Monday, January 18, 2010

Studio Stories II – James M. Cain & Raymond Chandler

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


Novelist and screenwriter, James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce) described working with Raymond Chandler, screenwriter on Billy Wilder’s film, Double Indemnity:

Wilder wanted to explain to me why they weren’t using more of my ‘deathless dialogue.’ He fell for the dialogue in my book, and he was annoyed that Chandler wasn’t putting more of it in the script. To try and prove his point he got three contract people up, and they ran through these scenes with my dialogue. But to Wilder’s astonishment, he found out it wouldn’t play. Chandler said, ‘I tried to tell him, Jim,’ with that easy familiarity they have out in Hollywood; even first meeting me he called me by my first name. ‘Jim, that dialogue of yours is to the eye.’ I said, I knew my book is to the eye, although I could write to the ear. Chandler said, ‘I tried to explain it to Billy.’

Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p.127.

This is a great example of the value of what are often called, “table readings” of new screenplays. Most writers with a few scripts under their belt know to read their dialogue aloud before they show it to people, especially actors. Otherwise they may find their words not playing in situations where it will hurt them. Actors do not appreciate tripping over their tongues while delivering their lines in a group rehearsal, so writers should constantly test their stuff even before the first reader sees it.

Another interesting thing about this anecdote is that it concerns Billy Wilder, a director and writer who is known for his dialogue. But Wilder was relatively young, then, and had the disadvantage of speaking English as a second language, so he had a lot to learn. And, of course, he did... in spades. #


Lee A. Matthias

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