Let me start by saying that every director should be forced by Federal law to take a creative writing course. I know cinema is a visual medium, but the grim tide disposable, low grade writing that’s being peddled in the name of “scriptwriting” is nothing short of insulting.
I also know Hollywood has had a long contempt for those guys who actually think up the stories—you know, those pesky writers—but up until the 80’s there seemed to be enough ambient script savvy in the film industry that a script, even if it wasn’t the tight achievement of a singular, guiding hand, could osmose sufficient structure and style to cohere into an good work.
Then the 90’s rolled in and there was just no way of hiding the fact that we were several generations into replicative fade with regard to the quality of scriptwriting in the industry. Same was true for the first decade of the 21st century.
Personally, I love dialog because I don’t just want to see the characters do something, I want to know why they are doing whatever it is they are doing, and there is no better vehicle for that revelation than dialog. Most directors can’t slowly and tactically roll out two hours of diversified characters nuggets in a movie, so they settle on the scene—and you know the scene I am referring to. It is the scene a little over half-way through the movie where the main characters shares their heroic anecdote that succinctly and poignantly explains why they are doing whatever it is they are doing.
If that’s all that’s in your toolkit—okay.
Dialog is as much an art as the writing, the directing, the production design and the editing. People who tell you differently are just deflecting and hiding behind their deficit(s): they are not intelligent, talented or literate enough to produce unique dialog. And that’s fine, not everyone’s a writer; but, if you can’t write good dialog, then stop trying and hire a writer to tackle the conversations.
Now, some pointers on what dialog isn’t:
Cursing is not dialog. There are some writer/directors who mistake cursing for dialog. For example, you can take the F-word out of some movies and they lose 20%-25% of their dialog. That should be your first warning.
Technobabble is not dialog, it’s posturing. Trying to convince someone you are intelligent by throwing out a bunch of big scientific phrases or philosophical fencing isn’t dialog.
Repeating the same lines is cool on a few rare moments, but more than that and it’s a gimmick.
For example: “I, the villain, have decided to share with you my grand plan before I kill you in front of those who aided you; and the reason why I, the villain, have decided to share with you my grand plan before I kill you in front of those who aided you is because of my vanity.” Beat this one to death at your own peril.
I like intelligent and passionate people with active minds and established viewpoints running into each other. There is a popular myth that being a post-modernist age Truth—objective, inherent and immediate—and relevance are actually irrelevant; that the play of the will and the mind in the world and the cosmos is an illusion.
As profoundly doltish as that is many filmmakers believe it (odd, since they hold belief as empty) and, consequently, none of their characters believe anything, and the whole movie is just people ambling from one plot point to another without credible motivation as to why they risking their lives to achieve something.
There are two motivations inside any action in a film: the greater and the lesser. Or, to put it another way, the perpetual and the immediate. The character’s immediate motivation in saving the girl is she is about to be raped; the perpetual motivation is life is precious. Sometimes they are the same, most of the time they are not. It is the perpetual than enables, or drives, the character to act in the moment.
Most modern movies only provide the shallow, instant or immediate motivation, and not the perpetual underyling bedrock. So, most movies become “oh, he’s doing that because that is his job” or “because they are threatened.” Well, no kidding, but what’s beneath that?
This is also why you can have a grand, franchise-chasing spectacle that make $400 million and is simultaneously mocked for being inane. Why? Because it is. They are an achievement of marketing, not of drama. All this horror-for-horror’s sake or action-for-action’s sake going on all over the place, and none of it makes it sense and won’t be remembered in five years, let alone twenty, or one-hundred, except in caricature.
Personally, I just can’t write characters who don’t know who they are. And I think it’s because I find that so incomprehensibly boring. The half-fashioned man or woman—seriously, are they not are everywhere? There’s nothing original about that.
The one exception is the great actor. There are some lines in some movies that when you read them on the page, you would rather hear nails scratching across a chalkboard rather than hear them spoken again because you’ve heard that same line (“we’re not in Kansas anymore (Toto, optional)”, or “we got company!” or “I’m your worst nightmare”) for 30 years; but, a great actor—and I mean a great actor—can take that line and give a delivery that is patented right then as they say it. So, in this case, your emergency kit should include the phone number to Al Pacino’s agent.
Action is the what.
Dialog is the why.
You got to have why to be an adult and a filmmaker.