Friday, April 1, 2011

YOU TALKIN’ TO ME? - Dialogue & the search for syllables to shoot at the Unknown

"I wrote the script of Patton. I had this very bizarre opening where he stands up in front of an American flag and gives this speech. Ultimately, I was fired.” - Francis Ford Coppola

Most young screenwriters I meet have an almost obsessional aversion to dialogue. Some will even go to the extreme of avoiding it altogether, and if asked why, a not uncommon reply might be something like: “better silent than cheesy”, as if those were the only choices.

A good deal of the dialogue I read in most of the scripts that come my way is invariably tortured, artificial and frequently unnecessary. But this doesn’t mean that dialogue per se is something better left out of your screenplay. Rather than avoiding it, a more constructive and potentially more creative response would be to ask the question: what must one do in order to write dramatic speech that sounds natural and at the same time multiplies the dramatic values of the action?

Dramatic dialogue is NOT like every day speech, no matter how realistic the best of it may sound. The writer, Paddy Chayevsky, who composed some of the most realistic and memorable film dialogue ever written was fond of pointing out that the task of the screenwriter is not to slavishly copy spoken speech, but to write it down in such a way as to make us believe this is way people actually speak. Effective dramatic dialogue almost never presents language in the way that it is actually used. If that were the case, all a screenwriter would have to do is carry round a tape recorder and faithfully transcribe everything he recorded into notebooks to be mined later.  

The Australian film editor, Bill Russo, and I often spoke about the editing that is writing and the writing that is editing. They really are much closer to each other that they are to any other of the disciplines associated with filmmaking, apart from, perhaps, music.

Scripted dialogue is edited speech, and the operative word here is EDITED. The stammering, the pauses, the "uhs," and “ahs” and "likes" that many people stick in front of or between their words, the pauses in which a speaker  searches the right word or strives to exact the specific emphasis,  or merely the interval or intervals in which one quietly struggles to figure out what they're going to say next, seldom appear in the text of the majority of screenplays that I read, as if such hearing was to be reserved for the directors and the actors.

When it comes to dialogue, less is usually more. This is not to say that there is never a place for monologue, but one must develop a feeling and a nose for monologue, which means one must cultivate a sensitivity to the “hidden dialogicality” (Bahktin’s phrase) of  that form of address.  Imagine, for example, two men – soldiers, perhaps – meeting one another prior to setting out on a dangerous mission. Imagine a dialogue between of two men in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense of a dialogue is not lost. The second speaker is present but he doesn’t actually use any words. Nevertheless, owing to what we see in his demeanor and know about him from past actions and interactions, we sense the deep traces left by his unspoken words, simultaneously perceiving  their determining influence on all present and visible words of the first speaker. In other words, though only one of the characters is actually speaking, we sense a conversation. And it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each and every word uttered by the first character is responsive in every way  to the invisible speaker, and points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of that character.

Now imagine this kind of dialogic going on amongst ALL of the characters, with all of their various voices and silences, as they collaborate in the dynamic interplay that is the constructing or finding a dramatic screenplay. Writer, characters, audience and tribes, all interactiing and speaking to one another in a kind of extravagant form of block play. Remember the sorts of dialogues one indulged in as a child? For children, understanding comes when they actively respond through external social speech, such as engaging in a dialogue with an adult, or in private speech by assuming the role of two or more characters and talking aloud, or through inner speech by responding internally to what has been said.  As with children, so too with effective screenwriters. As I have said many times, the most impotant part of the worl screenplay is “play”.
It is not uncommon to hear a child talking to him/herself whilst in the storyworld creation of doll or block playing. In the act of constructing a double-decker bridge, for example, you might hear a child say: "It goes up here" as he places a block on the top of his structure.  But Bahktin's notion of hidden dialogicality accounts for understanding and dialogue not just in block play, but also in screenwriting. When the screenwriter plays with the story, he is engaging in a set of ongoing relationships and dialogues, inner and outer, with the other participants in the story process, namely the characters, the audience and the tribe.

