Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dialogue and Seven Samurai


I really hate dialogue scenes. Actors really love those heavy speeches because then they get all emotional and try to win Oscars, so you've got to have a scene or two of real deep emotional conflict through words. On days when I write action scenes I crank them out and feel good doing it but dialogue days are like torture. It's hard to make your characters say poignant shit when you just want them to shut the fuck up and hit things.

Yesterday was one of those days. My female lead has spent her whole life doing what men told her to do, and in yesterday's installment she suddenly decided to do something on her own, which largely involved leaping out a window dressed all in black in the rain. Unfortunately to get to the leap out the window I had to make her have a conversation filled with emotional realizations and exposition. Blech.

I wrote a couple of crappy pages, thinking I'd go back on the rewrite and come up with something better once I have the bones of the screenplay installed. I usually write an action scene one time and maybe tweak it a little. A dialogue scene I can write like fifty thousand times.

I know exactly how people talk, by the way. The voice isn't the problem most of the time. Figuring out what they say is. There's a thin line between a great emotional speech and being too preachy.

Yesterday after forcing my way through two pages I rewarded myself by watching Seven Samurai because I adore Kurosawa.

There's this terrific scene in the middle of the film where our silly fool who falsely claims to be a Samurai - Kikuchiyo, played by the always incredible Toshirô Mifune - begins an emotional rant about the greediness of farmers and the cruelty of Samurai. He blames everyone in the room for the state of affairs in the village. Farmers are greedy, he says, because the Samurai steal their women and destroy their villages. Then he breaks down in tears. The old wise Samurai in charge tears up a little. "You are a farmer's son, aren't you?"

And you get right then that something horrible happened to this man when he was a child. The Samurai gets it, we all get it.

The rant was not a story about his childhood. It was a projection of his childhood trauma onto the current situation and it was way more powerful than if Kikuchiyo had sat around telling us his sob story.

This is always advice you hear, of course. People rarely say what they mean, we all know that. But seeing it on screen in such a beautiful moment from a character who's been playing the fool the entire film, that inspired me. If you have a character who never takes anything seriously, at some point he needs to break down and cry. If you have a character who's always tough, he needs to show a weakness. If you have a character who's weak, they have to have a moment of bravery. But either way, they can't know what they're doing.

So I went back to my script as soon as that scene was over and rewrote my dialogue so that my character doesn't know what she's doing. She makes a decision without realizing why. I'll still probably rewrite it a thousand times, but it's a start.

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