as a state of being—that Keitel’s character, Charlie, is obsessed with throughout the film. This same look, sans the smoke, is in evidence here.

Just as in Mean Streets, there is seduction, desire, excitement, in bringing your finger close to the flame, and that’s what Karen is doing in this scene. She’s not turned on by getting into the Copacabana; rather, she’s turned on by the fact that Henry’s mob connections got them in. It’s dangerous, and she likes it that way.

He kissed me in a way/

That I’ve never been kissed before/

In a way, Henry is exposing himself, his life, to her by the choice of taking her in this way—and this is the feeling we get. We get the feeling that he’s showing off the power, the glamour of his life, and also the underlying illegality of it all, in order to not only turn Karen on, but to make sure she’s okay with it. After all, if you’re going to be a mob wife, you not only have to be okay with the lifestyle, you also have to like it.

What are your thoughts?