Friday, June 08, 2007

Quotation marks

I'd like to suggest to you that like all misunderstood groups, writers do plenty of misunderstanding too. And it seems somehow worse because our business is in communicating.

So, for example, I once had a deeply involved argument about the role of writers in film and I had it with the editor of an entertainment news website who specifically covered movies. Neither of us won, we might yet be at it if there hadn't been a deadline, but toward the end of the time we spent on it, I finally saw that she really did not know what a writer does. She did believe that the actors make up the words.

Now, you can argue that this is a little startling for a film editor, and I hope that it is unusual, but it took me so long to see it. Every argument I'd done up to that realisation was a complete waste, and all her arguments back were too, because it was as if she were talking about writers and I was talking about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A similiar thing happened to me last night. I'm trying to persuade a fella that dialogue in scripts is not just the decoration at the end of the writing process, the nice bit you add on your tenth draft, that in fact if you can't write dialogue, you just can't write scripts. His considered counter-argument was that this is bollocks. Plot is all.

I'm in a didactic mood this afternoon so let me say: if he doesn't change this, he will never write a good script.

I can feel him cracking his knuckles, ready to write a comment here that if I don't stop trading on my dialogue and my unexpected ability to write at lightspeed, if I don't buckle down to doing treatments and cork-board step-outlines, I'll never write a good script.

But where I battled it out with that editor because this was my life's goal in question, with this man I argued in the pub for hours because I want him to write that great script. If I thought he just couldn't write dialogue and it was never going to happen, I'd have suggested darts for the evening.

As it is, one small issue in the middle of the hours later seemed to me to be key. We talked about whether you come out of a film thinking about the dialogue. His position was that you never come out going "cor, that was a fantastic metaphor" and mine was that you might come out of a Bond film thinking that was a great explosion but you never come out saying "what about that 3lb explosive pack, and the way they supplemented that practical with the CGI in post was just amazing". Come out having been in the story, that's the aim, and I couldn't see why this fella didn't agree that atrocious dialogue prevents this.

Mark you, he also doesn't rate Aaron Sorkin's dialogue so I should've twigged this was another movies vs Mormon Tabernacle kind of discussion.

And I think I know where the kernel of this argument was now. It's that he thinks dialogue is speeches and I know it's speech.

Follow: here are two different pieces of dialogue, the first of which being one we both remembered last night:

RENTON: Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that?


TOM: It's right what you say about remembering things. Our kid, he can tell you the teams that played at Wembley, the year Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers met in the Rugby League Final. He can also tell you the names of most of the people in the crowd. But I tell you the funny part. The only thing our kid can't remember is the score.

CHRISTINA: Why's that?

TOM: His team lost. Ten four.

The first is from John Hodges' screenplay for Trainspotting (and you may notice the filmed version is a little different) based on Irvine Welsh's novel, and the second is from Sweet Sorrow, a stage play by Alan Plater.

If I ask you what the difference is and you say one's film, one's stage, I'm amazed you've read this far. If you say there's no difference whatsoever, well, I've a lot more time for that argument.

I would say that there is a difference, that the choose life one is a definite speech, I want to say an iconic moment in Trainspotting but I'm probably misusing the word, whereas the second one is a conversation. But they're both doing the same job: both of them are telling us something and they're really telling us something else.

So with the Trainspotting one, most especially when Ewan McGregor delivers it so well but certainly even as you read it here, you know instantly that the speaker is against this whole choose life idea. How can you know that from the script? McGregor could've said it sarcastically and you'd have got it, but he was much more subtle and the script had no tricks, no "(caustic)" direction. It was there in the dialogue, on the page, right in your face and though you can't point to the one syllable that gave it away in that very first sentence, that's because it's only with really crap dialogue that you can.

In the second case, the punchline is a delicously creaking old gag, but stuff the rugby, forget the kid, what is Tom telling you about Tom? He's telling a story. Even a simple thing, he's fashioned it into a tale and what you get is that he is a storyteller, that maybe he's also just a little bit of a dreamer. I've actually compressed a longer sequence into those lines so you can see this but if I'd done the lot or you know the play, you'd also have got that he's a poetry fan.

That's what I call good dialogue. This is what I call bad:

TOM: I like poetry, it's really great.

RENTON: Drugs are better, man.

I think that dialogue is intensely hard to do, though unusually for me I believe I do it, but also that only half the fight is writing speech that sounds like a real person talking and conveys all these layers that we all do convey in our every conversation. And that the other half is in hiding the fact that it's so hard. When the dialogue feels constructed, as I'm afraid I agree Aaron Sorkin can do on his off days, then it's artifice and prangs out at you, it takes you out of the story and fights you getting back in. It's bad enough in films, it's even worse on the page because what else is there on the page but dialogue?

One last thought, if I may. When Dialogue Goes Bad. There's a line or three in the film Martha Meet Frank, Daniel and Lawrence (or somesuch title, I might be mixing up the order of names there) in which a character does indeed do Bad Dialogue. I can't remember it, I've blocked the film from my mind but he says something that it's very unlikely the character knows, it's absolutely rock certain that the character would never say it in that situation ("Oh, before you ring off, don't you think nuclear submarines are a pretty colour?"). And there isn't one single possible chance that the line is anything but the writer feeding us information. This is in all ways very, very crap.

But I cheered.

Right there in the cinema, I went Yes!

Because I knew without that stupid plotting dialogue, it would take the film a minimum of twenty more minutes to get us to the stage in the story that the line brought us to. If you're arguing that's actually good dialogue, ah, come on: go see the film, I refuse to take the blame when you don't like it, and you will see the line I mean. Prangs out at you.

So it was very poor, it would have thrown me out of the movie. But I was long, long thrown and that fudged rubbish meant the film must be nearly over.

That's why I cheered. Mind you, I don't know why I didn't just walk out an hour beforehand.


No comments: