Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
(article originally appeared on screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, September 2010)
When a civilian meets a screenwriter, usually the second thing they say is, “Oh, so you write all the dialogue then?” (first thing is “Have you written anything I would’ve seen?”) .
James Goldman (who can write circles around his brother William as far as I’m concerned) notes in his introduction to the published script of Robin and Marian (1976) that most people suppose that the actors and director make the movie up as they go and that, at best, a writer offers them the occasional choice zinger. They don’t know that a movie is written, that before anything else happens, a movie must be written – even if it’s Mike Leigh improvising and devising a film from the ground up – it iswritten.
Dialogue is the poster child of screenplay writing. It is literally the first thing people look at in a screenplay. No matter how well your scenes are constructed, no matter how electrifying your transitions, no matter how artful your conflicts, hand anyone a finished screenplay and they will always, always flip through to glance at the dialogue.
If there long great chunks of dialogue they may even hand it back to you and say, “I’m sorry, Mr Tarantino. It’s too talky.”
If there’s no dialogue on the page at all, if you’ve written a masterpiece of pure cinema, their shoulders will sag and the script will fall from their hands as they lose all hope, anticipating the African Queen-style slog ahead in which they actually have to imagine what is happening, rather than being able to speed along through pages of fluffy white dialogue like some agent skiing down the slopes at Vale – or if the reader is European, wherever European agents go skiing.
Do European agents go skiing?
Dialogue in a script, on the page, is very different from dialogue onscreen. In fact, they are two distinctly different animals involving entirely different sets of brain functions both in the creation and in the reception. Just as “He blows out the match / CUT TO / The sun rises.” will never convey the visceral effect of the famous sequence transition in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), reading their exchanges on paper about foot massages and their boss’s girlfriend just isn’t going to have the same effect as seeing the whole scene play out in real time in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Dialogue is just one more co-equivalent element of scene construction. Because we are all “doing dialogue” with each other every day, using it as our principle means of communication, the importance of dialogue for the screenwriter is always in danger of being underestimated.
When we step back and look at it coolly and honestly – and in the context of actual filmmaking, not as a type of writing on a script page – it is only another sound effect onscreen.
I hear some of you clearing throats uncomfortably, others grunting suspiciously, others saying “Get stuffed” aggressively, but I say again, dialogue is only another sound effect onscreen. The words we write in screenplay dialogue formatting are only notations for trained technicians, actors, to produce the proper sound effects to convey meaning to the audience. We have to be reminded – at least I do – that dialogue is far from essential in the telling of a film story. Brando could say more with a grunt than most other actors could with a page of dialogue. In fact, in On the Waterfront (1954) Kazan obliterates the dialogue in a pivotal scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint with a deafening steam whistle effect. We see his lips moving and her horrified reaction but hear only the shriek of the whistle – far more effective than if we had heard the dialogue, even from one of the greatest actors in the world.
Dialogue – or verbally-manufactured sound design (okay, okay, you get it) – is the least efficient way of conveying information in a scene but it is easy and plays on the page much more effectively than a series of shots and transitions which, at least at most writers’ skill levels, are hard to make as effective. Dialogue on a page communicates directly with the reader; they can hear it in their head without having to do any imaginative translation. So what do we do? Write for the reader or write for the movie we’re trying to make?
How we write dialogue – the pace of it, the style, the punctuation – and how we use it to get a script made or even represented, is unique to each writer’s ear and aesthetic preferences. That is one of the great delights of reading/hearing good dialogue when one can really taste the unique flavour of each writer’s voice as it manifests itself in a character.
I try to stick to, cling to, the idea that dialogue is just another sound effect. I try to tell a story only with moving images, for which the sound track is just a means of providing depth and weight. I will sometimes try to write a scene forbidding myself dialogue of any kind and am often then forced – after long descriptions of the scenery and props and costume – into moving characters into action rather than blowing it all with yet another dialogue exchange over a dinner table.
Of course, I’m very lazy and have ended up being notorious for extremely long dialogue scenes and – worse – long monologues. I have only a limited ability to practice what I preach, it would seem.
