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Speech and behavior represent two polarities in fiction filmmaking—each requires

a different kind of script interpretation. They can be characterized thus:
• The theatrical film tells its story mainly through dialogue scenes.
• The cinematic film tells its story more through imagery and behavior.

The characters in the dialogue-centered film pursue their objectives through

language and are fulfilled or frustrated at each beat. Dialogue narrates the film
and provides its forward movement, and the scene dynamics lie with the players.
Let’s say quickly that dialogue-centered material does not have to be static and
devoid of visual or behavioral interest. Characters can be in movement at work or
play, and can be shown doing anything organic to the world they inhabit. With
this strongly realistic type of film, the director works as one does with theater
actors, digging for the meaning and rhythms of the text and working to build the
integrity of the characters.

The cinematic film has few sustained dialogue scenes, and builds its dramatic
units using a montage technique of images or short action scenes. The characters
still need objectives, but the arc of each dramatic unit may be formed from several
scene fragments. Like mime, comic strips, or early movies, the story is narrated
more by action and images and less by dialogue. The director works at designing
action, behavior, composition, and editing juxtapositions—most of which is envisaged
at the writing stage. This is a type of film in which the cinematographer’s taste and
inventiveness are paramount. Much of the film’s rhythm and momentum are consolidated
during editing, as in a documentary.

The professional screenplay is minimal because it aims to seed a visual, nonliterary,

organic, and experiential process. A well-written one:

• Includes no author’s thoughts, instructions, or comments.

• Uses few qualifying comments and adjectives (overdescribing kills what the
reader imagines).
• Leaves most behavior to the reader’s imagination, and instead describes its
effect (for example, “he looks nervous”—instead of, “he nervously runs a
forefinger round the inside of his collar and then flicks dust off his dark serge
• Underinstructs actors unless a line or action would be unintelligible without
• Contains no camera or editing instructions.
• Isn’t written on the nose (that is, overexplicitly instead of leaving the viewer
with interpretive work to do).
• Uses brief, evocative language whenever the body copy wants the reader to
visualize something.

• A limited but evocative setting

• Characters engaged in a significant struggle to get, do, or accomplish
• One character who develops—however minimally
• A resolution that leaves the audience pondering some aspect of the human
• Credibility in the story’s world and its characters. The director needs better
understanding of actors and acting, dramatic structure, and the processes of
human perception that underlie film language.
• Unity, individuality, and force of conviction in the story concept. The story
needs greater originality, greater momentum in the narrative, and something
worthwhile and deeply felt to say.
• Design in the film’s dramatic, visual, and aural form that would make it cinematic
rather than theatrical.
• Make everything sharply particular. Never settle for fuzzy generalizations.
“Generalization,” said the acting theorist Stanislavsky, “is the enemy of art.”

• Ideation or idea development means defining a promising idea and theme as

the kernel for a screen story, which can be expressed as a premise (example:
A soldier returning from constant danger in Iraq tries to reenter his small-town
life in rural New England. Can his girlfriend help him make the transition?). The
premise is revisited periodically to see how the core idea has evolved.

• Story development is the expansion of the core idea into characters, situations,
and events. To stay light and mobile, this is often done in outline form
with dialogue exchanges briefly summarized (example: they discuss whether
Jim should tell Bella’s father that he is haunted by the death of an innocent
bystander in Baghdad).

• Story editing involves revision, restructuring, pruning, shaping, and compressing

the overall piece, often while still in outline form.

• Pitching the story entails three to four minutes describing the basics of a film
to an audience of one or many. This elicits an audience response before you have even
made the film, and tells you whether a new version has cured the ills of the old.

• Writing the screenplay involves expanding the thoroughly reworked and

tested outline into standard screenplay form. A screenplay needs between 10
and 20 drafts before it’s ready for filming.

• Developing the shooting script means breaking the screenplay down into
shots and angles in association with the cinematographer and script (or continuity)
If you want to direct screen work with a distinctive voice, you need to take
action in at least three areas:

1. Definition: Make your priorities telling a good story in a special way and in a
particular genre. You’ll need clear definitions of all these, ones that enthuse
other people. You can go only where you aim to go. This is why a film writer
is important—he or she attends only to the nature of the story, not the cinematic
translation of it.

2. Take control: You must direct the filmmaking process, not become controlled
by it. For this, you’ll need a strongly visualized design and the sheer obstinacy
to get it realized during production. If you don’t lead, the crew and the actors
will take over and the tail wags the dog.

3. Create a definite Storyteller: Impose a strong storytelling “voice” on your

film, the kind that lends enchantment to all effective storytelling. This character
is not you—that, after all, needs no effort or understanding—but a character
that you alone define and that you alone play privately and to the hilt.
This character’s eyes, ears, mind, and movement are a sparkling stream of
consciousness made manifest in your film.


