Conversational Films: A Small Genre

A while ago, someone suggested that I make a film like “Before Sunrise”, Richard Linklater‘s 1995 movie. Before I try to make my own film, I want to understand just what kind of film “Before Sunrise” is.

Before Sunrise

I saw Before Sunrise ( shortly after its release and I’ve seen it several times since. Linklater did a sequel called Before Sunset and now he apparently plans a third film. Most people I’ve talked to like Before Sunset better, but I prefer Before Sunrise.

Before Sunrise is the story of two people who meet on a train and then spend a night together as they explore Vienna. Through the course of the film, the two, Jesse and Celine, talk about their life and dreams. In the morning, they part ways, promising to meet again in a year later. In the sequel we learn that they did not meet again until 9 years later.

A Small Genre of Film

I think of Before Sunrise as an example of a very small genre of films that I call “conversational films”. The movie consists of one long conversation between two people, with little or no involvement with other characters.

I haven’t personally seen many films that would fall into this genre. I would only include Before Sunset, and My Dinner with Andre. I am also tempted to include Fail-Safe, the 1964 cold war thriller. It is a very different kind of film, but a large part of the film involves just two people, Henry Fonda and Larry Hagman who sit in a room and talk.

I’ve come across several other films that are supposed to be similar, but since I have not seen them I really don’t know. These include Mindwalk, Melvin Goes to Dinner, The Man from Earth and The Sunset Limited.

A Long History

Long before people began to make films, writers used conversations as a way to tell stories. The earliest example I know of is Plato’s dialogues. Plato explores philosophical issues through conversations between Socrates and his students.

Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems follows a similar format. It is a conversation between three people. Galileo wrote this a popular book and not as a scientific thesis. This book got Galileo in deep trouble with the Catholic Church.

Advantages and Challenges

One of the attractions of this genre is that with limited locations, a small cast, and a small crew, it would be easier to make. Unfortunately, other aspects may make these films more difficult.

The biggest challenge would be in the writing. With only two characters to work with, the writer must be much more creative to maintain the interest of the audience. The talk can’t just be talk; it must build a story that engages the viewer.

Another big challenge would be the visuals. It would be easy to be lazy and just have talking heads throughout the film. This would make the film visually boring. There is an opportunity here though. Researchers suggest that 90 to 95 per cent of all communication is non-verbal. If that is so, the focus needs to be on the non-verbal interaction rather than anything the characters may say.

Actors have told me that acting in a film like this can be very difficult. On the other hand, it can be an interesting challenge for them.

The Script

I developed some experience with visually focussed writing on my film My Most Difficult Case. When I first wrote it, I began with a storyboard. I only wrote the dialogue after I had a visualization of the film.

One approach would be to involve the actors in developing the script, possibly through improvisation. With the focus on the actor’s actions, reactions, and expressions, early involvement with the actors will make for a better film.

Another approach would be to write three scripts: A script of the conversation, and the internal monologues of the two characters.

What Kind of Story to Tell

The limitations of the form would also limit the kind of stories that you can tell. Given that, there is still an opportunity to delve into a wide range of topics.

Central to any story, though, must be the relationship between the two main characters. At the most basic level, it would be about the coming together of two people by overcoming differences and barriers to fulfil mutual needs. It could be a romantic story, but doesn’t need to be. They can be open about what they want, or hide it from the other. The characters may not even be aware of what they want.

What I feel most comfortable with is a story of one person who asks another for help or support. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to listen to friends about their problems. Sometimes I could help them. Other times I couldn’t. Most interesting, though, are the times where I helped people without ever understanding what their problem was. I tried to capture this in my short story The Crying Woman.

The Way Forward

I started out on this project because I thought it would be an easy film to make. In a technical sense, it is, but in a creative sense, it could be very difficult. As I tweeted once, with all the new technology available now it is much easier to make and distribute a film, but making a good film is still just as hard.

I realize that I need to explore this genre of film in more depth before I try to make one. That was my goal with The Crying Woman and it was my goal with this article. I expect that I will do a few more stories, some more articles and a short film or two before I’m done.

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