Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Subtext with Billy Mernit

Who is Billy Mernit?

This beautiful man is an eclecticism of so many creative abilities and so much life history, I doubt I have the space to list them all. He’s a professional story analyst for Universal Studios (although, apparently, they forgot to ask for his feedback on The Break-Up).

You can hire him as your very own script consultant. In the last decade alone, he’s read nearly 4,000 screenplays. (Pfft! Slacker! Hehehe…)

Billy Mernit is also this country’s foremost Rom-Com expert. He’s the author of the wonderful book,
Writing the Romantic Comedy. When you think of penning a Rom Com, you had better be familiar with Billy Mernit’s wisdom. He teaches half a dozen courses at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and was awarded 2001's Outstanding Screenwriting Instructor of the Year. You could attend one of his free writing workshops at UCLA during the ArtsDay LA event, I believe.

He has a novel ready-to-be-published called Making Up. You can read an excerpt

In the ‘70’s, he was Diane Keaton’s vocal coach for an album that regrettably, never came to fruition. He gave Carly Simon the line “clouds in my coffee” for her song, You’re So Vain.

Here’s something scandalous - in the ‘80’s, he published 20 Harlequin Romance Novels pretending to be a FEMALE novelist by the name of “Lee Williams” and also “Leigh Anne Williams.” Hehehe… That still makes me laugh. How can you not love that? You can read about his double life
here and here.

Even more scandalous – he played one of the “Blondells” in the 1980 movie classic,
Times Square. Hehehe… Of the three, he was, of course, the BEST BLONDELL.

Let’s see… What else? He was once a Teleprompter, Educational Research Assistant, and Keyboardist for
Pink Lady.

OH! Get this. He’s also a SINGER-SONGWRITER. He even has a
Greatest Hits CD!

Did I cover everything? Oh no, wait, how could I possibly forget? He is also the author of one of my favorite screenwriting blogs,
Living the Romantic Comedy. I’m not an ardent comment-poster, but I’ve read his entire blog. I've been doing it since January. (It goes back to June ’05.) It’s addictive. I daresay, it should be required reading for all aspiring screenwriters. He has the most wonderful posts on subjects like Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle, the problem with most aspiring screenwriters, A Few Good Words, Cinematic Valentines, How Movie Is It, Cary Grant, and… well, I could go on and on.

(Personally, my favorite posts were “Buckets of Rain”
Part 1 and 2.)

I love the man. I really do, but alas, I must move on to the subject at hand. Billy was so kind as to give us three simple examples of subtext in dialogue rich for our discussion.

Thanks so much, Billy.



In terms of dramatic writing, one could teach any number of courses or write a book on SUBTEXT alone, but since you're concentrating on dialogue...

Here's a few favorites because they're so wonderfully succinct. One of the all-time greats, in terms of just how much information, emotion, theme, and character, et al, can be packed into one word has got to be:


I'm thinking not of the first time it's uttered in Kane, but in the fantastic "let's tear up my errant wife's bedroom" scene in the back end of the movie, when Welles comes upon the snowglobe and utters the word to himself. I'd say if you ever want to explain "subtext in dialogue" to someone, refer them to this Mankiewicz & Welles classic.

More recently, I was blown away by the closing lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Jim Carrey character and the Kate Winslett character are agreeing to give their relationship a shot -- fully understanding that the first time they went through it, they went through hell, and that they both in fact agreed that their romance was hopeless. But they decide, against all odds, to try again. What could be more mundane and seemingly simple than:

He: Okay.
She: Okay.

Yet when you see it on screen, having been through one profound, wild emotional ride with these two, it's devastating. I wept the first time. These days I still tear up even thinking about it!

Most recent one-worder I've seen is in the last big scene between Depp and Knightley in Pirates Pt. 2. So as not to be a spoiler, I can't go into details, but let's just note that there is a lot, a lot, a lot built into two syllables, when he looks at her and simply says:


Hope you can get some milage out of these.



miriamp said...

Ooooohh. One-word subtext. Now I'm going to be looking for it every time I watch a movie.

crossword said...

One word. I guess it doesn't get any more economical that that (unless there's subtextual punctuation!).

Thanks for the examples Mr.Mernit; btw, "Writing the Romantic Comedy" is a great piece of writing and a must-have for writers interested in that genre. I'n not kidding, my copy has around 30 coloured post-it flag stickers permanently assigned.

Mystery Man said...

So what was "Rosebud" referring to exactly? Hehehe...

