How to Write Great Dialogue: Acclaimed Writer/Director Neil LaBute on 'Dirty Weekend'
What does is take to write great dialogue, and is any of it actually "realistic"?
If you were going to describe the spectrum of films where the action of the story is motivated by a will of words, you might describe one end as the improv-oriented mumblecore (Bujalski, Swanberg) and the other as the rhythm of carefully crafted text (Mamet, LaBute.) Neil LaBute is known for the mastery of dialogue in both theater and film, and he sat down with NFS at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss the craft of dialogue, the changing styles of speaking on screen, and the process of making his latest film, Dirty Weekend.
NFS: Having had a career that's been between both film and theater, what would you say are some of the key differences when you're starting a project that's going to be for screen versus for the stage?
Neil LaBute: Often there's more on the line with a film project. It’s a very expensive art form to work in. It's also a weird process. Everything's based on economics. How fast can we shoot it? How much is it going to cost us? What's the least amount we can spend? You ask the actors to do it in this very strange, schizophrenic way. Whereas the process in theater is a very simple build. You start at the beginning. You all read the play. You stay together. Everybody's learning it at the same pace. Then magically, you perform the thing. Every day of filmmaking is meant to be as good as the last day. It's not like they give you a learning curve and say, "We understand the first week's really hard, so even if that stuff's crap, we'll forget about that." They want day one to look as good as day twenty-one. You have to really be on your toes.
When you're writing for the screen, most people think you're going to show how things happen as opposed to tell people how things happen. It's a muddy world for me, because I do both.
NFS: I know that on some of your past films, like The Shape of Things, started as a stageplay first and then went to film. What was the process on Dirty Weekend?
LaBute: It was different because it started out as a screenplay. I heard the phrase, "dirty weekend," and I thought, "Oh, that's a great title. That's intriguing. I want to use that somehow." When you're writing for the screen, most people think you're going to show how things happen as opposed to tell people how things happen. It's a muddy world for me, because I do both. My people tend to be talk-y. Whether they're in a play or a movie, or they sit in one location or they go to 20 locations, they're probably going to talk a lot. That's going to just be the case.
It did start in a traditional, "I'm writing a screenplay here," but my screenplays just tend to be, as they say, more dialogue-driven than they are by montage, or by the incidents, or by the action sequences that are going to hook the few sections of dialogue together. I guess that's the same way I am as a viewer. I'm more drawn to that kind of movie, so that tends to be the kind of movie I make.
I've had people say to me, "You write really realistically. It sounds like how people talk." Then when you break it down, you think, "It actually doesn't sound like how people talk at all."
NFS: Especially with Dirty Weekend, where you have two characters motivating the action of the story through their conversation, is there a rhythm you consciously give to the dialogue?
LaBute: The rhythm comes. Everybody has their own drummer that they hear in their head. Mine is its own particular thing. I don't think it's so much driven by, "I want it to be a kind of music that people hear." You continue to hone the voice that you've shaped along the way. People say, "When I was searching for my voice…and then I found my voice," it's all based on this idea that we each have a different "voice." I've had people say to me, "You write really realistically. It sounds like how people talk." Then when you break it down, you think, "It actually doesn't sound like how people talk at all." Because on stage or on screen, people can talk for a long time, they can have a monologue, and someone just sits there and listens to them. In life, we never let anybody talk that long. We walk away, or we’d say, "What the fuck are you talking about?" It's a pretty theatrical language that has the weird rhythms and broken patterns of speech that come with thought.
Too often, I think in a century previous, you always wrote these wonderful lines, and then the other person had a wonderful line. But we never tend to think that way. More often than not, we don't think as fast as we are trying to talk. Rather, it's always when you get home, you think, "Oh God, you know what I should have said to him..." but Noel Coward wrote them all down so that everybody had a great line.
