Monday, August 08, 2016

What happened to all the great movie lines?

Thanks to reader Carol for this: A recent article about why movies are no longer stressing sparkling dialogue. In light of my tips on writing dialogue it’s rather timely.

The article’s author, Pamela Hutchinson, contends studios today are primarily interested in a movie’s global appeal. Less dialogue is easier to translate. Forget Millennials – what do Chinese and Indian date-nighters want to see?

Ms. Hutchinson points out some startling facts. In the latest BOURNE movie, Matt Damon has only 45 lines. In ONLY GOD FORGIVES (a movie I already forgot existed), Ryan Gosling speaks just 19. And Tom Hardy has only 52 lines in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. There’s probably more dialogue in the first three minutes of STEVE JOBS than all three of those movies put together.

I see the point. Translations can be dicey. When David Isaacs and I did a rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE (the sequel to ROMANCING THE STONE), producer Michael Douglas needed the Moroccan government to approve the script in order to allow filming there. Our script was translated into French. I obtained a copy and my wife, who spoke a fair amount of French, checked to see how faithful the translation was to our original. She said every word was translated literally. As a result, our jokes made absolutely no sense; just a string of non sequiturs.

The government approved it.

The thing is, even in action movies, a well-placed zinger or speech can really enhance a film’s popularity. Dialogue matters. I think it’s one of the reasons Marvel movies shine over DC franchise films. Marvel gets it. (By the way, I wonder how DEADPOOL did worldwide? Lots of delicious dialogue in that. My guess is it didn’t suffer internationally. As long as there’s enough action and Morena Baccarin scantily dressed audiences will lay down their Rubles or Yen or whatever.)

But gone are the days of HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ALL ABOUT EVE, and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. It’s a shame because there’s room for both. Hey, JEWEL OF THE NILE did business in France.

Author Hutchinson also maintains that when dialogue loses its sparkle the film falls flat. I would agree. But of course, studios don’t give a shit. As long as the movie makes money they’re happy.

There’s an economic component to this too. Not many screenwriters are capable of writing sparkling dialogue. So they tend to be expensive. But why pay for an A-list writer when a C-lister can bang out 35 lines of “Take this you asshole!” for Guild minimum?

This to me is another reason why good writers, actors, and audiences are flocking to television. The juicy parts and complex storylines are now on the small screen. And good riddance to Hollywood when they spend $400 million on an action film that bombs.   To quote a certain line of movie dialogue:


Jim S said...

Reminds me of a great line in the classic 1980s show "Wiseguy". This show changed television forever.

It had arcs and would recreate itself two or three times a year.

And the dialogue worked. I remember one mobster saying of another, "if he's not careful, he's going to be the poster child for rigor mortis." That's a great line. With the exception of Uncle Junior, I'm pretty sure you couldn't imagine anyone from "The Sopranos" saying a line like that. But it works and it doesn't rely on the no doubt true to life crude language a real mobster would use.

Having network restrictions doesn't mean you can't have great language and I find it jarring to watch shows on USA or TBS where characters use, again real-life language, swear words. It's just taking the easy way out.

B A said...

It's like they assume audiences will be texting through the movie and not paying attention to the chundering cyclone of bellowing and CGI up on the screen.

etg said...

I don't know, Arnold Schwarzenegger had only few lines in Terminator, so this "problem" exists since the 80s?

Action movies != movies with sparkling dialogue. At least for me.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's interesting to read this in the context of recent discussions of the shrinking amount of dialogue and screen time given to female characters. The Guardian has a summary of the discussion:

The capper for me - probably the most outrageous version of "mansplaining" I will ever see short of a man explaining to a pregnant woman how it feels to be pregnant - was in a movie I saw on a plane recently (SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE), in which a single man explains, in a coffeeshop, in an educational but completely unflirtatious or sexy tone, how best she should masturbate to achieve orgasm. Apparently we're too stupid to figure even *this* out.


Carol said...

I inspired a whole post! Achievement unlocked!

I don't have anything to add to the discussion. I just wanted to brag.

Brian said...

