A while back, I mentioned the primary lesson I learned while attending “The Actors’ Workshop”, which I later applied – when I remembered to – to my writing.
The lesson involved the actor’s pre-determination of their character’s “intention.” Before you begin, if you first identify your character’s – or characters’ if you are writing or playing numerous parts – intention, articulated in a single, declarative sentence, you are productively off to the races – completing the horseracing analogy – right from the starting gate.
It turns out there is another equally important lesson, which I was reminded of when I saw Brooklyn, which I enjoyed primarily for its writing. (Although less so for its directing, which seemed disservicingly sanitized.)
The screenplay for Brooklyn, based on a novel by Colin Toibin, was written by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity and About A Boy, to name just two, both of them made into enjoyable movies.)
The lesson I was reminded of watching Brooklyn – and I do not recall for certain where I originally learned it – was…
This directive seems obvious in acting since, at the very least, unless it’s a Howard Hawks movie, the actor has to listen for the other actor to stop talking before they begin talking. Otherwise, the audience will be unable to understand what either of them is saying.
But listening, for actors, means more than just waiting for your their to speak. It involves listening, to interpret the words they are hearing’s underlying intent. It helps a lot if the script’s dialogue, rather than saying it all, leaves actors something to interpret.
And in Brooklyn, it does.
I appreciated novelist Hornby’s relatable dialogue, which is guileless and direct – The New Boyfriend: “I wanna ask you somethin’, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s too soon’…” – its simplicity requiring the listener – the actor and, parenthetically, the audience – to infer the current of emotion underneath.
Chronicling, as movies rarely bother to, the torturous immigrant experience – “When do I start to feel I’m from here and no longer from there?” – That’s not a line from the movie, whose writing is considerably more artful, it’s just me, summarizing in quotes – Brooklyn’s story centers on a young Irish immigrant to the United States having to choose where she will ultimately wind up, after a man in each country wants her to stay.
This is hardly a Sophie’s Choice type of dilemma, as her alternatives appear to be having a wonderful life in one place or having a wonderful life in another. Opening the movie to charges of questionable significance.
Despite elements of “Who cares?” soap opera and a stylistic glossiness, however, for me, Brooklyn is joyfully redeemed by the writing, which is smart, rarely predictable, and never less than identifiably human.
When “Eilis”, touchingly played by Saoirse Ronan – Boy, the vowels like to huddle together in Irish names – is required to return home due to a family emergency, her American boyfriend, fearing she might never come back, asks her to marry him. Reacting to his anxiety, Eilis’s wisely modulated response is, “Would a promise not be enough?”
I appreciated that exchange. I felt I was watching people, struggling for an answer.
There are also touching moments of innocence in Brooklyn, “innocence” not to be synonymized with “stupid.”
In preparation for dinner with her Italian boyfriend’s family, Eilis undergoes “spaghetti-eating” training, courtesy of her boardinghouse companions. When she excels in her “spaghetti twirling” at the dinner, she explains, “I took lessons.” To which an Italian family member jokingly replies, “They teach that in school? Maybe Dad could work there.”
Later, during a beach outing at Coney Island, Eilis is embarrassed, being unaware that she was expected to have put her bathing suit on under her clothes. Back home in Ireland, during a paralleling beach outing, when Eilis peels off her clothes to reveal a bathing suit underneath, her startled Irish best girlfriend inquires, “Where did you learn that?” And when she is told, “In America”, she wants to know, “How long have they been doing it?”
In little observed moments, both in the action and the conversational exchanges, Brooklyn displays a technique most contemporary screenwriters have unfortunately abandoned.
And that’s why I liked it.