By Tathagata Ghosh. Posted on March 25, 2015
1927 was the year which proved to be one of the most important years for films and changed the craft hereafter. Many might have guessed it already. Yes, I am talking about 'The Jazz Singer' - the first full length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. This created quite an upheaval in the years to come, since talkies started getting more attention and silent era faded to black gradually.
This actually is a very ironic phase. Film has always been referred to as a 'visual medium'. Talkies were a big fat question in respect to this. How much visual is cinema now? Are the writers and directors paying more attention to creating interesting dialogues or are they more interested in visual motifs? This led to a tug of war between many film makers. Legends like Charlie Chaplin even refused to give in to talkies as he completely disregarded the presence of dialogues in cinema. But, even he came out with a certain 'Monsieur Verdoux' a dialogue based film.
Not disregarding the visual aspect of films, dialogues have always made characters realistic and have added to creating more dramatic conflicts on screen. Many dialogue driven films have been made over the years which includes '12 Angry Men', 'Before Sunset', 'Dog Day Afternoon' or even the Woody Allen films to name a few of them. Needless to say, most of them are timeless classics.
Now, what is interesting to note is how the dialogue scenes are filmed. We have to be very careful so that they do not turn out to be radio plays at the end of the day. It should not happen such that even we can read the film even by closing our eyes. That certainly is the failure of the film maker, which implies the dialogue has taken over the visuals. The merit will be a perfect balance between the dialogues and the visuals. Thus, it is extremely important that the dialogue driven scenes are shot with immense care so that it does not merely reduce to just two persons talking. What comes in question is the use of mise-en-scene to film those scenes. We will highlight this aspect via certain examples.
Let us take an example of a dialogue scene between De Niro and Jodie Foster from 'Taxi Driver'.
Now what if we go on filming this scene and shoot it mundanely with just a shot-counter shot formula? This will be the same as listening to it with our eyes closed and not paying attention to the visuals. No dramatic build up would be possible if we choose to do it that way. Filming an interaction does not necessarily boil down to two over the shoulder shots(OTS). Over the shoulder shots convey a connection between the two characters present on screen. But as we can see in the above scene, though De Niro has an emotional connection with Jodie Foster, the vice versa is not true. So what Scorsese does is using one OTS shot and one close-up.
If you look closely, you will see that De Niro has the OTS shot because he indeed is making the connection to her but then again, he is given only a close-up without any suggestion of Jodie Foster in the frame. Close-ups not only imply the importance of a subject or object but it can also be used to isolate a character on screen. Here filming the scene in one OTS and one close-up and then intercutting between them can serve our purpose. Only one master shot is used when the exchange is given a relaxation and they talk about the people around them(cops). Immediately when the conversation again comes back to their own world, Scorsese retreats to the same fashion of visual depiction.
Even same scenes can be approached in a different fashion. We can also film a whole scene in just one long shot. It makes the situation more cinematic. Long shots also create a certain serenity. It suggests something, from which we should stay away. And here, as we can see the situation is very unpleasant. Hence, a long shot says it all. Needless to say, the art direction will add to the whole ambience. But it is very important on the first place, what shots we are choosing to use.
Let us take examples from three great films and see how certain scenes were filmed which were entirely dialogue driven. First, I would like to recall a scene from Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver' where Travis Bickle(De Niro) is trying to call Betsy and make up for the mess of last night.
Here the entire scene is shot in just one single shot. What Scorsese does is first filming Travis in a medium shot and then tracking sideways to an empty corridor. The scene goes on for more than a minute and a half but we end up listening to every single dialogue of Travis because of the way the scene has been filmed. Not only the camera movement, but the way the scene has been blocked. De Niro is standing without facing the camera. It is almost a back to the camera shot. This image itself suggests that the character has done something heinous of which he is guilty. Travis is lonely here and thus the camera moves away to the empty corridor, which echoes his loneliness. The shot stands still till Travis ends his conversation over the phone and walks away. Thus we see, how a simple dialogue scene has been made so very cinematic with blocking and camera movement.
Now we come to another classic from 'Stardust Memories' directed by Woody Allen. Allen's films are mostly dialogue driven but we can quote almost each of his lines, thanks to the way he shoots them. Nothing gets lost and we are drawn inside the film by the characters and the way they speak and behave. Here is what Woody Allen does :
Take a look at the two images above. They are part of one single shot. Now what is interesting is what happens in the shot. In the scene we see Woody Allen making a phone call to someone and even not for a second, we get to see him in person in the shot. All we get a glimpse of is the small suggestion of his coat, peeping out from the corner of the wall. We only hear the dialogues. Even when a person comes to him for a handshake, complementing him for his films, we do not see Woody responding to him and instead, the person is all what can be seen. This speaks volumes as through this shot, a lot about the character's behaviour is revealed.
Woody Allen plays a film maker in the film, who has visited some seminar in a city where he is sometimes getting mobbed and complemented. But he is tired of himself as he is unable to find the meaning of his life. Thus, through this shot itself, we do not see him which implies Woody Allen doesn't want himself to be "visible". He is trying to stay away from the people. As a result, the whole dialogue scene becomes all the more exciting.
Another very common way to film a dialogue scene is the use of tracking shots or shots where we follow the characters with the camera while they walk and talk. Sometimes, this gets boring as after a point, we stop listening to the characters and thus, some vital information might be lost. The audience should not be blamed for not being attentive. The film maker is the culprit here because it's his failure in his attempt to make it more interesting. Below again is an example from 'Stardust Memories', which in spite of being a long tracking shot, we do not loose track for a single second.
