May 17 2019

“Nobody Talks Like That”

Pulp-FictionThis was an ongoing note from producers I had on a particularly difficult project. They became extreme micromanagers on almost every creative decision, which finally came down to analyzing every line of dialogue in the script. The crux of our disconnect finally came to a head one day when my producer said to me, “Your dialogue is just not realistic. Nobody talks like that.”

Nobody talks like that. Hmm.

This issue went on for many months.  It was crucial to these producers that my characters — characters in an animated movie, in a fantastical situation — always use vocabulary and phrases that EVERYONE would use. The dialogue had to be  “natural” and “common” and “relatable.” I’ll be honest — when I write, I never really think about this. I just go with my instincts and let things flow. So maybe I’m the one who doesn’t talk like everyone else.

Then so be it.

I take real issue with this note. So it’s worth talking about. My goal in writing dialogue is clearly different than these producers. If my dialogue makes my characters speak in a way that is different from everyone else, I wear that badge with honor. Because that means that not only are my characters unique and heightened and interesting, but so is my voice as a writer.

Ask Quentin Tarantino. Or John Hughes. Or Wes Anderson. Or Kevin Smith. Or Diablo Cody. Or Mindy Kaling. Or Judd Apatow. Or Tina Fey. Or Jordan Peele. Or Spike Lee. I COULD GO ON AND ON. These people are known for — and yes, accused of — making their characters talk in a unique way that “no one else does.”

And they. Are. Icons.

Liz LemonBut let’s set that aside and go even deeper to ask: Why do we go to the movies? What do we want from the people on screen? We want a heightened experience. We want profound speeches. We want fast wit. We want to be surprised by memorable, quotable words that WE NEVER HEAR FROM EACH OTHER IN REAL LIFE. Sorry I shouted that last part, but I feel strongly about it.

So yes, of course I strive to write natural dialogue. But no, I will NOT force my characters to talk like “normal people talk” by eliminating an interesting word choice, a clever punchline, or a more elegant turn of phrase. Because “normal” is boring. And that makes a writer’s voice flatline into something that has no punch at all.

I worked with these producers for months to find a middle ground, but we never really found it. It was an exhausting, frustrating process. And it resulted in what I would call very “middle of the road” scenes. Until producers allow writers and directors to truly be their strange, unique selves, they’ll never get “the good stuff” that they can’t quite put their finger on. They’ll never create the films we want to watch for years to come.

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) w/ Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong) in the background L to R. ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018


May 10 2019

Notes: Just Put The Couch By The Window

332_swoon-chairI love metaphors. As a writer, they really help me explain concepts, especially to myself. One particular metaphor helps me survive notes and story changes that I don’t agree with. On any script, pressure will come from the studio or the producers to second-guess what you feel is the natural choice. In these times, it is better to view them as a CLIENT rather than a collaborator.

Here’s the metaphor: A COUCH.

The client will ask you to “decorate” the “room” that is your story. You know where the “furniture” will look best before you even move it around. You know where the couch should go right away. It seems so obvious to you. But you serve the client, and they want to put the couch by the window. You already know it won’t work. You explain all the reasons why the furniture should be arranged in the way you envision, why the whole room will work better that way. After all, that’s what they paid you for — for you to arrange the “furniture” of this “room.” You discuss, you push your point, but they just don’t see it. They just really want that couch over against that wall.

You want to please the producer. But if you are a good writer, you can’t help but think of what’s best. You think, “I know the couch won’t be good over there. I know that every day at 3 pm, the sun is going to hit them in the eyes. And it’s too wide for that wall. And it makes the whole room smaller there. I have to say something.”

But sometimes, the client just wants the couch by the window. Period. They want it there, you know it’s not best there, but that’s that. Put the couch by the window. Just do it.

Maybe a week later they will call you back and complain about the afternoon sun and tell you to move the couch again. And you can say, “What a great idea.” It’s not about winning your position. Just make them happy. At the end of the day, they may just want what they want, even if it’s not the best.

For artists who listen to their instincts and trust them, this can be tiresome. But this is part of the job. It’s really the difference between writing for yourself as a hobby and writing for clients as a career. As painful as it is to admit it, even your own original idea, once paid for by a studio or producer, is not entirely yours anymore. You are now in collaboration with another person. And you must view that person in a “client” mentality to get over these annoying, annoying moments. When you “put the couch by the window,” defying all your instincts, you can take comfort in the fact that on this point, for now, you are serving the client.

Lonely CouchNine times out of ten the best version of “where the couch goes” will be revealed to everyone. It may even be revealed to you too. Just remember the couch is never done moving until the movie is in theaters.

Metaphor over!


another site by
DIGABYTE