They say that every good writer has directed his script by the time he's written it. And the tough part is we have to do it without junking the script up with technical jargon and camera angles that deflate and disrupt the narrative flow.
My style might be called florid by some, but I think scripts are as much literature as any other kind of creative writing. I don't even refer to myself as a screenwriter, but rather a dramatist. I also believe in the the old adage of: "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage."
To get it to the next step of becoming a movie, you've got to sweep your reader up in your script, just like a novelist does. You've got to make them see the movie you're seeing and to do that you have to paint pictures with words. It can't just be stage directions. It has to create mood, atmosphere, a sense of time and place, evoke emotions and emotional investment in your characters. Simply: You're telling a story. Tell it so they stay interested.
I've been gratified that the comments I mostly hear about my scripts are that they are "good reads" or "page-turners". And over the years, I developed what I consider a pretty good prose style. Perhaps, the greatest compliment I ever got was when one executive said she was "waiting for my novel." (That came with the novelization of DRAGONHEART...which wasn't one of those 150-page, double-spaced, "we-put-the-screenplay-in-past-tense jobs. It was a real novel...that got to luxuriate in the language, explore scenes and emotions in greater depth, and crawl into different characters' heads as scenes or chapters unfolded from their point-of-view as opposed to a screenplay's omniscient point-of-view. It was my favourite writing experience of all time.).
I also have a pretty good reputation as a constructionist...as many of Arthur Rouse's film students can tell you when I come for my week of guest-teaching at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and dissect...some might say decimate... their pitches and scripts and rail about logic and motivation. Hopefully, on the constructive side, I also often help them find solutions to the many holes I poke in their stories and characters.
But the thing I am most obsessive about...and try to be most protective of... in a screenplay is my dialogue. I expect there are many screenwriters who feel the same way for one simple reason -- it is the only writing of ours the audience ever notices. Few, if any, except those involved with a script's production, ever really get a chance to savour a screenwriter's descriptive prose. And once a script is filmed, if it's working, the audience shouldn't be suspending their willing suspension of disbelief to stop and critically marvel at the nuances of the plotting, they should just be carried away by it. But everybody hears the dialogue.
So I spend hours sometimes crafting the mot juste. Every word of dialogue gets acted out...Does it roll across the tongue and out of the mouth fluidly and fluently? Does it sound right for the character? Are the rhythms there? The proper pace? One misplaced word or wrong word or too many words or not enough words and a joke doesn't land or a line doesn't hit with the proper power or a scene loses its button.
Sometimes the writer can get it exactly right and it can still go wrong. The actor changes a word or two, or paraphrases, or just flat out delivers it wrong. And sometimes the director has a hand in it...decides that three lines are not needed in the scene and it throws the rhythm of the dialogue off or leaves out subtle but crucial information. He misdirects the actor or the stages the scene in such a way the words lose impact. There are tons of ways to screw it up.
Now I'm not a tyrant about it. All lines are not writ in stone and a slight variation is not always going to do any damage. But I have done considerably thinking about the line, so one appreciates those actors and directors who try to be as meticulous as I've been about it. And every so often, an actor or director can improve a line. I'm cool with that; I'm going to get credit for it. I'd just like to be consulted about it...The last time, of course, that happened was on my first films, SIGN OF FOUR & HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, where terrific British actors like Ian Richardson, Denholm Elliott, or Brian Blessed would ask me if they could change a line. ASK! I've never had that kind of respect or power since in the film business. It could be why it remains my favourite experience.
I suppose part of my obsession with dialogue also comes from being an actor. I've never understood actors who desire less dialogue. Give me speeches, droll bon mots, juicy invectives, words to wallow in! I'm one of those strange creatures who has never understood this lament about "talky" films. Some of the greatest films I've ever seen are full of talk! As long as the talk is good; who cares? Study THE MALTESE FALCON sometime. There's almost no action in it. It's mostly Bogie walking into rooms and having interesting conversations with people...scenes where director/screenwriter John Huston kept Dashiell Hammett's "cherce" dialogue intact: "People lose teeth talking like that." "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." Or when Sam Spade takes Wilmer's guns from him and presents them to Gutman: "Here, a crippled newsie took 'em off 'im, but I made him give 'em back." I could go on; it drives The Lovely Wife crazy that I can quote all the dialogue of this movie along with the actors.
