Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"You can type this shit, but you can't say it."

That quote is from Harrison Ford, and it's something he said to George Lucas with regard to the clunkiness of his dialogue. It's a lesson that writers all too often forget.

One of the cooler aspects of the filmmaking process is getting to see casting sessions. Through my own short films, and the films which the companies I've worked for have made, I've gotten to see several casting sessions. (Obviously in the case of the professional films, I've only seen the auditions on tape, whereas I was actually in the room for my own.) It's interesting to see different actors make wildly different choices, and just as interesting when disparate takes on a character are equally valid.

As writers, sometimes we convince ourselves that there's only one way a line of dialogue could be said. Maybe we assume that there's only one way a line could be delivered, or convince ourselves that a potentially difficult line could make sense if spoken just precisely. But here's the thing, actors will surprise you. They might find subtext you didn't realize was there - or they'll pick up on subtext elsewhere and find a way to bring it out using a line you hadn't intended for that purpose.

On one short film, I'd written a character who was supposed to be rather narcissistic. In my head, she was seeing everything through the lens of how it affected her and what it meant for her. Her interactions with the lead backed that up, but as I saw it, her self-centeredness would be almost naive. No matter what you said to this girl, she'd bring it back to herself because that was how she thought.

Well, the actress who eventually won the role came in and played those lines with more ego than I had imagined. In her interpretation, the character knew she was hot shit and she played her dialogue far more self-aware than I had conceived it to be. It surprised me because I hadn't considered that take on the character, but the more I saw it, the more I liked it because it made for a more interesting conflict with the lead. Though that dynamic wasn't the central conflict in the script, it put the lead more on the defensive and that made for a more interesting short all around. Had I gotten an actress who had given me exactly what I wanted, I think I still would have gotten a good movie about it, but this new spin on that character certainly enhanced the film.

But sometimes actors will take dialogue the other way. You hear it outloud and you realize that it simply doesn't work. There's nothing more punishing than having to endure an actor deliver a terrible line reading as you realize that it's all your fault for writing that insanely terrible dialogue.

Characters should be living, breathing people. They're not like text-to-speech programs that can spit out anything that you type. Make sure your dialogue reinforces that.


  1. As someone just writing my first screenplay, this is timely advice - thank you!


  2. Excellent post!

    It reminds me of something I read about Warhol -- how he loved it when he gave instructions to someone, and they got it wrong, and the art turned out even better.

  3. Good post. What I like to do with dialog is to type it as "broken English."

    I'm at work so I don't have an example but it works great. I've had a few reads for casting for a short I wrote and the experience was so great.
    The actors really got into the dialog ad at one point I cried - really good actor nailed a confession scene.

    The best thing was that people did add their own interpretation but because I used broken english the scene had the same impact with four different actors.

    I actually have what some of my writer friends have called a great post about Active\Reactive dialog techniques.

  4. I've experienced both with a short I shot a few years back.

    Most of the main characters played it pretty much as I expected. But, a minor character that I guess you could call the mentor of the protagonist definitely played his role much differently than I expected.

    When he initially read for the part, I had to change the mental image that replayed in my head every time I read the lines back to myself when writing the script. He changed the character. He was supposed to be this soft-spoken gentleman and instead he was a hard ass. He was rough, rigid and direct. It was perfect for the protagonist. He needed that push during scenes and in the final product it made sense.

    Of course, that same script had a table reading months before with a few other people and immediately after one read what I hoped would be a great joke made me cringe. It was horrible. Humiliating. I wrote that crap? I was convinced it would be hilarious? It was probably the worst line in the entire script and it didn't even fit the story.

    I was so terrified I didn't write one comedic line. I'm not suggesting it was a good idea. I learned a lot from that short. One of the actors even said to me: "This film is too serious. You gotta let the audience breathe." I've taken that to heart and have done better since.

  5. This is why every Writer should become friends with Actors. It's not hard if you live in LA or NY.

    I ALWAYS get my actor friends together and do readings of my scripts as part of the revision process. It's the very best way to know if the dialog works or not. Also, since writer's tend to be plot focused, writer's groups tend to give advise pertaining to the story and structure. Actors on the other hand care far more about character and tend to give GREAT feedback on character.

    So, I suggest to every writer having readings. It's VERY HELPFUL.

  6. @JNow:
    Bravo. Directors and actors are the best people to tell you if it works. Writers and readers are looking for the technical stuff while actors and directors are looking for the emotion.

    The greatest plot will suck if there's no emotion - cough, cough - Terminator Salvation - cough.

  7. Have to agree with Jnow. I've always made it a habit to be friends with actors. To me, it makes sense. They are looking for work and you're making work. Why not develop a relationship with these people? Especially if you already know they are professional and talented. Keep them around. Continue to work with them.

    And, like you said, they are looking at something different than the writer or director. Sometimes it's not good to have too many heads in a story, but there's nothing wrong with having three heads looking for three different things.