Raiders of the Lost Art: An Argument for Dialogue-Driven Set Pieces

Raiders of the Lost Art: An Argument for Dialogue-Driven Set Pieces

I can remember the first time it happened. I wasn’t particularly tired, but there I was, nodding off during a movie in the multiplex even as it threw the kitchen sink at the screen, assaulting my ears with pounding music meant to quicken my pulse in concert with all the foley and CGI insanity it could muster.

The year was 2010. The film was the abysmal remake of 1981’s Clash of the Titans, a movie I engaged with extreme trepidation as the original—campy and dated as it may be with its claymation-style Harryhousen monsters and sun-kissed, Hawaiian Tropic Harry Hamlin bod—is a seminal childhood film my brother and I truly cherish. It was a movie that greatly stoked the burgeoning flames of our lifelong love of Greek myth and drama and, yes, cinema. I made a Clash of the Titans shoebox diorama in third grade. We begged for and were somehow delivered a handful of the Mattel action figures despite our meager means (chattering skeletal ferryman of the River Styx Charon was my favorite).

This remake felt like a soulless violation, but even my angst as I watched it couldn’t keep me awake during its stunningly boring computer-generated giant scorpion pseudo-melee. I fell asleep for what felt like a Van Winklian eternity, only to awaken to painfully discover that, yes, Sam Worthington and his stuntman brothers were inexplicably still somehow being thrown this way and that and pinned by the venomous, barbed polygon tail of the hulking arachnid (which now, of course, instead of having grown to the frightening size of a man as in the original was the size of a doubledecker bus—because “bigger is better” rules the day in today’s oft-dopey studio Hollywood).

Say what you want about Harryhousen’s click-clacking stop motion jankiness, but, dated as it is, one must absolutely respect the artistry involved.

But these big action tentpole set pieces felt, like so many others, about as artistic as a root canal.

It soon became routine for me to nod off out of boredom during these now commonplace massive CGI shitfests. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies—a franchise that in yesteryear was known much more for its diplomacy, the “thinking man’s” alternative to Star Wars, one could once say—was now a run of the mill Marvel movie in which running and jumping as shit explodes ruled the day.

Avatar, with its redundant big war scene double climax? Zzzzzz. Alice suited up like Joan of Arc to take her vorpal blade to the neck of a preening computer-generated Jabberwock in Wonderland? Zzzzzzz. John Carter flying through the low-gravity Martian air to fight some monstrosity we know he’s obviously going to defeat? Zzzzzz.

All empty spectacle devoid of stakes. Outcomes are preordained, because we know the heroes will come out victorious.

Did Indiana Jones’ set pieces have the same lack of stakes? Perhaps, to a degree ... but at least many of the bruises were real. The actors and stuntmen didn’t come out unscathed. Those were real flames human beings were temporarily immolated with. You can’t hitch yourself to a Nazi deuce-and-a-half and get dragged around a desert without it imparting at least some sense of realism and death-defying stakes for the thrilled audience.

Now we get computer animated monkeys chasing Indy through the rainforest and, frankly, it sucks.

CGI, unfortunately, is here to stay. As it probably should in some cases, since setting actual people on actual fire is fucking crazy. But the best CGI is the kind you see employed in say, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, or HBO’s "John Adams." It’s background, it fills out a world—it’s not kicking us in the ass and off a sheer cliff into the maw of the uncanny valley below.

What we’ve been discussing to this point is the emerging reliance on computer-generated imagery to push the boundaries of the modern “set piece.” For those not familiar with the term, it originated in the early days of moviemaking when most films were produced on grand sets on the studio lot. Using The Wizard of Oz as an example, take Munchkinland, the Poppy Field, the Witch’s Castle, and the Emerald City—all elaborate sets that had to be constructed on the lot, which cost boatloads of money and hence in order to extrapolate that money’s worth the magnates insisted they be used to maximum effect and screen time.

As the studios have evolved and become increasingly insistent on action-driven tentpole films that play well overseas, set pieces have become almost exclusively thought about as elaborate action spectacles that comprise a movie, with a few “plot” scenes sprinkled in to stitch it all together. This is why so many modern studio films feel like theme parks, with the stitched-in story usually being about as exciting as walking from Epcot to the Jungle Cruise.

But it wasn’t always this way. There was a period of filmmaking, arguably from the 1970’s to the early 2000’s (but extrapolating beyond those borders in both directions to varying degrees), in which set pieces weren’t so reliant on outsized ACTION. This storytelling mindset existed, of course, as it had from the beginning—but there was also a healthy audience hungry for films in which real people used words as weapons, and emotion and ideas gave off the fireworks we now rely on web-shooters and wizardly wands to provide.

And, I contend, in these dialogue-driven films that are often devoid of action or elaborate settings, there are scenes that can be essentially classified as set pieces in that they provide fireworks and can make a viewer feel on the edge of their seat and left thinking about them for days or weeks or a lifetime.

