Don’t Breathe is a film which doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. However, the characters are extremely interesting and without saying much the film tells you a lot about them.
Take the old blind man for example. Through the dialogue of the film we find out he’s a vet who lost his sight in a war. We’re also given much more information about him through pictures that sit in his bedroom, the state his house is in, things hidden in his basement, and his behavior during certain parts of the film. It’s not always obvious, but I will not go into detail in fear of spoiling the film for those eagle eyed viewers. But I will say this, the exposition of this film was very well done. When leaving the theater, how much information you want to take with you depends on how much attention you paid.
So exactly what is it that makes the difference between the good exposition in this film and bad exposition? Information always needs to be given to the viewer, so how do you handle said information without taking the viewer away from the film? Using films which have great exposition scenes, and some not so great, I’ll show you how exposition looks when it’s done right.
Warning: Spoilers to Fantastic Four (2015) follow. Believe me though, You probably don’t want to waste your time watching it.
1. If you have to say it, make sure they’re clueless.
Think of Star Wars, Bladerunner and The Matrix. Science Fiction films are the hardest films to not screw up when it comes to exposition. You’re creating a whole world and trying to make it believable and entertaining. Often times, as with Star Wars and Bladerunner, you’re given a long expositional introduction to the world. However, since yu can’t place the entire plot out for the audience in a half-hour written intro, there’s always more information to throw at us. The easiest, and most effective way to handle it is if you have some clueless characters around, and they’re always there.
In Star Wars, when Luke meets Ben Kenobi for the first time, He is taken on a journey. The Force has to be taught and explained to him. Luke sometimes knows something, but Leia or Han Solo are the clueless characters. It balances out. In Bladerunner, Rick Deckard knows everything there is to know about Replicants. However, he’s introduced to something new right from the beginning of the film, and thus he turns into that clueless character. In the Matrix, there’s not much to it… Just when Neo thinks he has the matrix figured out, it gets more complicated, just like a philosophy class tends to get.
The common denominator is that in all of these films, the audience are also clueless as to what’s going on until it gets explained. Having a clueless character, or a character who is in the shoes of the audience makes the audience relate more, but also makes the audience feel as though what they’re learning is not out of the blue or unrealistic. The key is to give the audience the information they need while still immersed in the film.
2. Say it, but make sure it needs to be said, and it doesn’t sound stupid.
When the audience are given information they don’t need to know, or the reason to explain something doesn’t make sense, that immersion goes away. In Fantastic Four (2015) the last battle ensues and Dr.Doom is building a black hole to suck up the earth through. This is obvious (Dr. Doom just said he’s going to destroy their world, and they come from earth… Then he continues to open what looks like your typical Super-hero destroy-it-all black hole). However, after this, Reed Richards turns to his team mates, and explains how Dr. Doom is building a black hole, and what he’s planning to do with it, followed by “We have to stop him.” This is assuming that the audience doesn’t know what is obvious and it also assumes that Reed’s friends, who are also pretty smart, are clueless.
The Washowski Brothers, who created the Matrix, also created another film last year called Jupiter Ascending. This film while not as bad as F4, also suffers from bits and pieces of bad exposition. A character takes a girl to a rooftop and tells her all about DNA splicing, and how sometimes Vampires and Ghosts are made by mistake. While this is really cool, it serves nothing to the plot and makes an entire scene out of it. Hence the audience either goes “That’s cool,” and moves on, or realizes they just had their time wasted.
When making a script, the dialogue should either tell you about the characters, have a function, or further the plot. If it doesn’t do any of those, it should at least be highly entertaining. We’re seeing more and more films with pointless dialogue in today’s films.
3. You don’t have to be so straight forward when you say it.
Now that we’re past the depressing stuff that makes a movie bad, let’s get to the positive. Even when a film isn’t science-fiction, exposition plays a big role in it. As we said before, if exposition is handled badly in ANY film, the immersion doesn’t happen. When film makers/ writers know what they’re doing, they know how to make a conversation full of exposition without making you feel as though you’re being given information. A twist, a turn, or a complex line can make all the difference in the dialogue.
One of the masters when it comes to dialogue exposition is David Fincher. Think about Fight Club, Se7en, and Zodiac. All three films run on twists and turns. Zodiac takes you on a wild goose chase for a murderer you’re never going to find. A piece of dialogue is read out loud from a piece of paper. The detective, journalist, and other main characters have an entire conversation about it which seems pointless at the time. Then later the piece of dialogue is repeated in the film, and for a second you feel as though the killer is found! The rush that goes through the viewer in moments like this is great. This is great exposition. Making the viewer feel as though he found it out himself/herself. It also rewards a viewer which pays attention. David Fincher films are full of these moments.
The last scene, or the “What’s in the box?” scene in Se7en is a great example of exposition to build up tension before a reveal. A film like Jaws uses information as a tool to make the Shark in the film more intimidating before you finally see it. When done right, exposition can be a tool rather then a obstacle to overcome.
Most films run on exposition, and if the information is given to you in a way in which immerses you further rather then makes the plot pause it’s even more rewarding to view. For example, you can have a character say something like, “I didn’t murder a man on purpose, but my gun did fall once and went off. It shot a man in the head.” Or you can have separate dialogues… One that shows the character’s restraint to use a gun, one that shows that he murdered someone, and one that reveals he didn’t do it on purpose. Spoon feeding the audience information is the easiest way, but having them learn how to eat up the information is better.
In my opinion, however, the best directors don’t even have to worry about the exposition being in dialogue.
4. Most times… You don’t have to say it at all.
I watched a film a couple of weeks ago called Hell or High Water (dir: David Mackenzie). The film has almost perfect exposition if I’ve ever seen any. The characters never reveal themselves fully through the dialogue, and yet you feel attached to them by the end of the film. The visual information you are given, however, is great. The second time watching the film, I realized the intro scene of the film tells you everything you need to know about the brothers personalities, who’s going to die, who they’re targeting, and why they’re targeting them. The only dialogue spoken in this scene is not very memorable. Lines somewhere along the line of “Gimme the money,” “Don’t move,” and “Slow Down.”
Since it’s a film, visuals are more important then words in a way. And every shot is worth a thousand words if you’re a good director. Take the same hypothetical scene from before, for example. Having the man admit that he murdered someone by mistake right off the bat proved to be uninteresting. Spreading out the subject in between conversations proved to be more interesting and worked better. However, what about if we use visuals and acting? What about if instead, we show the character looking at a gun before deciding he doesn’t want to hold it. Later we simply have the character say, “Yeah, I murdered a man once” with regret in his eyes. Have him driving by a house where his victim lived, getting a dirty look from the people who lived there (perhaps his victims family or friends.) Then have the other person find an old newspaper article that shows the man killed by mistake.
Using visuals often proves to be more challenging then anything else when it comes to exposition, but it often works even better and makes the film worth watching rather then worth listening to, which is what films mean to be anyway. Having a film with interesting dialogue is good, but interesting visuals make masterpieces.
Dennis Villenueve is a director who like Stanley Kubrick focuses on visuals. If you finish reading this and you feel like watching something which is, new, more visual and very interesting to look at, I suggest one of his films. Prisoners, Sicario, and Enemy all have great visual exposition.
Do you disagree or agree with what great exposition in film takes? Are there any other methods of exposition I didn’t mention? Already watched Villenueve and want other suggestions, or maybe have some movie suggestions for me? Let me know in the comments! I’m always up to watch something new.
And as always:
Thanks for reading!