writing talk

One of my favorite movies of 2005 was MATCH POINT. I saw it twice. The first time, I came away from the theatre somewhat ambivalent — I loved the trailer, but the movie itself wasn’t exactly what I had wanted or hoped it to be*. Also, the protagonist commits an action in the last part of the film that is so extreme it appeared to go against the kind of movie I thought I was watching. (There are hints of what’s to come, such as repeated references to CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and tragic opera. But still.)

And yet the movie got under my skin. Kept thinking about it. Went to see it again (took my sister).

And on the second viewing I found myself impressed. This time, with my full knowledge of the ending, I could see how the movie relentlessly heads in that direction, even as it appears to be rather mannered and leisurely. I could see how bit by bit the movie lays out the character of Chris, the protagonist.

And I keep thinking about this one scene in particular.

It’s the scene where Chris and Nola, the young American actress he lusts after, are having drinks in a pub after she’s blown an audition. It’s the first time they’ve had a real conversation alone together (they’re both engaged to members of the same wealthy family). Alcohol has loosened her up; she’s forthright, confessional, sexually confident. She has big patches of dialogue here; Chris only has a few lines. She talks about herself, her family, her life growing up. Each time she speaks, she’s wandering off in her own direction; but then, with one or two blunt lines, Chris brings her back to what he wants to hear her talk about. Her beauty. Her awareness of her beauty. Her relationship with her fiance. She acknowledges what he’s saying but also skips round it, wandering off in her own direction again; and again, Chris cuts through her conversation and brings her back to his agenda, until he hits her with a final confrontational question that unnerves her and she ends the exchange.

It’s an incredibly well-written scene. First of all, it seems very natural. It captures the feel of how people talk. So often in movies, characters are simply exchanging information, or responding to each other in direct ways that people in real life generally don’t — in real life, people confess, digress, talk around each other, come at each other from different agendas, pretend to listen while actually tuning the other out as they formulate their next response or think about something else entirely. And what they are actually communicating is different from what they are actually saying to each other, because communication is a multi-layered thing and words form a surprisingly small part of it (which is why good screenwriting is so difficult, because the purpose and meaning of a scene is not revealed in the dialogue so much as underneath the dialogue, and often cuts against the dialogue, which is how you create moment-to-moment tension and irony).

The scene reveals a great deal about character. We learn a lot about Nola, not just through what she tells us about her troubled family background, but how she relies on alcohol and her “effect on men”, as Chris puts it (he asks her bluntly, “Where was all this confidence in the audition?”). She’s opening up to Chris — and he, in contrast, is very controlled and opaque. He doesn’t say much, but he controls and manipulates the conversation. He refuses to follow her lead. She talks about her sister, but he could really give a damn, and so he slices in and redirects her. He’s predatory — but it’s subtle and beautifully done.

The scene moves the plot forward. We see their relationship, their attraction, developing, and Nola makes some acute observations that foreshadow what’s to come.

And the scene itself has such smooth, lovely movement. It begins right in the middle of things, as a good scene should — they’ve obviously been talking for a while. Tension mounts with each beat of dialogue. They are both aware of their attraction and what it could cost them — and Chris doesn’t care. None of this is said directly*, although at one point Nola challenges Chris with it, puts it right in his face. However, he simply puts the focus back on her, in the same way shrinks handle their patients by taking what they’ve said and turning it into another question (“What makes you think that?”) that encourages them to confess.

And the scene peaks and culminates — Nola realizes she’s gone too far, said too much, had too much to drink. Instead of answering Chris’s final question, she asks him to get her a cab. This wasn’t a conversation between two people connecting with each other, or giving and receiving empathy; this was a match of wills, a play of power. A game. Chris is a natural competitor, a guy who played tennis professionally and could hold his own with the greats (another player tells him, admiringly, how he was always “calm, cool, creative under pressure”). Despite her sexual power, her “effect on men”, Nola is hopelessly outclassed. Everything about their relationship and the way it is bound to play out is encoded in that single, casual, five-minute scene.

I wish I’d written it.

*But this is a good thing, since I can take away my own interpretation of the trailer and use it to write my own story. The nature of creative influence (a.k.a. ‘creative theft’)…

** When what should be the subtext, the implication, of a scene is stated too directly, the writing is criticized as being “on the nose” and the scene itself is flat, lacks tension, is often melodramatic.

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