What's the fastest way to kill your film stone dead? Bad dialogue. It can be clunky, clumsy, overlong, unnatural, cheesy, dull, reveal too much of the film, even reveal too little of the film. All in all, it’s a tool that is the bane of many a young film student’s life. During my time at University, I sat through film after film after film in which characters had conversations so unrelentingly tedious, filled with the same hello's and goodbyes, that by the time they actually got down to anything of substance, the audience had fallen asleep.
However, not every film can take place in a black and white German café in which two star crossed lovers share glancing looks. Avoiding conversation on the screen can also feel unnatural and weird, sometimes even sucking the life out of a scene and lose the audience. The truth is that dialogue is an essential and critical tool in the filmmaking arsenal, but how do you make it work? For the answer, it's worth looking at the man who could arguably be called the master of film dialogue in the 21st century: Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino clearly doesn’t take the easy route. In his World War II adventure/war/drama Inglorious Basterds, for example, he litters the film with conversations. Lots and lots of conversations. Most of the film takes place at a profusion of dinner tables, with characters simply talk, talk, talking to each other. Yet, it is arguably one of the finest films in recent years, a sly allegory about the role propaganda played during the Second World War. Its opening scene is a 20-minute salvo involving a German SS Officer and a French farmer hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his home. 13 minutes of this scene is spent sitting down, and it helped turn Christophe Waltz into a Hollywood Star. This article will take a closer look at those 20 minutes.
Dialogue must serve two purposes: reveal something new about the character or advance the plot forward. If it does neither, cut it. We only have about 120 pages to work with, so we need to use every single one of those pages to generate enough drama to knock the reader senseless. The plot is the most straight forward to work with, revealing new places for our character to go, new adversaries stopping him from getting what he wants or actions that can't be shown on screen. While actions do speak louder than words, sometimes it’s too awkward or clunky to show a plot twist rather than simply say it. As Colonel Hans Landa (Waltz) sits down at the table of LaPadite (Denis Menochet), he establishes the reason for his visit:
Landa: I am very familiar with you and your family, but I have no way of knowing if you are familiar with who I am... are you aware of my existence?
Landa: This is good... are you aware of the job that is carried out in France?
Landa: Please, tell me what you've heard.
LaPadite: I've heard, the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up the Jews left in France.
Landa: The Fuhrer couldn't have put it better himself.
We now know that Hans Landa is a big shot, and the bad guy, all without leaving the dinner table. This is established around the 7-minute mark, which is very important for one reason: dialogue is more than just words on a page, and Tarantino uses actions to create a context that gives the scene conflict. Minutes earlier, as the German car arrives on the farm, LaPadite's daughters become nervous. They frantically help their father before running into the house, and when Landa steps inside, the daughters are visibly anxious at his arrival. We don’t know exactly why they are nervous, but we know that the Germans are not welcome. Now we have a reason to invest in the scene, does LaPadite have Jews hiding in his house? Will Landa find them?
Tarantino doesn't answer this yet; instead, we delve into the task of going through all the Jewish families that lived nearby before they fled during the war. This is important for giving details of the plot and revealing the name of Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), but it could be dull and static, which can turn the audience off. Tarantino understands this, and uses visuals to break the conversation up into chunks that keep both eyes and ears happy. Characters drink or are poured drinks; LaPadite smokes a pipe. They get up and move around, allowing for a new camera angle. The biggest and most powerful image is occurs when a slow pan down from the table and through the floorboards reveals a Jewish family hiding underneath, Shoshana grasping her mouth to avoid noise as she hears her name spoken above ground. Tarantino has timed this in order to deliver the maximum amount of tension, and allows the conversation to go into a new direction.
LaPadite: Shoshana was 18 or 19. Not really sure.
Camera pans down through the floorboards, revealing SHOSHANA, her hand clasped to her mouth.
Landa: Well, that should do it (sound of zipping up bag), before I go, can I have another glass of your delicious milk?
Tarantino could reveal the Jewish family hiding in the first minute, but this would change the scene entirely, raising the stakes and demanding Tarantino top it with something with a increased tension and with perhaps more danger right way, and this would have torpedoed his conversation.
