WRITING DIALOGUE FOR TV

Inspired by novelist Ben Kay’s recent post on this subject I had some additional thoughts that were frankly too long to leave as comments on his blog.

These were some random thoughts i had on the subject.

Writing dialogue for TV is best done on the medium’s terms. That is your words have to be good TV. Not great cinema. Great TV. It can be great cinema but you’re on TV. And TV isn’t cinema. It’s not screenwriting.

In the time-compressed TV ad environment the words become very important. Especially if those words are intended to get a laugh.

But the time to write them is a couple of days before the shoot. Not in a cubicle months ahead of the production.

What I do is wait till we cast the actor, usually a week before the shoot, and then rewrite it to suit them and ideally get to know them a bit. Give them words that will sound good when they say them.

This is a good example of what I’m talking about.

I thought this would be a fun idea because our director Allen Coulter (he directed lots of Sopranos episodes) is from Texas. This was our third shoot together and I thought the idea of a spot featuring a Texan entering a New Jersey bar would be fun for him to shoot.

It sounded easy. It wasn’t

We sold Budweiser on this idea and three others that we shot at the same time.

Problem one was getting an actor authentically Texan enough. Allan is from Texas. He’s extra discriminating. And all the actors we were seeing were stage cowboy types.

Problem two was that I had no idea what this guy was going to actually say. Or anyone else. I drew a complete blank.

The setup dialogue we’d used to sell the idea was lame. But the idea of the idea was funny. And luckily the client gave us complete creative freedom. Just don’t fuck it up!

Allan found the cowboy guy by going back through all our casting. The actor he chose was a recently retired Air Force colonel from Texas who had spent a lot of time in Tennessee so he had sort of a pan-southern accent.

Allan recommended I talk to this actor to get inspiration for the dialogue. So I did. I literally asked him “How you doin?”. And he talked about how he’d just flown in and the airport was so big but how friendly people were etc. This was who this guy was.

So the night before the shoot I still have no idea what the dialogue was going to be. I liked what he’d said to me when I met him but nothing else appealed to me. In a bit of a panic I called our director. Allan said “well why not do the three thing?”.

You know, you do the exact same thing three times and it’s funny.

And that’s what we did. And it worked.

But it did make me realize that I was living on executional fumes here. Our idea was ultra-thin and I knew it.

This was intended to air on the Super Bowl and it did. Right after U2 had just killed it in the half-time show. Perfect time slot. It was very popular spot.

And we did get an Emmy nomination!

Not an Emmy win.

A nomination.

Am I bitter?

Yes.

4 responses to “WRITING DIALOGUE FOR TV

  1. I have noticed in my life that 1] I often work best under pressure and 2] there is a such thing as too much planning, especially before all the variables are known quantities.

    Its best to craft the strategy based on the team’s strengths vs try to fit a team against their strength into a strategy. Sports are a great case study in this.

  2. i agree howie. filming anything is to some degree beyond your control.

    shit will happen, as Plato once said.

    foolish to imagine you can control the process in advance of the process.

    shit, that sounded wise! i should write this stuff down. ;-)

  3. Yet another ad I love which I saw before getting to know the man who made it.

  4. glad you liked it vik. it kind of grew on me this one. because other people seemed to like it a lot. i felt like i was leaning too hard on the skills of the talented people (director and cast) around me too much. or maybe that was the way to go. i dunno!

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