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A Handbook for the Soul Inspired Dialogue for Writers and Readers
By Donald Newlove
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1994 Donald Newlove
All rights reserved.
All dialogue is between the self and the soul.
Whether Tolstoy or Shakespeare, or a skit writer for "Roseanne" as she mashes her family into a ball, you are all your characters. They spring from you and each demands you stand up for him or against the others. All their problems turn into moral problems as you enact judgment.
In this book we watch writers allow characters to grow through dialogue about moral action.
Dialogue differs in the novel, short story, movie, opera, stage play, sitcom, radio play, cartoon, or any other form. Each form thrives on its own echo of human speech. People in novels never speak like people in sitcoms or with the big feelings of opera folk. Each form makes its own contract with the audience. We must square within ourselves what our characters say to the larger audience and ask ourselves tirelessly, Do I mean this? If we cheat on the moral hunger of our characters, and go for the laugh or zinger, we lose spirit and soon mutter, "Cheap shot, cheap shot." Memorable dialogue replenishes us, though dull readers often choose books by their white space — lots of talk, hey, an easy read. Junk food goes down easy, too. Hell, movie scripts scream for More White Space. This very book boasts tons of attractive white space. But with memorable dialogue, we savor each word, however light the page, and drink from the soul.
The only law of dialogue: it must entertain. You can say anything — anything — as long as you say it entertainingly and appeal to the reader's or viewer's sense of play. Play implies imagination — and we go to our graves still ravenous for stories. Playfulness is the first quality of genius — without it we're earthbound. Somebody wants to write a creation myth, he makes up the character God, whose first line is "Let there be light." This entertains us deeply. A child or a hundred-year-old man grasps it at once — the child with even livelier imagination. And yet one of the deepest mysteries binding men together — the birth of light — reaches us in exalted language that speaks forcefully in all tongues — just because it caresses and entertains our deepest being. The glory and fall of Adam and Eve — the first story taught to children at Sunday school — sounds our depths with sin, innocence, sex, and Paradise — the core of our being. What could be richer storytelling? We plumb this story tirelessly all our lives. Disobedience of divine law requires daily that even the atheist weigh himself as good or evil, for he too must answer "Does evil exist and does it exist in me?" This poetic tale that some scholar of Judean folk wisdom wrote remains the fulcrum of our spiritual balance. Why? We can never solve its immense mystery — and mysteries entertain.
In whatever format, all dialogue is artificial — even God's. At times actors improvise and achieve a staged illogic that sounds real — but all mimicry of human thought is artificial. In adapting middleweight champion Jake La Motta's life story for Martin Scorsese's strongest work, Raging Bull (1980), scripters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin provide lines that become dancing springboards for actors Robert De Niro (as Jake) and Joe Pesci (as Jake's trainer and brother, Joey La Motta). My favorite scene explodes in Jake's grungy living room as he tries to shake a picture into his early-model television set. Joey lies on the couch. The shooting script has these lines:
You're worried about this girl, you're gonna let this girl ruin your life for you ... You wanna worry, worry about your stomach that you can't bend over — that you gotta step into the ring in a month.
Did you ever fuck my wife?
I don't mean now. I mean before — before we met.
Whadda ya mean?
Did you ever fuck my wife?
Whatsa matter with you?
You're very smart, Joey, very smart. Nobody gives me a straight answer around here. You're givin' me these answers, but you still didn't answer my question. Did you fuck Vickie?
(fed up, he starts to leave)
I gotta go. I gotta get outta here. I can't take this shit. Lenore is waitin' for me. I gotta go. You're fuckin' crazy, you know that, crazy.
The lines give no hint of De Niro's soft-spoken restraint as he reads them, nor of Joey's poker face, which hints of lying — though he says nothing dishonest. Is Jake paranoid? we wonder. Actually, Joey hides the fact that Vickie might have bedded a handsome hood whom Joey beat up when he flirted with Vickie in the Copacabana nitery.
The lines in the finished film:
You meathead, you're lettin' this girl ruin your life, lookit choo. She really did some job on you. You know how fuckin' nuts you are? Look what she did to you.
You fucked my wife?
You fucked my wife?
How could you ask me a question like that? How could you ask me, I'm your brother. You asked me that? Where do you get your balls big enough to ask me that?
Just tell me.
