How to Write Audio Drama

Anyone who has ever worked in an office is familiar with the self-styled “expert” who rolls in from London or New York. The grinning expert, who almost never listens to anything other than the hollow sound of his own voice, locks you into a conference room with a condescending four hour PowerPoint presentation. One often looks cautiously at such a mercenary, often paid an obscenely high sum for pablum, to see if he has a pistol concealed under the three piece suit. Why? Because the presenter’s vaguely sinister chest-thumping almost always feel more like a hostage situation rather than a true meeting of the minds.

Ego should never be the driving force when you advise other people. The collective journey must represent the true impetus behind any guiding effort. Unfortunately, the dreadful combination of arrogance and stupidity is an increasing affliction in American culture, which now prides itself on smearing a crowd with the soothing balm of anti-intellectualism, with hubris often serving as the prominent titanium dioxide. This strain was most recently evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s unintentionally hilarious but nevertheless dangerous notion that the metric system represents a conspiracy promulgated by revolutionaries. There are now too many circumstances in which wildly unqualified people — often illiterate and sloppy in their work product — anoint themselves as Napoleonic dictators for how to advance thought and who often do so without the nuts-and-bolts wisdom or attentive awareness that inspires people to conjure up truly incredible offerings.

I mention all this because I recently had the considerable displeasure of reading a typo-laden article written by a misguided audio dramatist who, while possessing a modicum of promising technical chops, remains tone-deaf to human behavior. To offer a charitable opinion, this dramatist is certainly doing the best he can, but his dialogue (which has included such inadvertent howlers as “Now dance with me, asshole,” “I envy your certainty,” and “I would have expected you to bring one of your underlings”) and anemic storytelling represents a form of “expertise” that my own very exacting standards for what constitutes art simply cannot accept.

You see, I really believe that audio drama, like any artistic form, needs to be written and produced at the highest possible level. But to give this guy some credit, we do have to start somewhere! As someone who has written about 1,400 pages of audio drama and who often labors months over a script until it’s right (as opposed to someone who bangs out an entire season in nine weeks), as someone who has gone out into the real world for months to do journalistic research to ensure that I’m portraying groups of people and subcultures realistically and dimensionally rather than subscribing to self-congratulatory, attention-seeking tokenism that cheapens well-intentioned inclusiveness through the creation of shallow stereotypes, and as someone who won a distinguished award for all this, if you’ll pardon my own statement of qualifications here, I think I’m reasonably well-equipped to offer better suggestions. Having said that (and as a free-wheeling anti-authoritarian who despises groupthink, who has never held a gun in his life, and who is writing this in a T-shirt and jeans rather than a three piece suit), I would also like to encourage anyone reading these collected thoughts to poke holes into my views and to challenge anything that I present herein. This is, after all, the only way that all of us truly learn.

Audio drama is a magnificent medium. It shares much in common with literature in its ability to challenge an audience and convey emotional intimacy. And while shows such as The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats, and The Truth intuitively comprehend the emotional connection between audio drama and audience, the medium, on the whole, is populated by too many engineering nerds who are not only incapable of writing quality scripts, but seem reluctant — if not outright hostile — to probe moral questions or explore any difficult ambiguities that lead to human insight.

Here are some better guidelines for how to approach the exciting and often greatly rewarding realm of audio dramatic writing!

1. Before anything else, think of HUMAN BEINGS.

This is the true big one. If you don’t have human beings guiding your audio drama, you are dead on arrival. And you become no different from some engineering nerd who is less interested in narrative possibility and more concerned with being the cleverest guy in the room. Being in touch with human behavior humbles you and opens you up to wonder and empathy and insatiable curiosity that you can not only pass onto your actors and your audience, but that will help you transform into a better and more mindful person. If you want to connect with an audience, then you need to know how to connect with people. And your art needs to reflect this. One of my favorite audio dramas, King Falls AM, has literally confined its setting to a call-in radio show in a small town. But its two main characters, Sammy and Ben, are human enough to warrant our attention. We learn over the series’ run that Sammy is gay and that Ben is smitten with Emily, the local librarian. And the show’s colorful characters and the creative team’s commitment to exploring the human have ensured that the show has never once lost momentum during its eighty-seven episodes. (There’s even a charming musical episode!)