Certainly, most great films have at least a few if not many memorable sentences or speeches – "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,"  and  “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” are synonymous with the films they are from. But what really makes them memorable is the context in which the words are uttered. In both of these cases, the lines are funded with an emotional charge that comes not only from the words but also from the visuals and the reactions of the other character’s operating within the scene.
Consider Johnny Depp's characterization of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies and Alex Cox), for example. He is given to long, rambling speeches, but there is always something going on in the background, even if it is an hallucination. The dialogue plays off the images, alternating between comic and harrowing but reinforcing the impact for both.

Making dialogue conversational and believable resides in the small details, in the ability to hear what doesn’t need saying. In the wisdom to speak the word that evokes what can never be said. It involves rhythm and having an ear for tone, timbre and pitch.

Characters have their own, identifiable rhythms. If one knows them well enough, one feels their identity in the rhythms they make – both bodily and verbally. Training the ear and the body to listen and respond to the way people speak – on a bus, in a pub, at a party, in the act of making love  – is useful so long as one trains the ear and the physical vehicles to listen and not take notes.

Nevertheless, a writer worth his or her salt will always be listening for good dialogue, to the intrinsic music and rhythm of the character that is speaking.  And don't be afraid to edit and re-edit and re-edit if a section of dialogue isn't working. Go away from it and come back to it later. Sometimes one hears the right phrase in the faintest speech, like one sometimes sees the faintest star by catching it in the corner of one’s eye. Most good dialogue comes when one is NOT sitting in front of a computer. Go for a stroll; take the story, not the dog, for a walk.

If you’re going to give up “square writing” you must also be alert to every possibility of every character’s internal contradictions. Develop an instinct for grasping the multiple and oft-times hidden meanings that lurk beneath the surface of the characters’ public quests and private fears. Don’t bother making up lists. Get to know them, inside and out, watch them like you’d watch a prospective lover, confess something to them, expect them to confess something to you.

The ability to hear and appreciate subtext is instrumental to the conception and presentation of emotionally sound and compelling dialogue, which – if it is to be potent – is never that obvious. Ham-fisted subtext is not an oxymoron but it is moronic. It’ll set your audience to laughing and you to tears.  Don’t curry favour with, or indulge the desires of, the three bastard muses. Sentimentality, propaganda and pornography (or scatological discourse) are ultimately of little use to you unless you’re first love is advertising.

 Subtext – when effective – invites the audience to become participants in the creation of the story and in that participation to feel an intimacy with the characters that renders them fully present.

At the end of Rushmore (written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson), while Jason Schwartzman as Max and Olivia Williams as Miss Cross dance, they have the following exchange:

Max: Yeah, it went okay. At least nobody got hurt.
Miss Cross: Except you.
Max: No, I didn't get hurt that bad.

During the play, which serves as the climax of the movie, Max is injured physically. Of course, with subtext, the audience understands his reference to emotional pain. This understanding forges an emotional connection between the audience and the character that would not be there without the engagement offered by the “reading” of the subtext.
There is usually a through-line (the spine, or driving force) that applies both to stories and to characters. The impetus to action, the pursuit of salvation or justice or love – which propels story and character along from one action to the next.  But within every obsession or compulsion are many angels and many demons, and there is really no credible way of getting to either unless one does so obliquely, through what is NOT said and NOT show, but implied in context and subtext. Most screenwriters would do well to remember David Trottier’s advice in The Screenwriters’ Bible: "Let your characters keep their secrets as long as they can."

Another thing to remember is that dialogue is written to be spoken. Always read dialogue out loud. Read it back, have others (preferably in a workshop with other writers or actors) read it aloud as well. Listen to the rhythms, the tone, the syntax – FEEL it bodily – the way the words come off the tongue, the facial gestures that accompany the words, the breath – all of these are clues to the veracity of the music that is dramatic speech. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that is definitely what I was searching for, You have saved me alot of time