Sit Down Scenes (eating, drinking). Script Killers Or What?

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  • Tony McIntosh
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    I've read a cross-section of replies to this thread. I have to agree with the last post in that good screenplays should have quality, memorable dialogue as well as character action.

    No writer should not write a "sit-down scene" because of a Hollywood statistic that convinces him/her that the scene or film won't play in the foreign market, and they'll lose 70% of their audience. Let's be real here -- there are different audiences and markets for different films. If you're writing a big actioner, where you have to make sure something blows up every 10 pages, then yeah, dialogue and conversation between characters is less important. However, even in most action films for the last ten years or so, there is an emphasis on snappy bantering type dialogue between characters -- even if it's just smart-ass remarks.

    I feel the amount of dialogue and conversations between characters depends on the genre of the script (film). You expect there to be more conversational scenes in a drama than in an action thriller or suspense piece. It's all in what is written and whether it moves the story forward and gives you insight into the characters or not. It should move the story, whether the characters are in motion or not.

    I agree that the long visual passage in VERTIGO is really good. It was on cable the other night and I looked at part of it again, that sequence is particularly memorable, and reads exactly like that in the script, for anyone who's read it. It's all there on the page. Hitchcock was a master at that. But again, it's about genre. Hitchcock made mostly suspense thrillers -- great ones, but a specific genre. CHINATOWN is as memorable to me for the dialogue as well as the character action. You can't turn the sound down at home if you haven't seen it before and get the "My sister/My daughter/My sister scene!

    Film is a visual medium obviously and I try in my writing to say things visually, but I also know that for good drama, realistic, well-drawn characters that talk to each other is important. Again, different genres/different films/different markets. There's no universal formula to good screenwriting in my opinion, and there shouldn't be.

    Without struggle there is no progress.
    --Frederick Douglas

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  • Gaijin Samurai
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    i don't think the argument was action vs actions. the argument was using dialogue as a last resort to tell the story. then examples of GREAT dialogue movies were given, and the retort was "yeah well, they only worked because the dialogue was so good - lots of wannabes try that and screw it up," or along those lines.

    b.s., man. lots of wannabes try everything and screw it up. not just dialogue. and dialogue, which is what your characters speak and sound like, can be just as revealing about character as actions. no one's saying "do talking heads". but then no one should act like dialogue is LESS important than anything else. and no one, if they wrote bad dialogue, should write around that dialogue just to cover it up. if the scene is best served with a machinegun exchange of words, then you'd best learn how to write good dialogue.

    movies are a combination of many things. good screenplays are tight, wholistic pieces of work. i've never read a good screenplay with horrible or even not that great dialogue, but then liked it and said "oh hey, but i really got the characters". if anything, the better defined your character is, the more important their dialogue.

    and then that example of chinatown where jack nicholson's character finds the glasses, which is a great character scene with almost no dialogue?....

    he was <!--EZCODE ITALIC START--> ALONE<!--EZCODE ITALIC END-->. no kidding there wasn't any dialogue.

    and you tell me the opening scene when he talks that man out of murder by saying "you gotta be rich to get away with murder", doesn't tell you a damn thing about his character, and could've been better told by action. that line practically tells you EVERYTHING about how he feels, who he is and what he thinks.

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  • Baba Reily
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    I think on top of everything else, regardless of dialogue, the scene written could also be boring because there's no tension or conflict between the characters talking.

    If you have a scene where two (or more) people a) are in complete agreement or b) they tell each other things they should already know, but are saying it just so the audience knows (i.e. "Dammit, Jim! It's been three years since your wife tragically died in a car wreck on the way to work! You haven't dated since. You just sit in your apartment all day long, moping!") If that's the case then there's really nothing you can do to make the scene any better. It'll be flat any way you write it, regardless of location, or how nice the dialogue is.

    In my experience (incredibly limited, I'll admit), if you have two or more characters with some tension between them, the scene will play out fine, even if they're just sitting around talking. If there's no tension, then it's hell and a half, and it always seems flat.

    Or if there's no tension, then it has to be funny. One or the other.