The First Act is very important. Though it probably contains action, its function
is primarily expository. It sets up the world of the characters by laying bare their
desires, ambitions, fears, and the main problem that will put the principal character
or characters to the test. The initial challenge may be something the central character
at first denies. In folktales, the hero is often reluctant or initially refuses the call to duty,
as the folklorist Joseph Campbell puts it. But refusing only makes the call return more
insistently—that’s a law of the universe.

The Second Act: Here, the complications arise and pressures on the main character
escalate. The piece is no longer expository because we know who the characters
are and what they face. Now we see them tackling rising obstacles and tests
of strength, ingenuity, and persistence. The main predicament becomes important
to solve, so you and your players will be working during this act to focus the characters
on their issues and to raise the stakes. What will make the outcome of each
situation more pressing and urgent? How can the actors develop their interaction
to make each other hope and suffer more?

The Third Act brings the crisis at the apex of the dramatic curve. It’s the point where
everything for which the main character has struggled comes to a head and the outcome
gets decided. The resolution reveals what the central character has learned (or
not learned), and indicates—either subtly or obviously—how he or she has developed.

The text is what is in the screenplay that determines the characters’ speech and
actions. But while you absorb this, you are also searching for the behavioral clues
that unlock the subtext.

The subtext is the situation’s hidden meaning that lies beneath the visible and
audible surface of the text. Each character’s hidden agenda—whatever it is they
are trying to get, do, or accomplish—is developed by the director and the actors,
and goes on developing throughout rehearsal, shooting, and even editing. It is the
editor’s job, while putting the film together, to liberate or even manufacture other
possibilities. Lengthening reaction time before a character speaks often hints at
more complex inner processes and yields a more interesting idea of her interior
action and motivation.

Conflict is essential to drama. It can be internal or external; that is, it may be:

• Person versus person

• Person versus environment
• Inner conflict between one part of a person and another

Dramatic units

Divide the scene into dramatic units. If it has three major beats, it probably
has three dramatic units.

Decide exactly where the unit’s dramatic crisis occurs.

Each new dramatic unit is a new course of action fueled by a new volition
and emotion.

The steps in a character’s consciousness are like a melody that can extend in
time only if the notes are sounded in sequence, not all at once.

A dramatic beat follows mounting pressures that culminate in an irreversible change.

This moment of change is when a character experiences the success or failure of an
important objective. That is, a beat is a moment of changed awareness in one of the
characters, and is thus a dramatic fulcrum point. This heartbeat of drama is something
few outside the theater grasp. Once film students understand what a beat really is, their
directing and editing take a quantum leap.

Dramatic metaphors provide an explanatory element useful in driving the story forward
and helpful in understanding it better.

Ideological metaphors generate in the user’s consciousness an idea whose significance

surpasses that of the film’s frame and raises an important issue concerning the human

• Set limited, positive goals: Say, “See if you can open the door softly this
time”—not, “This time don’t make such a racket with that closet.”

• Direct the actor’s attention to a particular kind of action: Say, “I’d like to see
you try to figure out what he meant as you turn away.” Make the suggestion
specific, and locate it in a particular moment. Generalized suggestions could
apply anywhere and aren’t helpful.

• Suggest a different subtext: such as, “Try closing the door on him with finality
rather than regret.”

• Remind cast members where their character has just come from. Wind them
up with a reminder: “You’ve just come from the stock exchange and seen your
father’s savings vanish.” This is vital while directing, because films are shot in
small, out-of-order steps, and actors need constant orientation.

• Remind actors that nobody is present: Ask actors to ignore the crew’s presence,
act as they do when alone in real life, and never to look at the camera.
This helps them avoid playing to an imagined audience.

• Never demonstrate how you’d like something played: This implies you are an
actor and want a copy of yourself. But you are not an actor, and what you
want is unique to that actor. Ask the cast for their solutions.

• Never say, “Just be yourself”: This sets actors worrying: “What did he really
mean? How does he see me? Which me does he want?” Focus your actor
instead on aspects of her character’s experience.

• Never ask for something “smaller”: An actor takes this as a barbed criticism.
Ask for the same intensity but with more intimacy, or for anything else that
sounds like development rather than censure.

Director and actors should separately study the scene looking for the
beats, which are primarily the actor’s concern, whereas dramatic units are more
yours. A beat may be triggered by dialogue, an action, or incoming information such
as a phone call. There may be one beat, or there may be several in a scene. All may
belong to one character or to both; some may be simultaneous and mutual. One
character may or may not be conscious of shifts in the other, though the audience
should be made aware of all important changes.

When the beat points are located and tagged, ask the actors to devise
several possible actions for their character during each beat, or change of awareness.
When actors invent from their own emotional range, the action becomes authentic to both
actor and character. Actions can start out multiple and exaggerated so the director and
actor can locate which feels best, then focus it at an agreed level of subtlety.
When an actor seems unable to show his of her character’s inner life, the symptoms
are that he or she:

• Seems to have no credible thought process.

• Comes to life only when there is something to say.
• Goes fixed or blank while waiting for the next cue.
• May actually be visualizing the script page—certain death for movie acting.