I'm not answering you. I can't answer that, it's stupid.
You're very smart, Joey. You're givin' me all these answers but you ain't givin' me the right answer. I'll ask you again. Did you or did you not?
I'm not gonna answer. That's a sick question, you're a sick fuck, but I'm not that sick that I'm gonna answer it. I'm not tellin' you anything. I'm gonna leave. So Lenore calls, tell her I went home. I'm not stayin' in this nut house with you. You're a sick bas — I feel sorry for you, I really do. You know what you should do? Try a little more fuckin' and a little less eatin' and you won't have troubles upstairs in your bedroom and you won't take it out on me and everybody else. Understand, you fuckin' wacko? You're crackin' up. Fuckin' screwball you.
The improvised lines boost the scene mightily and let the actors dig into feelings the writers don't explore as deeply. De Niro plays superbly throughout, just about whispering. He wants to know and he doesn't want to, and his voice strikes a pleading note we first heard in Marlon Brando's failed prizefighter in On the Waterfront (1954) — a film quoted at length in Raging Bull by fat and aging Jake La Motta as a bar shill in Florida who imitates Brando for a stage act.
So what is the writers' role in this scene? First, they give it structure. Whoever plays it, they built it. Pianists say of Beethoven's late sonatas that he writes better than anyone can play. When I first read Shakespeare I thought the depths of his poetry lay far beyond actors. We don't think that about a shooting script. These lines lie within the compass of any gifted actor — no long tradition hallows them. And yet when De Niro and Pesci read them, after many, many freewheeling rehearsals, and when after many viewings we see at last how carefully and with what patience De Niro lovingly carries Pesci through the scene, feeding him opening after emotional opening, almost begging him, in a whisper, to hurt him, tell him that he fucked Vickie, he just wants the truth, we know that the lines could not possibly have been read better by Brando himself or any other two actors. For me, Jake's turning against everyone who supports him — now that he has at last won the title — becomes the picture's pivotal and richest scene. He's not worthy of this honor or them and must bring his house down on his head. Smash Joey, smash Vickie, and out of some rocklike sense of honor smash his title.
But what if the scene had been played as written? For an answer, let's look to Brando's pug in the Budd Schulberg script for Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. Charley "The Gent" Malloy (Rod Steiger), once his brother Terry's manager in the ring, now runs with the waterfront union hoods while lightly punch-drunk and puffy-lidded Terry (Brando) spits his life away working the docks. One night in a taxi, Charley warns Terry not to sing to the Crime Commission about a union-led murder he unwittingly took part in. Charley pulls a gun on his brother, who guides it aside. Schulberg's shooting script gives them these lines:
(an accusing sigh)
What do you weigh these days, slugger?
— eighty-seven, eighty-eight. What's it to you?
Gee, when you tipped one seventy-five, you were beautiful. You should've been another Billy Conn. That skunk I got to manage you brought you along too fast.
It wasn't him!
(years of abuse crying out in him)
It was you, Charley. You and Johnny. Like the night the two of youse come in the dressing room and says, 'Kid, this ain't your night — we're going for the price on Wilson.' It ain't my night. I'd of taken Wilson apart that night! I was ready — remember the early rounds throwing them combinations. So what happens — This bum Wilson he gets the title shot — outdoors in the ball park! — and what do I get — a couple of bucks and a one-way ticket to Palookaville. (more and more aroused as he relives it) It was you, Charley. You was my brother. You should of looked out for me. Instead of making me take them dives for the short-end money.
I always had a bet down for you. You saw some money.
See! You don't understand!
I tried to keep you in good with Johnny.
You don't understand! I could've been a contender. I could've had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum, let's face it, which is what I am. It was you, Charley.
But the actors, swept up by their feelings, read the lines this way:
(turning gun away)
Charley. ... Ah, Charley. ... Wow.
Look, kid. ... How much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixtyeight pounds, you were beautiful. Youda been another Billy Conn. But that skunk we got ya for a manager, we brought you along too fast.
It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the garden, you came down to my dressing room and said, 'Kid, this ain't your night. We're goin' for the price on Wilson.' Ya remember that? This ain't your night — my night!? I coulda taken Wilson apart. And what happens, he gets the title shot outdoors in the ball park and what am I gettin'? — a one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.
I had some bets down for ya. You saw some money.
You don't understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.
