There’s a passage in the Hollywood screenwriting rulebook that says if a major star is required to die in a film (i.e., obviously an unusual thing in itself), the death should not be vividly or bluntly depicted — no knife in the chest, no bullet holes, no spurting blood, and especially no showing the star wincing or looking fearful.
To do otherwise, the rulebook says, would be disrespectful of the star — it would make him seem mortal and vulnerable and rob him of his aura. Stars can’t be killed like grubby extras — they have to surrender their ghost in some noble majesterial way. One way to convey this is to have the camera look away or pan up to the sky at the instant of departure. (Granted — Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s deaths in The Departed are blunt and graphic, but theyr’e also quick — and Damon gets to go “okay” before getting plugged by Mark Wahlberg.)
Spoiler ahead for all the ostriches out there who don’t want to know what happened to the military guys (and others) who plotted to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944:
I’m mentioning this because I’ve just read a January 2007 draft of Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander‘s Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise-Brian Singer movie about the German anti-Hitler plotters, and on page 114 — the final page and final scene of the film — it follows the rulebook exactly.
Cruise plays a senior plotter, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and just as his moment of truth comes he “shouts defiantly” Stauffenberg’s final words — “Long live sacred Germany!” (“Es lebe unser heiliges Deutschland!”) — and the camera CRANES UP and away as the music swells, looking at to the overcast darkness of the night sky.”
Singer can of course shoot this scene any way he chooses, but before the big day comes he should rent The Counterfeit Traitor and watch the scene in which Lili Palmer is machine-gunned to death by German soldiers in a prison courtyard. Or he could look at video footage of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena after they were shot in the same way, in 1989. What he’ll see isn’t pretty but it’s real-er than hell.
As Singer well knows, today’s aesthetic demands that the old rules have to give way to raw visual truth as it comes to us on TV and computer screens 24 hours a day. McQuarrie and Alexander may not understand that the old romantic crap doesn’t fly any more, but Singer ought to.