It’s also vital for human behavior to contain paradoxes. Very often, that means taking major artistic risks with your characters — even making them “unlikable” if this is what the story calls for. I recently revisited some episodes of the science fiction TV series Blakes 7 after its star, the incredibly talented Paul Darrow, passed away. Darrow, who appeared in many audio dramas produced by Big Finish near the end of his life, played an antihero named Avon — a man who ended up as the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against a fascist empire known as the Federation. Why was Avon so interesting? Because he contained so many contradictions! He could be smart, intensely charming, paranoid, inclusive, sarcastic, and self-serving. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you never quite knew how far Avon was going to go. And there is no better exemplar of why Avon worked so well than an episode called “Orbit” written by Robert Holmes (who also wrote some of the best episodes of Doctor Who). Avon and his longtime partner Vila have five minutes to rid a spacecraft of excess cargo weight. The two men are seen frantically running around, ejecting bits of plastic through the airlock. It’s clear that they’re not going to dump the cargo in time. Avon desperately asks Orac — the ship’s computer — how much weight the ship must lose in order to achieve escape velocity. Orac replies, “70 kilos.” With great ferocity, Avon shrieks, “Dammit! What weighs 70 kilos?” Orac responds with an alarming calmness, “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.” And it is here that the scene becomes truly thrilling and surprising! Avon now has a solution — one that allows him to survive but that also involves betraying his friend. Darrow instantly transforms, grabs a laser pistol, and the scene is among the best in the entire run of the show. (You can watch the scene here.) As a test, I described this scene to a wide variety of people who were unfamiliar with speculative fiction. One old school guy in my Brooklyn hood who I’m friendly with (and for whom I have been serving as an occasional consultant on his webseries), “Damn! That’s some gangsta shit. I gotta check it out.” Human predicaments like this are universal.

Don’t worry too much about your sound design when you’re conceiving your story. You certainly need to remember that this is a medium driven by sound, but, if you’re doing audio drama right, your characters (and thus your actors) will be sharp and lively enough to conjure up a divergent sound environment. It’s absolutely foolhardy and creatively bankrupt to enslave your actors to a soundscape. This represents tyranny, not creative possibility. Actors need to be free to create in a fun and relaxed environment. (In my case, I cook all of my actors breakfast, compensate everyone instantly after recording, and try not to work them more than three hours per recording session.) As perspicacious as you may be, as certain as you may think you are about the rhythm and the delivery, your actors will always have fresh ideas that you haven’t considered. You need to have a script and a recording environment that is committed to your actors first. If you’re looking to be some petty despot, become some small-time corporate overlord. Don’t toil in art. If your actors are hindered by your dictatorial decisions as writer or director, they won’t be able to use their imagination. At all stages, audio drama is a process of collaborative discovery. When you write the script, it’s about creating memorable and three-dimensional characters. When you’re recording with actors, it’s about listening to how an actor interprets the characters and shaping the scene together with openness, trust, and experimentation. Then, when you’re putting together the rough edit (dialogue only), you have yet another stage of discovery. The actors have given you all that you need. You’ll be able to imagine where they are in a room, what they’re doing, and what else might be with them. From here, you start to form the sound design. Worldbuilding always comes from human investigation. And if you’re fully committed to the human, then your instinctive imagination will be able to devise a unique aural environment.

But to get to this place, you need to have characters who are unusual and who contain subtlety, depth, and detailed background. What kind of family did they have? Are they optimistic or moody? What was their most painful experience? Their happiest? Are they passionate about anything? If you’re stuck, you could always try revisiting some personal experience. For “Brand Awareness,” a Black Mirror-like story about a woman who learns that the beer that she’s fiercely loyal to doesn’t actually exist, the premise was inspired by an incident in which I went to a Williamsburg bar, certain that I had ordered a specific Canadian beer there before. But when I mentioned the beer brand to the bartender, she didn’t know that it existed. (It turned out that I had the wrong bar.) I laughed over how ridiculously loyal I had been to the Canadian beer brand and began asking questions about why I was so stuck on that particular beer at that time. I then came up with the idea of a woman who spent much of her time collecting memorabilia for a beer called Eclipse Ale, one that nobody knew about, and decided, instead of making this character a rabid and obsessive fan, to make her very real. I placed her in a troubled relationship with a man who refused to listen to her, which then gave me an opportunity to explore the harms of patriarchy. I then had to answer the question of why this woman was the only one who knew about the beer and conjured up the idea of a boutique hypnotist who served in lieu of couples therapy. Suddenly I had a weird premise and some sound ideas. What did the memorabilia look like? What were the hypnotist’s methods like? Ultimately, most of my sound design came from my incredible cast. Their interpretations were so vivid that I began to create a soundscape that enhanced and reflected their performances. The process was so fun that our team’s collective imagination took care of everything. I would listen to the rough dialogue assembly on my headphones and physically act out each character as they were talking into my ears. And from here, I was able to see what the space looked like. I went to numerous bars and closed my eyes and listened and used this as the basis for how to shape the scene. These methods allowed me to tell a goofy but ultimately realistic story.

