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The Dialogue of Eszterhas, Darabont and Tarantino - Part I: Eszterhas and BASIC

The Dialogue of Eszterhas, Darabont and Tarantino.
Part I: Eszterhas and Basic Instinct

by: Christopher Wehner


For me, when it comes to dialogue, Eszterhas, Darabont and Tarantino are in a league of their own. These three writers seem to always use the right words, they each could be called the Hemingway of the screenwriting profession. Before you get too excited about my comparison, consider the following.

Hemingway scrutinized over every single word he wrote and when it comes to dialogue: Eszterhas, Darabont and even Tarantino are no different. One may use a more eloquent and sophisticated variety of words, while another may use the kind of words that dismay, shock, and perhaps disturb some movie goers. But, as far I'm concerned each has a way with words that brings the conflict in their scripts to a level rarely captured by others.

Dialogue should serve as conflict as much as action scenes, if not more so. Characters in conflict is best presented by dialogue and once you master your dialogue, you'll master your script.

Properly written dialogue encompasses dimension, tempo, pace and savvy. We've all heard that each character must speak with a different voice. Well, that is the first step but it doesn't end there.

Real life people use profanity, speak in incomplete sentences and often use poor grammar... even the educated ones. Also, know when not to disrupt a character by using Tarantino like dialogue. It's a fine line that only great screenwriters can effortlessly accomplish, the rest of us are stuck scratching our heads.

The worst thing you can do is go to one extreme or the other. Don't fashion your characters by trends, but by your own ideas. Everyone in your story shouldn't curse and not everyone should be so good that they are always polite.

Be real, and make your characters real. Go out and sit in a coffee shop, a local pub and a dance hang-out. Or go to the park and watch kids and families play. Watch people at stoplights and busy intersections... you're getting the point. Watch, observe and take mental notes. If you can get away with it take notes on a pad of paper. I used to work in adult probation, so you can imagine the people I met... they influenced my writing greatly.

Okay, so we've talked a little about dialogue and we have a pretty good idea that it's not easy writing truly great dialogue. For to be sure, only scripts with great dialogue will sell. Lets look at some examples of great dialogue from the masters themselves.

My first example is from Eszterhas and more specifically his script Basic Instinct. This is one of the best scripts for the intermediate writer to read. The script reads like a breeze. It has a pace and rhythm that only a great writer can achieve. The action lines are on average shorter then most, but with very few words Eszterhas gives us an extremely visual description. His dialogue though, is right on. Each character has their own voice and the dialogue moves with grace, flamboyance and with a certain edge to each word.

(Note: be sure to notice the amount of "white space." Slug lines and descriptions are solid and tight. No wordy descriptions or ramblings.