There are no unbreakable rules for writing dialogue. Playing the “less is more” card is a cop out. Some of my favourite movies are saturated with heavy dialogue. However, treating dialogue as “just one more sound effect” can help force you to ask why exactly you are putting dialogue in a scene and ‘to hear these two characters sing a beautiful duet’ is a perfectly good reason, as far as I’m concerned.
When you study the Quentin Tarantino arias, for example, you quickly realize that they are not about gangsters saying witty things. In fact, they are gorgeous polished gems of suspense in which dialogue plays only a supporting role. The most important part of the long Jules/Vincent opening conversation in Pulp Fiction is a single line of dialogue: ‘We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.’ After that ominous set up Quentin’s characters can go on and on about anything they want. Danger is clearly communicated, and so we are hooked, and we will listen to anything he throws at us until that danger is resolved. The secret to his dialogue is not contained in the dialogue tab of his screenplay. It’s in the structure of the scene, the planting and payoff. It’s so clear and threatening that a rock-solid platform is built for him to then write all the virtuoso dialogue he wants.
All the embarrassing imitations that Tarantino has inspired would do well to remember that dialogue is just another sound effect, and that it is the other elements of a scene and how they fit together that determine whether that sound will be music or just more noise.
I heard a rumor – and I always believe rumors – about the cab scene in On The Waterfront, one of the greatest dialogue scenes in movies. The original script called for Brando’s Terry to respond to his brother’s threats with a substantial chunk of dialogue. But in the end, Brando just said: “Wow.”
Watching “Jaws” (1975) again, I am reminded – again – of how perfect a film it is. Performances, music & sound design, editing, and writing come together to make a masterpiece. In truth, none of these elements, by itself, is perfect in the film – close, but not quite. But somehow they were brought together, on a production where everyone was convinced they had a disaster on their hands, to produce one of the greatest horror movies and adventure movies ever.?
At night, aboard the fishing boat, Orca, our three heroes – Brody, a police chief afraid of water; Matt Hooper, a young marine biologist; and Quint, a seasoned shark fisherman – exchange comical stories about their scars.
When Hooper asks about the scar of a removed tattoo on Quint’s arm, actor Robert Shaw launches into one of his best scenes as an actor and one of the best monologues in movies:
QUINT: (pointing to the tattoo) That’s the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
HOOPER: (breathless) You were on the Indianapolis?
BRODY: What happened?
QUINT: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. thirteen-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know … was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’ by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and sometimes that shark he go away … but sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’ … until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then … ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red. And despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and … they rip you to pieces You know, by the end of that first dawn, we lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Up-ended. Well … he’d been bitten in half below the waist. At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot – a lot younger than Mr. Hooper here – anyway, he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol’ fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know, that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway … (with a smile – or a sneer?) … we delivered the bomb.
Clint Eastwood’s “White Hunter, Black Heart” (1990) – in which director Eastwood plays director John Huston on the shoot of Huston’s “The African Queen” – is one of the great unsung movies about filmmaking and filmmakers.
Before Eastwood/Huston shoots his movie, he feels compelled to hunt down and shoot an African elephant. This obsessive desire to bag the biggest of game animals endangers the life of the motion picture he’s been hired to make.
In what I would call the film’s key scene, screenwriter, Pete Verrill (a fictionalized Peter Viertel – who died last fall a few days shy of age 87), confronts director, John Wilson (Eastwood doing an unapologetic John Huston impression) on his reprehensible quest to hunt down and make a trophy of an African bull elephant.
VERRILL: You’re either crazy, or the most egocentric, irresponsible son-of-a-bitch that I have ever met. You’re about to blow this whole picture out of your nose, John. And for what? To commit a crime. To kill one of the rarest, most noble creatures that roams the face of this crummy earth. And in order to commit this crime, you’re willing to forget about all of us and let this whole god damn thing go down the drain.
WILSON: You’re wrong, kid. It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. Do you understand? It’s a sin. The only sin that you can buy a license and go out to commit. That’s why I want to do it before I do anything else in this world. Do you understand me? Of course you don’t. How could you? I don’t understand it myself.
