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LAME CONFESSIONS


You know Basil Exposition from the AUSTIN POWERS movies who jumps in to tell Austin and the audience what happened, or explain how something works, or what Doctor Evil is up to? Well, Basil has a cousin named Prompter.

The first rule of screenwriting is SHOW DON'T TELL, create situations so that the audience can *experience* the story through actions, rather than have someone tell you what happened. Create a situation so that we can *experience* emotions, rather than have a character tell you how he feels. Use dramatic conversation (built around a conflict) rather than a big steamimg pile of exposition. Create choices that demonstrate a character's thought process rather than have a character tell you what he's thinking. A dialogue scene where we experience the emotions rather than a speech about what a character is feeling or thinking. We want our film to be an experience, not a lecture.

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V FOR VENDETTA seems to be a love it or hate it movie. Some critics think it's brilliant, others think it's awful. On a message board someone theorized that the folks who dislike the film may be conservatives who don't like the film's revolutionary message. Well, I disliked it for completely different reasons - I thought it was exposition heavy. And that's what most of the negative reviews say (The L.A. Times complained about the "lengthy speeches", The New Yorker noted that "There’s a big drop in excitement every time V and little Evey discuss life and art in the shadow gallery", Newsweek said "Extremely talky. The Wachowskis' presence is felt not just in the movie's imagery, in the slow-mo shot of raindrops and in the vapor trails that follow V's ching-chinging knives, but in the endless scenes in which people sit around *explaining* stuff", the Washington Post called it "D For Disappointing", the Chicago Tribune said it "grinds on, growing increasingly flabby and yakky", and the Dallas Morning News said "V for Vendetta engages in lots of speechifying about the importance of ideas and the freedom to question them. Ironically, though, the movie doesn't really seem to have any ideas of its own.") - not much about politics but a whole lot about the endless exposition.

I saw the movie with three friends on opening night, and none of us liked it. All of us thought the same thing (which is unusual, by the way - we never agree on anything) - way too much non-dramatic expositional speeches. "Let me tell you what happened to me..." And then we get five minutes of talk instead of allowing us to actually *experience* the scene. And I have no idea why we got about a ten minute grade school-to-death story about a character who really has nothing to do with this story. Sure, she's oppressed, but she's also dead when the film begins. In scene after scene, characters explain what is happening as if this is the frozen panel of a graphic novel instead of a moving picture.

When we have two cops sitting there talking to each other about the case instead of a scene where the cops actually discover information through investigation, you know we're in trouble. The detective in this film (Stephen Rea) never moves - he's frozen in a comic book panel, too - he just stands there and explains what happened at the crime scene to his underling (whose only purpose is to stand there and listen to his boss). In most of the scenes that two detectives are sitting in a room talking about the case - not moving, and certainly not doing anything to solve or investigate the case. I wanted to yell at the screen - "It won't solve itself! You have to *do something*!"

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As for the film's point - they talk about it endlessly... yet managed to sum it up one line: governments should be afraid of their people, making the rest of the endless gabfest redundant. I don't need to be sledgehammered with the point in one talk scene after another... Actually, I'd rather figure out the point on my own based on what the characters actually *do*. Actions speak louder than words.

I read a review that said the film started great and fell apart at the end - I think the opposite is true. The film started out crappy (V goes on and on with alliteration until I want to kill him... and it's a completely static scene. Evey just sits there and listens for five minutes... do you know *anyone* who just listens to someone rattling on-and-on? We get that's he clever after a handful of words, so let's get going!) and continued to be an exposition-fest until Act 3 where we suddenly get something happening... the masks are delivered and the rioting begins... and then we have a fantastic end with the crowd wearing masks at the end fireworks display (and the underground scene - all of it pretty good dramatic and cinematic stuff). I thought the end was good enough to make me forget to ask where he got all of those masks and capes made and how he got them all delivered on the same day in a world where the government regularly listens in to what normal people say at the dinner table.

In THE INCREDIBLES, the sure-fire way to get the upper-hand on a comic book villain is to get them "monologuing" - but in V FOR VENDETTA all of the characters are monologuing. Maybe those long speeches work in a graphic novel where characters are locked into panels and have no choice, but in a movie we need to find ways to express the story through MOVEMENT. Actions. Doing things. Exposition is the real enemy....

