Can They Really Say That in a Movie?


Column by Douglas Herman.

Exclusive to STR

“But talking about it (freedom) and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But if they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.” ~ Jack Nicholson as George Hanson in Easy Rider

While sitting in the editing bay, staring at the screen, with headphones covering my ears, looking at my film footage frame by frame, I enjoyed my crisp, powerful, and nearly flawless dialogue. But kidding aside, I enjoyed watching the way the actors and actresses interpreted my written lines in the script in their own original way.

Every audacious screenwriter wants to write memorable prose, memorable dialogue and memorable scenes for a movie. But can we really say things in our movies that might not go over too well with the film festival programmers, with film critics, with potential distributors, and with theater owners and especially with a paying audience?

Bravura filmmaking requires bravura writing. Powerful performances require powerful dialogue. Some things you might want to say in your script may stir up people against you. So be it. If what you wrote came from your heart, your internal beliefs and your inspiration, then say them. After all, you’re just continuing a long tradition and history of cutting edge moviemaking and time will be the judge. Not Rotten Tomatoes.

Consider an amazing performance by actor Bruno Ganz. He portrayed Hitler in a movie called Downfall. Told from the perspective of a young female secretary hired personally by Adolf Hitler, the film is absolutely brilliant. But although nominated for ONE Oscar, the movie was seen by comparatively few people.

Hitler biographer Sir Ian Kershaw wrote: “Of all the screen depictions of the Fuhrer, even by famous actors such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler’s voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic.”

Was the portrayal of Hitler by Bruno Ganz too perfect? By Hollywood standards, was Adolph Hitler NOT demonic enough? Were the Germans not villainous enough? Indeed, some of the doomed Germans came across as rather heroic. Certain bigshot Hollywood movie people may have looked askance at these nuances.

Hitler was a very real villain and the actor gave an incredible performance. The Joker was a caricature, a fictional villain in a Batman movie, and yet most viewers seemed to agree with the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

To them, the performance by Heath Ledger was Oscar-worthy while Bruno Ganz was not even worthy of a nomination. Judging purely by box office receipts, moviegoers seem to prefer their villains to be entirely fictional and based on cartoon characters.

Which begs the question: When was the last time you heard any powerful dialogue in a popular movie? Here’s what Warren Beatty, as Senator Bulworth, said on the same subject. Here he is speaking to a roomful of big Hollywood executives.

“The funny thing is how lousy most of your stuff is. You know, you make violent films, you make dirty films, you make family films, but just most of them are not very good, are they? Funny that so many smart people can work so hard on them, and spend all that money on them, and what do you think it is? It must be the money. It turns everything to crap. I mean, Jesus Christ, how much money do you people really need?”

How Much Money Do You People Need? Would any other scriptwriter/filmmaker dare to write that bit of dialogue today about Hollywood or the media? I doubt it. Not if they wanted to make another movie. Warren Beatty didn’t make many movies after his outrageous role in Bulworth, did he?

Not too long ago I wrote an amusing essay for the Internet, regarding this same fellow. Called Before Trump, Sen. Bulworth Spoke Truth To Power, the piece exams our vaunted freedom of speech. Well, that essay went viral. The elite media would never allow such an essay for public consumption. Free speech is wonderful in abstract, I suppose. I guess people are fascinated by humans, especially here in America, that say nutty or insightful things. Just as long as they don’t try to run for president or, as in the movie Bulworth, US Senator.

But suppose I wanted to make a movie about a college football star, a good-looking guy, who drops out of college, moves to LA and gets a job as a hitman or a drug runner. Then, after an intense but short life of crime or sleaze, he has an epiphany. Sounds like a good story so far, right?

And suppose this guy becomes a moral crusader for cleaning up drugs, crime and sleaze in America and, in the process, has some impassioned dialogue about the very powerful and very corrupt people behind the scenes? By the end of the movie, our underdog hero, who tries to play fair and believes in truth and justice, gets killed and his killers continue to prosper. Sounds a lot like life in America today, correct?

But suppose instead we give our good-looking former football star a bazooka and a machine gun, a fast car, and lots of pounding Dolby Surround sound, with a few short intense and vengeful speeches to his hot chick girlfriend? And suppose we get him on a steroid program before filming begins? So that when he finally starts slaying his former crime bosses, left and right, with lots of shooting, fiery explosions and car crashes in Surround Sound, we get to see those big ripped muscles. Big box office moneymaker, right?