Some phrases drop away, others run together, and a much greater intensity arises on Schulberg's structure. Brando makes a slight gaff, saying that he had to take more than the one dive that Schulberg focuses on with Wilson. We see Terry somewhat differently when he's trapped into "them dives" for the short-end money after the fall with Wilson.
Schulberg slaved over his dialogue and spent a year on the docks taking down dockworkers' talk. But he tells us in On the Waterfront: A Screenplay (Southern Illinois University Press, 1980):
At the outset Gadg (Kazan) had made his promise not to change a line of the script, but I would have to make a counter-promise: either to be on the set with him every day or to be on call to make the changes accommodating the practical and creative exigencies. ... Gadg kept his promise. Oh sure, lines overlapped, good, fresh words were thrown in spontaneously, but scene by scene Gadg stuck to the script, inventing and improving with staging that surprised and delighted me.
This scene — the moral climax, and the last footage shot for the picture — ends the second act. The third act bursts with action. The money'd run out and only the backseat of a cab could be afforded for a set, with the least costly lighting setup and a strange venetian blind over the cab's back window so that rear projection of the streets could be avoided. In a sweat like that, and with Steiger and Brando ("Wow-w") breathing each word with sublime self-confidence (though Steiger's rising tears ruined many takes), what writer would carp that his lines got mangled — or in fact improved?
Is dialogue stronger in Raging Bull or Waterfront? Both Scorsese and Kazan want living blood pumping out of the screen. In both cases art demands artifice — much gets trimmed in order to arrive at the structure in each passage so that the actors' intensity need not waver through the pointless stammerings and jabber of normal talk. Each scene feeds on a spine, or through-line, that keeps the actors focused and powerful. No matter what the actors improvise, the scene can never be rehearsed or played exactly the same twice — feelings will always subtly shift the sense. Moreover, both scenes — the emotional heart of each film — must deliver. Although the lines in "Did you fuck my wife?" don't seem to carry this weight, the ones in "I coulda been a contender" do, especially when Schulberg's stage directions tell us, "years of abuse crying out in him" and "agonized." Each scene ends the second act, with a half-hour's playing time left in each film. The third acts will only mop up the action and never again hit the emotional peak of the fat second acts, the breadbaskets of their dramas. We might think that Jake beating his head on the wall of his jail cell ends Raging Bull with even greater intensity — but no wisdom comes from his suffering. For me the most intense moment — his split with Joey — propels Jake into the third act.
I'd say "Did you fuck my wife?" asks more understanding from us than the agony of "I coulda been a contender," though De Niro as straight man to Pesci plays with matchless richness and restraint — "Just tell me, Joey, did you or did you not?" — as does Brando with Steiger — "It was you, Charley" — each actor inviting us with a voice soft as feathers into his character's inmost agony.
Nothing underlines the scene's importance to Jake, the lines breeze by. Everyone involved must have talked and talked it out. As soon as Joey leaves, Jake feels overwhelmed by Vickie's betrayal — or his self-betrayal seen in her. For her he took a crushing, heartbreaking dive so that later he could get a title shot, the belt, and be a king in her eyes as well as his own. But now as champ, he feels even more sure that she's fucking behind his back. "I don't trust anything about her," he tells Joey, who knows that Jake's a fruitcake, no longer trusting anyone, or anything about himself, and burying himself in food.
Did the scenes as written have power? Of course. But the directors and actors enriched them. Film writers have unions and try for contractual guarantees to protect their lines. When director Mike Nichols filmed Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (from a script by Ernest Lehman), there was no room for actors and director to improvise — not that some scenes don't move outdoors and, at a roadhouse, add a few trivial new lines by Lehman. The whole show lay in film actors ripping into already-famous stage lines, with Richard Burton — a stage professional — underplaying his lines and not giving the stronger reading he had in him. Improvising and knocking the lines around to get more richly into his character might have freed him when he went back to his usual line-perfect reading. As for the writers on these three movies, their goal of actually getting a strong story on film calls for give-and-take, with the money peaches and cream — though I know Albee wondered what foreign language his characters had fallen into with Lehman's lines. No one — no one — can write lines for your characters that don't ring false to you.
Excerpted from Invented Voices by Donald Newlove. Copyright © 1994 Donald Newlove. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Letter to the Reader,
Books by Donald Newlove,