Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
Today we’ll try the overheard dialogue exercise, Part 2. You can check part 1 here. Remember, the goal of the exercise is to pick a conversation you hear this week, write it down, study the nuances and tone of it. When you listen to real world dialogue you’ll recognize it doesn’t play out in straight noun-verb, perfect grammatical sentences. This should help you when sit down to write movie dialogue.
It’s going to be painful, but to get better at your own dialogue you need to listen to people—on the subway, on the line at Target. Screenplay dialogue isn’t a regurgitation of real life speech. It’s a stylized recreation. It’s repetition, lost thoughts, rhythms, pacing, stuttering, political outlook, educational background, tension and release, subtext.
Here are some conversations submitted at Columbia College down through the years, and speaking of Target…
Setting: Target, Infant aisle. A haggard 40-year-old SEASONED VET pushing a cart with an infant and a two year old, rushing past and abruptly stopping next to a NEWBIE, a 30-year-old pregnant woman. Both women reach for the last two jugs of nursery water on the shelf. Seasoned Vet gets to the jugs first and slings both into her cart.
NEWBIE: Ah, excuse me, I was going to take one of those.
SEASONED VET: Good for you.
NEWBIE: Do you seriously need both of those?
Seasoned Vet looks down at her crying infant.
SEASONED VET: Uh yeah, I fucking do.
NEWBIE: There’s no need for that. I was just asking because I need them too.
SEASONED VET: Your brat’s not even here yet!
NEWBIE: Excuse me?!
SEASONED VET: What you need them for, so they can sit around waiting for your little mistake? Come the fuck on!
Seasoned Vet shakes her head and peels out of the aisle, leaving Newbie standing stunned.
THE TAKEAWAY: Possession = 9/10’s of the law. It also controls the beat here. If newbie got her hands on the water first this conversation would never have happened, or at least not have disintegrated so fast. Never cross a mother of two for a jug of nursery water!
Setting: Edit Room, Columbia College. Two girls edit across from a guy.
GIRL 1: You know what I hate?
GIRL 2: What?
GIRL 1: When like, a movie comes out and they don’t give full credit to the person who sings.
GIRL 2: You mean like a musical?
GIRL 1: No, like one of those documentary movies about Ray Charles.
GIRL 2: Oh, you mean like that one with Jamie Foxx, Ray.
GIRL 1: Yeah, or the Johnny Cash one.
GIRL 2: Whose Johnny Cash? Was he black?
GIRL 1: No, he did that movie with Reese Witherspoon and the guy from Signs, Joaquin Phoenix I think. Anyway—
GIRL 2: Wait, does he have like a crazy lip—
GIRL 1: Yeah, I KNOW! Like when they say that Jaimie Foxx or the guy from Signs sings all the songs. It’s like…whatever!
GIRL 2: I know! There’s no way they sing all those songs.
The Guy leans over, interjecting with a look of confusion and disgust.
GUY: Ummm, sorry to interrupt but Joaquin Phoenix studied for a year to learn to sing that well and Jamie Foxx did as well. Also, they list their names in the credits with the songs as having performed them. Please tell me you two aren’t in film school.
The girls look at each other and turn in unison:
GIRLS: We’re going to be directors.
THE TAKEAWAY: Columbia, please raise the bar on admissions! Hear the likes? You hear ‘em every day but writing them in naturally is tough. Also, look at the way the conversation shifts at will from topic to topic, just like in real life. Ignorance is bliss…and really funny.
Waiting in line to the use the bathroom at a house party. About 30 people, and we have the two dumbest girls in front of us.
DRUNK GIRL 1: God, I have to take a piss. I hope this chick hurries up.
A phone rings.
DRUNK GIRL 2: Is that your phone? I love that ring. Who is it?
DRUNK GIRL 1: It’s Stephan. Who the fuck is Stephan?
DRUNK GIRL 2: Well, answer it and find out.
DRUNK GIRL 1: I’m not answering if I don’t know who it is.
They stare at each other and think real hard.
DRUNK GIRL 1: OHHH! Stephan’s my dad!
THE TAKEAWAY: Broad comedy staples—the dumb, the drunk, the dumb AND drunk!
• CHICAGO TRANSPORT AUTHORITY HUMOR
This one happened to me just last week. On the Blue Line, three Tourist Women with suitcases in front of me, on the way back from O’Hare airport.
TOURIST WOMAN 1: (reading a newspaper, pronouncing it with a ch, not a k) Ch-asm? What’s a ch-asm?
TOURIST WOMAN 2: How do I know?
TOURIST WOMAN 3: It’s a hole.
TOURIST WOMAN 1: Ch-asm? (to 2) Look it up.
TOURIST WOMAN 2:(on her Blackberry, punching buttons like a speed freak) A deep fissure in the earth, rock, or another surface.
TOURIST WOMAN 1: Ch-asm? Never heard of it.
TOURIST WOMAN 2: Wait…it’s pronounced K-asm.
TOURIST WOMAN 1: Ohhhhhh, k-asm!
THE TAKEAWAY: I was sitting behind them, aching to enlighten them but fascinated by how long it would take for them to “get” it. Took a good two or three minutes. You can’t make this stuff up!
A Man and a Woman on a train platform, not together, he’s trying to pick her up.
MAN: One time with my friend, we were trying to get on the train but it was packed. The doors closed and I couldn’t fit. He got on, I had to wait for the next train.
MAN: (points) Look, a sandblaster.
MAN: But it’s not a real one because they have to wear masks when they do that.
WOMAN: Because it goes everywhere.
MAN: That’s what she said.
MAN: I saw a Delorean this summer. It was at a car show.
MAN: It was the same day I saw a bunch of puppies for sale.
THE TAKEAWAY: The woman is stuck with this idiot waiting for her train. We get it, he doesn’t. That’s the origin of the comedy. Remember that we’re seeing it unfold, folks. Don’t kill subtext. Leave room in the script for the actors to improvise, to bring meaning to the moment with their body language alone. To say it without saying it.
• AND ONE MORE FROM THE CTA
This time on the Red Line. Woman and a D-Bag in a wife-beater crammed into a single seat, arguing very publicly in a very crammed subway car.
WOMAN: I work too, aight? I don’t wanna come home and have to cook after cooking all day at work.
D-BAG: All I’m sayin’ is its bullshit that I work more hours than you and I have to come home to a frozen dinner in the microwave.
WOMAN: You lucky I even put the frozen dinners in the microwave for yuh sorry ass.
D-BAG: It ain’t right! I work all godamn day. I wanna come home and see yo ass in a thong cookin’ mah steak!
WOMAN: You keep talkin’ like that I’m gonna call my brother. You know he’s lookin’ for a reason to whoop on you.
D-BAG: You call that mutha. He still owes me $40 from Christmas. I been lookin’ for his ass too.
The train stops, door opens and they continue to argue as they exit.
THE TAKEAWAY: Hear it. Use your ears; listen for nuance, for repetition, and for the comic situation. For all of you stuck on a subway car—and most of us have been there—this was no exit, and two idiots going at it. The classic Mel Brooks definition of comedy: “The difference between comedy and tragedy is… tragedy is when I get a hang-nail. Comedy is when you walk into an open manhole and die.”