There are two stories that are in Max Wilk's book "The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood" that touch on this.

Robert Wise met John Ford and he said that he wanted to be a director, Ford snapped, "Then why don't you go up in that booth and learn something about film editing!?", which is exactly what Wise did.

Sometime later, Wise spoke to Ford and wondered why John Wayne made two successful films for him but in between them, Wayne had made two relative failures.

Ford said, "Count the speeches in the first film he made for me." Wise did and there were fourteen speeches. Ford asked him to count the number of speeches in the later script and Wise found that there were fourteen speeches in that script as well.

Ford said, "That's the secret with actors. Don't let any of them talk!"

Times are quite different now, but I wonder how many "speeches" are in a starring role nowadays. Have times changed that much?

ChipO said...

Coupled with poor sound which buries the now few good lines in background noise.
(Dangit, what did he say?)
You guys work hard to give us good stuff - thank you.
Then the system doesn't let me hear it.
So, again, i'm not in the theater, i'm at home where I can rewind and appreciate your work.
And, no, I don't need hearing aids. Yet.

Unknown said...

A movie's appeal can be defined by the qoutable lines it produces. Any recent movies have lines that have become part of eveday use? Anyone? Bueller?

Peter said...

So you did finally watch Deadpool! Glad you enjoyed it! According to Box Office Mojo, it grossed a mammoth $419,532,736 at the international box office on top of $363,070,709 in the States, all on a budget of under $60 million.

I recently went to see the Independence Day sequel. No one goes to Roland Emmerich films for memorable dialogue but even this was shocking by his standards. The dialogue ticked every single cliche in the book. They even had the "Did he just hang up on me?", "Yes sir, he did", which is so ancient, George Burns would have found it a cliche. What shocked me was it had 5 writers credited with the script! FIVE!

The Ghostbusters remake also displayed a poverty of imagination. Where the original was witty and smart, this one opted for simple jokes and insulting stereotypes. Leslie Jones is lumbered with painfully unfunny lines which require little more than for her to shout "Oh hell no" and pull silly faces, as though we were back in Stepin Fetchit days.

Marco said...

Very interesting blog post - it would make sense to have less dialogue to translate to foreign audiences more easily ... however that would rule out any well-dubbed, dialogue-heavy movie or TV series.

There are many bad examples for german dubs for instance (Friends is the worst dub I experienced, ever) but there are a lot of excellent ones either. Deadpool (picking one example from your post) works excellent in the german dub since they either found a *matching* yet fitting german version of the dialogue close to the original or placed a different, yet very funny own pun, strictly following the original *intention* of the dialogue. It remains an interpretation (so to speak) of the movie - but if it's well done, it transfers it to a different audience without any loss.

Becker for instance is just as funny in german than it is in the original - I can easily switch between languages since it's just done so well.

Glenn said...

I heard complaints about this when Force Awakens opened. It’s a good film but the dialogue seems too dumbed down at times. There are no memorable moments that really stick out, whereas Empire Strikes Back had several (“I am your father”, “Do or do not…”, “That is why you fail…”). Even Revenge of the Sith had “this is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause”, which is a good line, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the campy, kiddy movie.

John Stevens said...

I always thought The Maltese Falcon embodied the difference between movie life and real life as far as dialogue goes. Such fast delivery, and so intricate sometimes. Nobody (I guess) could think up things to say that fast, and such clever words too, but that's part of the magic. Like black and white. Marvelous dialogue, too fast for real life -- but it isn't real life. If I wanted to hear real-life dialogue, I'd just listen to regular people talk, and that's not usually all that interesting. Not worth paying for most of the time, anyway. That's part of the reward for going to a theatre and paying for the whole experience. I don't want a simple reflection of real life. I want something close to it but not exactly it. Special movie (and tv) dialogue is one of the great pleasures of life! Thanks for the post :)

funnyvault said...

a good movie must have strong dialogue .

jimmytheg said...

Jimmy The G said

Very hard to have good dialogue when 95% of todays films about explosions and cars chases. Not much time for story.

jimmytheg said...

