Dialogue

 
 

Dialogue can tell the truth by obscuring it. Dialogue whispers intimately to everyone in the audience at the same time. Dialogue will go over the top when it stoops too low. Dialogue identifies, connects, reveals. One word may be worth a thousand pictures.

We all want to talk like in the movies, so we learn movie dialogue. Screen lines from certain actors can become life lessons. And yet the key to hearing memorable, meaningful dialogue may be words that never get written down.

I did not write the sharp, insightful screenplay for The Secret Lives of Dentists. That accomplishment was by Craig Lucas, and I'm probably more than a little intimidated by his large talent. I usually write my own scripts, then regularly suggest to actors that we change their dialogue. It's simply part of the process.

When Campbell Scott, lead actor and producer of Secret Lives, contacted me about the film, there was only one condition: could I stick to the dialogue as written in the script? Campbell and I had worked together in 1994 on Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, where he portrayed the humorist Robert Benchley (brilliantly). From that experience, he knew I played fast and loose with what comes out of a character's mouth. But now he and Craig were requesting that perhaps we could do at least one filmed take with the original dialogue. I think they were both surprised when I enthusiastically agreed. Craig's spare, perceptive dialogue not only sounded like true behavior, but was elevated in meaning as well. I was jazzed about sticking precisely to the script, even looking forward to it. An old dog with a new trick. In the film, Campbell and Hope Davis play married dentists with three young daughters. These two remarkable actors have worked together before and are good friends. Each has the special ability of making dialogue sound spontaneous and genuine. Denis Leary, dental-patient-from-hell, is so facile with words that his ace delivery and attitude will always shine through. Robin Tunney, the hygienist, can create comedy from dental talk. I assumed the three young girls (Cassidy, 4, Lydia, 7 Gianna, 8) would do whatever was expected of them.

On the first morning of shooting (family dinner scene), I was doing my job with camera and actors, rehearsing, blocking, etc., Campbell approached me after Take 1 of Shot 1 and pulled me aside. He wondered if something was bothering me. No, I said, why? He thought I was holding back, the scene didn't sound right. He said something like: "Do that thing you do." I explained I was taking great pains not to muck around with the text. He just looked at me and walked away. I then went to the three girls, encouraging them to fill in spaces between their written dialogue with those behavioral traits/words that only kids can come up with. The scene immediately took on a more realistic quality. Campbell and Hope chimed in, Craig was happy. We were on our way.

And so it went. Every day we were true to the written dialogue, often protecting it with chatter as opposed to changing it. The result, hopefully, sounds spoken. It is, in fact, written, and then spoken. Just like in the movies. Ah, the power of words.

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