 EXT. A BROWNSTONE IN PACIFIC HEIGHTS - MORNING Winter in San Francisco: cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere. The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives get out of the car, walk into the house. 2. NICK CURRAN is 42. Trim, good-looking, a nice suit: a face urban, edged, shadowed. GUS MORAN is 64. Crew-cut, silver beard, a suit rumpled and shiny, a hat out of the 50's: a face worn and ruined: the face of a backwoods philosopher. INT. THE BROWNSTONE There's money here -- deco, clean, hip -- That looks like a Picasso on the wall. They check it out. GUS Who was this fuckin' guy? NICK Rock and roll, Gus. Johnny Boz. GUS I never heard of him. NICK (grins) Before your time, pop. (a beat) Mid-sixties. Five or six hits. He's got a club down in the Fillmore now. GUS Not now he don't. Past the uniformed guys... nods... waves... past the forensic men... past the coroner's investigators... they get to the bedroom. INT. THE BEDROOM They walk in, stare -- it's messy. It's like a convention in here. LT. PHIL WALKER, in his 50's, silver-haired, the Homicide guys: JIM HARRIGAN, late 40's, puffy, affable; SAM ANDREWS, 30's, black. A CORONER'S MAN is working the bed. LT. WALKER (to Nick and Gus) You guys know Captain Talcott? They nod. GUS What's the Chief's office doin' here. CAPT. TALCOTT Observing. 3. LT. WALKER (to the Coroner's Guy) What do you think, Doc? THE CORONER'S GUY The skin blanches when I press it -- this kind of color is about right for six or eight hours. LT. WALKER Nobody say anything. The maid came in an hour ago and found him. She's not a live-in. GUS Maybe the maid did it. LT. WALKER She's 54 years old and weighs 240 pounds. THE CORONER'S GUY (deadpan) There are no bruises on his body. GUS (grins) It ain't the maid. LT. WALKER He left the club with his girlfriend about midnight. That's the last time anybody saw him. NICK (looks at body) What was it? THE CORONER'S GUY Ice pick. Left on the coffee table in the living room. Thin steel handle. Forensics took it downtown. HARRIGAN There's come all over the sheets -- he got off before he got offed. GUS (deadpan) That rules the maid out for sure. CAPT. TALCOTT This is sensitive. Mr. Boz was a major contributor to the mayor's campaign. He was Chairman of the Board of the Palace of Fine Arts -- 4. GUS (to Nick) I thought you said he was a rock and roll star. LT. WALKER He was a retired rock and roll star. CAPT. TALCOTT A civic-minded, very respectable rock and roll star. GUS What's that over there? We see the white powder laid out in lines on the small mirror on the side table. NICK (deadpan) It looks like some civic-minded, very respectable cocaine to me, Gus. CAPT. TALCOTT (evenly, to Nick) Listen to me, Curran. I'm going to get a lot of heat on this. I don't want any... mistakes. Nick and Talcott look at each other a beat, then -- NICK Who's the girlfriend? Lt. Walker looks at the notepad in his hand. LT. WALKER Catherine Tramell, 162 Divisadero. Nick writes it down. He and Gus turn, leave. Captain Talcott watches them. He looks disturbed.
My next example from Basic Instinct is when Catherine is being interrogated at the police station. It's a great sequence, and the dialogue is right on. Pay attention to the flow and development of the dialogue, it really is excellent.

The Conflict in these scenes is not about action, but about dialogue. There's not only this confrontation between Catherine and the investigators, but also there is this verbal game between her and Nick. It's conflict on a multi-level, and that makes it even more interesting. Lets take a look:

 INT. A POLICE INTERROGATION ROOM - DAY It is large, fluorescent-lighted, antiseptic. She walks in with Nick and Gus. In the room are prosecutor John Corrigan, Lt. Walker, Captain Talcott, Harrigan, and Andrews. There is a police stenographer: a plain young woman in her 20's. As soon as she comes in -- CORRIGAN I'm John Corrigan. I'm an assistant district attorney, Ms. Tramell. Can we get you anything? Would you like some coffee? CATHERINE No thank you. TALCOTT Are your attorneys -- NICK (hiding a smile) Ms. Tramell waived her right to an attorney. 21. Corrigan and Talcott glance at Nick. She sees the look. CATHERINE (smiles) Did I miss something? NICK I told them you wouldn't want an attorney present. LT. WALKER Why have you waived your right to an attorney, Ms. Tramell? CATHERINE (to Nick) Why did you think I wouldn't want one? NICK I told them you wouldn't want to hide. CATHERINE I have nothing to hide. The two of them keep their eyes on each other. She sits down. They sit around her. Nick sits directly across from her. She lights up a cigarette. They watch her. She is poised, cool, in complete command of herself. CORRIGAN There is no smoking in this building, Ms. Tramell. CATHERINE What are you going to do? Charge me with smoking? Ever so casually, she blows her smoke across at Nick. DISSOLVE TO: INT. THE INTERROGATION ROOM - LATER CORRIGAN Would you tell us the nature of your relationship with Mr. Boz? CATHERINE I had sex with him for about a year and a half. I liked having sex with him. 22. She has control of the room: she looks from one man to the other as she speaks. CATHERINE (continuing) He wasn't afraid of experimenting. I like men like that. I like men who give me pleasure. He gave me a lot of pleasure. A beat, as they watch her. She is so matter-of-fact. CORRIGAN Did you ever engage in sado- masochistic activity with him? CATHERINE (smiles) Exactly what do you have in mind, Mr. Corrigan. CORRIGAN (after a beat, little flustered) Did you ever tie him up? CATHERINE No. ANDREWS You never tied him up. CATHERINE No. Johnny liked to use his hands too much. I like hands and fingers. They stare at her. DISSOLVE TO: INT. THE INTERROGATION ROOM - LATER LT. WALKER You describe a white silk scarf in your book. CATHERINE I've always had a fondness for white silk scarves. (she smiles) I have a very vivid imagination. NICK But you said you liked men to use their hands. 23. CATHERINE No. I said I liked Johnny to use his hands. (she smiles) I don't give any rules, Nick. I go with the flow. They have their eyes on each other. DISSOLVE TO: INT. THE INTERROGATION ROOM - LATER CORRIGAN Did you kill Mr. Boz, Ms. Tramell? CATHERINE I'd have to be pretty stupid to write a book about a killing and then kill him the way I described in my book. I'd be announcing myself as the killer. I'm not stupid. She smiles. TALCOTT We know you're not stupid, Ms. Tramell. LT. WALKER Maybe that's what you're counting on to get you off the hook. NICK Writing a book about it gives you an alibi for not killing him. CATHERINE Yes it does, doesn't it? She holds his eyes a second, then -- CATHERINE (continuing) The answer is no. I didn't kill him. DISSOLVE TO: INT. THE INTERROGATION ROOM - LATER GUS Do you use drugs, Ms. Tramell? CATHERINE sometimes. 24. HARRIGAN Did you ever do drugs with Mr. Boz? CATHERINE Sure. GUS What kind of drugs? CATHERINE Cocaine. She looks directly at Nick. CATHERINE (continuing) Have you ever fucked on cocaine? (she smiles) It's nice. He watches her. DISSOLVE TO: INT. THE INTERROGATION ROOM - LATER NICK You like playing games, don't you? CATHERINE (smiles) I've got a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun. They are holding each other's eyes. NICK How about boxing? That's a game. Was that fun for you? They don't take their eyes off each other for a second. TALCOTT I think that's irrelevant to this inquiry. CATHERINE (to Nick) Yes it was. Bobby died. NICK How did you feel when he died? CATHERINE I loved him. I hurt. Their eyes are still on each other. 25. NICK How did you feel when I told you Johnny Boz had died -- that day at the beach. CATHERINE I felt somebody had read my book and was playing a game. NICK But you didn't hurt -- CATHERINE No. NICK Because you didn't love him -- CATHERINE That's right. Their eyes are digging into each other. NICK Even though you were fucking him. CATHERINE (after a beat) You still get the pleasure. Didn't you ever fuck anybody else while you were married, Nick? A bet; he stares at her, expressionless. LT. WALKER How did you know he was married? CATHERINE (watching Nick) Maybe I was guessing. What difference does it make? She lights a cigarette. He stares at her. CATHERINE (continuing) Would you like a cigarette, Nick? He just stares at her, expressionless. CORRIGAN Do you two know each other? NICK No. CATHERINE No. 26. INT. THE INTERROGATION ROOM - LATER ANDREWS How did you meet Mr. Boz? CATHERINE I wanted to write a book about the murder of a retired rock star. I went down to his club and picked him up. Then I had sex with him. LT. WALKER You didn't feel anything for him. You just had sex with him for your book. She looks at Nick. CATHERINE In the beginning. Then I got to like what he did for me. GUS That's pretty cold, ain't it, lady? CATHERINE I'm a writer, I use people for what I write. You write what you know. Let the world beware. She and Nick have their eyes on each other, then -- CATHERINE (continuing; to Corrigan, smiles) Would you like me to take a lie detector test? DISSOLVE TO:
I hope you picked up on how Eszterhas keeps dialogue compact, and in rhythm with the action and story. The story moves at an exciting pace. You want to keep turning the pages, not just because of a good story, but because the characters are interesting and speak with flare and a type of erotic nature in some degree. The writing hooks the reader, and continues to draw us in.

  • Points of Reference: Eszterhas
    • Dialogue should be as tight as possible.
    • Rhythm, keep the dialogue in rhythm with the story.
    • Pace & Flow, keep the dialogue flowing.
    • Voice, each character has their own style of language. Be consistent.
    • Direct Words, use words that are easy to read and understand.
I hope that this presentation on dialogue and my examples from Eszterhas and his script Basic Instinct have been helpful. Come back next month for Part II: Frank Darabont and The Shawshank Redemption.

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