I can’t stress this next point enough. Audio drama should never be about being overly clever or showy. It should be designed with enough depth for the audience to use its imagination. Just as I consider the actors on my production to be my creative equals, I also consider the audience to my interpretive equal. Their takeaways from my show are almost always smarter than my own. It would be colossally arrogant of me to assume that I know better than them.

To return to the gentleman who wrote the article that I am partially responding to here, his advice concerning character tips should be avoided at all costs. Robots can be fun, but, however ephemerally vivid they can be, they are among the most tedious one-note characters you can ever drop into a story. Moreover, a character who appears on only two pages should have as much backstory as one of your principals. When the great Robert Altman made one of his masterpieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he instructed all of the extras who were part of the Western town to develop detailed characters. This is one significant reason why that incredible film feels so real and so atmospheric. When in doubt, write vivid human characters with real problems. They always sound cool.

The misguided dramatist also reveals how pedestrian and unambitious he is in his storytelling when he tells you that you shouldn’t have more than four separate voices in a scene. This is only a problem if, like the misguided dramatist, you are too reliant upon seemingly clever ideas and don’t know how to write recognizable characters. If your characters are dimensional, then your audience will be able to follow the story. But you can also have your characters forget the names of the people who they are with so that you have an opportunity to remind your audience who they are. There are, after all, few people who attend a party and who manage to remember everybody’s first names. This expositional move doubles as a touch of realism and a subtle way of helping your audience keep track of a very large cast. Don’t squelch your ambition! If the dialogue is natural and the rhythm reflects real human conversation, then this will also help your audience lock into the narrative.

Also, I don’t know what living rooms the misguided dramatist spends his time in. But every setting is driven by sound. Only the most unimaginative and inattentive dramatist in the world would gainsay the textural possibilities contained in a car or a kitchen. These are seemingly familiar places. But if you spend enough time in various kitchens and simply listen, you’ll discover that each kitchen does have a separate tapestry of distinct sounds.

As for momentum, I have one firm rule: Have at least something on every page that drives the story forward (or, failing that, a good joke). If it’s not there, then cut and revise the page until you get to that ratio. Because you have exactly five minutes from the beginning of your show to grab your audience. If you’re bombarding your audience with over-the-top sound design out of creative desperation but you don’t have anything human to back it up, you’re dead. The audience will tune out very quickly, especially when there are so many other audio drama productions up to the task. However, if you’re concerned with the human first, then you’ll be on firm footing. The misguided dramatist writes, “The specifics don’t matter.” Oh, but they always matter. This is a profoundly ignorant and offensive statement that ignores the lessons contained in centuries of dramatic writing. Having some random kid walking by with a blasting boombox may pump up your hubris enough to approach the editors of Electric Literature and say, “Hey, I’m an expert! Can I write an article and pimp my show?” But if your inclusion doesn’t serve the human needs of the story, it’s gratuitous. It’s flexing your muscle rather than lifting the weights. And as you make more audio drama, it’s vital that you never stop evolving. In an increasingly crowded world of audio drama options, you want to be the dramatist who can bench-press to the best of your ability. And you’re going to want to build yourself up so that you can increase the load you can heave above your shoulders. You don’t stay in shape if you stop hitting the gym. And art rarely works when you phone it in. It involves hard work, great care, and daily discipline.

2. Imagination.

Well, I can mostly agree with the misguided dramatist here. You definitely want to paint a picture in your audience’s minds. But you don’t necessarily have to do this with a melange of bad exposition such as “Teeth, there’s too many teeth.” All you need to do is to imagine how a human being would react to a set of circumstances and then slightly style the dialogue so that it reveals just enough exposition (but not too much). You can then sculpt the sound design accordingly.

