Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Foreign Language Dialogue

Writing good dialogue is tough even in normal situations, but sooner or later you’re likely to encounter a story with an added challenge. In some of these cases there is no “official” way to handle the dialogue. In my next few posts I’ll discuss some of the options for these challenges so hopefully you can find a solution that fits your problem and comes across as professional. Today I’ll discuss foreign languages.

Obviously in the real world not everybody speaks the same language. And since your movie will be targeted to speakers of one particular language (for the purposes of this blog I’m going to assume English), when a character is speaking in another language you will have to figure out how to handle it.

If you’re entire movie takes place in another language the best approach is just to write in English. The audience will understand that the people in your story of the French revolution are speaking French and appreciate not having to read subtitles for the entire movie. The Reader (screenplay by David Hare) took this approach – the movie is entirely set in Germany about Germans but the dialogue is in English.

If you do this you will want to make the dialogue slightly more formal and avoid slang and idiom. It just sounds weird if someone from India says, “that’s awesome, dude.” Somehow we can accept the fallacy that English is a stand-in for another language but can’t accept slang. However, the dialogue still must sound conversational. Too formal and it will seem stilted.

This is obviously tricky and may take some trial and error. I like to have a few friends read the script and instruct them to make a mark next to any line of dialogue that strikes them as off.

In The Hunt for Red October (screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart) there were two submarines, one Russian and one American. The filmmakers famously started the dialogue on the Russian sub in Russian, then zoomed in on Sean Connery’s mouth and switched to English to indicate to the audience that though the dialogue on that sub would be in English from now on we were to understand the characters were still speaking Russian.

If you only have a few lines of dialogue in another language you have a variety of options.

If you don’t care if the audience understands the character one option is to just write the dialogue in the foreign language (if you are fluent or can get someone to write it out for you). I wouldn’t advise this for longer passages.

A second option is to indicate the speech in an action line, such as:

The policeman rants at him in German.

A third option is to indicate the dialogue is in another language, such as:

(In German)
Move that car!

However if the dialogue is actually conveying important story information this last approach is risky since the script is giving the reader information that the viewer wouldn’t have.

Subtitling used to be frowned on for a variety of reasons. One problem is that people talk faster than we can read so subtitles usually have to be condensed for any extended amount of dialogue. Another issue is that people read at different speeds and of course some people can’t read at all (though this was a bigger problem in the early days of film than it is today.)

Subtitles have become more acceptable now, and are actually the preferred way to handle most foreign language situations. Slumdog Millionaire (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy) and The Kite Runner (screenplay by David Benioff) had large sections in other languages with subtitles. The scripts I’ve seen for these films simply ignored this and wrote all the dialogue in English.

I would suggest it’s usually better to indicate which dialogue is in English and which is subtitled. There are a couple formats that are common for subtitling. For the occasional line it’s most common to indicate the subtitle in a parenthetical:

(In Russian, subtitled)
Ticket please.

If it’s a whole scene or section of the script you can use action lines to indicate the subtitling. When you do this it’s fairly common to then bracket the subtitled dialogue. For example:


Pablo enters. Maria lounges on the couch.


[Why isn’t dinner read?]

[I got delayed at the bank.]

[You always have some excuse.]


So you have many options to deal with the challenge of foreign languages in your script. Which one you choose will depend largely on the amount of dialogue that will be in the foreign language. Next post I’ll discuss some other unusual dialogue situations.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Genre Considerations - Thrillers

(Spoilers: Collateral, Shutter Island, Rear Window, Chinatown)

Thrillers are movies that get their bang by creating tension in the audience. There are several tools useful to writers in this genre.

The first is suspense. It is critical to ratchet up the sense of impending doom. The set pieces in thrillers are all scenes of suspense – for example the scene in Rear Window (screenplay by John Michael Hayes) when Lisa has broken into the suspicious neighbor’s apartment and he returns while she’s still inside.

A corollary to this is pacing. Thrillers rely on slow, careful escalation of anxiety. Unlike many genres, too fast pacing can ruin a thriller. But slow pacing only works if we’re drawn into the character and the situation. For more on how to build tension in scenes, see my prior post on suspense.

Also important in thrillers are twists and turns in the plot. If the audience can predict what’s going to happen, there won’t be much of a thrill. The best thrillers keep the audience guessing. Most thrillers have some kind of complex mystery at the foundation of the plot.