You can shift an actor out of this mode by requesting an out-loud voicing of
thoughts between lines. This will probe where an actor repeatedly loses focus, and will
dig out skewed understandings.


The best way to assess dialogue is to read the lines aloud, listening to the sound of
your own voice and asking:

• Is every word and every phrase in the character’s own vernacular?

• What is this character trying to do or get with these words?
• Does the dialogue carry a compelling subtext (that is, a deeper underlying
• Is what it hides interesting?
• Could it be made more subtextual (allusive and indirect) instead of “on the
nose” (evident and obvious)?
• Does it make the listener speculate or respond emotionally?
• Is there a better balance of words or sounds?
• Can it be briefer by even one syllable?

The best dialogue is verbal action because the speaker uses words to get something.
It is pressure applied even as it seeks to deflect pressures the speaker is experiencing.
Active and structurally indispensable to the scene, it is never verbal arabesque or an
editorial explanation of what is visible. Least of all is it verbal padding.

To reproduce on film what you have just seen, you would need to cover each
speaker from the viewpoint of the other, and add a third viewpoint to encompass
them both as you, the Observer, see them. For good measure, you’d add complementary
overshoulder shots. The Observer’s point of view (POV) is outside the
enclosed consciousness of the two speakers, and because it shows them in a more
detached, observational way, it implies the Storyteller’s POV. Now you have a
complete model for basic movie coverage.

Every shot must contain an element (or absence of one) that finds answer in the next
shots. The psychological tension or curiosity that is created in the spectator’s mind, must
be satisfied in the following shots.

A shot’s length is determined by the degree of psychological interest it generates. First a

shot is recognized, then there is a moment of maximum attention in which the meaning of
that shot must be understood; afterwards the attention starts to fade and boredom settles
in. If a shot is cut in the exact moment when the attention starts to fades, then the
viewers’ interest will be kept alive and the film will have a certain rhythm.

The overlap cut, also known as a lap cut or L cut, is a contrapuntal editing device
useful for blurring the unnatural seams between shots. It works by bringing a
speaker’s voice in before his picture, or vice versa, and this removes the level cuts
that reduce editing to staid and predictable blocks of action.

Imagine you are witnessing a conversation between two people; you have to turn your
head from one to the other. Seldom will you turn at the right moment to catch the next
speaker beginning; only an omniscient being could be so accurate. Editors who make
neat, level cuts between speakers tend to give a prepackaged, premeditated look to their
work. Such omniscience destroys the illusion of watching something develop
spontaneously. In real life, you can seldom predict who will speak next—it is
hearing a new voice that tells you where to look. If a film is to convince us that a
dialogue sequence comes spontaneously from real life, its editor must replicate the
disjunctive shifts when our eyes follow our hearing, or our hearing catches up late with
something we have just seen.

A film that truly entertains makes you feel you are in the company of an astute,
witty onlooker who savors human nature. This critical and privileged guide shares
every special observation and lets you see as much as possible about the characters.

Just as there are dialogue overlap cuts, so there are live transitions from one
sequence to another by using the lap cut. Either of these devices diminishes the evidence
of coupling between one sequence and the next. Though you sometimes want to bring a
scene to a slow closure (fade-out) more often you want to keep up momentum.

With these techniques, film can impart the sensations of a character’s shifting planes
of consciousness and association. A welcome result from creative overlap cutting is
that you can completely dispense with optical transitions such as the fade or dissolve.

The first shot of any scene will be a master shot because:

• Wide shots take the most lighting, and you want to use your light judiciously.
• Closer shots match the wide shot for lighting and continuity.
• You want to work out blocking problems for the whole first and the parts later.
• All continuity matches refer back to the master shot, or establishing shot.

Music is commonly a transitional device, a filler, or something to set a mood. Avoid

enhancing what’s already visible on the screen. Instead, use music to suggest what
is invisible, such as a character’s withheld expectations, interior mood, or feelings.

Music effectively foreshadows events and builds tension, but should never give
the story away, nor should it ever “picture point” the story by commenting too

A related problem is using too much music, or burdening the film with a musical
interpretation that blocks the audience from making its own emotional judgments.

Sound can:
• Indicate a historical period.
• Indicate changes in time or geographic locale.
• Connect otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places, images, or moments.
• Heighten ambiguity or diminish it.
• Startle or soothe.
• Create a psychological counterpoint
• Create metaphors and symbolism
• Silence can symbolize death, loneliness, danger

You are ready to mix tracks into one master track only when you have:
• Finalized content of your film
• Fitted music
• Split dialogue tracks, grouping them by their equalization (EQ) needs and
level commonality:
-A separate track for each microphone position in dialogue tracks
-Sometimes a different track for each speaker, depending on how much EQ
is necessary for each microphone position on each character
• Filled-in backgrounds (missing sections of background ambience, so there are
no dead spaces or abrupt background changes)
• Recorded and laid narration (if there is any)
• Recorded and laid sound effects and mood-setting atmospheres