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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Speaking Without Talking

There hast been much ink spilled, and many an hour wiled away dwelling on the merits of original, evocative, clever, and memorable dialogue in film. And the time may come when I too add my cents two, should I sense that my words may ring true. Alas, now instead I shall write of speaking with nary a word, communicating in images, or with but the slightest of actions.

This has been a lot of silly and flowery words, especially since I am writing about not using them at all. But I was vaguely inspired to write in such archaicisms because of the impetus for this post. Yesterday I saw, for the first time, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. There were two moments over the course of the film in which an actor's slight glance or facial expression added some nice subtext to Shakespeare's text. Or perhaps I should say "revealed" some nice subtext.

My guess is that there's at least an even chance that ol' Bill had these things in mind when he wrote the words, and I'm relatively certain that Luhrmann (via his co-written screenplay and/or his direction) is not the first to uncover such subtext. In fact, they may have even not been written into the script itself, or might have originated from the minds of the skilled actors involved. But they still highlight how information can be transmitted wordlessly, and in fact more elegantly and effectively than if they were spelled out with dialogue.

The first was in Juliet's famous "wherefore art thou Romeo" speech. As the line is written, it reads:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;--—
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.

But in the film, the lovely, honest, and innocent Claire Danes, as Juliet, pauses just before she says those last few words. A girlishly mischievous look momentarily crosses her face, and then she utters the phrase, "nor any other part/Belonging to a man." There's little question what is on her teenaged mind.

Similarly, in the very next scene, Romeo goes to see his friend Friar Lawrence, and tells of his change of heart. He is no longer interested in (the never seen on stage) Rosaline, as he's pledged his heart to fair Juliet. Lawrence responds:

Holy Saint Francis! what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men's love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.

In this case, however, Pete Postlethwaite as Lawrence has the visual subtext moment. He scornfully glances down at Romeo/Leo DiCaprio's nether regions just before he says "eyes," suggesting clearly that "eyes" here is little more than a euphemism.

The point here is that so much was communicated through a mere facial expression in each of these scenes. And they were each just a momentary flicker, not even a second each. These are the kinds of moments we need to include in our screenplays. Go through your script and find those lines of dialogue that you've just heard way too many times. The lines that could pop up in any other film. It might be something as simple as "I love you." Or just something that is a bit too spot on, saying exactly what a character is thinking or feeling, but not the type of thing that anyone would actually say in real life.

So find those lines, and then think of and replace them with simple actions that communicate the same thing more eloquently and wordlessly.

And I'm talking here more about the visual moments within a regular scene, not the larger scale, fully-visual scenes, such as battles, physical comedy, action sequences, or sex scenes. These are topics I'll cover in my Screenwriting Expo seminar, "Verbalizing the Visual." Here I'm just talking about translating lines of dialogue into subtle actions that can communicate at least as much or more in a more economical space.

I can't remember it too distinctly, but I do remember seeing a great moment of this sort in a film once, but since I can't remember the details, I'll just make it up somewhat. Imagine you have a married couple that is having some issues. She wants a baby and he doesn't. They are fighting a lot. He doesn't even admit that he doesn't want a child, or maybe he really does, and uses not wanting one as an excuse to avoid the real issues. Anyway, let's say that the wife becomes pregnant. Maybe she stopped taking the pill, or maybe the birth control failed, or whatever. She doesn't know whether to tell him about it or not. She decides to break it to him somewhere where he can't freak out too much. Some public place. A theater as a play is about to start. His reaction is inscrutable, his face betraying little emotion as various thoughts go through his head. Now let's say he's made up his mind to put their troubles behind them, and he wants to become a father, now that the option is actually presenting itself. Here's where our moment occurs.

We could have him turn to his wife and tell her how sorry he is. How much he truly loves her and wants to have this baby too. There could be tears and kissing, some real melodramatic romance. Or we could go more subtle and elegant. As the play begins and the man begins to watch, his face still an uninterpreted mask, he reaches his hand across and simply rests it on his wife's stomach. How much does that simple act communicate? And how much more than all the words we could have written. His wife's smile and a joyful tear from her eye could elegantly show her emotions as well.

I've heard many people suggest watching the old silent movies to get a feel for how much can actually be communicated without words (or with just a few, on intertitle cards). Still, while excellent teaching tools, they also feel as dated as they actually are, and won't necessarily work for a contemporary screenplay.

Thus, in addition to the excellent silent films of the past, I highly recommend watching The Wall by Pink Floyd (Roger Waters, specifically) and Alan Parker. Though I've seen the film a number of times, and even own the DVD, it was only recently that I saw it for the first time on a full-sized theater screen. Wow! I don't know if it was that experience of seeing it on the big screen, the process of reviewing a film I'd seen previously, where I am in my life right now, or the fact that I was watching it now with more of a screenwriter's eye, but I saw so much more in the subtle moments of the film. Simple shots that communicated so much subtext or backstory with just an image. They are too many to list or mention, but I strongly urge you all to watch this film, or watch it again. And I mean sober, for those of you that watched it previously in an altered state!

Seriously, though the music has lyrics that the film picks up on, it is not like a traditional musical in that the words aren't necessarily as literal. Ultimately the film is really very much like a modern silent film, or a silent film melded with the music videos it primarily predated. But however you care to classify it, there is so much story information delivered via purely visual imagery that it is well worth watching for this purpose alone.

Bottom line though? Learn to speak without using words, and your scripts will come alive in a truly professional and elegant manner.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent advice and a healthy reminder... will incorporate some of this immediately

4:01 PM  

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