‘Fences’ (2016) and the Scene of Conflict Trailer

There is a certain art to trailer making. Achieved by treading a thin line between showing enough of a film to elicit interest yet holding back enough to avoid spoilers, such a balance is an elusive accomplishment. Considering this criterion against the need for such a promotional device, the sustained anticipation for a film cultivated within prospective audiences is a tricky medium to ensure in the run-up to its release. In advertising though, a film becomes a product over a piece of art, and it is through this circumstantial change of status whereby trailers often lose sight of the essence of a film and how they should be presenting them. While there are some exceptions, directors tend not to have creative control over the composition of trailers, instead external agencies are often commissioned with assembling films into this format. Naturally, with this division between creator and creation problems can arise with the marketing device, not only in the content shown within a trailer but in the way it is shown. In the first trailer for Fences (2016) however, the story of an African-American family in 1950’s Pittsburgh navigating race relations amidst their relationships with one another, a carefully chosen scene of conflict is selected to focus upon that thematically summarises the film, skilfully balancing intrigue through reservation.

Opening with the sound of sawing as the production companies and distributor is listed over a black background, the trailer begins with a son innocently asking his father, “How come you ain’t ever liked me?”. What follows for almost the entire length of the trailer is the father’s long response; a response which paints a picture of a man jaded and cynical with his lot in life as he aggressively explains his responsibilities and obligations. “A man is supposed to take care of his family,” he declares, “You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed coz you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you – I ain’t got to like you.” Intercut throughout this tirade are moments from the film illustrating his points: scenes from his working day, times of familial tenderness and a moment of stoically-tinged sadness as he cares for his mentally-disabled brother.

As the father’s’ outburst intensifies, so too does the emotional resonance and speed of the intercut images displayed in tandem with this monologue; all the while adhering to the rhythm of the sawing sound that began the trailer and that has subsequently been reintroduced. The trailer then culminates in a similarly heated exchange he shares with his wife – itself a clever edit of a separate scene made to look like a continuation of the earlier exchange – where it becomes apparent when she answers him back that this is not a film that centres on just one man and what others have done to shape him, but equally about how his views and experiences have shaped the loved ones around him. “It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years.” he tells her. Finally, the crescendo of sound and image that had steadily built up reaches its zenith as his wife angrily yet tearfully replies, “Well I’ve been standing with you. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!” It is then that the film’s title is displayed after a short, lasting image of the enraged wife, abruptly cutting to black.

With recent studies revealing a worrying decline in attention spans due to the effects of the digital age, the central conceit of trailer-making’s fine line between enticement and indifference is made apparent by this generalised estimation in the viewing populace. With most contemporary trailers often criticised for presenting an abridged chronological version of a promoted films’ narrative while bombarding viewers with a succession of attention-grabbing visual moments, any deviation seems refreshing from what has arguably become the norm for trailers now. While the format of Fences’ first trailer is hardly original in its composition, interest in the film is achieved by the considered regulation and curation of images, utilising a less-is-more approach to promotion through a keen understanding of the film’s story; namely through distillation.

Although few and far between, perhaps the effectiveness of the scene of conflict trailer – for lack of a better moniker – comes from the scarcity of its existence. The first trailer for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) for example perfectly used this same format a few years prior to Fences with the film’s titular marksman confronted with the conundrum of whether to kill a child believed to be carrying an explosive, all the while featuring moments from the sniper’s own life that mirrored what was presented onscreen. Also employed in the first teaser trailer for Deepwater Horizon (2016) is the same arrangement – albeit the scene of conflict coming from the match cuts of an impending oil spill played out against the rehearsal of a school presentation by the protagonists’ young daughter. But while each of these films’ initial promotional offerings utilises this alternative trailer composition, each one exists only as the preliminary stage of advertising for its respective film. Each is part of larger marketing campaigns whose subsequent releases favour less refined and more spectacle-focussed trailers.

And therein lies the problem with the scene of conflict trailer. As a singular work, the format is both fulfilling while enticing, mysterious while illuminating. Yet within the framework of a campaign requiring multiple trailers of varying transparency, the composition loses its potency through these additional promos. As a condition of the business side of filmmaking, one single trailer, regardless of its level of revelatory content, could never exist alone. But while it may not exist in isolation, the scene of conflict trailer reminds us of the power of nuance in advertisement, perfectly balancing allurement with restraint. Other contemporary trailers should take note.

Header image courtesy of Bron Studios