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  • sparkenstein
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    Bill
    I think I get your point now. ( I was confusing action and actions) So what your saying, and correct me if I'm off base, is take the static sit down scenes where dialogue is telling the story and create scenes where the ACTIONS of the character tell the same information right? Let me know if this is a good example. I am rewriting a drama, there is a suplot where a husband want to apologize to his wife. In the first few drafts there was a large sit down scene where they both break down and dialogue painted the picture of his sorrow and her forgiveness. Now, after the latest rewrite, he goes out of his way to display his sorrow in many scenes and she forgive him, but without either ever saying a word. Is that what your recommending???

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  • joe44nyc
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  • wordhurler
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    "Wordhurler - I think you're still confusing Action & Actions."

    I don't believe I am doing that -- still, again, or otherwise.

    And I absolutely agree that most things are better shown than told -- that's a very basic tenet of all fiction writing, not just screenwriting. And scenes that do so can be action-packed or low-key.

    But there are also occasions in which information is better conveyed (or can only be conveyed) by dialogue. It's my opinion that a screenwriter need not go out of his way to dress up a sit-down dialogue scene with an unusual location or background action, so long as the dialogue is interesting and informative -- which it should always be, anyway -- and, in fact, going too far to try and make the scene something more "interesting" can ultimately work counter to the scene's purpose.

    My comments about low-key scenes are related to the sit-down question in that such low-key scenes are often -- not always, but often -- sit-down scenes. Someone who reads this thread and decides he needs to go back through his script and change all the sitting-and-talking scenes so they're more visually active may be robbing his script of vital quiet moments that make it a more well-paced work.

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  • Binary Loqic
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    Re: Sit Down Scenes (eating, drinking). Script Killers Or Wh

    I think the problem is with the term, <!--EZCODE ITALIC START--> movies<!--EZCODE ITALIC END-->. There are so many that just about anything can be proven by some scene somewhere.
    Here's a nice, sit down dinner scene (from shooting script) that no one forgets after viewing:


    INT. MESS 117

    The entire crew is seated.

    Hungrily swallowing huge portions of artificial food.

    The cat eats from a dish on the table.

    KANE

    First thing I'm going to do when

    we get back is eat some decent

    food.

    PARKER

    I've had worse than this, but

    I've had better too, if you know

    what I mean.

    LAMBERT

    Christ, you're pounding down this

    stuff like there's no tomorrow.


    Pause.

    PARKER

    I mean I like it.

    KANE

    No kidding.

    PARKER

    Yeah. It grows on you.

    KANE

    It should. You know what they

    make this stuff out of...

    PARKER

    I know what they make it out of.

    So what. It's food now. You're

    eating it.



    Suddenly Kane grimaces.

    RIPLEY

    What's wrong.



    Kane's voice strains.

    LAMBERT

    What's the matter.

    KANE

    I don't know... I'm getting cramps.



    The others stare at him in alarm.

    Suddenly he makes a loud groaning noise.

    Clutches the edge of the table with his hands.

    Knuckles whitening.

    ASH

    Breathe deeply.

    Kane screams.

    KANE

    Oh God, it hurts so bad.

    It hurts. It hurts.

    (stands up)

    Ooooooh.

    BRETT

    What is it. What hurts.



    Kane's face screws into a mask of agony.

    He falls back into his chair.

    KANE

    Ohmygooaaaahh.



    A red stain.

    Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.

    The fabric of his shirt is ripped apart.

    A small head the size of a man's fist pushes out.

    The crew shouts in panic.

    Leap back from the table.

    The cat spits, bolts away.

    The tiny head lunges forward.

    Comes spurting out of Kane's chest trailing a thick body.

    Splatters fluids and blood in its wake.

    Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.

    Wriggles away while the crew scatters.

    Then the Alien being disappears from sight.

    Kane lies slumped in his chair.

    Very dead.

    A huge hole in his chest.

    The dishes are scattered.

    Food covered with blood.

    LAMBERT

    No, no, no, no, no.



    BRETT

    What was that. What the Christ

    was that.


    PARKER

    It was growing in him the whole

    time and he didn't even know it.