A few years ago at the Raindance Film Festival one of the films went to new lengths to have characters TELL the audience information...

Orphan

ORPHAN was about a Boston hitman who becomes guardian angel to the daughter of one of his victims. After murdering her father, he takes it upon himself to buy her gifts, set up a college fund, and even name a star after her. For at least 75% of the script they have no scenes together - each living in their own little world. Since the two main character aren't in any scenes together for most of the film and can't have a relationship, let alone a conversation, the script used good old Prompter Exposition. He's the character who is always asking questions like "And then what happened?" and "How did that make you feel?" and "I thought you two were friends?" All this guy does is ask leading questions! Instead of having a conversation with the hero, he's only there to set up exposition.

ORPHAN has the hitman-hero calling his favorite operator at the Psychic Hotline constantly so that she can ask him leading questions that result in pages of exposition. We end up with a rambling internal monologue thinly disguised as telephone conversation... and a dozen static scenes of a man talking on a phone. Though you might believe a hitman might confess all of these things to a total stranger through the anonymity of the psychic hotline, it still rings false. Nobody actually tells anyone what they're thinking, what their most private feelings are. So even if it didn't bring the film to a grinding halt, these long confessional scenes don't work. The obvious answer is to take these characters out of their separate worlds and have them interact - to have a relationship between the two lead characters, so that they can talk to each other... instead of each having alternating confession scenes (he with his psychic, she with her boyfriend who only exists to ask those leading questions). The writer seemed to be afraid of getting these two characters together, afraid of creating an actual dramatic situation! So we end up with dueling monologues.

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A few years ago I was at the Temecula Film Festival, and saw two other films from Massachusetts with the exact same problem. WE'VE GOT JOHNNY is a short about a TV reporter doing a piece on the town where Johnny Appleseed was born - and is 100% exposition! Not only does everyone drone on and on about Johnny Appleseed, the reporter does rambling monologues, one sided phone conversations, and talks to the camera constantly. It's all telling, not a single bit of showing. The feature DISCHORD is about a pop-star violinist who realizes her music is being treated as a product rather than as art, and quits the biz. She and her composer husband move to a beach house... where the role of Prompter Exposition is played by an old beachcomber who is always asking her "How do you feel?" so that she can do a 5 page monologue about the commercialization of art. She also talks directly to the camera for no reason, and there's a retired police detective who handles the plot exposition by either talking outloud or phoning his wife or the police station to make a monologue-report. Instead of dramatizing the story, the characters tell us what they are feeling or thinking or what happened when they were kids.

The big problem is that they are telling us what has already happened instead of just showing us what happened while it was happening. We end up with a past tense movie where the drama has already happened (offscreen) and we are left with one character telling another what happened. No drama there - the conflict is already dead. The reason why screenplays are written in present tense is that it's about what is happening *right now* - as we watch. Not what happened earlier. Not a character telling you what he will do in the future. Movies are about *what's happening now* - as we watch! So don't have characters talk about what they've done, show them actually doing it!

Our job as screenwriters is to find a way to demonstrate thoughts and feelings through actions (something we can see) - and to DRAMATIZE scenes like so that the audience participates in the emotions. Instead of one character telling another about an argument (that's telling), *show* us the argument as it happens. Having someone tell us how they feel has no effect on the audience, we need to create a scene where the AUDIENCE shares those feelings. Our job is to give the audience an emotional experience.

And no "speechifying"!

Beware of shrinks, friends, lawyers, phone conversations, police interrogations, people who talk to themselves, court room scenes, voice over, priests in confessionals, dictating into a tape recorder, and any other situation where Prompter Exposition might pop up to ask a leading question. Movies tell stories in pictures, through the actions of characters and dramatic dialogue (with a conflict)... can you skip the dialogue in your script and still understand the character? Do you have any scenes where characters talk about what happened earlier (if so, get rid of them)? Is your dialogue actually *dialogue* (two or more people talking)?

Don't tell us what happened, show us while it is happening.



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