Believe me: it is far easier to develop a two-dimensional, cardboard hero, or a diabolical villain like the Joker in a modern movie, than to create a complex, nuanced or ethical character. Happens every day in Hollywood.

For every Batman and Joker, there seems to be fewer and fewer Ricks from Casablanca, Jake Gittes from Chinatown, or George Baileys from It’s a Wonderful Life. Not to mention Red from The Shawshank Redemption.

Morgan Freeman had some memorable lines in that movie, as a complex man in prison for murder. A lifer, an “institutional man,” he calls himself. Black Lives Matter would hardly approve of Red. Here he is talking to the parole board at the prison.

"There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit."

Dialogue the average scriptwriter might have been tempted to tone down today in our PC world, or cut from the script completely, the director Frank Darabont, left intact. But powerful movie dialogue is the exception, not the rule today.

Most viewers were probably shocked, surprised, and then pleased that a pair of unknown actors managed to pen a script called Good Will Hunting that contained some pretty edgy dialogue. VERY edgy dialogue, actually. The script, and the movie that resulted, went on to win Oscars and was critical of the the power brokers in Washington, DC long before anyone heard of Edward Snowden.

The protagonist of the movie, played by a relatively unknown actor named Matt Damon, is called Will and he’s a troubled but brilliant math savant. Combative and mostly silent to his shrink, Will finally opens up to him, wonderfully portrayed by Robin Williams.

What follows is one of the greatest, longest movie monologues in cinema history. I can imagine how the writer/actors went back and forth, whether to cut or shorten this long, powerful spiel down to a pithy rant. Would you? Most of us probably would have shortened it.

“Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at the N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ‘cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of the rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin,’ “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ‘cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kids over there, getting’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ‘cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ‘cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with icebergs, and it ain’t too long ‘til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks ‘cause the shrapnel in his ass is giving him chronic hemorrhoids. And meantime he’s starvin’, ‘cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holding out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”

Absolutely amazing that it ever got said aloud in America, right? Every novelist, every columnist, every scriptwriter is probably tempted to tone down some lines. But why? To get a PG rating? To pander to movie critics and reviewers? To make movie characters more likable? To cater to the personal tastes of powerful producers who might be watching?

Some of the dialogue in my little indy film, Caution to the Wind,is inflammatory for a purpose. I wanted to define the characters within my story and their subsequent actions. They talk like real people do, sometimes funny, sometimes angry, sometimes with a great deal of hostility. Like Good Will Hunting. They talk like me and, I would bet, they talk like you too.

No scriptwriter should ever apologize for dialogue that hits home, even if it makes someone in the audience uncomfortable. Isn’t that what some brave newsman said he wanted to achieve? To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

The more we learn about real people, the more shadowy they become. They become more complex, both good and evil. I can probably name a dozen, dead famous Hollywood celebrities that were far more complex and shadowy than any fake movie character, hero or villain, ever created by a scriptwriter.

Should filmmakers shy away from powerful dialogue, cut every line and self-censure every character? No fucking way. Without bold writing, there can be no bold acting. Whether in movies or so-called real life. Bullets and bombs do not make bravura filmmaking or actual heroes. They certainly do not substitute for bravura characters.

Inspired genius creates it instead.

Speaking truth to power may be box office death and damnation by media critics. But what memorable dialogue did you ever hear in a popular superhero movie? Anything? Ever? So don’t second-guess yourself into mediocrity as a writer. If your essay, novel or film is misunderstood and your movie script considered unworkable, your characters too edgy and your dialogue too extreme, take heart. Lots of better filmmakers than you and I have had to struggle to get their stuff made into movies. And a lot of those movies are on the various “Best Movies of All Time” list.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @


Paul's picture

"But what memorable dialogue did you ever hear in a popular superhero movie? Anything? Ever?"

Just kidding, Douglas. :-)

I notice these days, if you want memorable dialog, you have to watch a foreign movie and listen to a translation of the original dialog, heh.

Douglas Herman's picture

LOL - Thanks Paul. 
Only saw the first Die Hard movie. Used to live not far from Nakatomi Plaza in Century City.

Stalking in Los Angeles: Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard 
Memorable dialogue throughout that action movie, some of it from Hans Gruber. Think Hans was the guy that helped the Clinton Foundation create and fund ISIS.

Die Hard: Hans Meets McClane - YouTube