3. On “Gross” Sound Design

Once again, the misguided dramatist lacks the ability to comprehend how an audience vicariously relates to an audio drama. You can do kissing in audio drama. I’ve included it in The Gray Area. This doesn’t mean that you drop in a flagrant smooch that’s going to drown out everything else in the mix. You want a dramatic kiss to sound pretty close to how it’s actually experienced. For the first season, I recorded some kissing foley with someone I was dating at the time. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling like a pornographic actor. But it had to be done for art! Imagine two people lying in bed, both of them with headphones on, and a condenser microphone mounted just above them. We proceeded to kiss until I got the levels and the mic positioned just right for a very soft sound that is quite close to the sound that you hear when you kiss someone. This was a little difficult. Because I very much enjoyed kissing the person in question. But I was able to find the right balance. And I mixed this into the story quite gently and subtly so that it wouldn’t intrude upon the story. The Amelia Project has a character who very much enjoys cocoa, yet the slurps and stirs of the spoon never sound intrusive. And that is because the producers are smart enough to understand that flagrant foley of natural human sounds is going to sound “gross.” But you do have an obligation to depict the human and that includes sounds that might be categorized as uncomfortable.

4. Be Careful with Foley Description

I learned early on that writing four seemingly simple words (“GIANT RATS SCAMPERING AROUND”) created far more trouble for me in post-production than I anticipated. And while I enjoyed the challenge that I presented myself, I spent a week banging my head against my desk before I finally stumbled on a sound design solution. If you’re working with a sound designer, try to be mindful of the difficulty in coming up with sounds that reflect creatures or concepts that don’t exist in the real world. Even if you add “LIKE HORSES GALLOPING” to the giant rats description, that’s going to offer the sound designer some creative ideas that will make it easier for her to imagine and come up with something. If you’re collaborating with a sound designer, you need to offer a clear blueprint for her to create and imagine. Make no mistake: the sound designer is just as much of an actor as an actor.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You’re not going to please everyone. So why spend so much time worrying about it? There are incredibly talented and impeccably kind people who produce beloved audio dramas and even they receive hate mail and vicious criticism. Critics, by and large, are far less useful than the honest and experienced people you have in your corner who understand both you and the hard work that goes into making audio drama. You need to be surrounded by beta readers and beta listeners who will not bullshit you. Your duty as an artist is to not give into the often insane demands of rabid fans (much as one very popular audio drama did a few years ago, forcing this truly terrific show to ignobly close its doors) and to concentrate on putting out your best work. The real crowd, your truly loyal listeners and the ones who you actually learn from, will trust you enough to continue with the journey. The same goes with your actors. I took a huge risk on a Season 2 script. And I was incredibly surprised, humbled, and honored when the actors were crazy about it and told me what a thrilling twist it was and brought their A game when we recorded. You have a duty to keep on growing. Keep in mind that critics, especially the small-time character assassins on Twitter driven by acute resentment, reflect a vocal minority. You’re also probably never going to get a TV deal. So why chase that kind of outsize success? Besides, it’s far more rewarding to tell stories entirely on your own terms. If the work is good and you treat people well, you will attract very talented actors. And they in turn will tell their actor friends about how much fun you are to work with. But if you tell the same story over and over again, or you aren’t sufficiently answering the many questions you’ve set up, chances are you’ll be pulling a Damon Lindelof. And everyone will rightfully ding you for writing a lazy and inane climax.

Formulaic writing may win you an audience. There is no shortage of box office successes that are more generic than a supermarket aisle populated by no name yellow boxes. But are you writing for short-term lucre and attention or long-term artistic accomplishment? Are you writing audio drama to grow as a person and as an artist? Always remember that the work is its own reward. And that means taking risks.

6. Be Passionate About Your Story at All Times

Don’t write a script just for the sake of writing a script. If you’re telling a story, it has to be something that you absolutely believe in. Your vision must be large and passionate enough to get other people excited about it. You must also be committed to surprising yourself at all stages. (It also helps that I’m crazy about everyone who works on this show and am naturally quite thrilled to watch them get better as performers.) While I have drafted a four season plan for The Gray Area (and have a “Bible” of twenty prototypical scripts), the plan is just loose enough for me to continually invent with each season. I don’t write scripts from an outline (although I have done so in writing for other people). Because I find that, if I know where a story is heading, then it’s not going to be fun for me. After all, if I’m not surprised, why would I expect my audience to be?