And then, having established all of this, Landa asks LaPadite for another glass of milk. He seems happy with the information the farmer has given him, and it looks like the Jewish family may get away scot-free. And the conflict in the scene changes from 'will he find the Jews?' to 'when will he leave?' Instead of leaving, however, he goes into a long and rambling analogy about rats:
Landa: If one were to attribute what attributes the Germans share with the beast, it would be the cunning and predatory instincts of the hawk.
This brings us to our second purpose of dialogue: revealing something new about the character, what a person says can reveal a huge amount about their personality or values. However, dialogue is not about expressing feelings, unless it’s something seemingly trivial. Characters shouldn't say “I love you,” but instead, hint to it with a kiss or a smile or standing outside their window with a boombox at full blast. Landa does tell of his pride in being called the Jew Hunter, but doesn’t directly express his feelings towards the Jewish people. Good dialogue is about expressing opinions, which can hint at what a character is thinking without directly telling the audience how he feels.
Landa: If one were to determine what attributes the Jewish share with the beast, it would be the rat.
A line you expect to hear from an SS Officer and it certainly tells us a lot, but then he adds an unexpected twist:
Landa: I do not see it as an insult… Consider the world a rat lives in, a hostile world. If a rat were to scamper in would you greet it with hostility?
He challenges LaPadite sitting opposite him:
Landa: Any disease a rat could carry, a squirrel could carry, no?
This tells us two things. On one hand, it’s Tarantino commenting on the role propaganda played during the Nazis rise to power and the war they started. Having previously mentioned German propaganda at the start of his strange Jewish rat ramblings, he remarks:
Landa: You don’t like them, you don’t know why you don’t like them, but you find them repulsive.
The German propaganda machine was so efficient that it managed to almost indoctrinate an entire nation into believing into believing the Nazi cause and a distrust of the Jewish.
What’s more interesting is what it tells us about Landa. He seems ambivalent about the Jewish people; he does not see them as a real threat to society, does not see them as vermin who need to be stamped out. His conclusion hangs a big question in the air: why would Landa leave Austria to wind up in cow country France looking to round up Jews so they can be sent to their death? Because he is a politician who sees this as a career. His career. He’s an opportunist looking for what's best for him, so when the finale of Inglorious Basterds rolls around, and he spots an opportunity to sell Hitler down the river, earning himself a nice pension and a reprieve from any Nazi trials, he jumps at the chance.
Tarantino’s dialogue, especially in those first 20 minutes, keeps the audience fascinated. Landa could have said he thinks the Jews aren’t so bad, or that he doesn't hate them, but audiences would find that boring. They want something original, and with a small hint of mystery that lets them work it out for themselves. When you let the audience add it up, they’ll love you for it.
As a final note on the use of dialogue, it can never be stressed enough the important of conflict. Most writers go into each scene knowing the conflict, knowing what each character wants and why each character can or can't get it. But really good writers cram the conflict into the crevices, dotting little salvos around the scene, giving more depth and keeping us entertained. These conflicts can be tiny, such as LaPadite's innocuous slip up from English into his native French when lying about Shoshana's family.
LaPadite: This is just a rumour, but we heard, the Dryfus', had made their way into Spain.
Landa: So the rumours you've heard have been of escape?
LaPadite: Oui, I mean yes.
It's a small and miniscule touch, but it's the small details that make great films. What LaPadite is saying is clearly different than what he is thinking, that they are actually under his floorboards. What makes these conflicts great is that we, the audience, cannot peer into a characters head and work out what he’s thinking. Does Landa know he’s sitting directly above a Jewish family? Is LaPadite cracking up? We cannot know for sure, we can only wait with baited breath, until Landa plays his trump card:
Landa: Now, my job dictates that I must have my men enter your home, and conduct a thorough search, before I can officially cross you off my list. And if there are any irregularities to be found, rest assured they will be, that is unless you have something to tell me that makes the conducting of the search unnecessary. I might add, also that any information that makes the performance of my duty easier will not be met with punishment, in fact quite the opposite it will be met with reward, and that reward will your family will cease to be harassed by the German military during our occupation of your country... You're sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?
Lapadite breaks. Landa wins. The scene ends in a whirl of violence, Shoshana escapes, and the plot to kill Hitler is born.