Last week I finished ScreenwritingU‘s 10-day dialogue class, and then last night watched True Grit. So naturally, as I was watching this 10-time Oscar-nominated movie (including Best Adapted Screenplay), I was paying pretty close attention to the dialogue. Something Hal Croasmun, creator of ScreenwritingU, has said is that good voice in dialogue is not about ums and ahs or anything like that. It’s about having distinctive personality traits and/or interests for each character, and then making sure that every line they speak has some element of that character.
A few days ago I was reading a screenplay where a partner in a law firm was a cyclist. Though he was a minor character, he was extremely memorable. The first time we see him, he’s wearing no-modesty shorts, with his package staring at our protagonist as they ride the elevator. After that, every line he says is about Lance Armstrong or the Tour de France, which he uses as a metaphor for everything that’s going on at work. It’s all hilarious, and as the old advice goes, I could have covered up the character names and identified, beyond a shadow of a doubt, every line that belonged to him.
In watching True Grit, the best example that came to mind was Matt Damon’s character, LaBoeuf. First, notice the name. He’s called “the beef,” because he’s got a beef with everyone about everything. From there, almost all of his lines show his bordering-on-hubris pride. Probably half of them reflect the fact that he’s a Texas Ranger, and most of the rest are meant to impress/dominate our tweenage protagonist, Mattie Ross.
Speaking Mattie Ross (side note: Supporting Actress? Are you kidding? Come on, Academy!), she’s precocious and bullheaded, so most every line that comes out of her reflects that. For example: ‘And “futile”, Marshal Cogburn, “pursuit would be futile”? It’s not spelled “f-u-d-e-l.”‘ The whole negotiation scene where she threatens to sue the man who held her father’s horse showed these characteristics every step of the way. And with every line, she speaks in perfect elocution.
Which is in contrast, of course, to Rooster Cogburn. Again, notice the name. He’s not just arrogant – he’s cocky, hence the name, “Rooster.” And what does “Cogburn” imply? He’s fiery, yet thoughtful, perhaps? Speaking with a heavy southern slang, some of his lines: “Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer,” or “You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”
Although it’s tough at this point to distinguish the dialogue as written from the character as played by Jeff Bridges, it’s clear that the Coen Brothers know what they’re doing when it comes to creating characters — and dialogue — that speaks to the viewer and to the actor.