(Note: I covered Mystery as a genre in a post before I started this series. True mysteries are a unique type of story that works in a completely different way emotionally than the thriller but share some of the plot techniques.)

Some thrillers involve a cop or detective investigating a frightening crime. Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally), Chinatown (written by Robert Towne), Basic Instinct (written by Joe Eszterhas) and Se7en (written by Andrew Kevin Walker) are examples of that kind of thriller. I would also include in this category thrillers where the leads are criminals or others who seek out the dangerous environment of the movie such as Memento (screenplay by Christopher Nolan).

Other thrillers involve an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances such as in North by Northwest (written by Ernest Lehman), The Third Man (screenplay by Graham Greene) or Collateral (written by Stuart Beattie). We sometimes call these “Hitchcockian” thrillers since Alfred Hitchcock did so many of them (Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much, etc.) These thrillers gain added tension because we identify more strongly with the innocent, under equipped hero.

Regardless of which type of thriller you’re writing, it’s important to be able to answer the question, “why this character for this story?”

This is not a plot question. Sure, the cop takes the case because it’s assigned to him; the private detective is hired for the job; the ordinary man is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the logic.

But what’s important is that the character has a thematic need to go through this experience. The internal story of the character has to connect to the external story of the plot. The character should learn something from the journey and that something should be important to their lives.

For example in Collateral taxi driver Max is a man who dreams of a better life but never takes any action to achieve it. And he’s able to go along perfectly content living in denial of this fact. But when a hit man hires his cab, Max is forced to make a decision: is he going to continue to avoid risk or take a stand to save someone’s life? There’s a thematic reason that Vincent gets into Max’s cab – Max needs to have his way of life challenged.

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is a cocky character who believe he has the ability to read people. When he is set up early in the movie it embarrasses him and he sets about to redeem himself. But along the way he learns that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thought he did. This internal story reflects the thematic elements of the movie about the powerlessness of the average man in a corrupt society. That’s why – on a thematic level – Jake Gittes is the detective that’s hired for this case.

Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin which is a key concept in thrillers. A MacGuffin is something that the character cares deeply about but the audience doesn’t inherently care about at all. It’s a device to propel the story, the thing our hero or the antagonists are trying to get that puts them in conflict.

In Collateral the MacGuffin is the list of people Vincent has been hired to kill. Who can remember why he’s killing them – I’m not even sure if the movie ever reveals that. And it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether Max will find a way to stop Vincent. And it matters that the last person on Vincent’s list is someone that is important to Max. We care about the MacGuffin because the main character cares about it.

Hitchcock liked his MacGuffins to be as simple as possible – secret plans or microfilm. Something that doesn’t require a lot of in depth explanation. I agree with him. It’s really boring when characters have to deliver long expository speeches to explain the MacGuffin.

However that doesn’t mean the MacGuffin can’t be a source of twists. Remember, thrillers thrive on twists. For example, the MacGuffin in Shutter Island (screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis) shifts as the movie goes along. Initially it’s a missing patient. Then we discover our hero, Teddy, is actually on the island to expose a government conspiracy. And at the end of the movie we learn his mission was about something else entirely. But all of this is filtered through Teddy. We care because it affects him.

In a sense, a search for a killer’s identity is also a MacGuffin – and a common one in thrillers. Often the killer is both the MacGuffin and the antagonist. Rear Window is a good example. But consider Silence of the Lambs. The killer's identity is much less memorable than Clarice's battle of wits with Hannibal Lecter.

A good thriller hits the audience on many levels. The twisty plot mystery engages our mind, the character’s internal journey plays on our emotions and the suspense elicits a visceral reaction. This is probably why they’re such a popular genre.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Genre Considerations – Romantic Comedy and Romantic Drama

(Spoilers: Sweet Home Alabama, Casablanca, Sleepless in Seattle, Wedding Crashers)

The difference between romantic comedy and romantic drama is really just tone. Other than the need to be funny in a romantic comedy, most of the other genre issues are the same. Also, many movies have romantic subplots that have similar concerns as the ones I’ll address today.

One of the most important things to remember in a romance is that seeing the lovers happy together is boring. Drama is conflict and romances are only dramatic when something is keeping the lovers apart.

