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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talk is cheap. Or is it?

Not long ago I was reading a script for a friend of mine. It was a slam bang actioner sort of in the Crank mode. It was a fuel injected read and I was zipping along when towards the end I noticed something that caught my eye. Towards the end he had three fairly long (half a page to near a whole page) speeches, one by the hero, one by the villain, and one by a secondary character. To my mind this was a mistake. This was supposed to be an action film. Why stop everything so these guys could talk?

I brought this up with him and he told me that it wasn’t a mistake. That actually his managers had told him to do just that. He said companies were looking for longer speeches inside their screenplays. Why? To attract actors.

Actors know that a flashy role, even a supporting one is a great way to enhance their resumes. Actors who’d been missing for years like Jackie Earl Haley can, with a single role, suddenly jump up into the A rankings. It also makes sense for producers. Movie projects are often greenlit based on the actors attached. The more A and B list actors you can attach to a project the better your chances of getting produced.

This is actually nothing new and two of the best examples are from David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino. Mamet made one of the greatest supporting actor speeches in Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet wrote an entire speech that wasn’t in the original play for actor Alec Baldwin. The result, Coffee is for Closers, is one of the most electrifying few minutes of film and an unforgettable part for Baldwin who was able to transition from romantic lead to villainous heavy (and later spoof THAT image) as a direct result of this speech.

Coffee is for Closers

Tarantino is renowned for his dialogue and he often gives his characters speeches lasting more than a page. Possibly the best known is his infamous Sicilian speech from True Romance. It’s decidedly un-PC but you can’t deny the raw power of it. Dennis Hopper didn’t need any career help at that point, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The Sicilian speech. Caution, offensive language

The one thing to keep in mind is where to place your speeches. I advised my friend to space his out more so they didn’t run one after the other. But more than that, the two examples I sighted above stand out because they occur right at the plot points. Coffee Is for Closers kicks off the crisis for the salesmen in the office, if they don’t sell they will be fired. In True Romance, the Sicilian speech occurs just as the mafia starts looking for Clarence and Alabama. The key moments of your story are the ones where the drama is at its heaviest. Consider expressing that drama in a speech. Because sometimes, when it comes to actors at least, it is better to “tell” instead of “show”. As long as the telling is as good as Coffee is For Closers.


  1. interesting post.

    some recent films (the hangover, snakes on a plane, harold & kumar...) have clearly used these actor-specific dialogue bits to really help punch up their script (and the careers of the "cameo" actors who pontificate therein).

    but should aspiring writers steer clear of writing such actor-specific dialogue? in other words -- does this same maxim extend to writing on spec (with no production company/actors attached)?

    after all, it is certainly a much taller task to write (and sell!) a script that contains a pivotal "deniro-esque" speech without actually having a deniro on board.


  2. If you're a newbie you want to WOW them. And if you have a gift for dialogue and speeches use that.

  3. It sometimes helps to write with a particular actor in mind. But it's better to just write a great character who has something to say, and let the actor come to want to play that character.

    Also: in the example given above, the writer may have chosen to push the monologues to the second half of the script because the first half is taken up with a car chase - during which it's hard to justify speechifying - and also to fill a time cut as the main protagonist drives to the airport.

    Though the results may seem ungainly at first blush, there's a logic involved...

  4. I always assume there's logic involved. Many times scripts are like jigsaw puzzles and there is one place where a certain piece can go.

    But if you have a choice of placement, there are "high ground" areas of a script where a speech (or an action scene for that matter) will stand out.


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