Since 95% of the films now are about video games, cars chases and explosions. There is not much time left for story...

gottacook said...

I hardly think it's fair to raise Arnold Schwarzenegger's role in The Terminator as an example; he played a robot whose brain supplied him with minimal lines to speak, as necessary. This process was shown once on screen: the "Fuck you, asshole" scene, which provided a much-needed laugh.

As for Wiseguy, I agree about the importance of its story arcs in TV history, although at this point I don't recall any specific dialogue other than "The toes knows" (Kevin Spacey as Mel Profit in the second arc of season 1). What a great idea to let guest actors build a character over 9 or 10 episodes.

Anonymous said...

Who are those guys?

Buttermilk Sky said...

It seems we're back to the dawn of movies, when a silent film could be understood anywhere. Only now with explosions.

Maybe all the "talk talk talk" that Norma Desmond hated is over. (Great dialogue in SUNSET BOULEVARD, by the way.)

Dave Creek said...

I can't believe we've talked this much about dialogue and no one's mentioned Aaron Sorkin:

Will McAvoy: “I'm a registered Republican, I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”

President Bartlet: "There's a delegation of cardiologists having their pictures taken in the Blue Room. You wouldn't think you could find a group of people more arrogant than the fifteen of us, but there they are, right upstairs in the Blue Room.”


Art Mullen: You know, Raylan, you’re going to have a weeks paid leave coming up ’cause of the investigation. That’s going to be a very restful time.
Raylan Givens: Seriously, I’m fine.
Art Mullen: I meant restful for me.

Tim Gutterson: At least you got to shoot your father. Mine had the nerve to die before I got back from Basic with skills and a loaded weapon.

Raylan Givens: Have you been pissing?
Dewey Crowe: He took my kidneys, Raylan, not my dick!
Raylan Givens: Your kidneys are for pissing. So why don't you try taking a leak, and if you can do it, then we know you still got your kidneys.
Dewey Crowe: Holy shit. You mean I have four kidneys?

Dana King said...

The Beloved Spouse and I started re-watching JUSTIFIED over the weekend. I was ready for your ending--television gets all the good lines now--by the time I'd finished reading the title.

DrBOP said...

Off-Topic Kid, because we only have a few weeks left of this:

Mike Barer said...

I think the last memorable line in a movie was Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" from "A Few Good Men"

Kosmo13 said...

"Any recent movies have lines that have become part of eveday use?"

I never heard anyone use the expression "Bucket List" until there was a movie of that title.

I thought "Bend her over a crate and show her 50 states" from Horrible Bosses might catch on, but so far it hasn't.

BobinVT said...

I feel for Turner Clasic Movies. There hasn't been much to add to the roster in quite some time.

Chris said...

I think some movies may be going a bit too far in trying for memorable/quippy dialogue. Age of Ultron springs to mind. I enjoyed it in the theater, thought it had some funny bits in it that my friends and I referred to a bit and then I tried to watch it again when it came out on DVD. Key word there: tried. The dialogue was so flip and witty that I had a harder time believing that people talked like that that much than I did in believing a guy could build a high tech suit of armor and fly a nuclear missile into an alternate dimension.

Andy Rose said...

Brandon Tartikoff said that Knight Rider worked because they could give the best lines to the car instead of the eye candy actor. He said his idea of the perfect action series would be called The Man of Six Words.

VP81955 said...

Then again, we haven't had many actors of late worth listening to, either for tone of voice or quality of dialogue. Gone are the days of William Powell (lest we forget, the lady in my avatar's first husband), whom Roger Ebert once said "is to diction what Astaire is to dance."

Brian said...

I agree. Enough of blowing sh*t up. Give me some Aaron Sorkin films. Imagine the dialog between Kirk and Spock if he wrote the latest Star Trek sequel.

