The direction of a dialogue sequence is influenced by the genre, and certain genres (the melodrama, for example) tend to be more sedentary and dependent on dialogue than others. The action-adventure genre, which is less reliant on dialogue, offers an example of more fluid editing.
In The Terminator (1984), James Cameron used an interesting dialogue sequence to advance the plot. Reese and Sara Connor are being chased by the Terminator. Their car weaves and crashes throughout this sequence. They are under constant threat. Cameron intercut between the excitement of the car chase and Reese and Sara talking to one another. This dialogue fills in a great deal of the plot. Reese told Sara earlier that he and the Terminator are from the future. During this sequence, he describes John Connor, who is leading the fight against the robots and technocrats who dominate the future. Sara discovers that she will become John Connor's mother and that the Terminator was sent back in time to kill her before she could have the child. If she dies, the future will change, Reese explains. This is why it's critical that he protect her.
The dialogue itself is presented as we would expect, with over-the-shoulder shots mostly of Sara as she listens and reacts, but also of Reese, who will be John Connor's father. Because the shots are in the car, they are in the midshot to close-up range. Subjective camera placement is the pattern.
The dialogue here is important, and there is a lot of it. By intercutting with the chase, Cameron masked the amount of dialogue and conformed to the conventions of the genre: Don't slow down the action with conversation.1 The dialogue is presented in a classic manner, but because it's crosscut with its context, the chase helps mask it.
A more direct approach to the dialogue sequence is exemplified by Woody Allen in the climactic scene toward the end of Manhattan (1979). In this contemporary story of New York relationships, the main character, Ike (Allen), has committed to a relationship with Mary (Diane Keaton), a writer close to his age. He has put behind him relationships with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and his two ex-wives. Mary, who was formerly the mistress of Ike's closest friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), has decided at Yale's prompting to take up with him again. His 12-year marriage does not seem to be an impediment. In this dialogue sequence, Ike confronts Yale and accuses him of immaturity and self-indulgence: "But you—but you're too easy on yourself, don't you see that? You know-.-.-.-that's your problem, that's your whole problem. You rationalize everything. You're not honest with yourself. You talk about-.-.-.-you wanna write a book, but, in the end, you'd rather buy the Porsche, you know, or you cheat a little bit on Emily, and you play around with the truth a little with me, and the next thing you know, you're in front of a Senate committee and you're naming names! You're informing on your friends!"
This dialogue sequence is in many ways the climax of the film because the main character has finally come to realize that relationships that proceed without a sense of morality and mutual respect are doomed and transitory and that the maturity that leads to healthy relationships is not related to age.
The dialogue sequence begins with three camera setups and a long establishing shot of the location where the conversation takes place. The two characters approach a blackboard, which has two skeletons hanging in front of it. The long establishing shot (after the two enter the classroom) sets up the sequence. After the establishing shot, the film moves into two tight mid-shots, one of Yale, the other of Ike. The frame with Ike includes the head of one of the skeletons so that the shot presents as a two-shot with Ike and the skeleton. For the balance of the dialogue sequence, the two midshots of Yale and Ike are intercut. The sequence ends with Ike leaving the frame so that all we see is the skeleton. Ike's last line refers to the skeleton; he says that when he looks like the skeleton, when he thins out, he wants to be sure "I'm well thought of."
This sequence, like the dialogue sequence in The Terminator, advances the plot, but its presentation is much more direct. It is not presented in an overly emotional manner. The direction makes it clear that we must listen to the dialogue and consider what is being said. The presence of the skeleton adds a visual dimension that adds irony to the dialogue. This dialogue sequence exemplifies the simplicity that allows the dialogue to be heard without distraction.
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