Wednesday, 10 December 2008


There were no camcorders when I was a kid. Those of us who were odd enough to want to make our own movies had to use something called Super 8.

Super 8 had the advantage of being film - a lovelier medium than video. It came in cartridges lasting 3 minutes and a few seconds, which meant you were careful about how much footage you shot. And it was silent.

There were systems which could sync sound with the picture, but they were expensive, and getting a decent edit was a nightmare.

So I learnt to make silent films.

After a while, the limitations of my home movie set-up became apparent. The original 'Star Wars' might have been made on a shoestring, but George Lucas wasn't obliged to cast his Mum as Princess Leia and to pay for it all out of the money he got for Christmas. So I drifted away from Super 8, but its legacy remained with me.

For most of my teens, I was hopeless with dialogue. I hadn't been learning to listen.

But I had been learning to SEE.

The screen is primarily a visual medium. There was even a theory, when sound was first married to the moving image, that this was a Bad Thing. It stopped cinema being a Universal Language. Sound detracted from the magic of the image.

Now, I don't think that's necessarily true. Great dialogue - a great soundtrack in general - can make a movie. But still, we go to SEE a film. We WATCH a movie. It is a story told with pictures.

A lot of writers, when they start writing for the screen, assume that it's all about dialogue. It isn't. In fact, I'm constantly trying to persuade my students that dialogue is the least effective weapon in the screenwriter's armoury.

Inherently, I think a lot of writers know this. Many scripts start with an excitingly visual opening sequence. But then the writer relaxes, and as the script continues the dialogue runs out of control. Page after page goes by, in which characters talk at one another incessantly.

A page of properly formatted script should equal roughly one minute of screen time. A page of dialogue, then, even if it is formatted properly, is a minute of talking. That's a whole minute of somebody's life, and you want them to spend that minute listening to the random thoughts of your characters, or hearing one of them explaining the plot to another.

Now, there's a handy rule in screenwriting. It's called GILGOE.

That's 'Get In Late, Get Out Early'. GILGOE.

Start your scene at the latest possible moment and then end it as soon as you can.

Ask yourself, 'What is the function of the dialogue in this scene?' If its only function is to pass the time of day, GET RID OF IT.

Really good dialogue bears little or no similarity to the way people actually talk. Most human beings are incapable of expressing the simplest of concepts without warbling endlessly. But, as Hitchcock observed, film is life with the dull bits cut out.

It's our job to zone in on the crucial moment. Unless you're writing for a soap - in which case, banality is the remit and the talking-to-action ratio is entirely out of kilter - it's your duty to shut your characters up. Let them burble away to their heart's content if you must, but then go back and cut out the yakking.

Clint Eastwood might not be the best actor in the world, but he understands the screen. When he was cast as the Man With No Name, he did something truly remarkable - indeed, earth-shattering - for an actor. He cut at least half of his lines.

He knew that the less a character talks, the more we might listen.

Be like Clint. Cut out at least half of your dialogue.

Then go back and cut some more.

And keep cutting, until all that remains is absolutely necessary.

Talking is for radio. On the screen, it's what we see that matters.

1 comment:

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

yeah, man, how true. I always have to go back to my screenplays and cut down the dialogue, I blame it on my playwriting training.

super 8 cams are so cool.
I don't like digital video cameras, they're so OVERRATED and I hate the shiny, clean quality, which makes the film look fake.