'The Artist': How Did a Dialogue-Free Movie Earn a Screenplay Oscar Nomination?
Hey, why shouldn't Michel Hazanavicius have earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for "The Artist"? What could be more original, in 2011, than writing a movie that is silent and black-and-white? Certainly no one else tried that this year -- and that's in a year that saw nominations for such feats of original screenwriting as an all-female ensemble comedy ("Bridesmaids,") a nuanced movie about Wall Street ("Margin Call"), a nostalgic time-travel fantasy ("Midnight in Paris") and a Farsi domestic drama ("A Separation").
Still, you may ask, how does a film with no spoken dialogue earn a screenplay nomination?
Having read the "Artist" screenplay, I can attest that it's certainly not like typical dialogue-driven screenplays. For one thing, it appears at first glance to be awfully short. Dialogue-driven scripts tend to cover about one minute of screen time per page, so for a two-hour movie, a standard screenplay might be 120 pages. But Hazanavicius's "Artist" script is just 42 pages, covering about three minutes per page. Naturally, most of what Hazanavicius wrote is stage directions, visual cues, and the title cards that substitute for spoken dialogue in the film. The stage directions are dense and highly specific; a lot of the comic business that delights viewers -- George and Peppy doing a tap-dance duet on opposite sides of a scrim without realizing who's on the opposite side, or Peppy putting her arm in George's jacket sleeve and pretending to embrace herself -- is all planned out in the script. It's a fascinating departure from typical screenplays, where dialogue is as important as plot for establishing character. Reading "The Artist," it's clear that character is determined entirely by action. Writing instructors always advise, "Show, don't tell," but "The Artist" really applies that maxim.
"If you try to make a silent movie with a normal script and you just pull out the dialogue, you will have big problems with the actors because you will ask them to tell a story that you don't know," Hazanavicius told Moviefone last year. "It's how you write a sequence with images. The writing was really pre-directing. You're writing pages that make the story readable for everyone. Accessible for everyone."
Another unusual thing: the film is broken down into just 124 shots, or about one cut per minute. That's far less than the hundreds and hundreds of shots in most modern screenplays, where the camera seems to cut to a new shot every few seconds and seldom seems to linger on any single action or speech. We're accustomed to rapid-fire editing, but the 1920s movies "The Artist" emulates were a lot more like theater and vaudeville, with static cameras capturing long takes of unbroken action. Now, in actuality, the editing in the completed film cuts a lot more often than once per minute, so the film doesn't seem as strange as it might to modern eyes and modern attention spans. (Often, a director uses the camera instructions and scene transitions spelled out in a screenplay only as a rough guide, even when the director is also the screenwriter, as in "The Artist.") Nonetheless, it's interesting to see the kind of old-fashioned rhythm and flow Hazanavicius was aspiring toward.
Often in "The Artist," you can see actors mouthing words, some of which aren't spelled out in the title cards. Generally, that unheard dialogue isn't spelled out in Hazanavicius' screenplay, but by the time of the shoot, the actors had apparently decided what they were going to say. As "Artist" co-star James Cromwell explained on this site:
Like the creation of those early silent films, the film-making process on the set of "The Artist" was far from silent. We actors had dialogue, the set was filled with music and the brilliant director Michel Hazanavicius could be heard sharing his vision during the entire 39 day shoot in Los Angeles. It could have been any set in Hollywood, only on this set, those sounds were not recorded. One might ask, besides the lack of sound, what else is different about acting in a silent film. For one, an actor has to adjust to the faster film speed by sustaining the expression a fraction longer so the audience can adjust their perceptions. Gesture replaces inflection, yet the performance still somehow reads completely natural.
"Ultimately," Cromwell added, "acting on any film set is telling the truth while pretending it's fiction, it's often very difficult to do with words anyway because they so rarely mean what we use them to say." Dispensing with deceptive dialogue altogether and creating a film where meaning is determined strictly by what is seen and not heard -- surely that's a feat worthy of a Best Original Screenplay nomination.