    ASH

    It used him for an incubator.


    RIPLEY

    That means we've got another

    one.


    DALLAS

    Yeah. And it's loose on the

    ship.


    Slowly they gather around Kane's gutted corpse.

    Then they all look at one another.

    Then at Kane.

    Dead on the table.

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  • wcmartell
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    Wordhurler - I think you're still confusing Action & Actions. That 13 minute segment from VERTIGO is VERY low key - it's not some fast paced chase scene - it's not an ACTION scene at all, it's about the characters.

    There's a moment in CHINATOWN where Jake finds the bifocals in the salt water pond and knows that Mulwray was killed at his home - most probably by Eveyln, the woman Jake has been sleeping with. When he pulls the bigocus from the pond, his dialogue is "Bad for the glass" - a parody of the Japanese gardner's line - basically meaningless. But his actions - pulling out the bifocals, studying them, looking at the house (where Evelyn lives), a moment of hesitation where you think he might destroy the evidence against the woman he may love... then folding the evidence neatly in his hankerchief - those actions are all about character. They are SHOWING us character. The dialogue in that scene is meaningless, the actions show us character. Most of the dialogue in CHINATOWN is lies and subterfuge - it's the character's actions that tell the story and shows us who they really are (instead of who they claim to be).

    Film is a visual medium - the audience isn't going to get tired of seeing the movie. They won't want a moment to rest their eyes and just listen to the dialogue...

    And 70% of the audience isn't going to understand the dialogue in the first place.

    None of this means you can have crappy dialogue, or you can remove all dialogue (though there are feature films that have no dialogue - the whole story is told by the actions of the characters), just that dialogue alone is less than half of what screenwriting is all about. A scene that is all dialogue is wasting FILM (might as well be radio). Why would you want to do a scene - any scene - that is static? That ignores the most important element of film - that we can SEE THINGS HAPPENING.

    Which takes us back to StoryDude's original post - why are "sit & speak scenes" considered a bad thing? Because it's not the best way to use the medium of film to tell a story. There's a better way - even if it's just to get them off their feet and moving through a location that helps tell the story visually.

    Dialogue is less that half the job - we have to do the WHOLE job.

    - Bill

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  • wordhurler
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    Re: Action Vs. Actions

    I don't think anyone is disputing that, Bill. No one's saying dialogue is more important than action. We're just saying dialogue is *also* very important, and if a dialogue scene is well written and serves the story, it can stand on its own strengths -- and that a well-paced script will have some low-key moments that give the audience a brief rest and make the more action-oriented scenes more effective.

    I don't think Billy Wilder would disagree with any of that.

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  • wcmartell
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    Action Vs. Actions

    Actions are characters DOING THINGS.
    Action is things blowing up and car crashes.

    Part of the problem is that one is being confused with the other. Why do we remember the scene from WHEN HARRY MET SALLY? What is said or what Meg Ryan does in a crowded deli? It's what she DOES - her actions.

    There's a sequence in VERTIGO (13 minutes long) where we learn that Kim Novak is obsessed with Mad Carlotta, may be posessed by the ghost of Mad Carlotta, Jimmy Stewart is falling in love with her, Stewart would betray his friend and client to sleep with her, and much more... with only 4 words of dialogue during the entire 13 minutes sequence. We learn everything - much of it emotional and character information - through the actions of the charactrers. What they DO. It's a character-oriented sequence - all SHOWN through the actions of characters, the decisions they make, their reactions to events.

    Billy Wilder - a bunch of screenwriting Oscar nominations and a bunch of wins - fled Germany where he was a top screenwriter and landed on Peter Lorre's sofa. He needed work, but was afraid his dialogue would lose something in the translation, so he became the "go to" guy for visual storytelling. He could find ways to remove lengthy dialogue scenes, replacing them with short visual scenes that gave the same amount of story and character information.

    Actions are universal - if a man and woman are kissing and the phone rings, do they part so one can answer the phone or move to the phone without parting so that he can answer it - he kisses her while the person on the other end is talking, she kisses him while he's talking? That's a decision that tells us about the passion in the relationship - an action that anyone can understand, because it uses the language of film to tell the story... Okay, I stole that example from a Ben Hecht script from the 40s, but using actions to show character and to tell the story are more important today.

