Every movie fan knows that films are full of continuity errors. These are little inconsistencies from one shot to the next within the same scene that are usually blamed on somebody not paying attention in the editing room.
Meg Ryan’s sandwich reappears after having been eaten in “When Harry Met Sally”. Hugh Grant’s tie changes patterns in “Love Actually”. And Julia Roberts’ croissant magically turns into a pancake in mid-sentence in “Pretty Woman”.
Some people delight in spotting these subtle nuances of movie-making. The “goofs” section of imdb.com is full of user-contributed tidbits. Sometimes it seems that people spot these things just so they can say, “Aha! Gotcha with another error!” They can’t wait to email their brother-in-law with a new discovery.
Famous writer-actor-director Garry Marshall lets us in on a little secret about continuity goofs. Many times, they are included in the final cut of the movie for a very good reason: To make the actors look good.
Each scene in a movie is usually shot multiple times. They are shot from every conceivable angle. From above, from below, from the left side, from the right side. Sometimes that’s done to move equipment out of the picture. Sometimes it’s done to create an illusion of three dimensions on the set. Sometimes it’s done to create alternate dialog or alternate plot lines that may be selected from later.
And many times, it’s because directors know that actors are human.
To maintain a sense of spontaneity in dialog, movies aren’t always rehearsed as thoroughly as theatre productions. The actors are often creating their mannerisms and nuances of dialog literally on the spot. In one take they may raise an eyebrow or emphasize a syllable differently. They may look down or up or away at a particular moment. Those are the subtle little things that audiences see but never notice. But they’re the things that make a movie believable. The director is constantly looking for them.
In the editing room, a director will pick the best takes in each scene and cut them together to create a seamless stream of dialog. And that’s where Mr. Marshall is willing to fall on the sword for his actors.
When a continuity error is discovered, nobody blames the actors. It’s always the director’s fault or the film editor’s fault. But if an expression isn’t right, if a line is slightly mis-delivered, if the “magic” isn’t there, the actors take the heat.
As a director, Marshall would rather be blamed for a continuity goof than have his actors look bad. So he always takes the very best performance. If somebody’s hair style doesn’t quite match up from one camera angle to another or if a water glass is full after having been drunk, so be it. The actor’s performance is the sole determining factor in selecting a take for a particular shot.
In Marshall’s movies, the director’s job is to make the actor look good. The result is a great movie with believable action.
And if it adds a few more bullets to the “goofs” section at imdb, then at least somebody’s brother-in-law is happy.