How Buster Keaton Made Movies

Buster Keaton made movies that had a lot of action in them.

Big chases. Hurled cream pies. Knock-down-drag-out fights.

Action was fitting for a man raised on the frenzied stages of vaudeville. As a kid, Mr. Keaton cut his teeth doing face-plants and pratfalls in his family’s roughhousing, ad-libbing variety show.

As an adult on the silver screen, Mr. Keaton was never stuck in one place too long. His smash-hit silent comedies were propelled forward by him – often in baggy pants, big shoes, porkpie hat – stumbling, banging, and crashing through life.

It’s easy to watch Mr. Keaton’s movies and think every action was scripted beforehand. He must have known where every cream pie would land, must have marked out where every stumble would be stumbled.

But the one thing that did not propel Mr. Keaton’s movies forward was a script. In fact, Mr. Keaton didn’t have a script for most of the 30-some films he made.

How, then, did Mr. Keaton make his movies?

“About fifty percent [of the movie] you have in your mind before you start the picture,” the comic told Studs Terkel. “And the rest you develop as you’re making it.”

Mr. Keaton planned the beginnings of scenes and the ends of scenes. Then he dove into shooting the scenes.

But he never planned the middle of scenes. He wanted space for unexpected, on-the-spot discoveries to drive the action forward. Which they often did.

Some of the best action, after all, can’t be planned. It can only be discovered by diving in.

And that was how Mr. Keaton – who was never stuck in one place too long, who was willing to find his way by stumbling, banging, and crashing around – made movies.

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