It’s time to break down that fourth wall! This is something that needs to be decided early on in the filmmaking process because it will dictate the rest of the film. What is the fourth wall? Should you break it in your projects? How did it come to be? Let’s dive right in! In this article, I will give you all the facts on breaking the fourth wall in film.
What Is Breaking the Fourth Wall?
Breaking the fourth wall is a technique used in theater, film, and other forms of storytelling where the characters or the narrator directly acknowledge the audience, disrupting the fictional world’s illusion. Your characters can talk directly into the camera, revealing their own secrets, commenting on the actions of other characters, and so much more! It can be used for comedic effect, to create a sense of intimacy, or to comment on the storytelling itself.
Do not get this confused with narrating! Narrating a film, whether by the lead character or by someone we never see, is using voiceover to explain themes or give the audience an inside look into the mind of any character. Narrating a film differs from breaking the fourth wall as we never see any of the characters look directly into the camera.
Origins of Breaking the Fourth Wall
The concept of the fourth wall goes all the way back to the theatre, where it refers to the imaginary wall that separates the actors from the audience. It creates the illusion that the characters exist in their own world, unaware of the audience’s presence. Part of what makes films and theater so popular is the audience’s ability to disconnect from their own lives. You truly be a fly on the wall.
While this started in theater, the earliest examples of breaking the fourth wall go all the way back to silent comedies. Charlie Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, frequently interacts with the camera and makes exaggerated facial expressions that signal to the audience that they’re in on the joke. Breaking the fourth wall is a great way to emphasize comedic relief and guide the audience through the story.
Breaking the fourth wall can also be demonstrated through editing tricks such as freeze-framing. Whichever technique you choose, it is a great storytelling tool.
Examples of Breaking the Fourth Wall
Here are 5 breaking the fourth wall examples that will explain the process.
1. The Big Short
Breaking the fourth wall can also be used for dramatic effect. In The Big Short (2015), directed by Adam Mckay, the characters frequently address the audience, explaining complex financial concepts and breaking down the fourth wall to create a sense of urgency and importance. The technique is used to create a sense of engagement with the story and to make the audience feel invested in the outcome. They also added some comedic effect to this by having Margot Robbie explain these banking concepts while drinking champagne and sitting in a bubble bath.
Here’s the actual clip from that scene:
2. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
One of the most iconic uses of breaking the fourth wall in film is Ferris Bueller’s address to the audience in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) directed by John Hughes. Ferris (played by Matthew Broderick) speaks directly to the camera, sharing his philosophy on life and giving the audience an insight into his character. The scene has become iconic, and branding the phrase “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” John Hughes knew how to get into the hearts of his audience by creating a down-to-earth and likable character.
In Deadpool (2016), the main character frequently breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience and making meta-jokes about the film itself. The technique is used to create a sense of self-awareness and to comment on the conventions of the superhero genre. Not that I am partial, but this film broke the fourth wall really well.
In Goodfellas (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese, the main character, Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), breaks the fourth wall at the end of the movie. This is a fascinating technique by Scorsese, who is known for his gangster movies. It is said that Henry Hill addresses the audience for the first time in the end to signify his exit from his life in the mob and into the “real world.” To drive this home, Henry closes the door to his new house with the sound of a prison gate closing. This symbolizes that his new life is the real prison.
5. American Psycho
American Psycho (2000), directed by Mary Harro, is a dark satire about a wealthy investment banker who moonlights as a serial killer. Harron uses the technique of breaking the fourth wall to create a sense of detachment and irony. Throughout the film, the main character, Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale), speaks directly to the camera, offering insights into his thoughts and motivations.
Should You Break the Fourth Wall?
In short, it depends. A lot relies on how much information you want to give your audience. If you allow your characters to speak directly to the camera, you get more access to the character’s inner thoughts. If not, you are left to have all of your character’s development be based on their actions and interactions with other characters.
It would be best if you also didn’t use this tool without assessing the risks. If it is used too often or it is misplaced, you can just as easily take your audience out of the story, and they can no longer suspend disbelief. Especially if you want to tell stories that don’t follow a normal structure, such as the seven-time Oscar award-winning film, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, you have to carefully balance where you want to place the belief of your audience. This film did an incredible job of finding that balance.
If breaking the fourth wall is used properly, you can create a deep connection between a character and your audience, which is a wonderful tool to have when you are writing stories where the “villain” is your main character.
Some viewers find it distracting or jarring to have the character speak directly to you. Some may also feel that it is overused and unnecessary. However, whatever you decide to do should be based on your personal preference and interpretation of your story. That being said, don’t forget to be aware of the audience you are targeting!
The Final Cut on Breaking The Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall is a powerful storytelling tool when used properly. Are there any of the films above that you enjoy this technique the most? Let us know in the comments if you break the fourth wall in any of your films! Happy filmmaking!