In 1992, I turned 15 years old. As a kid who was allowed to watch damn near anything at a very early age (including classic teenagers-skewered-while-having-sex slasher flicks and shit like The Exorcist starting at like five or six), I have always had more sophisticated, elevated tastes despite my penchant for Porky’s, vengeful nerd panty raids, and Mahoney’s foul-mouthed, anti-authoritarian antics in the early Police Academy flicks. At eight years old, my favorite film was not the Harrison Ford-starring Star Wars or Indiana Jones films like my prepubescent peers, but Peter Weir’s Witness. I had seen and greatly admired Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields, and Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.

Needless to say, I had already come to appreciate the merits of suspense and what dialogue could do as opposed to just falling for the shock and awe of Schwarzenegger schlock (which I also loved, I was—at least in those days—no film snob).

But along came 1992, and with it films like James Foley’s Mamet adaptation Glengarry Glen Ross, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and Rob Reiner’s cinematic turn of Aaron Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men to cement my undying love of dialogue, and signify its power to captivate and thrill in ways the grandest, most daring action sequences can only hope to achieve.

Dialogue-driven scenes are branded in our brains for good reason. Quotable movies worm their way into our hearts so easily in part because dialogue is referential, you can drop a quote into conversation and instantly make a new friend if they’re in on the joke.

“Obviously, you’re not a golfer.”

Conversely, random verbal references of iconic action scenes spouted to strangers will probably just get you uninvited from future parties (as it should). As much as the collective human story is one of violence and survival—which action scenes can evoke well—it is ultimately our ability and compulsion to communicate ideas and emotions in such intricate detail and in such profound ways, both honestly and dishonestly, that makes us unique if not superior to all creatures great and small.

Dishonesty deserves another mention—it’s one of the reasons verbiage so often trumps violence in my opinion: violent action is so obvious, but in dialogue, a character can lie to us or even if we know the score to a character on screen to create dramatic irony (something else sorely lacking in today’s paint-by-numbers storytelling).

The ultimate point of this all is to implore those of you who write and make films to remember to exploit the power of the spoken word, and to remind us all that well-rendered and delivered dialogue can surprise and turn a story on its head in ways that action scenes only very rarely can—and that it costs almost, literally, NOTHING to film a scene or even entire movie that uses speech as its proverbial fireworks.

Remember how I said in most action set pieces the outcomes feel almost preordained? It’s true. Even if the good guy comes out with glass skewering his feet and his “wife beater” tank top filthy beyond repair, he comes out alive and ready to fight another day. Very rare is the film with the cojones to truly maim, paralyze, or kill its protagonist—and if they do, it’s always some heightened, worthy martyrdom play that feels as predestined as victory itself.

But with DIALOGUE ... with dialogue you can rip out your hero’s heart. You can deceive them. You can subvert expectations—both those of the character and the audience. You can leave people broken and defeated and irrevocably changed, and in a more universal way that we can all relate to than destroying ten city blocks to defeat an interstellar invader and save humanity.

Let’s look at Good Will Hunting, one of the truly magnificent modern how-to’s when it comes to implementing dialogue to its maximum effect and impact. Ironically, legend has it that Damon’s early drafts had Will cracking a code and on the run from government agents—how refreshing that the genre play was turned down into this sweet, humane, dramatic film that now means so much to so many.

Surely in this day and age it would be the other way around: a small, beautiful dramatic indie film about a genius young man learning to reconcile his childhood traumas in order to forgive and love himself and in turn another—until development executives get their hooks in it and insist Matt and Ben add a nuke and world-ending action apocalypse plot. As it stands the film has what I would consider to be just as many set pieces as any Star Wars or Marvel film, but these verbal dust-ups titillate in ways lightsabers and “Hulk Smash!” never could.

We’ve got, off the top of the dome:

- The “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda had in a buck fifty in late charges at the public library” verbal smackdown of the Harvard Bar shithead (culminating in ”How do ya like dem apples?!” no less).

- One of the greatest monologues of any century or medium, delivered by the incomparable Robin Williams—the “Sistine Chapel” dressing down of Will on The Common. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

- Both of the job interview scenes, be it Chuckie going in as Will’s “chief negotiator” to shakedown the moneymen for a $200 “Re-tain-er!” or Will’s incendiary “North Atlantic Scrod with Quaker State Blue Plate Special” screed to punk the NSA ... both funny, yes, but doing a massive amount of character work and social commentary.

- Will tearing out Skylar’s beating heart when he reveals his ruse and trauma and lies that he doesn’t love her—a scene that in my opinion does more damage than any physical fight scene or torture porn I can recall.

- Ben Affleck’s Chuckie telling Will that his favorite part of the day is walking up to Will’s door in the morning with hopes that he’s just blown town for greener pastures, and Robin Williams’ Sean waxing nostalgic about how he had to go “see about a girl”—two amazing dialogue-driven set pieces that also perfectly set up and inform the final scene of the film in a really nuanced, beautiful way.

