If you’ve watched Fleabag, we bet you couldn’t get enough of Phoebe Waller-Bridge winking straight at you every other scene or talking to you directly.
This is a filmmaking technique called “breaking the fourth wall”!
Keep reading to discover what it means, why filmmakers use it, and five famous films where characters break the fourth wall.
What does breaking the fourth wall mean?
Let’s start with the fourth wall itself: is that even a wall, literally?
Not exactly: it’s an imaginary thing, a concept that came into filmmaking from the theater.
Three surrounding walls enclose the stage and a “fourth wall” – a space that “separates” the audience from the stage.
In filmmaking, the fourth wall separates the story from the real world, where the fictional character is unaware that they’re … well, fictional!
Breaking the fourth wall happens when a character acknowledges that they’re not real by directly or indirectly addressing the audience.
If done right, you can connect to the viewers and elevate your film substantially.
Breaking the fourth wall allows you to build trust with the audience, simply add a funny layer to your creation, or take the viewer on a journey into the character’s psyche.
5 famous breaking the fourth wall examples
1. Trading places
In a scene where the Bellamy Brothers explain the commodities to Valentine, portrayed by Eddie Murphy, Ralph begins to explain what bacon is, using an example: “…pork belly that is used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich..”
At this point, Eddie Murphy looks straight into the camera, his face unmistakenly saying, “you for real?..”
2. Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t just occasionally address the audience throughout the film – he basically narrates the whole movie.
This technique is especially effective as DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, is a real person.
Deadpool’s opening credits take breaking the fourth wall to a new level.
These credits are a great example of how the film incorporated this cinematic tool creatively and spontaneously.
Not to forget Deadpool mentioning the “127 hours” movie in the 2018 film of the franchise, his phrases teasing Hollywood, and much more.
4. House of Cards
Here breaking the fourth wall is a clever trick that allows Frank Underwood to turn his otherwise despicable character into an utterly charming person.
By doing so, the audience can feel a deeper connection with the character despite his questionable deeds.
5. Fight Club
At first, it’s the main character played by Edward Norton, who narrates the film and talks about Tyler Durden.
Then, as the movie progresses, we can see Norton addressing the camera directly – with that, the audience can see the key revelations being disclosed as the climax approaches.
Why do filmmakers break the fourth wall?
To offer commentary on the events of the story
The technique when actors turn to the camera to comment on an event of the story most often occurs in comedies.
Breaking the fourth wall this way will likely clash with the heightened atmosphere of thrillers and dramas, so comedy is the perfect fit.
To offer the audience insight into the characters’ inner thoughts
Sometimes the wall breaks when the audience is offered a glimpse into a character’s inner life.
Fiction films rarely use this technique, as it breaks the suspense. However, in documentaries, this approach is seen more often.
To acknowledge the characters is fictional
Sometimes a fictional character can straight up acknowledge that they’re fictional.
It draws attention to the symbolism of the relationship between the actor and the audience.
3 tips for breaking the fourth wall
1. Be extreme
With breaking walls in filmmaking, you need to go to extremes: you break it all the time or break it very rarely, maybe once.
2. Be thoughtful
Consider which scenes are the most appropriate for the fourth wall breaking.
Having them planned on a shot list or a storyboard can help you out – this way, you can visualize exactly how the scene will play out.
3. Be controversial
The last and most important thing is to make it impressive if you decide to break the fourth wall. Don’t waste a scene with an underwhelming wall break.
Learn more. Become a better filmmaker
We hope this article was educating and inspiring!
With filmmaking, there is an endless amount of captivating techniques, tricks, and concepts – dive deeper into the craft with our ultimate guide on filmmaking.
What does breaking the fourth wall mean?
In filmmaking, breaking the fourth wall happens when a character acknowledges that they’re not real by directly or indirectly addressing the audience.
Why is it called breaking the fourth wall?
Breaking the fourth wall means that a fictional character erases an invisible wall between him, the story, and the audience. The term came from the theater where there’re three surrounding walls enclosing the stage and a “fourth wall” – a space that separates the audience from the stage.
What is breaking the fourth wall examples?
Some of the popular examples include The Wolf of Wall Street, Deadpool, House of Cards, and Fight Club.