Breaking the fourth wall: Why directors like to do it and how they pull it off
Oh, hey there
You’ve probably seen this technique done a handful of times: you’re cosying it up on your couch watching your movie and everything seems fine and dandy until the protagonist turns to the camera and talks to you head on. They’re chumming it up to you while every other character seems to be unaware and you’re asking, “Who? Me?” Yes, you!
This is known as ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and has been an increasingly popular technique in recent years. But what is this elusive fourth wall? Everything about acting and film today can be traced back to its theatre roots. Here’s a quick theatre history lesson for you:
The Fourth Wall
Traditional theatre stages were box sets made up of three walls—so the ‘fourth wall’ refers to the imaginary and invisible wall that stands between the audience and actors on stage. The actors pretend as if the wall isn’t there while the audience are voyeurs from the outside looking in.
When actors on stage directly interact or engage with the audience, this is known as breaking the fourth wall as it calls to attention the actor’s own awareness of being in a play (or any art form for that matter).
When you’re watching a movie or TV show, you want to feel as though you are peeking into the lives of real people; but because breaking the fourth wall is a meta-commentary of its own form, it can often have the effect of making audiences more detached from the story and encourages us to view the production as people acting out their roles.
Hence, it is a technique that film experts generally would not go near with a ten-foot boom stick. However, with the freedom that comes with fancy cameras and state-of-the-art technology, film directors have been experimenting and taking creative liberties with this technique. When done right, breaking the fourth wall can absolutely breathe new life into a film and even allows audiences to relate more to the characters.
Here are some film examples that nailed this polarising technique to perfection.
You can’t talk about breaking the fourth wall without mentioning our favourite foul-mouthed anti-superhero. Deadpool is arguably the 21st century’s most modern take on breaking the fourth wall, giving the age-old technique a fresh new look. In fact, we think Deadpool’s real superhero ability is breaking the fourth wall because he does it so often, seamlessly. It works because it aligns perfectly to his playful tongue-in-cheek personality. His math skills might not be the best but he remains undisputed in the fourth wall breakage arena.
2. House of Cards
Apart from the purpose of comedic relief, breaking the fourth wall can also be a great way for directors to get the audience to invest more into a character, as counterproductive as that may seem. Take the crook politician Frank Underwood for example. By directly addressing us and letting us in all of his gritty secrets and questionable acts, we turn from being an observer to a participant, complicit in his crimes. As he’s a closed book in the show, we love it when he breaks the fourth wall because it’s the only way we can understand his thoughts and motivations.
3. Blazing Saddles
Some do it well. Others have completely mastered it. Case in point: the legendary director Mel Brooks. In this iconic film, the entire narrative collapses because the camera zooms out to reveal that the entire movie is one big set when a group of rowdy cowboys barge through the (fourth) wall. “Piss on you! I’m working for Mel Brooks!” exclaims Slim Pickens before he punches Dom DeLuise in the gut, and a whole fight ensues. There will be no fourth wall breaks as literal and hilarious as this.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
Fan-favourite director Martin Scorsese has never been one to break the fourth wall but even he decided to give it a go in this biopic of Wall Street billionaire Jordan Belfort. This technique seems to be used often in biopics (think I, Tonya) which offers a documentary-style quality to a highly stylised film. Also, because Belfort is a sleaze ball who loves to hear himself talk so this method makes a ton of sense.
5. Freddie Bueller's Day Off
Another great example of breaking the fourth wall is this cult favourite from 1986. Freddie famously says, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it", which is why he then goes on to list different ways on how to skip school. His dry self-deprecating humour is delivered really well in this direct address to us because he doesn't have anyone else to talk to (aw, Freddie).