Clint Eastwood’s “White Hunter, Black Heart” (1990), based on the book by Peter Viertel, is the thinly fictionalized account of the production of John Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951), with Eastwood playing John Huston in the character of “John Wilson” and Jeff Fahey as “Pete Verrill”. Below is an exchange between Pete and a British Bush Pilot, Hodkins, played by Timothy Spall:
PETE: (looking at elephants through binoculars) Oh. I’ve never seen one before, outside the circus or the zoo. They’re so majestic. So indestructible. They’re part of the earth. They make us feel like perverse little creatures from another planet. Without any dignity. Makes one believe in God. In the miracle of creation. Fantastic. They’re part of a world that no longer exists, Hod. Feeling of unconquerable time.
HODKINS: You certainly have a way with words, Pete. No wonder you’re a writer.
Clint Eastwood’s “White Hunter, Black Heart” (1990), a fictionalized account of John Huston’s making of “The African Queen” (1951) – with Eastwood playing Huston – is a superb and underrated film about moviemaking and moviemakers.
WILSON: You know something, Pete? You’re never gonna be a good screenwriter, and you know why?
VERRILL: No, John. Why don’t you tell me why?
WILSON: ‘Cause you let eighty-five million popcorn eaters pull you this way and that way. To write a movie, you must forget that anyone’s ever gonna see it.
My favorite filmmakers are my favorite filmmakers because they give me some new gift each time I revisit their work. So I find myself never able to stick with a permanent choice for My Favorite Film. It might be “Kagemusha” (1980) this month (I prefer the leaner American release version), next month “Seven Samurai” (1954). “The Birds” (1963) this month, next month “North By Northwest” (1959). Usually, I will say that “Black Narcissus” (1947) or “Stairway To Heaven” (1946) (aka “A Matter Of Life and Death”) are my Powell/Pressburger films du mois. However, this mois, the movie in the #1 Archers spot is certainly “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943). “Blimp” is a film made with one foot in WWII-era British propaganda and the other wedged in between Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962). It spans 40 years of a British soldiers life and covers everything from love to humiliation, honor to stupidity, idealism to self-delusion, Germany to England. And it features Deborah Kerr playing not just one mouth-watering female lead, but three.
The monologue below comes from our pompous hero’s best friend, the realist Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, superbly played by Anton Walbrook in a performance which spans 40 years of a character’s life.
In this scene, Theo, who has fled Nazi-controlled Germany, opens his tired, broken heart to an English Judge preparing to deny him asylum in England – homeland of his deceased wife, place of his incarceration in a WWI POW camp. The entire monologue takes place in a single shot on Walbrook, seated, leaning on his cane –
THEO: I have not told a lie. But I also have not told the truth. A refugee soon learns that there is a big difference between the two.
He pauses. The JUDGE nods.
THEO: The truth about me is that I am a tired old man who came to this country because he is homesick.
Oh please don’t stare at me like that, sir, I am all right in the head. You know that, after the war, we had very bad years in Germany. We got poorer and poorer. Every day retired officers and schoolteachers were caught shoplifting. Money lost its value, the price of everything rose. Except of human beings. We read in the papers, of course, that the after-war years were bad everywhere, that crime was increasing and that the honest citizens were having a hard job to put the gangsters in jail. Well, I needn’t tell you, sir, that in Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. My wife was English. She would have loved to have come back to England, but it seemed to me that I would be letting down my country in its greatest need, and so she stayed at my side. When in summer ’33, we found that we had lost both our children to the Nazi Party, and I was willing to come, she died. None of my sons came to her funeral.
Heil Hitler … And then in January ’35, I had to go to Berlin on a mission for my firm. Driving up in my car, I lost my way on the outskirts of the city, and suddenly the landscape seemed so familiar to me. And slowly I recognized the road, the lake, and a nursing home, where I spent some weeks recovering almost forty years ago. I stopped the car and sat still – remembering. And … you see, in this very nursing home, sir, I met my wife for the first time … and I met an Englishman who became my greatest friend. And I remembered the people at the station in ’19, when we prisoners were sent home, cheering us, treating us like friends … the faces of a party of distinguished men around a table who tried their utmost to comfort me when the defeat of my country seemed to me unbearable. And – very foolishly – I remembered the English countryside, the gardens, the green lawns, the weedy rivers and the trees … she loved so much. And a great desire came over me to come back to my wife’s country. And this, sir, is the truth.