Then suddenly, this language is born using repetition, and patterns of words, and that sort of thing. Yet, I'm not a documentarian, I'm not trying to copy exactly the way people talk. I create my own little world of people who talk in a certain way — I do have a kind of language that I'm trying to perfect. Some people speak it well. Some people labor over it. Sometimes I use slashes, so that people, when they get to this part of the line, someone's supposed to start their line over yours. It is its own little weird dialect.
It's hard for me to believe that if you just start improv-ing, you'll come up with something better in a couple of minutes. Who knows, you might be amazing at that, but I change things when they're worth changing, when somebody has a better idea.
NFS: Since the standard changes over the years, how would you categorize what's going on with speech at this point in film history? What would you say is the current style of dialogue today?
LaBute: Probably something like faux-casual. You know what I mean? It's meant to be this very loose and easy rhythm, but it's actually pretty precise. If you start to pull the pins out and say, "I can substitute this word for that word," it doesn't have the same rhythm. It's not nearly as precise as when you've worked to choose particular words.
When somebody learns that language, and they institute a lot of "you know, you know" they're just covering, they haven't learned it word perfect. Then they start to break that rhythm down and it becomes a different thing. I use "you know" a lot, but I don't overuse it. I use, "I know," "I mean," all those little weird pauses that we do when we're looking for the next thought to arrive. While I'm not very precious about it, if you were an actor and I was working with you, I wouldn't be like, "Oh man, you didn't say that one 'uh.'" I don't get freaked out by that, but I do choose the words pretty carefully.
It's hard for me to believe that if you just start improv-ing, you'll come up with something better in a couple of minutes. Who knows, you might be amazing at that, but I change things when they're worth changing, when somebody has a better idea. I come in with the idea, "Here's one way to do it, here's one way I'm thinking about directing it, but if you have a better idea, let me hear it and we'll talk about it. May the best idea win."
You compliment each other. That's the idea of collaborating. I'm not supposed to have all the ideas. I can't rely just on myself.
NFS: How did you and your DP work together during production for this particular style of film?
LaBute: Rogier Stoffers is a Dutch DP that I've worked with a few times, who shot this film. I think he knows me well now, and knows that I like to let actors act. My DP thinks in pictures in a way that I think in words, so I rely on him to look. In the same way that you look at an editor, when you've thought about it, you've written it, you've rewritten it, you've had people sign on to your film, you go shoot it. You do all those things and you get to the editing room, and someone goes, "How come you have this scene?" You're like, "Oh yeah, I don't really need this scene, do I?" Sometimes it just takes new eyes. I think that the DP, for me, I rely on him that way, to see things visually in a way that I might not see. It's just not my same gift. I like to compose a frame, but I still think of it in the same theatrical way that I do on stage. I don't always see the camera move. It takes the DP to go, "What about if we started over here and we ran some tracking and did this, and then he walked for a minute?" I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's a good idea. Why not?" You compliment each other. That's the idea of collaborating. I'm not supposed to have all the ideas. I can't rely just on myself. I have to rely on hiring good people and then letting them do what they're supposed to do.
NFS: What would be your parting advice to other creatives and filmmakers?
LaBute: Make something. Be brave, make something. Put it in front of your friends, or people who aren't your friends, and say, "What do you think?" That's the thing I think that's hardest. People love to talk about, it's easy to talk about, you say, "I'm a writer. I'm doing this thing," but to actually say, "Show it to me. Let me see it. Let me hold it. Let me read it." People are a lot more reticent to do that. I think people have to just plunge in and make their own fun. I'm still talking to people that I've known for a long time to help myself get productions in theaters, or help myself find financing for a movie. If I just sat there and waited for Warner Brothers to call, it would be a long sit. Be practical, be aware, and don’t be afraid to take no for an answer. Just say, "Well, okay. Your "no" doesn't stop me. I'm going to get this thing done if I have to do it myself." That's what I think is important, that people stay positive, and get out there, and get their feet wet.
Thank you, Neil!
How would you describe the popular dialogue styles of today? Have you created dialogue in the style of LaBute, and if so, how did it work in your film? Share your thoughts!