Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Murdering is funnier than killing.

A good low-budget director is above all able to adapt (and aptly) to whichever circumstances should arise. For example: in The Man Who Loved, there was a scene that featured pretty much every member of the cast, and it took us a lot of hoop-jumping to find a day that worked for everyone. And so imagine our dismay when almost everyone showed up-- that is, everyone but one, who was to be something of a major focus in the scene. There was no way we could reschedule the scene, and so we redistributed her dialogue to other characters and lamp-shaded her absence. And doing so actually helped us focus on what the scene was actually about.

Similarly, we're more than happy to rewrite lines for an actor, to make it flow more naturally for them, to let them put their own spin (and thus their own selves) into it. At the same time, our writing aims to be flavourful and precise, and thus somewhat immutable: you might be able to preserve the meaning of the words and the underlying emotion, but changing the words changes the feel of the words, the rhythm, the timbre, and-- when writing comedy-- the funny.

There's a line in Olivia Forever!! in which Olivia refers to her Halloween costume from "the two years previous"; Adrienne often flipped the word order to "the two previous years". Now, both versions mean the same thing, but "the two years previous" has a slightly dry or academic feel that communicates something about the character and her personal style. "The two previous years" communicates nothing but the facts; all the flavour is lost. And, this being a film about the hazards of idiosyncrasy, and Olivia being a character who derives a great deal of pleasure from verbiage, it was important that we preserve that flavour, and so this was one case in which we couldn't let it be rephrased. The punchline to all this? We ended up cutting the entire scene-- including the line-- anyway.

Not that, again, our scripts are considered holy and untouchable. We're constantly cutting and revising, looking for ways to punch it up, to be more precise, more flavourful. Recently, we were going over the following dialogue in rehearsal:

RODNEY: And you weren't planning on killing me?
OLIVIA: It hadn't occurred to me.
RODNEY (mishearing): It had?
OLIVIA (louder, clearer): Hadn't.

And it occurred to us that the word "killing" got the meaning across, but didn't have much flavour.

"Let's change that to murdering," we said: "'murdering' is a funnier word than 'killing'."

We crossed it out and they read it over again: it did, indeed, seem funnier. The word was more precise, communicating more of a sense of deliberate violence, which will hopefully stand in stronger and more comedic contrast to the polite, friendly tenor of the conversation. And it's a more flavourful word: "killing" starts strong but quickly becomes a slippery mush of l-sounds that mumble their way into "ing"; "murdering", by contrast, consists of three distinct syllables, the first two of which rhyme and are expelled forcefully outward: nothing soft, lilting, or indistinct about it.

It is, in our estimating, just the right word.

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