Silence in the schoolroom after THEO’S long speech. The JUDGE rises and walks round the table.
Paddy Chayefsky was one of the great writers of motion pictures. His masterpiece, “Network” (1976), lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Rocky”. “Rocky” is an excellent movie – really great. But “Network” is transcendent.
“Network” tells the story of the news anchor of a major network who, after a psychotic break, becomes a prophet condemning the very corporate media that employs him, and that exploits his anti-television ranting to further expand its influence and profit.
You can read Chayefsky’s entire script online HERE.
Paddy Chayefsky spent most of his career in television, and he got to an intimate view of the electronic medium’s move from a curiosity in the 1940’s to the center of American life in the 1970’s.
This scene, in the last half of the film, consists entirely and exclusively of a single monologue, masterfully performed by Peter Finch in the role of Howard Beale:
INT. THE STUDIO
A bare stage except for one stained glass window, suspended by wires upstage center. HOWARD BEALE, in an austere black suit with black tie shambles on from the wings. TUMULTUOUS APPLAUSE from the STUDIO AUDIENCE.
HOWARD: “Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was the Chairman of the Board of the Union Broadcasting Systems – and he died at 11 o’clock this morning of a heart condition and woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!! So … a rich little man with white hair died. What does that got to do with the price of rice, right? And why is that woe to us? Because you people, and sixty-two million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is whatever you get over this ‘tube’. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube! This tube is the gospel. The ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamned force in the whole godless world! And woe to us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people! And that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died! Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America. There’s a new Chairman of the Board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network? So, you listen to me. Listen to me! Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats, story-tellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion- tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! So if you want truth, go to God. Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth!
But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We’ll tell you that Kojack always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch – at the end of the hour, he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds – we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets! Turn them off now! Turn them off right now! Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right now, right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now! Turn them off!! – “
At which point, HOWARD BEALE, sweating and red-eyed with his prophetic rage, collapses to the floor in a prophetic swoon. The Studio Audience applauads.
Robert Bolt was a very lucky writer – terribly talented, yes – but lucky, lucky, lucky. He wrote only a very few screenplays, and most of those that he wrote were produced, and most of those he wrote won many awards, and most of those he wrote were made into superb movies. Compare him with the majority of screenwriters – many excellent screenwriters, first-rate screenwriters – who write a dozen, two dozen, screenplays and maybe get one produced – and probably with other writers’ names on it as well.
This tremendous “luck” is one more reason us crazies in the basement consider Robert Bolt something of a screenwriter’s saint. The fact that his work on the “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) script was interrupted because he had been arrested at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest also makes him kind of cool.
“Doctor Zhivago” (1965) features some of the best use of voice over in any English language film. The story is essentially told by the General Yevgraf Zhivago to a young woman who may – or may not – be his niece. Apart from the introductory and concluding bookends, Yevgraf, as a character, never speaks in his appearances in the story. The voice over of the older Yevgraf, remembering the events, covers any dialogue that would actually have been spoken by his younger, remembered self.
What makes the “Zhivago” voice overs – monologues, we will call them for the purposes of our article – worth careful study is how carefully and deliberately they complement or harmonize with the images and actions they are describing. One particularly nice example is Yevgraf’s describing his dropping the bombshell on his poet-brother Yuri that his poems are “not liked” by the Bolsheviks.
Yuri, in the scene, asks, rather pathetically: “Do YOU think it’s personal, petit-bourgeois, and self-indulgent?”
CU, Yevgraf mouths a single word: “Yes.”
But Yevgraf’s voice over says: “I lied…But he believed me. And it struck me through to see that my opinion mattered.”
Again, to fully appreciate the following monologue, it must be seen played against the images and music. But to sit back and enjoy the meaning and poetry of the language itself is still a treat.
