Friday, August 10, 2007

Exposition with David Muhlfelder

Hey guys,

Many of you know our very good friend,
David Muhlfelder. As of today, he's written 664 excellent script reviews on TriggerStreet. (Those of you in Scribosphere may recall his great review of The Senator's Wife.) He has also written 5 superb screenplays, which have all been Top Ten favorites (as rated by his peers).

I loved what David wrote in his two good verbal examples. He said, "It's not so much what the narrator says, but how it's said juxtaposed with the images onscreen. We get all the back story and set up, but the combination immediately pulls you into the world of the film." Beautiful. I couldn't agree more.

Thanks so much, David.




In the film North By Northwest, Hitchcock uncharachteristically brings the story to a screeching halt for an unnecessary scene that introduces us to the United States Intelligence Agency. It is in that scene that Leo G. Carroll rather awkwardly explains to his colleagues (But mostly to the audience) that Roger Thornhill has been mistaken for the fictional George Kaplan, and that they're not going to try to rectify the situation in order to deflect suspicion from their real agent who's working on the inside right under Van Dam's nose. The only "necessary" piece of information in that scene is that George Kaplan doesn't exist. The rest could've been dealt with in an exchange of looks, or by not answering the question "So, what do we do now?"


Paddy Chayevsky's The Hospital and Network both begin with a VO narration (Done by Chayevsky himself in The Hospital). In The Hospital the narration takes the form of a medical case history (With occasional aside comments) over images of a patient being admitted and moved through a busy hospital. Most of the narration is very technical and would only be understood by a doctor. Towards the end of the sequence, the narrator shifts gears to recount the details of a young intern's sexual trysts with a female lab tech. It ends with the patient dead in a hospital room, and the narrator saying something like "All of this is to show how the bed in room 806 became available." This is followed by the intern calling his girlfriend to tell her that he had a real bed for them. The opening credits follow over a still image of a comatose patient in the foreground bed, and the intern and his girlfriend going at it in the background.

Similarly, in Network, the narrator begins by recounting the ups and downs of anchorman Howard Beale's career and personal life. All of this is done over images of the nightly news anchors of the time. Again, the language of the narrator is specific to the TV industry. While not as technical as The Hospital, it is framed in talk of ratings and shares. It ends by informing us that Beale is fired and it has fallen to his best friend to tell, and that the two men got drunk. This is followed by a cut to Beale and Schumacher drunk in a bar, trading war stories.

What makes these good verbal expositions? It's not so much what the narrator says, but how it's said juxtaposed with the images onscreen. We get all the back story and set up, but the combination immediately pulls you into the world of the film. In The Hospital it's medical science colliding with the chaos, bureaucracy and inefficiency of a busy New York hospital. In Network it's the dispassionate, analytical reduction of a man's life to his TV ratings, juxtaposed with the real man. I think it's the best use of VO on film, and no writer could get away with it nowadays. But then again, not many writers can write like Paddy Chayevsky.


2001: A Space Odyssey. The first line of dialogue isn't spoken until nearly thirty minutes into the film. The Dawn of Man sequence shows the apes as they were before the monolith arrives, and how its arrival changes their behavior and sets the evolutionary process in motion. It's all capped by the scene where the ape, triumphant in battle, hurls his bone club into the air and it becomes a satellite, signaling that we are now at the beginning of another watershed moment in the evolution of mankind.


Mim said...

LOL. David, were you reading the raging debate on VO and wondering how your exposition examples would be received?

2001 contains many great, great examples of non-verbal exposition, but I think the fact that so many people recognize the image of the bone speaks to how effective it was. It's been copied and parodied so many times, just like the great quotable lines from other films. It's the non-verbal equivalent of "I'll be back."

Anonymous said...


I didn't see the VO debate, but I tend to come down on the con side, mostly because it's usually done so poorly. Like I said, Chayevsky was special.

I think the mistake most writers make with VO is redundancy. They are describing what can or should be seen. VO can work if it complements the visual rather than rehashing it. In "The Hospital," if you remove the VO, all you see is the chaos of the ER. The VO gives the audience the sense (If only briefly) that there is method to this madness.

Unknown said...


You're brilliant, man. You and I should work together sometime.

I think Chayevsky is a writer that we should pay more attention to.

Anonymous said...


Chayevsky is a writer who anyone who calls themselves a screenwriter should know. I wonder how he would do in today's market. He wrote very dialogue heavy scripts, albeit dialogue set in interesting visual arenas. Nevertheless, you can make an argument that it was all on the nose, with his characters showing an almost super human self-awareness. But it was brilliant in its construction. Maybe we should do a study on the difference between good and bad on the nose dialogue, because he,like Tarantino in his style, certainly stand as an exceptions to the "rules."

Another thing to consider is that "The Americanization Of Emily," "The Hospital," and "Network" are all variations on the same story. "Marty" and "Altered States" (Which he took his name off of) were the atypical Chatevesky works. "Marty" was actually an adaptation of his own teleplay (Which provided an early role for the great Nancy Marchand).

The thing about "Network" that is so striking is that at the time of its release it was widely praised by people in the TV and movie business, but audiences found it over the top and cynical. In today's context, it looks downright prophetic, almost quaint. It lost the best picture Oscar to "Rocky" (But at least Paddy won his third screenwriting award).

Mystery Man said...

David -

I love the idea about an on-the-nose dialouge study! It's on my list of subjects to explore. (After the exposition study, I'm going to dive into a few articles on "writing the shots" and more on visual storytelling.) In any case, there's a lot to be said about on-the-nose dialogue, but I've avoided it. I know a lot of newbies read me and I'm very careful to keep certain principles simple and one has always been "get the hell away from flat on-the-nose dialogue as much as humanly possible" just to push them in a direction that elevates all the talk. I say those things selfishly, too, because I can't stomach a bunch of flat on-the-nose talk when I read a script. I always think of 50 different approaches that could've added layers of depth and subtext to those lines, and it pisses me off when an aspiring writer doesn't even think of ONE. Ya know? But on-the-nose is certainly unavoidable at times (exposition is one example), but they should fall back on it only as a last resort.

You're right, though. Some people do it very well. There are exceptions.

Since the moment I first read this article, I have been DYING to see Paddy's films again. (and foreign films as you can imagine).

There aren't enough hours in the day...