Monday, December 06, 2004

Writing People

I'm working on a movie right now, which I'll be making over winter break, only two weeks away. So, in the past week or so, I've been writing a bunch of script. I love writing script, in some respects even more than the process of actually filming, becuase you're not really held down to any rules. Actually filming can be great, but it can also be pretty annoying. That's the part of the process that in many ways feels the least like art. You have to deal with so many differnet issues, technical things, time constraints, working with people, and also the constraints of reality. When you're writing a script, if the image is in your head, it doesn't take that much to get it on the page. However, getting from script to reality is extremely tough. Even for Hollywood people, with millions of dollars at their disposal, the reality of the thing can never match the vision in your head, and as someone who doesn't really have any budget, that's doubly true.

However, the coolest thing about writing script is when you really know the characters, and can speak through them essentially. For this project, Jordan and I split the writing, and it's pretty amazing, because when I compare the stuff I wrote with the stuff he wrote, the people talk exactly the same. We both know how the characters function well enough that we can replicate their speech patterns. When you're writing dialogue, it's a lot like what is stereotypically associated with acting, the idea that you have to get into character, and find out "what's my motivation?" In some movies, there's a tendency to make every single line important to the plot, and I don't like that. I think you can reveal character traits through dialogue without having them actually talk about something that's essential to the plot. Seeing someone's opinion of current events or pop culture can tell you a lot about them. I love a really well done pop culture reference in a script, but most are really bad. Having someone say "Luke, I am your father" into a fan for the twelfth time isn't funny anymore, but if you have people talk about Star Wars in a way that actually says something about their character, more than the fact that they like Star Wars, then you've done your job. The Trio in Buffy were really defined by their love of pop culture, and the trivilaity of their discussions is brilliantly juxtaposed against the very real evil of their actions.

There's something very magical about summoning a character out of nothing, and turning him/her into a full fledged being. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have talked about this, the idea that creating fiction is making something out of nothing, and is thus a magical act. The Invisibles was designed as a sigil, to come out of the fiction and into our reality, and while I'm not at that level yet, just to create a fully functioning fictional world, and make people interact in it is very cool. It's really tough to write something where you don't know the people. You have to understand the character's motivations, their internal selves, and the front they present to the world, and then you can write them well. Every character has a piece of yourself in it, but if you can make a character speak completely different from yourself, and yet still be a coherent, consistent person, it's very cool.

I read an interview with one of the Buffy writers, where he said that he gave a line that was Willow's to Xander, and when reading the script Joss told him, "That line's a Willow," and that says a lot about how well defined those characters are. Everyone has a specific way they speak, and even on the page, it's completely unique. All the Buffy characters do have a similar way of speaking, but clearly, there are subtle differences between the way, say, Buffy and Willow talk. The Invisibles is really unique, becuase, despite being a comic, each of the characters has a differnet sound. Dane's dialogue is written in such a way that it sounds uniquely British, even though it's just words printed on a page. Similarly, both Fanny and King Mob have distinctive styles. It's difficult to write someone like Fanny without going into caricature, but I think Morrison pulls it off.

The best written movie, dialogue wise, of recent times, and possibly even all time, is Before Sunset. The movie is one 80 minute conversation, and it's absolutely riveting. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wrote a script that is a perfect example of how to craft dialogue that says a ton of things at once. In the first chunk of the movie, we see Jesse and Celine wandering around the city, making small talk, when clearly they want to talk in depth with each other, but just don't know how. Jesse at first doesn't mention his marriage, however, he goes on to say it's good. It's pretty basic, jokey discussion, but we know there's a lot more going on, and that's conveyed both through the performance and through the dialogue itself.

Then, in the second chunk of the movie, everything starts to unravel. The careful guarding of emotions from the first half breaks down, as each of the characters breaks down to some extent, and talks about how unfulfilled they are in life, largely because of the amazing night they shared together back in Before Sunrise. The dialogue perfectly captures the way real people talk, though perhaps with less likes and ums, and the two characters are so fully formed, we can discern exactly when they're hiding something, or telling a white lie. The movie has so many memorable exchanges, and through the dialogue, we find out not plot events, but discover fully realized characters. The end of the movie is a little more visual, becuase we've reached the point where we know these people so well, they don't even need to talk, just looking at each other speaks volumes. And, the two words that end the movie say so much. The movie uses talk to both shield emotions and to reveal them. Linklater is the master of dialogue, as seen by his Waking Life, Slacker or this movie's predecessor, Before Sunrise, but in Sunset, he takes everything to a new level, and incorporates a really strong emotional story with the dialogue, making for one of the best movies ever made.

Related Posts
Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology (12/7/2004)

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