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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

July 8, 2010 at 1:09 PM

A word about screenwriting

I’m not working on a screenplay at the moment (really, what I’m doing at the moment is drinking Diet Coke and pondering how exactly to express how much I liked “The Kids Are All Right” and wondering if it’s really as hot outside as I think it is), but the other day I heard something that I think everyone who writes dialogue — or watches it — should know. I was watching Season 3 of “Mad Men” on DVD, because I’m getting excited for the new season, and listening to the commentaries for the first time. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, was taking us through a scene with Don and Betty and their rocky-at-best marriage. And he said — I’m probably paraphrasing a bit, sorry, Matthew — that when you are writing dialogue, “you always have to be on the side of the person who is speaking.” Because otherwise, you’re just setting up stick figures and knocking them down. And just like that, I realized what’s wrong with so many tepid screenplays of so many disappointing movies: Nobody believes in the characters — or, at most, the writer believes in one or two characters but not the rest of them. If every character is someone the writer understands, and everyone is speaking something utterly truthful and believed by that character, because the writer understands and supports why this person is saying this, then you get good stuff, like “Mad Men.” Perhaps this is obvious to some, but I’ve never studied screenwriting and have never heard this particular idea expressed, and it’s staying with me.

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