Breaking the fourth wall!

Research for the fourth wall scene

aag3‘If a character speaks directly to the audience—that is, if he speaks directly to the camera—he “breaks” the fourth wall. Because this can be disturbing to the audience, it is done for dramatic or comic effect only. If the character looks just to the right or left of the lens or over or under it, the result does not betray the drama. (David K Irving 2006: 167) Breaking the fourth wall has become extremely popular in film over the years. This technique of speaking directly to the audience helps to add dramatic tension to scenes. It is also common in comedic films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), He’s just not that into you (2009) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). All of these films have taught and inspired me to break the fourth wall in my film ‘A bit about Angie’. Although perhaps the most influential film that I have watched which uses this technique is About a girl (2001). The film is directed by Brian Percival and in the year of it’s release it won best short film at the BAFTA’S. Needless to say the short is engaging, interesting, and somewhat disturbing especially towards the end. The entire short revolves around this girl who is walking along a canal, she breaks the fourth wall whilst telling us about her life. The film is cut relatively fast displaying the different aspects of her boring and grey life. For example we see her father playing football in a muddy park, and then her and her friends on a bus. There is a very british feel about the film which I love and this is something I want to capture in my film through imagery and diegetic sound. As a member of the audience you almost get drawn in to this young girls innocence, but then she quickly turns our empathy into shock as she throws a baby into the canal and then walks away without an ounce of emotion shown. This film excellently executes the breaking of the fourth and this is something I will aim to do with Angie at the beginning and the end of my film ‘A bit about Angie’.

Before film there was theatre and before the likes of Scorsese there was Bertolt Brecht. ‘In order to cultivate his critical attitude, Brecht’s theatre destroys the illusory ‘fourth wall’—the convention that the audience is eavesdropping on the action, unbeknown to the characters. (Laura Bradley 2006: 4) Bertolt Brecht was a German poet and playwright. His techniques and style of theatre were both radical and political. In his plays he did not want the audience to get attached to his characters but the political issues within his texts. So he devised his own alienation techniques, one being using job roles to refer to characters as opposed to giving characters actual names. He also played a large role in the foundation of Epic theatre which was formed off of marxist theories, the intention was to bring social change to the people of Germany. In Epic theatre Brecht regularly broke the fourth wall by having characters speak directly to the audience. Brecht is known as one of the forefathers of the technique. He is also made the technique very popular although ‘we are indebted to Denis Diderot (1713-1784) for the concept of the fourth wall’ (John Stevenson 1999: 4) who is known as the founder of the concept.

How it went (After we shot the scene)

Apart from the effectiveness of the technique we broke the fourth wall because the Doctor in our film who is played by Dean Hickey was displaying signs of unreliability so we decided to come up with an alternative which did not rely on as many actors. In fact only one actor which is ‘Angie’ who was played by the lovely Sara Galvin.

We ventured down to her house in Essex to film her parts. The scene is of ‘Angie’ tidying up her room while she explains to the audience that she is suppose to be getting ready to go out somewhere. She then sits down and informs the audience that she wants to tell us a story before it cuts to the actual opening scene of the film. Her second spell breaking the fourth wall consists of her tying up all the looose ends in the story, by explaining how her son died and how she feels about it. The sequences are both relatively short and to the point. We had a very tight day of filming and we came from such a long way away which meant that we had to rush this scene. Ultimately our production values depreciated. Subsequently we will have to be very smart in the way we edit these sequences.  (Below is a still from the scene)

Screen grab 4

We also had some issues with lighting, as the room is quite open planned there is a lot of natural light beaming through the curtaining even when closed up. We wanted a natural feel but we did not have much control over it which was frustrating. Also the room was also tight for space as there were many objects which we couldn’t move due to it’s size and weight like the bed for instance. This meant that we had limited space and angles to film in making it almost impossible to avoid shooting against direct light. ‘We’re not supposed to point the camera into the light’ (‘6 Photography Rules You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Breaking’2013) This is a basic rule we found how to avoid. So at times the subjects face was too dark making it hard to see her facial expressions which was integral for the scene. We attempted to combat this by repositioning the camera and the subject which did help although it did not eradicate the problem completely.  Due to our tight time constraints we had to rush shots which meant some takes were shaky or cut too early. The actor also strayed away from looking directly at the camera due to the awkwardness she felt in doing so, which does take a way from the technique. I was aware of this due to the research I underwent prior to shooting this scene, which is mentioned at the top of this post. Although again because of time pressures I could not keep calling cut to redo certain shots. These are the key issues we faced, although all was not bad. We were to add the new lines which we needed for the story to make sense for instance the line about ‘Frank’ receiving a kidney from the NHS as opposed to from ‘Billy’ which did not make medical sense. Directing this type of scene was not easy but I was able to get a strong emotional performance from Sara Galvin which was great, she worked hard on perfecting her lines with extremely short notice which is also a credit to her.

I have learnt from this experience that executing the breaking of the fourth wall is not as easy as I first thought. It requires skill, timing, and pacing. In the future I will leave more time to shoot these sorts of scenes due to it’s complexity and my lack of experience. I will also spend more time planning test shoots which will help considerably with time keeping and battling lighting issues. All in I am content with how this scene went.

Here is the Call Sheet for Angie’s bedroom scene.


David K Irving Peter W (2006). Producing and directing the short film and video. Burlington, MA: Focal Press . PG 167.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986. [FILM] John Hughes, America : Paramount Pictures.

He’s Just Not That Into You, 2009. [FILM] Ken Kwapis, America : New Line Cinema.

The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013. [FILM] Martin Scorsese, America : Paramount Pictures.

About a Girl, 2001. [FILM] Brian Percival, U.K: BAFTA.

Laura Bradley (2006). Brecht and Political Theatre. Oxford, GB: Clarendon Press. pg 4.

John Stevenson, ‘The fourth wall and the third space’ Online journal of citation 4 (1995) Web. 2nd April 2016.

Jason D. Little. (2013). 6 Photography Rules You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Breaking. Available: Last accessed 2nd April 2016.



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