Kirk: Let's go - out there.
Spock: Excuse me captain, but out where?
Kirk: Just out - that way (points in some arbitrary direction)
Spock: It's not logical to not have a destination.
Kirk: Didn't you ever go for a Sunday drive?
Spock: No, it make no sense to waste time and fuel if you aren't going nowhere.
Kirk: We are going somewhere, to where....
Spock: I know, I know, where no man has been before.
Kirk: Yeah, I'm getting kinda tired of that line too. Besides, it's not the destination, it's the journey that's important. And stops along the way, like for ice cream.
Spock: We had plenty of journey's on Vulcan, just no ice cream.

Judy said...

As a fan of movies- not a writer or knowledgeable (other than what I have gained from Monsieur Levine) about scripts, etc., I find this particularly frustrating. Why does Jason grunt when He - as we know - is perfectly capable of disarming bombs, fighting ninjas, and hacking all computer program. How about them apples?

Quite frankly, I don't know if it's because I'm getting older (55) and less resilient to children walking on my lawn, but I'm really REALLY tired of the scripts. In the early 70s I used to fake babysitting to get out early out of basketball practice (a common denominator in Canadians). Really it was because STAR TREK started reruns at 4:30. Like as IF I was going to miss the hot Chekov. For reference, I played baseball on the provincial woman's team so I never skipped those practices. (Another reason I'm your fan.)

I digress. I wasn't allowed to watch M*A*S*H as I was from a strict family that thought you were making fun of war. The same family that voted in your version of Republicans in a province deadly rich. Alberta.

ANYWAY. I really enjoyed the latest X-Men but that might be a holdover. I really, REALLY wanted to like the Fab Four as I would save up my pennies each week to buy a comic book (this latest did it more justice.) How disappointed is little tomboy Judy?

BUt HOW DARE YOU STAR TREK? My beloved. Screw up so hard with CGI? Granted, Pine and the rest are great... they seem to be coming around. They need to get to IV with this.

And Jason. STFU. I'm done. Tired of spending my money on this.

The Lady in the Van is hilarious, btw. Perhaps British humour (which you use broadly) is the way to go.

Sorry Ken. I compacted all I had to say to you and your wonderful and funny blog in one post. After 5 years lol

Wish you would come back to writing full-time! I'm sure you could give us that "closer" line :)

(a tiny bit drunk) Judy

Loosehead said...

I agree that Marvel "get's it". I still watch Avengers: Age of Ultron on the haunted fishtank whenever its on, just for the hammer lifting scene. When Thor says "I have a simpler answer - you're all not worthy" (love the way that line lands), that's pretty much where my interest fades and I start channel surfing.

Pseudonym said...

@john leon: "Any recent movies have lines that have become part of eveday use?"

I don't know about general use, but I work with a lot of scientists, and the line "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this" has definitely entered common usage.

Justin Russo said...

I can just imagine how well "Casablanca" would do with only pantomime!

Do You Do Any Wings? said...

Speaking of Jewel of the Nile (and The Guardian) - Kathleen Turner recently did a Q&A which featured this comment; "The only sequel I ever made was Jewel of the Nile. I'd made a contractual commitment when we did Romancing. And that almost destroyed my friendship with Michael. At first I refused to do the first script that they sent me of jewel. It simply wasn't the same quality in terms of the writing. l But we worked it out, but not before they sued me for $25m dollars. Michael agreed to get the original writer back so we could continue."
Was that why you were brought in?

Donald said...

A few years back I interviewed four screenwriters about now iconic dialogue they created. They made my day.

Johnny Walker said...

While I'm sure that the international market is a big consideration these days, I cannot believe there's a DESIRE to make the dialogue worse. I think, it's sad to say, that there's a mixture of a cultural shift moving away from it (probably because, like multicam shows, it's been a while since someone did a great job of it), and writers not being talented enough.

But it extends to TV, too. I'm thoroughly enjoying STRANGER THINGS, but the dialogue is often so pedestrian it hurts. At one point they have a child character they wish to show has only ever known a laboratory as a home, being the subject of a dastardly secret government project. She befriends a normal kid who shows her the value of love and kindness. When he says to her: "You're my friend" her reply is: "What is 'friend'?". Toe curling :(

cadavra said...

I've had a number of scripts that were raved about but ultimately passed on because they "skewed old." Translation: "Too talky."