If you’re just phoning it in, then why would you expect your actors to give their all? One audio drama producer recently revealed a horror story about one regular actor leaving midway through the series. But listening to the audio drama, it’s easy to see why. The passion contained in the initial episodes plummeted in later episodes. A friend, who was an initial fan of the show, texted me, asking “What happened? It was so good! Now I can’t listen to it!” Well, I responded, the character in question, despite being played by a lively actor who clearly has much to offer, became one-note and confined to a sterile environment. And why would any actor want to stay involved with a character who remains stagnant? If you don’t feed your actors with true passion, and if you don’t take care of them, then you’re not living up to the possibilities of audio drama.

At all stages of The Gray Area, I talk with my actors and tell them what I have planned for their characters over many seasons. I listen to their passions and interests. I regularly check in on them. I try to attend their shows when they perform on stage. Because it is my duty to remain committed to my talent. All this gives me many opportunities to find out where actors wish to push themselves as performers and to suss out emotional areas that other directors don’t seem to see. I cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. I point out to some of my more emotionally intense actors how funny they are and write stories with this in mind. I have to keep my characters growing so that I can sustain an atmosphere committed to true creative freedom. Because I love and adore and greatly respect the people I work with and I want to make sure that these actors are always having fun and that they feel free to create. I’ve got this down so well that, when the actors find out I’m writing a new slate of scripts, they playfully nag me, wondering when the stories are going to be done.

If you’re doing audio drama right, you’re probably going to be surprised to find yourself exhausted after a long day. The fatigue seems inconceivable because you were having so much fun. But it does mean that you were driven by passion first, buttressed by hard work. And that will ultimately be reflected in the final product.

7. There Are Many Ways to Make Audio Drama

There’s recently been some discussion about establishing a set of critical standards that all producers should agree upon for the “greater good.” I find this to be a bunch of prescriptive malarkey, more of a popularity contest and an ego-stroking exercise rather than a true exchange of viewpoints. Take the advice that you can use and ignore the rest. That includes this article. If you see something here that whiffs untrue, ignore it. Or leave a comment here and challenge me. I’d love to hear your dissenting views! I’m offering one way to make audio drama, but there are dozens of ways to go about it.

8. Be Wide-Ranging in Your Influences

Don’t just listen to audio drama. Listen to nonfiction podcasts. Read books. Take on hobbies and interests that you’ve never tried. Play music. Above all, live life. Existence is always the most important influence. I’ve listened to far too many bad audio dramas trying to offer cut-rate knockoffs of popular shows. This isn’t a recipe for success or artistic growth. You need to find your own voice and be true to who you are as much as you can. Every story has already been told. But it hasn’t been told in the way that you express it.

(I hope that some of what I’ve imparted here has been useful! For anyone who’s interested, I am presently in the final weeks of production on the second season of my audio drama. I’ve been documenting my journey on Instagram, passing along any tips or tricks I discover along the way so that other audio dramatists don’t make the same mistakes that I have! Plus, there are many fun behind-the-scenes videos and photos. Feel free to check out @grayareapod and say hello. We’re all in this journey of making audio drama together! It’s a very exciting time to tell stories for the ear!)

How to Spot Lines That Reveal Bad Storytelling, Part One

This is the first in a series of occasional posts in which I will identify dialogue that reveals bad storytelling. I’m writing this because I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the many rookie mistakes that I continue to observe from storytellers who should know better, whereby the artifices of an otherwise convincing narrative are swiftly exposed because the writer hasn’t thought out character motivation or has missed out on opportunities to create a memorable work of art.

“That’s interesting!” Imagine that you just watched your best friend turn into a werewolf or that the spouse of your best friend revealed that he was in love with you. Would you say “That’s interesting!” or would you respond with something a bit less general and more heartfelt? A writer should never have to telegraph to the audience that an action is interesting. If an action is interesting to a character (and thus interesting to an audience), then a character will react to it in a way in which we know that it’s interesting. For example, here is an exchange from Preston Sturges’s wonderful film The Lady Eve:

Gerald: What I can’t understand is how he finished fifth!
Jean: There were only five horses in the race. What do you expect when you bet on a goat called After You?