    You have character say it, or you can SHOW it through actions. Actions speak louder than words.

    - Bill

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  • sparkenstein
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    Re: Sparkenstein

    Thanks Joan, sometimes I over worry about practicalities and didn't want to shot myself in the foot by including possibly expensive locals.
    I see where Jac and Word are coming from, sometimes the scene does call for a nondescript backgound because the focus is the dialogue exchange. (as in the diner scene in When Harry met Sally) I think Jac hit it perfect with "Give the story what it needs." I would just take that one step further and say give each scene what it needs.

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  • wordhurler
    Guest replied
    Re: my thoughts

    "Talking heads can be great -- but talking heads walking through a wacky surreal art gallery is so much more interesting."

    No, "talking heads" is never great. But interesting, witty, engaging dialogue that opens a window on the story and characters can be great, regardless of what else is going on in the background.

    As for walking through a wacky, surreal art gallery -- your setting can only be so wacky and surreal before it becomes the focal point and distracts the audience from the dialogue. (And if you feel it's okay for the audience to be distracted from the conversation the characters are having, then you'd best cut that whole scene, because it's not serving any purpose.)

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  • jacinthee
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    Re: Sparkenstein

    It seems to me that the audience and the tone of a story greatly help determine whether a quiet "sit down" scene would be appropriate or not. I would also say genre, but then you take Die Hard, as it has been brought up, and the quiet scenes make perfect sense - McClane's character is working out his relationship/attitude towards his wife/how much she means to him while in a life-threatening situation. I agree that if he had been discussing the meaning of life while on a shooting spree, the movie would never have had the great emotional impact it's had on audiences.

    Now take a mindless action flick that focuses mainly on kicking asses while solving some macho crisis and I doubt the audience will want you to whip out the candles and violins.

    And I kind of object to the use of "talking heads" and equating long dialogues with boring. I know this isn't the theater, but we must first serve the story. I've seen the very enjoyable movie "What Happened Was..." in a movie theater a long time ago, and it is about two actors confined in a studio apartment. By the current definition, it would be considered a giant sit down scene. Somehow, it's an incredibly dynamic and hypnotic movie, and it is so, because the claustrophobic atmostphere sucks you in. And thank god there's no perpetual puppet show in the background to "keep the audience entertained" - the subtle interaction between the two characters IS the entertaining part and it is brilliant.

    Not all stories are meant for audiences that can be likened to a bunch of ADD affected daycare kids who need to be "entertained/distracted" at all times. An introspection-inducing atmosphere is paramount is some cases and you need some "quietness" to achieve that. And while we should never aim at writing boring, using shiny objects to spiffy up a scene can either lead to a funny/fresh results or be incredibly distracting if inappropriate.

    Give the story what it needs.

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  • dwickstrom
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    Re: Sit Down Scenes (eating, drinking). Script Killers Or Wh

    If it's well written, it belongs. I'm a firm believer in the "don't do it unless necessary" thing, but you can't kill a script with it if it's a good story.

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  • JoanEasley
    Guest replied
    Sparkenstein

    I, too, agree with Crash that overly-long action scenes can be just as boring as overly-long dialog scenes.

    As to your question, I think it's more important to create a great visual read than to worry about the cost of what you're doing in a spec intended to be a studio project. When I have two characters having a conversation in an elevator, I make it a glass-walled elevator, with say, a space ship being built on the other side of the glass. (And no, I don't think to myself, I can make this conversation boring because they'll be looking at the space ship and won't notice.) I want to give them something interesting to look at AND have great dialog.

    On the other hand, we're going to shoot a no-budget comic short, so there we limited ourselves to 3 characters in a room. Our first draft, which was funny enough to get a director with equipment to agree to shoot it and to get professional actors to work for free, is all talking heads.

    That was the easiest and cheapest thing to do, but before we shoot it, we know it'll be better if we come up with funny things for the characters to do and not just say. We still have to keep it to one set for budgetary reasons.

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