Locke and Calvary – The rise of the literate screenplay

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When is a film not a film?  When it’s a play on words.  I’ve just seen a beautifully written film – and yet it could have been a play – as it revels in language in a way we usually identify with radio or theatre.  Locke is an intense, poetic and visual movie that relies on words for its main impact.

In Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight , our anti-hero (played by Tom Hardy) is trapped behind the wheel of a car for 90 minutes.  The drama occurs not through action but through a series of dialogues – not even face to face but on the phone. The only physical action he takes is driving.

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Tom Hardy is the draw here but it was not his face – expressive though that is – that stayed with me. It was his voice, his thoughts that moved me – that and the gap between what he said while his face betrayed how he really felt.

When Locke does take action and make decisions he does it through language. Words are the prime dramatic currency of Locke and the story is none the poorer for it.  The writing has a dense yet lyrical quality – not for nothing did Tom Hardy listen to Richard Burton reciting Under Milkwood to prepare for this (the likeness is uncanny).  The visual metaphors are not on screen but are created in the dialogue.

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Locke also observes the three unities of place, time and action, so it really could be a play.  In the end does it matter?

With the multi-platform, multi-media way in which we consume creative content, are these boundaries forever blurred?  While the studios chase global success with tent pole spectaculars using as few words as possible, the real audience is viewing online in the revolution that has allowed high-end intelligent drama series and movies to go viral – to go global. It is a mistake to assume audiences don’t enjoy language – wit, irony, deep emotions, the pleasures of thought and moral complication.  For Netflix and co, prestige drama series are now the premium content that people will pay for.  As the writer’s dominance in television and online drama drives the quality of scripts skywards, is there also a resurgence of the writer – and dare we say it of drama vs genre movies –  in low to mid-budget feature films?

It is the marriage of great script and great actor that audiences are drawn to.  The skills of the director are at the service of the writing and are the invisible, traditional – and often underrated – ones of interpreting the material, getting great performances, as well as expressing the visual world the characters inhabit.

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Calvary written and directed by Michael McDonagh, is another example of a great, writer-driven film – funny, literate, dark storytelling  powered by great dialogue that celebrates word play and the interrogation of received ideas.  The story and characters may borrow from the Western but the execution is resolutely Irish in its love of language.

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

As film writers we are often (rightly) discouraged from using dialogue at the expense of the active and visual.  And there are wonderfully cine-literate screenplays that have hardly any dialogue at all.  Yet a cinema that celebrates and explores ideas and self-expression through language surely raises everyone’s game.

How do you use dialogue in your scripts? And which writers do you admire for their use of language?

Leave your comments here or you can find me on twitter @emlin32

 

 

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House of Cards

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I’m a little late to the party but I want to write about House of Cards.  First of all, if you haven’t seen it, watch it now.  Second of all, here’s why.  It’s the future.

It’s beautifully shot with a fantastic cast led by Kevin Spacey, an Oscar nominated writer, Beau Willimon and set in a captivating world of power and deception.   As each episode ends the next begins, with no recaps, very little story of the week.  This is a giant 13 hour movie.

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When I saw the trailer I wanted to watch it.  Instantly.  And was prepared to pay for the privilege.

And this is key.

This is premium content for a subscription paying audience.  It has to be outstanding to cut through all the noise, all the ‘filler’ shows, all the not-quite-right, ‘quality’ series available on Freeview.  Cable has to justify its cost and so now does Video on Demand. Netflix had to design something so good you would sign up to monthly payments to see. Here’s why.

We have no more free time. We only have an hour or so to spend watching a show so it had better be good.

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We want to watch it when we like. I don’t want to have to wait until 9pm to watch a great drama series on TV.  I want to watch it in bed when I wake up, on the move, when I’m in the mood.  I want to watch it where I want, on a portable screen or screens.  And I’m prepared to pay.  Not a huge amount, but enough.

I want a show that is exactly tailored to my requirements.  Not too old, not too young, not too male-skewed, not too girly –  but I don’t want to be pandered to or second-guessed or dumbed down any more.  That’s what ‘House of Cards’ gets right and all those over-targeted niche TV shows get wrong.  I  want the best.  And with the migration of top-flight talent from cinema to television, fleeing from the tent-pole culture of blockbuster movies, I am getting it on the small screen rather than the big.

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At Cannes I heard someone ask ‘What is the future of cinema?’  The answer was, ‘Television’. Correction – it’s Viewing on Demand.  Kevin Spacey was right in his Edinburgh address.  Binge viewing is what we want and what we can now have.  I overhead a guy on the tube telling his friends that watching a whole series this way is ‘like reading a book, you are so immersed in the world and its characters you keep going back for more’.  And more.  And more.

Once the Emmys are over, will there be more pale imitators of House of Cards?  Cheaper series we will mainline like cheap candy when Netflix and Co have to produce much more original content at a lower per programme cost?  Or will quality continue to win out over quantity?

I hope it will.  I always think better in silence than in noise.

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What kind of series inspire you and why?  Leave a note here or contact me  @emlin32 on Twitter.  Happy viewing!