I can quote a lot of dialogue from a lot of movies. It's always dialogue I remember. It's never sets or costumes or lighting or the great stunt or the cool shot. It's probably my literary sensibility; but also because I grew up with movies when movies were also literary. When I see some of these big action extravaganzas with all their Boom and Bang and minimal talk, I sometimes wonder if we've not reverted to silent movies with noise.
Also my formative movie education was before video and DVD, seeing classic 30's and 40's films mostly on a black and white TV, cut up by commercials, with ghosts and shadows on the screen, and sometimes so much static, it was like watching them through a blizzard. So I was held in their thrall by the story...
...and the words:
Flynn and Rathbone sneering over crossed blades: "You've come to Nottingham once too often, my friend." "When this is through, I won't have to come again." Quasimodo on the ramparts of Notre Dame raising Esmeralda above his head, shouting, "Sanctuary! Santuary!" A drunken, nervous bride-to-be Hepburn romancing interloping reporter Stewart: "Put me in your pocket, Mike." The Evil Wazir Jaffar, dismissing the emotions of the Caliph and his Princess: "Do you call the lisping of two children in the Garden love? Love she has yet to learn...and I have yet to teach her." Gunslinger Yul Brynner tersely telling bandito Eli Wallach to "Ride on."
So many others..."Top of the world, ma!" "I'd like to run barefoot through your hair." "Have a spill...No, thanks, just had one." "I know, you know I know. We know Henry knows and Henry knows we know it." "Here's looking at you, kid." And back to THE MALTESE FALCON: "I'm sending you over, sweetheart. You're taking the fall."
Perhaps my two favourite lines of all time come from the pen of Billy Wilder and his writing partner at the time, Charles Brackett. The first from a delightful comedy called MIDNIGHT and spoken by actor, Rex O'Malley, "I used to swallow things as a child. My mother never left me alone in the room with an armchair." I fell on the floor in hysterics the first time I heard this. The other comes from THE MAJOR & THE MINOR where Ginger Rogers, posing as twelve year old at a military academy (Trust me, it works!) becomes the belle of the cadets' ball when she attends their dance with a girls school. As she and one cadet observe the phalanx of young ladies and their teacher, all sporting Veronica Lake hairstyles, the pint-size soldier remarks disgustingly: "We use 'em for women."
I've even found certain memorable dialogue can become life mantras. These two stay with me: "I want to enter my house justified." and "Love has got to stop somewhere short of suicide." Anyone who can guess what movies they're from gets "A Laurel and Hardy handshake."...and that's from a movie too -- BLAZING SADDLES! (We trust you to be honourable and not resort to googling the answers...and The Lovely Wife can't play!)
So it's your turn. Tell me your favourite memorable movie lines.
Welcome to Pogue's Pages!
I'm POGUE...known by many as Chuck Pogue, a few as Charles Pogue, and billed professionally as Charles Edward Pogue...just because it really looks BIG splashed across a theatre programme or a movie screen. From that last remark and the profile on the left, you can see I'm a theatre man...And the term "theatre" encompasses stage, film, TV. I've been shooting my mouth off on other people's blogs and message boards for forever. So having finally gotten the hang of it, I've decided to build my own soapbox from which I can pontificate, blather, and muse...mostly on theatre, film, writing, music, books...but ultimately anything that interests me, irritates me, or just catches my fancy. I invite you to join me. I'll try to be faithful and update regularly, so that when you visit there will always be something fresh percolating and maybe even provocative that we can discuss, dissect, or debate.
Charles Edward Pogue
Charles Edward Pogue