Unspoken dialogue

Every now and then I imagine I’m Steve McQueen.

Not in a ‘stealing a motorbike, out-running the Nazis and failing to jump over barb wire fences’ kind of way … although, put me in a fast car with a long bonnet and I inevitably hum the theme tune to ‘Bullitt’ … but no, every now then when I’m re-writing a script I remember a story I once heard about Steve McQueen – apparently, so the story goes, the first thing he did when looking through a script was to cross out all the dialogue he felt was unnecessary.

A wise move I feel. Frequently, on a first draft, I include loads of dialogue which could easily be conveyed by a look or a glance. People, particularly friends, often communicate without actually saying anything and it’s a great way to reduce the length of your script without actually cutting anything.

The problem is, how do you convey the exact meaning of the removed line with a few words which describe the expression on an unseen person’s face?

For example. If you take this random shit scene:

COLIN
Stuart!
STEVE
You what?
COLIN
No, not Stuart ... Simon?
STEVE
Are you fucking kidding me?
COLIN 
Shit, sorry. Erm ... Sam? Sanjay? Sarah? Steve! 
Steve McQueen! Hey!
STEVE
What the fuck do you want?
COLIN
Can I have an autograph?
STEVE
No. Fuck off.
COLIN
Right.

And you cross out all of Steve’s dialogue, you get:

COLIN
Stuart!
COLIN
No, not Stuart ... Simon?
COLIN 
Shit, sorry. Erm ... Sam? Sanjay? Sarah? Steve! 
Steve McQueen! Hey!
COLIN
Can I have an autograph?
COLIN
Right.

Which makes no fucking sense. Adding in action lines to describe Steve’s expressions gives you:

COLIN
Stuart!
Steve frowns.
COLIN
No, not Stuart ... Simon?
Incredulous, Steve stares at Colin.
COLIN 
Shit, sorry. Erm ... Sam? Sanjay? Sarah? Steve! 
Steve McQueen! Hey!
STEVE
What the fuck do you want?
COLIN
Can I have an autograph?
Steve scowls.
COLIN
Right.

Hmm … which actually works quite well. Damn, this is a pretty poor example. Although, ‘Steve scowls.’ is a fairly ambiguous statement; you can scowl in anger, scowl in confusion, scowl in something else I can’t think of with everyone fucking talking at me and the TV on.

Seriously, why am I writing this fucking post in the lounge?

Anyway … maybe, for some completely unknown reason, it’s vitally important to get across the specific meaning of a scowl. Don’t ask me why, I’ve no fucking idea. It just is, okay? Obviously the whole film hinges on this one scowl.

On a more serious note, I have had actors ask what their characters are thinking during a particular scene and it’s handy to be able to specify what a particular reaction means without loading your dialogue up with exposition.

STEVE
I really am rather miffed at your inability to remember my name, 
because I'm rather famous and should be instantly recognisable. 
You cunt.

I also remember Aardman saying they wrote dialogue for Gromit in all the Wallace and Gromit films so the animators could get the expressions right. I think it’s a good idea to specify exactly what the unspoken dialogue is since it helps with the read, the audience will be able to decipher the actor’s expression and body language and it steers the actors towards getting the right meaning across. But how best to go about it?

Personally, I’ve opted for just writing the dialogue in the action lines:

Steve scowls - no. Fuck off.

Again, this is a particularly bad example, but there you go. I’m tired.

I have no idea whether or not this is considered correct or incorrect format; but I do know no one’s ever complained. An actor may choose to express the words in a different manner, that’s up to them. The point is the meaning should be clear in the script.

Some people will tell you putting dialogue like this in the action lines is an unfilmable. Those people are of course completely fucking wrong. Describing the intent behind an expression is not unfilmable since actors can pull faces and cameras can be pointed at them. It only becomes an unfilmable when there’s absolutely no fucking way to deduce the words from specific face movements:

Steve scowls - maybe Maria had a point back in 1979 when she set
fire to Elton John's wig? Although the thing with the alpaca 
was just wrong.

But that’s another post for another time when I’m feeling less likely to kick a hole in my computer at the memory of random fuckwits telling me it’s unfilmable when I describe an actress as angry or scared as if people are incapable of conveying such complex emotions.

And don’t get me started on the mongo-fuck-loons who bandy ‘show don’t tell’ around as if they actually know what it means.

Fuck this shit, I’m going to bed.

I’m all annoyed now.

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Categories: Bored, My Way, Random Witterings, Rants, Sad Bastard | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Unspoken dialogue

  1. Enjoyed it. I plan to refine my “unfilmable” techniques a little more based on this; I usually leave out the expression and just put what they’re thinking.

    You feeling any less tired and annoyed this morning?

    Cheer up! It’s raining and it’s Wednesday. 🙂

  2. I love it when you’re annoyed.

    This issue is all about the distinction between spec scripts and shooting scripts.

    In the spec script I want the mongo-fuck-loons with the money to grasp what the hell I’m on about so they give me their money – without needing me actually there in the room rubbing their egos and explaining what these random words and letters in the script mean.

    In the shooting script I want the mongo-fuck-loons with the acting licences to grasp what the hell I’m on about so they can do make-believe in front of the camera – without needing me actually there in the room rubbing their egos and explaining what these random words and letters in the script mean.

    So that’s clear, then.

  3. Hi there, how are you I did recently purchased a motorbike and I do need some help with a query I have been having since i bought it. I am the type of person that gets cold very easily and i cant seem to stay warm enough on my Bike! Do you know how I can i fix this?

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