Saturday, July 5, 2008

POV and tone

Joshua James brings a unique perspective to craft issues, probably because he comes at it from a screen writing perspective. Until now, my favorite was his article on "static characters". But the other day, he posted one of my favorite scenes done two ways.

I didn't enjoy Miami Vice, but when I think about hostage/leverage situations, I think of the brilliant way Mann dissected the concept. It wasn't a fun movie, but it was a good movie. Heat--another brilliant Mann film, is like walking step by step through cause and effect. A Mann film is like a tech-manual.

In his post, James talked about how the right actor can make or break a scene, and after watching both versions, the made for tv pilot, and the actual scene from Heat. I have to agree with him.

But...being a writer, I could see how "voice" changed what was essentially a "blah" scene into a powerhouse. In the first video clip, there are two guys sitting at a table. The scene starts with, sitting.

They talk, the camera angle doesn't move beyond a brief description, and they talk. Honestly, I got bored about three minutes in. I know this scene. I like this scene--but it sucks. The actors are not fully fleshed, the setting is as close to white room as a film can get, and the dialog plods along. The actors don't move, they have very little expression--in short, it's a horrible book.

The second scene explodes off the page. It opens with Pacino setting up for the coming talk. It's night, there's a car out on the street, Pacino is threatening. And they talk...but this time, the camera moves. Pacino moves his face, his eyes, his shoulders--he swears, he ad-libs. I watched the whole seven minute clip, and it wasn't boring. Not once.

In example one: The opening was lost. They open in the restaurant. Two guys sitting.
In example two: They open with action. Close-in shot of a gun, pounding music, it's night. Good foreshadowing.

One: They talk. The camera stays in omni pov, almost like it's fixed or something.
Two: It moves, focusing on the person with the most reaction, and the reaction is understated, letting the watcher see the subtext. Mutual respect, muted anger.

One: the dialog is as written. Sure it's workmanlike, but--it's wooden.
Two: they take it and run. They add movement, put it in their own words--Pacino drops the f-bomb constantly, but it's okay, because you know, this is the way this guy would talk.

One: the biggie Instead of developing subtext and characterization, the scene cuts to the next without explanation. Like in music, when a singer can't reach that high note, she breaks in mid-breath and pretends that's the effect she was going for.
Two: Pacino is still talking. It's a good scene. There's substance, there's tone and voice. It opens well, ends well.

Watch the scenes...

  • here

  • ...and think about, opening hooks--fully developed characters, dialog that accurately reflects the way your character--in the context of this story--would talk, and dialog tags/action beats.

    You can almost see--when Pacino is in the middle of a sentence, the invisible tag--he shrugged, mouth tight.


    Jeanna said...

    They rewrite the scene without changing the dialog.
    Remember how anticipated this scene was at the time?
    I don't think I made it a full minute with the first example. It also looks like you have fuller CUs in the second.
    Manhunter and Last of the Mohicans are the only two MM films I really liked. Was disappointed in Heat, but you make me want to see it again.

    Kaige said...


    There was some additional dialogue in the second, but just the pacing, the "non-canned yet low-key" non-verbal communication and subtext layered in also made it just sing.

    I suffered through the 3.5 minutes of the first one, but couldn't look away for the full 7 minutes the second one ran. The framing helped, but don't think it was crucial to the differences between the two.

    Just wow.

    Was it me or did the two young guys laugh and smile way too much?

    Alice Audrey said...

    The difference between tolerable and great acting is painfully obvious.

    jodi said...

    lol Jeanna, Last of the Mohicans was great for the british officer (can't remember his name. *sad*)I liked him much better than Daniel Day lewis

    Yeah, Kaige--you got it. It was--like night and day, Because it was the same scene. And yes, they didn't act true to the story. They weren't "fleshed".

    *waving to Alice* Good actors are rare

    Kaige said...

    BTW, didn't mean to ignore your take on it, but day-um, Bob and Al were too much to take in everything at once.

    I'm the world's worst at reading things aloud, but it really does help me hear what's wooden and stilted in dialogue, but also in the staging and internalizations. It's just plain awkward to think certain ways in one character's head. Then I realize I need to put it in HIS voice, not hers or mine.

    Jeanna said...

    Funny what you hear in your head and what an actor can do to it. They can turn a comedy into a tragedy.

    jodi said...

    very true, Jeanna :)

    Jeanna said...

    Was stunned in horror to see what happened to a one act of mine. Last time I wrote fiction.
    But the relationships of the actors, audience, director, and writers were soap opera worthy.
    I think Joan Cusack was a guest producer or director or something on that one.

    Unhinged said...

    Very interesting. It'd be hard to top Pacino and DeNiro, though, lol.

    But I get what you're saying.

    jodi said...

    Jeanna--it's how I found you. Through Cybele's blog. You're a woman of many talents.