A few things you may not have noticed about the weird and wonderful land of Hollywood films…
Ever been in a conversation where you start over-analysing every word to look for ‘hidden meanings’? In film dialogue, this is what you should be doing. Script-writers aim to find the most artistic, enigmatic way possibleof saying ‘Hey baby I like the look of you’.
I always think of the ‘apricots and honey’ scene in Notting Hill. After Will Thatcher, bumbling bookseller (played, implausibly, by the suave Hugh Grant) manages to spill his orange juice over gorgeous film star Anna Scott (played, much more plausibly, by Julia Roberts), his pulling tactic consists of offering her everything in his fridge. Judging by the washboard abs that Anna is sporting, food probably isn’t the surefire way to this woman’s heart. But Will’s sweet offer (ehhh!) of apricots and honey equates to his inner self screaming ‘love me, Julia Roberts! Or at least snog me on the doorstep’.
Famously, Woody Allen makes this idea of subtext explicit in his film Annie Hall. As Woody Allen’s character Alvy and his beau-to-be Annie drink wine together, they are both so painfully awkward with one another that they make Notting Hill‘s Will look like James Bond. He condescends to her, verbose to the point of nonsense, whilst she appears flustered and insecure. And the beauty of it all? Their real thoughts are all written in subtitles (if you’re wondering, they range from ‘I sound like a twat’ to ‘I wonder what she looks like naked’, with not much in between). Not a far cry from the Notting Hill scene, really. The sign of a good movie is that the subtext always comes across, Woody Allen subtitles or not.
There’s Bottom, And Then There’s Rock Bottom
The movie industry is richly diverse. Gory horror films, insipid rom-coms, over-budgeted action. Whatever suits you best. But what most people don’t realise is…all films are essentially the same.
To clarify, virtually every film you watch will have the same recognisable structure. It goes this…Meet Brenda, the protagonist (main character). Brenda has a problem. Brenda’s problem gets worse. Brenda’s problem is ultimately resolved.
For example, let’s consider The Hangover. We meet the protagonists: the crazy bearded bloke, the uptight dentist, and beautiful Bradley Cooper’s character. They then manage to drink themselves into a stupor, waking up to a trashed hotel room, a tiger and a missing buddy: problem. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…they travel around Vegas, incurring a series of early-onset heart attacks as they realise that one of them has got married, not to mention they have gained an unwelcome vendetta from a naked Asian dude: worse problem. There is then a resolution: dentist realises the stripper he has married is actually pretty cool (it also helps that she is bombshell Heather Graham), they remember that they left their lost friend to get sunburnt on the roof, and they make a friend of the Asian dude. Equally, you can apply this structure to The Hangover 2.
Or let’s take a different film: Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Meet Pi, the protagonist; an interesting character who likes to dabble in different religions. Pi, whilst travelling to Canada with his family—I know, Canada. But that’s not the main problem—gets caught in a storm, and subsequently ends up shipwrecked on board with a bunch of zoo animals, including, yet again, a big tiger (anyone beginning to see a theme here?). This is a problem. Pi and his peckish tiger friend, Alexander Parker, eventually learn to live together: fishing, checking out the views, and enjoying the bachelor lifestyle (I’m on a boat, bitch…) But then Pi gets a little delirious as he confronts the hopelessness of the situation. One escape from a carnivorous island later (if you haven’t seen this movie, I kid you not, this actually happens), stuff is not looking good. Worse problem. But all is made groovy with the resolution, when Pi gets washed ashore and hospitalised, having survived against all odds.
I picked these two at random, but you can apply this structure to just about any film. Yes, it can seem a little contrived. But it is all about meeting audience expectations: without this order, most people would probably just walk out of the movie.
No One Ever Says Hi
The key to writing effective dialogue is to make sure that everything a character says informs the audience about their personality.
In light of this, consider The Most Boring Conversation To Ever Take Place:
Gwendolyn: How are you?
Tobias: I’m fine, how are you?
Gwendolyn: I am also very well.
This conversation will never feature in a film script, because it teaches us absolutely nothing interesting about Gwendolyn and Tobias. Whilst Gwendolyn and Tobias are- most likely- pretty cool cats, the fact that they adhere to the universal social convention of ‘how are you’ is entirely irrelevant in terms of establishing their characters. Plus it wastes a precious thirty seconds of screen time, and no director wants that.
In films, you are more likely to see the following…
Tobias: Hey baby, want a ride?
Gwendolyn: (looking at Tobias in disbelief) I don’t even know who you are!
Tobias: Sure, but…I thought you might be hurt.
Tobias: When you fell from heaven….
(Tobias and Gwendolyn drive off gleefully into the sunlight)
No more Mister Nice Guy
Call it insecurity, but movie audiences refuse to accept a completely wholesome protagonist. If Mister Perfect were to grace our screens, our response would most likely be: ‘get out the film, you smug bastard, no one wants to see you prance around for the next two hours’.
What films require is a flawed protagonist. Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook is bi-polar. Shrek in Shrek is a misanthropist. Andy in The Shawshank Redemption is fresh from murder.
And when it comes to the smoking-hot female protagonists, the flaw is often the same: clumsiness. Like Jessica Alba in Good Luck Chuck. Drew Barrymore in…every single movie she does. Perfect hair, great dress sense but…woops, they are a little clumsy. All the better for falling into the male protagonist’s arms.
Of course, Hollywood films often have a lot of ‘too good to be true’ elements. Like the Californian beach settings where everyone looks so perky, the white sand might as well be cocaine. Homes that cost around a million more than what the character could plausibly earn. Megan Fox’s nose. But the perfect lead? That we can’t deal with.
Everyone Is Late
‘Start late, get out early’. Whilst this is probably the tactic that most of us take with a lame party, it is also the advice that all good screenwriters give. Let’s take Juno, for instance. The movie begins with Juno walking to get her third pregnancy test from the rather unsympathetic pharmacist. We don’t see the ‘%£$&’ moment when she takes the first, nor the ‘£$^£^@£%&^%@’ moment when she takes her second. Once we get in there, her fate- ‘the one doodle that can’t be undid’- has been established. The cameras then proceed to sidle off before the conclusive ‘*£$%£$&@^$%^&@$@@$%!!!’.
The scene starts late: the group are sitting in the diner, with their menus, trying— and failing, as it happens— to order their food. Riveting as it would have been to see them select a table, take off their coats and discuss the relative strengths of the Full English over the Eggs Benedict. We then get out there quickly, exiting before the pain-staking repercussions of Nicholson’s character smashing all those glasses, but still laughing our heads off. And that’s what makes a great film.