Here Woody Allen keeps on talking with his lady love. The scene goes on for quite a long without cutting to any different shot. But the genius of Allen is the way he has made even this simple track shot innovative. What he does is introduce other insignificant characters and make them walk in the frame for multiple times at regular intervals. All of them are his fans, who sometimes walk in for an autograph as seen above or even sometimes for a compliment and congratulating him for his film.
These characters have no relation whatsoever to the story and they appear only in this shot but still their importance is enormous. They play a very important part in making the scene more cinematic. By this method, the characters seem more dynamic even as they just have a verbal exchange and seems more natural. It's almost like a cherry on a cake.
Here is the famous steadicam follow track shot from Scorsese’s 'Goodfellas'
Another example I can cite is from 'Annie Hall' where one single shot was used for a dialogue exchange and minor characters were thrown into the scene to make it more fascinating and humorous.
Now we come to an example of another dialogue scene, where even though there are dialogue exchanges between two characters, the other character is not seen at all. The image below serves as a wonderful example. Woody Allen talks to a woman but she is not seen at all. This signifies the importance of Woody in the scene and establishes how less important is the woman to him, which is what is basically happening. The woman is having a fight with him and decides to break up. She is 'not present' in his life at that moment. This creates a visual irony. Hence, by making the character not visible on screen and only holding on to one character without cutting to the reaction to the other, a simple scene can be made so interesting.
Woody Allen once said that he sometimes likes to film a dialogue scene even by keeping the frame empty and allowing the characters talk outside the frame. This is very unique as it suggests the possibility of a life outside the frame. He uses dialogue creatively to build a world outside the frame. Cinema reflects life in the world and the world is of course a vast place to live in. Thus by using this technique through dialogues, lots can be said, without even showing anything. Below are two examples from 'Stardust Memories', though he has used many more such shots even in 'Annie Hall' or his other films.
Sometimes, we can also find situations where the film maker has shot a dialogue scene even by an extreme long shot in a single take or even by a continuous close-up. Tarkovsky is one master who was well known for his long shots. And even when we watch his films today, we listen carefully to each of his characters. The long shots allow us to reckon the fact that the characters are lost in the vastness and through the verbal exchange, we try to identify with them.
We do not see them clearly but we try to know them by the way they speak and what they speak. What a brilliance. Sidney Lumet on the other hand, used close-ups greatly to make the scene more intense, sometimes not cutting to other characters present. Anyone can gladly recall scenes from '12 Angry Men' or 'Dog Day Afternoon'. We almost get choked in the frame and get drawn to the characters more and more.
An example above is from the 1974 classic 'Murder on the Orient Express' where Poirot is interrogating a lady and the shot is a single long take. It is an over the shoulder shot again as it signifies the connection between the detective and the person.
Below is an example of a single take dialogue sequence from Tarkovsky’s 'Stalker'.
Finally we come to the way the characters should be placed while they talk and also the location where they talk. These are definitely the two key points of making a scene more cinematic. If we study the Indian classic 'Nayak' by Ray, we will see an astonishing thing about how Uttam Kumar, the hero in the film, has been framed. He has been given extreme close-ups most of the time, to denote the star value of his character and surprisingly, most of the shots are his profile shots.
In the film, we see his character hiding and confronting many secrets and dark aspects of himself. By the profile shots, we have the sense that his character has many hidden secrets which he doesn't want to share. And why not? After all, he is a big shot. Hence even when he speaks, a curiosity arises amongst the audience about what he is speaking as we end up hearing all the dialogues. This is a key aspect which Satyajit Ray uses to make the scenes more visual in spite of having numerous dialogues.
An example from Ray's 'Nayak' and use of profile shot.
Below is a scene from Ray’s 'Nayak' showing the use of profile shot to film dialogues.
We come back to 'Stardust Memories' again and take a note of two shots below and study them one by one
Look at the background of the above shot. Most of us are familiar with the famous photograph used and the tragedy associated with it. If we see this scene, we will notice the characters talk to Woody about his tragic films and telling him to stop making them. It is not random than Woody Allen films this scene on this mise-en-scene. The background complements the dialogues wonderfully and as a result, increases the importance of the scene greatly, making it more cinematic of course. We pay more attention to the dialogues to see if the background has any relevance to what the characters are saying. Now, that's a smart way of depicting visuals!
On the other hand, in the same film we have Woody talking about comedies and now we see the scene filmed on the backdrop of a huge wall paper/poster of works of Marx brothers. Two big contrasts in the same film but so wonderfully shot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that you show two persons talking about badminton and then after five minutes, a bomb goes off. Here, the audience will have ten seconds of shock. It might happen that the audience might not listen to all that characters have been saying so long. But now you intercut the same scene with a briefcase having the bomb with the two persons talking about the same badminton. In this case, you will have five minutes of suspense and on top of that, the audience will end up listening all that has been said by the characters. The audience might even react like," Come on, there is a bomb under the table! Stop talking about the silly badminton now!"
Thus, to round it up we saw that it is not only important to write good dialogues but what makes the dialogues better is the way they are brought out on screen. The film maker should use all the possible visual motifs at his disposal and film the dialogue scenes. It should not appear as just two persons talking. Else, it would almost look like a tennis match where the dialogues seem to be like a tennis ball. Story boarding a dialogue scene in the proper way makes your film look good. The type of shots, blocking, mise-en-scene, use of props or other subjects, the list is endless. You just have to be careful and know your scenes through to make it interesting to the person who is listening...errr watching it. Happy filming!
Tathagata Ghosh is a film making graduate and is currently pursuing his writing for film and television from Vancouver Film School. He has written and directed 13 short films and two Indie feature films before and had been associated with and worked in many other short films and documentaries. His films have been screened and awarded in various film festivals in India and abroad.