Before we keep them apart, though, we need to see that they are meant to be together. Of course some of this will depend on the “chemistry” of the actors. But we can’t rely on that in the script stage. Romances work best when each of the lovers has a need in their life that the other one fills.

For example, in Sweet Home Alabama Melanie needs to face her past and come to terms with it. Jake represents that past. Meanwhile, Jake needs a bigger ambition for his life – something that Melanie inspires in him by her big ambitions. Each makes the other one a better person.

In Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) cynical Rick needs to regain his passion for lost causes. Ilsa’s compassion and emotional vulnerability help him to do this.

In Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) Edward needs someone who can warm up his cold heart and Vivian needs someone who sees her as more than a sex object. We know they’re meant for each other because Vivian brings out Edward’s humanity and he treats her as an emotional and intellectual equal.

In Knocked Up (written by Judd Apatow) Ben is a slacker who needs to grow up while Alison is an uptight businesswoman who needs to let loose. This kind of pairing is one of the reasons “opposites attract” is so often present in movie romances.

Of course it helps to show that these people actually have something in common. One of the knocks on Knocked Up was that the two characters didn’t seem like they would actually like each other. (Personally, I enjoyed the movie but I understand the complaint.)

And be sure the issues are actually significant to the characters. One of my least favorite romantic comedies is Sleepless in Seattle (story by Jeff Arch, screenplay by Nora Ephron and David S. Ward and Jeff Arch) because it’s so superficial. The big reason we’re supposed to know that Sam and Annie are right for each other is she peels an apple like his ex-wife. Lame. Go for something deeper.

Once we know the lovers belong together the next challenge is to keep them apart. Frankly, here in the 21st century, this is getting tough to do. Traditional societal mores that were the basis for many classic romances are disappearing. Once it was forbidden for people of different classes, races, religions, etc. to have romantic relationships. But we’ve progressed – to the benefit of society and the detriment of writers!

When looking for obstacles to romance there are two basic kinds: internal and external. Internal obstacles are those where the character needs to change something about their personality in order to succeed in love. For example, the chauvinist may to learn to appreciate women as in What Women Want (story by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa and Diane Drake, screenplay by Josh Goldsmith & Cathy Yuspa). Or the recluse may need to learn to accept risk as in Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver).

Since the societal obstacles are getting difficult to pull off, the most common external obstacle is now the romantic rival, also known, of course, as the love triangle. This is an example of the “mutually exclusive goals” technique of creating conflict – two people want the same thing (the love interest) and both of them can’t get it. Instant conflict and therefore instant drama.

Love triangles pose certain challenges, though. One way to go is to make our hero a good guy and the rival a bad guy.* This is how it works in Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher). John falls for Claire but she’s with Sack. Sack is such a jerk that we root for John to take Claire away from him.

The trouble with this is we might start to dislike the girl if she’s with a jerk. And if we don’t like her we won’t be rooting for our hero to end up with her. The usual solution is that the rival hides his jerkiness from the love interest. But that’s still risky – you don’t want her to seem stupid for missing what everyone else sees.

Of course, in a love triangle the rival doesn’t actually have to be a bad guy. Two perfectly nice men can be in love with the same woman and you still have good drama. That’s the approach I took in Sweet Home Alabama.

It’s also the approach taken in Casablanca. Both Rick and Victor Lazlo are good men. Ilsa’s caught between them because in the confusion of war she had thought Victor, her husband, was dead when she met Rick. We long for Rick and Ilsa to be together but the fact she’s married to a decent guy is a pretty big obstacle.

The risk here, of course, is that we might not root so hard for the protagonist if we actually like the antagonist. It’s a balancing act. The key is to adequately demonstrate that the hero and the love interest absolutely belong together.

And don’t underestimate the power of scenes of preparation and aftermath in romances. These give us a chance to check in with the characters’ emotions. In Casablanca a big reason we’re rooting for Rick to get the girl is the aftermath scene that follows her coming into his bar. We see how in love he is because of how torn up he is.

Romance is challenging to make dramatic. In real life when two people fall in love they generally start dating without any real obstacles. That doesn’t make for very interesting stories. But love is a powerful, primal emotion. A good love story can impact the audience in a very deep way!