- This list would be incomplete without compulsory inclusion of “It’s not your fault.”

Now, again, of course this is all subjective and maybe you’re a soulless freak who falls asleep during Good Will Hunting but has Fast & The Furious 6 on repeat. If so, please stop reading this article and writing anything.

But in all seriousness, I get it—fair play to say “what if I’m into genre shit and don’t wanna write dramatic talking heads movies?”

Paging Mr. Tarantino! Look at a film like True Romance, which has a great mix of dialogue fireworks and firepower. When Clarence Worley first visits the pimp Drexel to secure his now-wife Alabama’s freedom, we get a pulse-pounding, stylized, ultra-violent Tony Scott bullet and slugfest, yes—but it is the dialogue that truly sets this scene apart from others like it in the genre.

Same goes for the big showdown at the end. Same goes for all of Tarantino’s work.

The genre elements are absolutely elevated and made even more memorable by the extraordinarily well-executed dialogue, which brings characters alive by giving them distinct voices and points of view but also engages the audience with its sheer audacity and artistry, inspiring us to not only drop quotes for decades to follow but sometimes even add additional entries into the national or even global lexicon. See also the Spider shine-box scene in Goodfellas. See also the glorious, gory, incredible battle scenes in Braveheart and how it’s William Wallace’s impassioned speeches and gut-wrenching freedom cry that have truly seared themselves into our brains and hearts.

The Big Lebowski is exceedingly inventive in how the Coens play with genre, inspired by Pychon and others who also subverted Hammett and Chandler. But it is, again, the brothers’ knack for incredible, all-timer dialogue that keeps us rewatching it, making endless Dude and Walter memes and instant friends when some stranger perfectly drops the perfect quote at the perfect time.

Now, of course, the action set piece can also rise to high art.

I’m reminded of several even as I extoll the virtues of verbiage over violence: The corridor hammerfest in Oldboy, the all-nude sauna slugfest of Eastern Promises, Indy fighting the Nazi bruiser who gets propelered into a fine mist, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and Jet Li in too many to name, Bloodsport’s video game-flavored Kumite, Neo going bullet-time, basically any second of any John Wick flick, the sword fight in The Princess Bride (ahem, made infinitely more memorable by its pithy dialogue as much as its swashbuckling swordplay), tree-top tap dancing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon … I could go on and on.

These and a million more are awesome.

But for my money, not a single one of them is as thrilling as Alec Baldwin giving us the ABC’s of salesmanship in Glengarry Glen Ross (a scene Mamet wrote specifically for the screen version of his play), Peter Lorre castigating the hypocritical kangaroo court looking to hang him in Fritz Lang’s M, the diner sit-down between Pacino and De Niro in Heat, Howard Beale losing his mind on national TV in Network, Jack throwing down the gauntlet to reveal that we can’t handle the truth in A Few Good Men, Stallone delivering a speech that hits harder than any punch Rocky ever threw in the ring, malevolent Chigurh gambling with an innocent man’s life in No Country For Old Men, Jackie Coogan’s “Fuck you, pay me” in Killing Them Softly, or Daniel Plainview drinking your milkshake in There Will Be Blood.

And then there is the reminder that even in the days of yore, when magnates loved to throw money at increasingly elaborate sets in a studio arms race to outdo one another, it was still the delivery of a tortured soul like Brando in On the Waterfront or, better yet, silent star Chaplin himself burning up the screen and our ears with his mind-melting final speech in The Great Dictator, that truly captivated our hearts and minds.

In short:

It is incumbent upon those of us who write the stories to not forget that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and no matter how many screenwriting how-to books or online gurus or studio development executives insist that a set piece be action-packed and full of the requisite running and jumping so many modern movies would have you believe, we have the ability and even responsibility to keep alive a tradition that predates Shakespeare and likely even Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. The monologue. The soliloquy. And of course good old fashioned crackling dialogue between two or more people.

I’m not making the case that we should redefine the set piece—I’m making that case that we should recalibrate the way we think of dynamics and structure, and allow our brains to consider that a Good Will Hunting and a Marvel movie might structurally operate in a similar manner, but that by using verbiage as the predominant vehicle for “action,” we usually yield more interesting scenes than those that use violence as their engine.

An added benefit of heeding this reminder and implementing more dialogue-driven “set pieces” into your work is that you might even find yourself writing something you can make completely outside of the studio system on your own—if Kevin Smith could launch a career with a crude dialogue set piece-driven film made on discarded 16mm trims and splicings, just think of what you can do with that high tech 40-megapixel phone currently burning a hole in your pocket. You can even use it to record some killer dialogue if you know what you’re doing.

*Feature Photo: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

As one half of The Thornton Brothers—along with his bro Chris—Jay's a filmmaker (Cactus Jack), writer, podcaster (Hard Out), binge eater, gadfly, and non-practicing humanist. Repped at Rosa and UTA.
More posts by Jay Thornton.
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