The following is Yevgraf’s first major monologue, and the first time we see him as a young man, joining the ranks of Russian soldiers heading off to fight the First World War. This monologue, and the montage accompanying it, manage to cover the entirety of WWI and its impact on each of the main characters in a few minutes – a beautiful, elegant feat of compression.
Soldiers march off to war flanked by flag-waving, adoring crowds. And Yevgraf speaks:
“In bourgeois terms it was a war between the Allies and Germany. In Bolshevik terms it was a war between the Allied and German upper classes – and which of them won was a matter of indifference. I was ordered by the Party to enlist. I gave my name as Petrov. They were shouting for victory all over Europe – praying for victory to the same God. My task – the Party’s task – was to organize defeat. From defeat would spring the Revolution. And the Revolution would be victory for us. The party looked to the conscript peasants. Most of them were in their first good pair of boots. When the boots wore out, they’d be ready to listen. When the time came, I was able to take three battalions with me out of the front line – the best day’s work I ever did. But, for the moment, there was nothing to be done. There were too many volunteers like me. Mostly, it was mere hysteria. But there were men with better motives, who saw the times were critical and wanted a man’s part. Good men, wasted. Unhappy men, too. Unhappy in their jobs. Unhappy with their wives. Doubting themselves. Happy men don’t volunteer. They wait their turn, and thank God if their age or work delays it. The ones who got back home at the price of an arm or an eye or a leg, these were the lucky ones. Even Comrade Lenin underestimated both the anguish of that nine hundred mile-long front, and our cursed capacity for suffering. By the second winter of the war the boots had worn out. But the line still held. Their great coats fell to pieces on their backs. Their rations were irregular. Half of them went into action without arms. Led by men they didn’t trust … And those they did trust? … At last, they did what all the armies dreamed of doing – they began to go home. That was the beginning of the Revolution.”
At the disheartening conclusion of Bruce Robinson’s SECOND comic masterpiece, “How To Get Ahead In Advertising” (1989), the … the … well, the antagonist, let’s just say, for those who have yet to see the film … has won out. Greed has triumphed again.
And Richard E. Grant, in the second greatest performance of his career, roams out onto his wide and green estate on horseback, and like a deranged corporate-world Henry V, delivers a mighty, triumphant soliloquy:
“We’re living in a shop. The world is one magnificent fucking shop. And if it hasn’t got a price tag, it isn’t worth having. There is no greater freedom than freedom of choice. I was brought up to believe in that, and so should you, but you don’t. You don’t even want roads. God, I never want to go on another train as long as I live! Roads represent a fundamental right of man to have access to the good things in life. Without roads, established family favourites would become elitist delicacies. There’d be no more tea bags, no instant potatoes, no long-life cream. There’d be no aerosols. Detergents would vanish, so would tinned spaghetti, and baked beans with six frankfurters. The right to smoke one’s chosen brand would be denied. Chewing gum would probably disappear, so would pork pies. Foot deodorisers would climax without hope of replacement. When the hydrolized protein and monosodium glutamate reserves ran out, food would rot in its packets. Jesus Christ, there wouldn’t be any more packets! Packaging would vanish from the face of the earth! But worst of all, there’d be no cars. And more than anything people love their cars. They have a right to them. If they have to sweat all day in some stinking factory making disposable cigarette lighters or everlasting Christmas trees, by Christ they’re entitled to them. They’re entitled to any innovation technology brings, whether it’s 10 percent more of it or 15 percent off of it. They’re entitled to it! They’re entitled to one of four important new ingredients! Why should anyone have to clean their teeth without important new ingredients? Why shouldn’t they have their CZT? How dare some smutty, Marxist carbuncle presume to deny it to them! They love their CZT! They want it! They need it! They positively adore it! And by Christ, while I’ve got air in my body, they’re going to get it! They’re going to get it bigger! And brighter! And better! I’ll put CZT in their margarine if necessary. Shove vitamins in their toilet rolls. If happiness means the whole world standing on a double layer of foot deodorisers, I will see that they get them. I’ll give them anything and everything they ever want! By God, I will! I shall not cease ‘till Jerusalem is builded here on England’s green and pleasant land!”