*For the purposes of discussion I’ll use a love triangle with two men in love with the same woman. Of course the genders could be reversed, or all characters might be the same gender in a gay story.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Genre Considerations - Science Fiction and Fantasy

Genre is a powerful tool in storytelling. And every genre has unique considerations and concerns. With that in mind, I’m going to start a series of posts to address some of these special considerations in individual genres.

The first genres I’ll tackle are fantasy and science fiction, which have a lot of similar issues. They may seem quite different because we associate a lot of very specific iconic trappings with each of these genres. However those trappings can be confusing. Some movies that appear to be science fiction are actually fantasy. From a writing standpoint the primary difference between the two is that fantasy deals with magical elements while science fiction deals with realistic projection of technological advances.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (written by Steven Spielberg) are good examples. The “science fiction” alien elements of these movies are not realistic expansions of current technology. The aliens are so advanced that their special powers are more akin to magic. That makes these fantasy movies, not science fiction.

Star Wars (written by George Lucas) is an interesting hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. The space ships and robots are science fiction, but the force and light sabers are really more fantasy.

Science fiction and fantasy share one important trait: both are allegories for the real world. They let us explore political, social and emotional issues in a symbolic way. This allows the audience be more objective, unencumbered by some of the baggage that might come with a more realistic setting or story line. This is an important idea that I’m going to come back to.

First, there are some terms and sub-genres you may wish to be familiar with if you plan on working in these genres:

High Fantasy – The medieval style fantasy of Lord of the Rings (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). Usually features an imaginary world, magic, wizards, and alien races like elves and dwarves.

Near-Future – Refers to science fiction that takes place in a time period only a few years ahead of ours so that the world is recognizable. Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby) and District 9 (screenplay by Neill Blokamp & Terri Tatchell) are good examples. Some of this flavor of sci-fi movie are actually set in our current world with a new sci-fi element introduced, such as The Terminator (written by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd) or Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale) or The Fly (screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg).

Space Opera – Refers to movies set in a science fiction universe but that are more concerned with adventure than science. Star Wars and Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) fall in this category. Some sci-fi purists do not consider these true sci-fi movies. They believe real science fiction deals with the impact of technology on the course of culture and human development.

One of the first things you’ll need to be concerned about in a science fiction or fantasy story is the world of the story. Is this meant to be a believable representation of our world with one or two fantastical elements added (Back to the Future)? Is it a near future projection of our world (Children of Men)? Is it a vision of our world projected far into the future that is both familiar and very different (Alien – story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon)? Or is it a complete alternate world (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings)?

That decision will affect how much work you have to do to bring us into the world. In a world we’re familiar with you don’t need much set up. In The Terminator Cameron and Hurd don’t have to explain Sarah Connors’ lifestyle because it’s one we’re familiar with. All they have to do is explain at some point why a robot and soldier have travelled here from the future.

In the Lord of the Rings, however, we’re completely unfamiliar with the world. The filmmakers have to explain how magic works in this world and the politics of hobbits, elves, dwarves and men. That’s a big reason why the films open with a long expository prologue. They need to teach us the unfamiliar history of this world.

You also have to show us the rules of the world, and of the fantastical elements you introduce. The most important thing is that your story have an internal consistency and logic. You get to create the rules but then you must abide by them. Otherwise it will feel like “cheating” and the audience will reject your story.

For example, the technology of Star Trek and of Alien are very specific – and not the same. Teleportation exists in Star Trek but not in Alien. And the conditions required for successful teleportation in Star Trek are clearly laid out. You need a teleportation room on one end and the range is limited. Also, the faster someone is moving the more difficult teleportation is. Space ships also travel much faster in Star Trek than they do in Alien, where crews must enter a kind of hyper sleep to make the journey between planets.

Introducing the rules of your world can be kind of a tricky thing. On the one hand, you can just lay everything out at the beginning, which helps the audience suspend their disbelief. However sometimes we want to hold back some of the information for dramatic effect. For more on introducing fantastical elements in film, see my last post.

It’s crucial to the success of both sci-fi and fantasy that you give us a main character that we care about with a problem that we can relate to. Remember what I said about these being allegorical genres? We may love spaceships and laser guns, swords and dragons, but if we can’t relate to the story those things will quickly grow tiresome.