If Jean had reacted to Gerald’s observation with “That’s interesting,” then we would have missed this great opportunity to see a con artist who observes all the specifics of a situation and who has no illusions about the way the world works. And when Jean falls in love with Hopsie, this transformation attracts our interest.

Even the person who questions another character doesn’t have to say “That’s interesting!” during the exchange. From The Big Lebowski:

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?
The Dude: Employed?
The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?
The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?
The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…
The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We see how The Big Lebowski is appalled, but genuinely interested, with the way in which The Dude can spend his unemployed life not doing much. The Dude, in turn, responds with his philosophy, which is parroted from George Bush’s 1990 speech on Kuwait. And the result is a deservedly famous, very funny, and referential exchange.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that “That’s so interesting! Tell me more!” has turned into an Internet meme, often introduced sarcastically into forum threads, that is largely identified with the late great Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka. Although that line did not appear in the movie, it nevertheless reveals how audiences are aware that saying “That’s interesting!” may represent the heights of condescension or artificiality.

So instead of having a character say “That’s interesting,” why not delve into her philosophy? Why would she feel that the situation is interesting? Moreover, when a character states her philosophy, it can be wonderfully revealing. In Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, for example, the title character says that she “helps young girls out,” not that she performs illegal abortions. And it is this simple reframing that not only allows Vera to be tremendously fascinating and complex, but permits the audience to empathize with her persecution.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”: Very often, a writer will have a character intrude upon two other characters who are talking and deliver this very common line. It will never occur to the writer that there could be a more interesting dynamic if the interrupting character is either clueless about the intrusion or has willfully interrupted. Indeed, interruption is often better conveyed through subtext rather than an explicit pronouncement.

One of my favorite interruption moments comes from John Cassevetes’s extraordinary film Faces. There’s an incredible scene in which Richard (John Marley) and Freddie (Fred Draper) are competing for the attentions of Jeannie (played by Gena Rowlands), with the three all dancing around a living room. Jeannie increasingly drifts towards Richard. Freddie attempts to get Jeannie’s attention, but is rebuffed. He is very much a third wheel. And this fascinating scene unfolds with all of the characters singing “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” This creates an incredible tension which sets up some emotionally revealing moments that follow. If Freddie had explicitly remarked, “I hope I’m not interrupting you two dancing,” it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

“Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened.” Bad storytelling often involves characters calling attention to the fact that they are asking for story details within a story. But that’s usually not the way storytelling works when you hang out with people. In real life, people hear a modest detail, maybe about something wild that the storyteller did the previous night. And that detail may beget another detail. The person listening to the story may try to persuade the storyteller to spill the whole tale, especially if the other person has said something curious or unusual. If you’re going to tell a story within a story, then it needs to be motivated by human curiosity or the story needs to reveal the character, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws. “Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened” is what a programmer with Asperger syndrome is likely to say. “Come on, man! You’ve gotta spill!” or “Wait! You swam in the water with a knife in your mouth?” Isn’t that more like it? Dialogue must sustain the illusion that it is natural. And if the audience senses that storytelling is being shoehorned into a story to advance plot details that the writer didn’t have the chops to convey through action, then it will start to catch on that a script is, well, more of a programmed script (especially if the dialogue is solely Q&A, the telltale sign of bad storytelling) rather than something that should be revealing the human condition. Nobody wants to be mansplained when watching a TV show or listening to an audio drama.

NYFF: Bullet in the Head (2008)

[This is the ninth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Your intrepid reporter has lined up several interviews with filmmakers and has even braved a press conference. (I try to be spontaneous whenever I attend mammoth expositions of this sort, but I wasn’t entirely aware that there was a press conference component to some of the screenings. A good reporter, however, always comes prepared. Just don’t ask what essential items I have in my backpack. I’m sure that my arsenal is somewhat unorthodox. But among the ordnance was some equipment to perform a little experiment.) The press conference did not quite work out to my satisfaction, but I now have a plan in place that should work well for next week.

I saw two films today: one very, very good, the other very, very bad. And there’s still have another film (good) from yesterday that I need to cover. So let’s get the bad apple out of the way first, shall we?

