Script Notes is a series about current cinema and what writers can learn from great (and not-so-great) scripts. This entry is about The Artist, a black-and-white silent film about a 20
The Artist is an endlessly charming and feel-good movie that highlights all the best aspects of silent films without most of the negatives. The film features broad, archetypal characters that were common in cinema back then (and, let’s face it, now), but played by great actors who give far more nuanced performances than most silent film stars of the era. The characters in the film talk about how audiences are sick of the actors “mugging to the camera” so they can be understood, but it’s in contrast to the restrained and intimate performances in this film.
People sometimes think that it’s easier to write silent or no-dialogue films, but it’s a lot harder than one might expect. One reason is because the scripts have to detail every action precisely so the meaning will come across, particularly in animation. That makes the script much longer than a script with dialogue. It also makes it much more difficult to convey emotion, themes, and even sometimes plot (I discovered this when writing a scene of two characters in different buildings communicating through a window - and it made absolutely no sense). And the audience really has to be watching; any distraction or slowing of pace might mean they miss a joke or an important plot twist.
So how does The Artist hold the audience’s attention? Firstly, The Artist has fun with artistic shots and thematic images, particularly using reflections, shadows, and portraits to explore the theme of identity, which is central to the film. They also added small thematic touches to delight the observant viewer: each movie title, whether on a poster, marque, or shooting script, relates to either the plot or the theme. For example, when George finds love interest and rising star Peppy in his dressing room, cozying up to his jacket and hat, the film poster behind them reads “The Thief of Her Heart,” illustrating that Peppy is already in love with George. And later in the film, George walks by a theater with Peppy’s new movie, “Guardian Angel,” which is what Peppy longs to be (and later is) for George. With the detail needed to write a no-dialogue film, screenwriters have ample room to add these elements and strengthen their film.