Best screenplay – for a silent film!

You’ve got to hand it to Michel Hazanavicius.

Who? He’s the guy behind the Oscar success of the silent movie The Artist – you know, the one that scooped all the top awards at the 2011 Oscars? What makes him unique is that he won not only Best Director for the film but was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay!

I must admit to doing a double take when I first read about that. How on earth do you go about writing a screenplay for a film without dialogue? Imagine trying that with a full-length novel?

Apparently, Monsieur Hazanavicius did extensive research about 1920s Hollywood and studied silent films to find the right techniques to make the story comprehensible without having to use too many intertitles (printed text used mostly to convey dialogue).

According to Paste Magazine a lot of people scoffed at the idea of a silent film getting a screenplay nomination. “It turns out,” Paste tells us, “the script is rich in detail and explains how every scene is supposed to be set up.” The surprising thing about the kind of detail required is that the entire script took only four months to write!

 I think I’m getting more jealous by the minute.

Before continuing, I thought I’d give you a flavour of the script. – you can view the entire document at Paste and other sites:

A man who visibly works for the studio, some assistant or other, comes into the courtyard, climbs on a crate and makes an announcement. All the men who had pressed forwards turn on their heels, leaving the assistant surrounded only by women. The man says something to one girl, who begins to dance. He motions to her that it’s ok and she heads off towards the wardrobe section. He does the same with a second girl and she gets hired too. Then it’s Peppy’s turn. She puts a lot of energy into a few top class tap steps, impressing the guy to such an extent that he smiles admiringly then signals that she’s hired.

 All straightforward stuff, nothing to write home about, but somewhere in there the author managed to find a formula for box office success. To do it without dialogue must have been pretty daunting.

So, what about storywriting sans dialogue? Can it be done? Should it be attempted? The answers have to be an emphatic, non (I might as well stay in Le Francais!).

Consider the above excerpt against some of the screen’s most enduring dialogue scenes. Let’s look at A Few Good Men and how Tom Cruise (Lt. Kaffee) and Jack Nicholson (Col. Jessep) squared up to each other in the final courtroom scene:

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I want the truth!

Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honour, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?

Col. Jessep: I did the job I…

Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?

Col. Jessep: You’re Goddamn right I did!

Okay, I admit to self-indulgence – I’ve always loved that dialogue. I also admit I’ve no chance of ever being able to come close to emulating what was achieved here. What I do know is that I would rather tackle a dialogue-intensive chapter than one devoid of speech. The fact that the screenplay writer for The Artist proved how effectively it can be done, doesn’t mean it will start becoming fashionable, or that we as authors should begin to revise the balance we strive for between our verbal and non-verbal passages.

I don’t see editors returning manuscripts with thick red lines through the dialogue. I’m fortunate to have a brilliant editor who adds little ‘show me’ notes – he’s trying to get me beyond saying what I see to living/breathing what’s happening mode. Get inside the head of the character and use his/her words and emotions to bring scenes to life. This is the lifeblood of the fictional novel.

Screenwriting is an altogether different art form. In the meantime, we should celebrate the genius of The Artist – but remember it is those scenes that involve our characters opening their mouths and talking that are often the most memorable for readers (and viewers).

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