Jaime Rosales’s Bullet in the Head, which by no means should be confused with John Woo’s entertaining 1990 action flick of the same name, is a sleep-inducing mess that should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve been reading the nearly 10,000 words (!) I’ve generated here, you may recall that I expressed certain reservations with Serbis. I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t see a film that could be worse. Much to my regret, I was proved wrong this afternoon. (It’s a strange coincidence that probably means nothing, but I must point it out. Both films feature a sound mix loaded with intrusive street traffic.)

Despite copious quantities of coffee that were ingested very carefully in the morning, your intrepid reporter was forced to slap his cheeks in order to stay awake. Not just once. Four times. Unfortunately, I was not armed with a large trout that could probably wake me up in one slap. So I had to settle for palms that needed to do it in four. I caught a glimpse of my mug in the mirror about an hour ago and espied a slightly pinkish mark from these pelts. Let it not be said that your intrepid reporter nodded off on the job. I cannot say the same for some of my colleagues.

Let us be clear. Within Rosales’s film lies a perfectly interesting concept for a good 15 minute short. This is a film determined to tell its story without a line of dialogue. And with the exception of a character yelling “Fucking cops!” twice, it clings quite devoutly to this credo. I presume that this “artistic” choice was made so that the film would stand a better chance of being accepted into film festivals around the world. Or maybe the idea here was to cut down on the subtitling bill. Whatever the motivations, Rosales’s approach shares much in common with the flawed but interesting 1952 film, The Thief, which starred Ray Milland as a physicist and did not feature a single line of dialogue. But The Thief, for all of its problems, at least gave us an FBI agent pursuing Milland and featured the Empire State Building. Rosales’s film, by contrast, features not a single distinguishing landmark. Nor is there an FBI agent.

I would have liked an FBI agent.

There are, however, two cops. But they don’t really look like cops and they don’t really offer what one might identify as cop-like behavior. Instead of the character shouting “Fucking cops!,” he might have yelled “Fucking nondescript guys around thirty!” I contend that this would have been a slightly subversive and more entertaining line of dialogue for Rosales to deploy. And if Rosales had inserted this line into the movie, I would have been the first to declare Rosales a genius. But “Fucking cops!” is what we have to work with here. So “Fucking cops!” it shall be.

Bullet in the Head, for its first hour, doesn’t clue us into the possibility that there might actually be a bullet fired into someone’s head. The film saves this violent moment for later. So if you’re looking for a bullet in the head, you’ll get one. Just don’t expect anything spectacular. And I may have spoiled the film a bit by pointing out the cops. But maybe I’m not really giving anything away because the movie is, after all, called Bullet in the Head. So there’s a certain promise here in the title that the film has to live up to.

We see characters talking behind windows, across the street, at the other end of a restaurant, and at pay phones. Strangely enough, nobody in this movie seems to own a set of blinds or drapes. Which strikes me as damn curious and damn convenient, especially since we see the stoic Ion (played by a burly guy named Ion Arretxe, which suggests that Rosales is quite lazy in naming his characters) getting it on with his girlfriend/wife. Rosales, to his credit, does occlude our view of the events quite frequently, having people pass while the camera pans, thus deliberately mangling the camera move. He does sometimes choose interesting and incongruous audio to play over the visuals, such as a basketball court in the film’s establishing shot of Ion’s apartment. The actors don’t overexpress with their hands too much. And there is one amusing moment at a restaurant in which three people try to look over at another table without suspicion, and their body language indicates how obvious their efforts to be sneaky are.

But this film isn’t called Views Through a Window. It’s called Bullet in the Head! And your intrepid reporter, being a patient man, eagerly awaited a payoff. But there was none. There was indeed no compelling narrative to speak of. No particular detail within the apartment decor that might have said something about the characters. But I can assure you based on the number of eating shots that Ion is a character who likes to eat.

I suppose I would have enjoyed this film if I could (a) read lips and (b) read lips that spoke Spanish. But I am only slightly competent in (a) and utterly incompetent at (b). And if Rosales really wanted us to know what the characters were saying, he would have provided us with audio and/or subtitles.

So what we have here is a pretty disappointing film — indeed, one so disappointing that there was an audible hiss from the critics when the credits rolled. And while I’m not a guy who likes to fall into critical consensus, I will admit that the hissers had a good point. I certainly hope that Rosales’s misfire doesn’t hinder other filmmakers from making films without dialogue. There is much within our body language and our actions that is interesting without silly lines getting in the way. But these future filmmakers may want to consider including an FBI agent.