The way to get us involved is to show us someone we can identify with and allow us to experience the spectacle and the world through their eyes. In The Lord of the Rings we can empathize with powerless little Frodo who must do something very dangerous because it’s the right thing to do – even though he’d rather just go home. And we are moved by the loyalty of his friend Sam. Friendship, duty, fear, and homesickness are universal emotions.

And though an alien space ship hasn’t actually broken down in South Africa as shown in District 9, we can certainly identify with the racial politics on display and Wikus’ growing realization that the government he works for has a hidden, morally questionable agenda.

Ultimately it’s the characters and their journey that makes the best sci-fi and fantasy movies great. The spectacle of fantastic worlds, technology and magic is just icing on the cake.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fantastical Elements in Movies

(Spoilers: Lord of the Rings, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Sixth Sense)

Whenever you write a movie with some kind of fantastical element – anything that isn’t generally acknowledged as “real” in our world such as ghosts or aliens or super powers – you have to think carefully about how you’re going to reveal those elements to the audience. There are two important things to consider. First, you only have a narrow window in which to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, and second you want to avoid moments where they might feel that you’re “cheating.”

It’s important to introduce the fantastical concepts you want to play with early. In the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a movie the audience is open to just about anything. They’re trying to figure out what world they’re in and are willing to suspend their disbelief. But once they think they’ve figured out the rules of your world, you break those rules at your peril.

For example, Ghostbusters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) opens with a prologue where the characters encounter a ghost in the New York Public Library. This tells us we're in the world we know, except that ghosts are real. This is important because we don't actually see another ghost in the movie for quite a while.

In the Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) we don’t learn what the matrix is or that the world we’re familiar with is an illusion until we’re into the second act. But we do see Trinity behaving in superhuman ways in the opening prologue and we see the agents sewing Neo’s mouth shut in the interrogation scene early in act one. We are told that the world of the movie has these kinds of fantastical elements in it. Without that set up, we probably wouldn’t accept the revelations in act two and the movie would seem silly.

On the other hand, sometimes we want to hold back a piece of information to create a surprise or twist, or just to avoid overloading the movie with exposition up front, such as in The Matrix. You can get away with this as long as the additional element falls within the bounds of the kind of world you’ve set up.

For example, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson) reveals the existence of undead characters deep into the third movie, we accept it because it fits within the kind of world they’ve created – one with magic and mystical creatures.

But if Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) did that it would seem ridiculous because the world of Star Trek is one where all the fantastical elements are attributed to science. Conversely if Frodo pulled out a laser gun toward the end of the Rings trilogy we would probably demand our money back.

Consider The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). Cole doesn’t deliver his famous line, “I see dead people,” until the middle of the movie. Ghosts aren’t explicitly discussed until that point. But we have to be prepared to accept them. So in the opening scene Vincent tells Malcolm that he knows why he’s afraid when he’s alone. And then we get the creepy scene where all the drawers and cabinets in the kitchen mysteriously open. Much like in the Matrix we’re being prepared that something supernatural is going on so that it’s believable when it’s finally revealed that ghosts are behind it.

Musicals are a similar situation. In our world people don’t generally break out into song or coordinated dance routines on the street. We accept this behavior in a musical if we’re told this is how people behave in the world of the movie. But if the first time someone breaks into song is an hour into the film (and it’s not a dream or a psychotic break), we won’t accept it.

I had this problem in Dreamgirls (screenplay by Bill Condon). I hadn’t seen the play, and in the movie all of the musical numbers in the first third of the movie are done by performers on stage. I assumed we were in the real world. Then suddenly three guys break into song while walking down the street. It completely took me out of the movie. I just couldn’t accept it – despite the fact I’m okay with the same behavior in Singing in the Rain (story and screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden).

Similarly, if you don’t play by the rules you’ve set up, it feels like you’re cheating the audience. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) we are shown all of E.T.’s powers before he uses them for any crucial story purpose. That way, when he levitates the kids out of trouble later in the movie, for example, it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Imagine how you would feel if E.T. suddenly shot laser beams out of his eyes in act three to defeat the bad guys. (I discussed this in more detail in my analysis of E.T.)

So it’s important to figure out the rules of the world of your movie and introduce those rules to the audience early. Then you have to play by those rules. It doesn’t take much to blow the sense of reality you’ve set up!