Can anyone tell me?

crossword said...

...errr... good point, generous host!

Could it perhaps be, that rosebud, an unopened flower of a rose, is a metaphor (struggling here) for Kane's arrested development (now totally winging it) and is, in fact, a brilliant juxtaposition (sweating) of the ...

okay, I give up.

I heard it was William Randolph Hearst's pet name for his wife's clitoris.

If true, then it represented an inside joke between the two writers, since the film was already a biopic of the magnate. And how in the name of everything that is holy, did Welles and Mankiewicz find out this little factoid anyway? But they were clever little sausages, so I would put nothing past them :)

Anonymous said...

I know I am late to the subtext thing, it has been a trying two weeks for me, but I G-mailed you one, hope it's ok

mernitman said...

I've heard that "pet name" story, too -- never verified -- could be the equivalent of a Hollywood urban legend, but it's nice to think it's true, isn't it?

Rosebud is of course the sled... represented by the snow globe... which is the one thing Kane can't destroy and that stops him cold in the midst of his out-of-control destruction-fit. As a balding millionaire head-case whose wife has just left him... the subtext beneath uttering "Rosebud" appears to be:

"I'm suddenly holding my childhood, my innocence, and a whole other part of me that's long gone in my hand -- so grief and mourning over everything I've lost trumps insane rage right now."

Thanks to Welles' delivery, there's also a frisson of longing, regret and... wonder, mixed in there. So it's quite a pathos-punch of a moment.

Re: the book, Crossword, I'm happy to have been of service.

Mystery Man said...

I think they made the same supposition that Crossword mentioned about "Rosebud" in RKO 281, didn't they? That may be where I first heard that theory.

Of course, "Rosebud" really is the epitome of great subtext, one of many pieces of Kane's inner puzzle, perhaps even the most important piece of Kane's life, the part that represents childhood innocence lost and never reborn, a symbol of his love, which was dismissed as junk and thrown into a fire, and essentially the birth of a very broken man who's very possessive about his materials and who keeps a sign out front that says "no trespassing."

Mystery Man said...

How about "Okay. Okay" in Eternal Sunshine? Does it not mean "I love you so much that I am willing to take all the bad in order to have the good?"

MaryAn Batchellor said...


My favorite line in Dead Man's Chest.

Mystery Man said...

I agree! And I think the meaning was pretty self-explanatory but certainly great.

One-word subtext. Just great.

Thanks, Billy.

Mickey Lee said...

"Rosebud" probably the most famous one-word subtext of all time. Think about it, the whole movie was about trying to uncover the subtext!

The "Okay"s from Eternal Sunshine moved me to tears. As off-the-wall as it may seem, that movie felt more true and more real than any other break-up film I've ever seen.

As for the "Pirate" -- meh, that subtext wasn't really earned. I've seen the film and I won't comment further for those who haven't, but needless to say, it didn't resonate with me nearly as much as the other two.

mernitman said...

well, sure. "eternal" comes from the world we're actually living in now.

it's the depth of what's understood, under those "okay"s! how much pain from past, present and future gets acknowledged by two people in a simple, seemingly casual agreement. and there's a resonance of the tentativeness of their very first encounter implicit in the moment...

Mystery Man said...

You’re absolutely right, Billy.

You bring up a great point in that there are quite a few contrasts in that scene:

* the simplicity of the words compared with the enormous emotion

* the simple answer to a big decision

* a simplicity that speaks to a great depth of what is really being understood

* there is tentativeness and yet heartfelt conviction

* there is an acknowledgement of what they really want compared to what they just heard themselves saying about each other.

* a simplicity that also conveys many other things they’re really saying to each other (I really love you, I really want to be with you, I really don’t care about all the bad)

And ya know, I always loved the fact that they had this moment in a hallway, which to me, physically represented this moment of truth in their lives, a moment where they had to choose to walk either in separate directions, or together in one direction or the other. They could agree to NOT give it a try and walk together in the same direction or they could agree to in fact give it another try and walk together in the OPPOSITE direction. And being in that hallway, one of them could’ve walked away at any moment. But there they are, free to leave but choosing to stay together. Verbally and physically.

I’m sure it was no fluke they picked a hallway for that moment.

Am I missing any other contrasts?

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Very late to the game here. Found you through Billy's link and am enjoying this informative series mucho!

In Pirate's OTC2, I thought when Jack said "Pirate" he was also calling Elizabeth one--acknowledging their sameness.

Thanks for this series!