Words by Madison Wilde
A shot-for-shot remake is a cinematic phenomenon in which someone remakes a previously created film. This artistic venture, not exclusive to the film world, is not an inspired version; it is an attempted copy. In the short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939), Jorge Luis Borges reviews the fictitious author Pierre Menard and his line-for-line recreation of Miguel de Cervantes’s famed Don Quixote. In an interview with Chuck Klosterman, method actor Val Kilmer claims he has greater insight on the lives of characters he plays than the very people they are based on. When Val Kilmer plays a pilot, he supposedly understands the psyche of a pilot better than an actual one. This is because he has analyzed such a person much more intensely than one generally analyses his or herself. He has access to both hyper-studied experience and objective retrospection. Like Val Kilmer, shot-for-shot remakes generally start with more insight on the chosen film than the original itself. This makes creation much easier because it is always recreation. Though, even if something is perfectly redone, is it a creative effort? There are many things deciding creative status, such as degree of variation or author’s intention. Just as method acting is a single chosen strategy for playing out a role, there are many tactics and reasons for creating shot-for-shot remakes.
When beginning my research for this article, I did something simple and obvious. I Google searched, “Why would someone make a shot-for-shot remake?” The most relevant first-page search result is a Reddit thread titled “Has a shot-for-shot remake ever made sense?” There is no general consensus within the thread, but it did inspire a string of response questions within me. Are shot-for-shot remakes to practice technique? To get in the mind of a creator? To pay homage to an adored work? The answer to all the previous questions is yes, depending on context and author intent. However, may I even call such a filmmaker an author? Is recreation of these films a creative process? Are shot-for-shot remakes art? These answers are less clear-cut. We may reference a remake’s director for their personal intentions, but there is no single authority deeming the status of creativity for cinematic recreations.
To decrease semantic confusion, I am using the formal definitions of art and creative. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines art as, “Skill; its display, application, or expression.” Under this definition art is an embodied representation of skill, or a product of ability. OED explains creative as, “Having the quality of creating, able to create; of or relating to creation; originative.” To be creative, something must be both constructed and original. Using these definitions, shot-for-shot assembled films are art but they are not necessarily creative. These remakes are always spectacles of technical skill, so they are also presumably art. The question of creativity is circumstantial and dependent on many decisions, such as author’s intention and faithfulness to the original, for their shot-for-shot remake.
Most commonly, shot-for-shot remakes are made by fans. This kind of remake is on the spectrum of inspiration. Directors often copy scenes from movies they admire to pay homage. Parody is reliant on existent works. Shot-for-shot recreation is artful inspiration without much deviation from an original product. It is unfair to discern these works unimaginative, as highly innovative thought goes into low-budget recreations. When super fan amateur filmmakers remake blockbusters like Indiana Jones’s Raiders of the Lost Arc in their humble backyards, credit must be given at least for novelty’s sake. A distinction between technical and artful creativity is created here. The process is unique but the content is copied. While their process can be creative, as they successfully achieve their goals with a minimal budget, the unspontaneous end result is not.
Fan-made shot-for-shot remakes have the potential to be creative. ForMad Men’s series finale, AMC held a collaborative contest for fans to recreate the show’s pilot episode. Some of the recreated scenes can be classified as creative, as their renditions are original. Scenes are reconstructed like a cover song; the words and music remain, but there is still a completely new sound. The pilot’s dialogue and shot design served as minimal requirements for an inspired recreation. Examples of the inspiration at play range from animated contributions to bottles of alcohol playing out the roles of characters. As intentional stylistic changes are made to the fixed content, the remake becomes a creative endeavor. Though these remakes slightly deviate aesthetically, they still ultimately follow a shot-for-shot approach.
Sometimes shot-for-shot remakes do not intend to be creative technically or stylistically, and instead the creative aspect might lie within the motivation. Experimental shot-for-shot remakes set out to explore unanswered, unasked questions. Gus Van Sant’s 1988 Psycho is a nearly identical remake of Hitchcock’s famed 1960 film. The film is subtly modernized, making slight changes like Marion Crane stealing $400,000 instead of the original’s $40,000. Defining features of Psycho are preserved, such as Bernard Herrmann’s recognizable score—shower scene zingers and all. Van Sant did not recreate Psycho to follow the commercially successful remake craze. He did not simply want to see Vince Vaughn attempt Norman Bates. He wanted to know, “Would it actually be Psycho if you took every single piece and connected it together?” When comparing Van Sant’s Psycho to the original in terms of commercial and critical response, the answer to this question is an obvious no. Because Van Sant’s experiment reached a conclusion, it was still successful. The creativity of Psycho (1988) comes from its lack of creativity. Autonomy is lost, but is done so to examine a uniquely crafted question.
Occasionally, shot-for-shot remakes have no creative desires. In 1969, German filmmaker Harun Farocki made a film called Inextinguishable Fire. Nearly thirty years later, an impressed Jill Godmillow decided to remake this film that she referred to as, “a footnote to the war in Vietnam.” She named the film What Farocki Taught. Actors, locations, clothing, dialogue, and shots are all as perfectly replicated as possible. The only significant differences between the 1969 film and Godmillow’s rendition is her use of colored film and English-dialogue; Godmillow even filmed in Kodachrome to give the film a historical look. Clips from the original film are periodically laid over their replacement to highlight likeness. Godmillow’s motivation to remake Inextinguishable Fire was that she simply enjoyed the film so much that she wanted to copy it, saying, “I liked what it had to say, I liked the way it said it, and I particularly like the way it treated its audience.” Godmillow reintroduced Inextinguishable Fire and its ideas to a contemporary English audience, but all she did was reintroduce. Following the previously distinguished definition of creativity, there is essentially nothing creative about What Farocki Taught. Its inspiration and end product are both merely contrived results of admiration.
One of the most fascinating cases of shot-for-shot remakes is the creation and recreation of Funny Games. A decade after creating the psychological thriller Funny Games, director Michael Haneke immaculately remade his own film. Funny Games (2007) is an English remake of the 1997 German-spoken version, but that is one of few changes made. The 1997 and 2007 versions share all aesthetic features—actor appearance, the setting, props, and shot design. Haneke’s original film is obviously creative, but what should the remake be classified as? When viewed exclusively as an English copy, it does not earn creative merit. Still, consuming this film as a mere copy would be a dismissive act. Haneke originally made his violent film for Americans, since we are a violence-obsessed society. Unfortunately, at the time of its original release, he was only able to create the film in German. Taking his initially unmet American-centric goals into account, Funny Games (2007) can be seen as a successful development within the process of his creative project. Being a continuation toward an ultimate goal of creation, the 2007 Funny Games has earned its place on the spectrum of cinematic creativity.
In my attempt to understand the mystical shot-for-shot remake, what I have found is multiple creativities exist. Like everything else in the entertainment industry, creativity is not binary. Technical innovations, stylistic alterations, unconventional motivations, and artful continuations can all constitute creativity. As long as some aspect of a film has originality, regardless of whether or not the result is revolutionary, it deserves creative consideration. This has only been an extension on the debate of creativity, as remakes of this kind have long existed in our society through word-for-word rewrites and cover songs. The conversation will remain throughout the foreseeable future, as it is becoming increasingly less difficult to make and circulate art because of increasing technological availability and capabilities. Opportunities to make art are rising, but the prospect of making something creative comes from within.