This post is for anyone who sat through the Transformers sequel and concluded that film writing is dead. I was privileged enough to see many other movies feature excellent dialogue, so I’m presenting some of my favorite pieces of screenwriting from 2009’s movies. Obviously, most of these are in English, but there’s one exception. WARNING: LOTS AND LOTS OF STRONG LANGUAGE AHEAD.
Up in the Air is as good a place to begin as any. Look at the economy of this opening exchange between two characters meeting in a hotel bar. Sixteen lines is enough to set up the entire central relationship in this movie. The writers are Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on Walter Kirn’s novel.
RYAN: You satisfied with Maestro?
ALEX: (takes a moment to register that he’s reading off the rental car key in her hand) Yeah, I am.
RYAN: They’re a little stingy with their miles. I like Hertz.
ALEX: Hertz keeps its vehicles too long. If a car has over 20,000 miles, I won’t drive it.
RYAN: Maestro doesn’t do instant checkout. I like to park and go.
ALEX: Hertz doesn’t guarantee navigation.
RYAN: Funny, you don’t seem like a girl who needs directions.
ALEX: I hate asking for directions. That’s why I get a nav.
RYAN: That new outfit, Colonial, isn’t bad.
ALEX: Is that a joke?
ALEX: Their kiosk placement blows.
RYAN: They never have an available upgrade.
ALEX: Basically, it’s a fleet of shitboxes. I don’t know how they’re still in business.
RYAN: I’m Ryan.
ALEX: I’m Alex.
This is from The Damned United. It’s the first speech from legendary soccer coach Brian Clough to his new team, Leeds United, which he’s just taken over from his hated rival Don Revie. Here’s an object lesson in how a new boss alienates his work force from Day One. The writer is Peter Morgan.
BRIAN: Well, I might as well tell you now. You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honors there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I’m concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating. (to Billy Bremner) Mr. William Bremner, you’re the captain, and a good one. But you’re no good to the team and no good to me if you’re suspended. I want you fit for every game. I want good, clean, attractive football from my captain starting next week at the Charity Shield. (to Johnny Giles) And you, Irishman. God gave you skill and intelligence and the best passing ability in the game. What God did not give you was six studs to wrap around another player’s knee. (to the team) Now things are going to be a little different around here without Don. Might feel a little strange at first. Might pinch a little, like a new pair of shoes. But if you want your grandchildren to remember you as something other than the dirty buggers you once were, if you want to be loved as champions, real champions, you’re gonna have to work and improve and change. Now, let’s start off by playing seven-a-sides.
BREMNER: Coach Revie never asked us to…
BRIAN: I don’t care about Coach Revie. The next player who brings up what you did or didn’t do under Don Revie will be cleaning my shoes for a week.
Rhyming couplets? Oh, yes, Rian Johnson went there for the dazzling opening of The Brothers Bloom, going for almost seven minutes with the rhyme scheme intact as he shifts the words between the narrator (Ricky Jay) and the characters, and shuttles back and forth in time. You’d expect something this audacious from the same filmmaker who gave us Brick. Oddly enough, the screenplay format doesn’t do justice to the rhythm of the words, so I thought I’d embed the video of the sequence.
Jimmy Fowler liked Whip It, and so did I. This scene stuck out for me; how often are female movie characters allowed to be adversaries and still have this kind of understanding of each other? Not often enough, that’s for sure. Here the old roller derby veteran Iron Maven lies in wait for the young heroine, Bliss a.k.a. Babe Ruthless, and confronts her after skating practice. The writing is by Shauna Cross, adapted from her own novel Roller Girl, although this scene isn’t in the book. I like Bliss’ mistake about Maven’s age — when you’re a teenager, everybody between the ages of 25 and 45 looks pretty much the same.
IRON MAVEN: Ruthless, Ruthless, Ruthless.
BLISS: Maven, Maven, Maven?
IRON MAVEN: Hey, guess how old I am.
IRON MAVEN: Aw, that’s sweet. I’m 36. Guess when I started skating. I was 31. ‘Cause it took me that long to find one thing I was really good at. And you know what? I worked my ass off to get it.
BLISS: Yeah, me too.
IRON MAVEN: It’s too bad you’re only 17. What do you think the league is going to say when they find that out? Or your teammates? When they find out you’ve been lying? That’s gonna be rough.
BLISS: Maven, please. Look…
IRON MAVEN: No, you look. One day it’ll be your time, Ruthless, but it’s not your time now, and I were you, I wouldn’t even bother lacin’ up those skates.
And just to piss off Jimmy, I’m including Diablo Cody in here. This comes up late in Jennifer’s Body, when Needy Lesnicki comes to rescue her boyfriend Chip from Jennifer, only to find Chip mortally wounded and Jennifer levitating above an empty swimming pool. (The “It’s just hovering” line cracked me up.) Cody gets a lot of comic mileage from making the horror movie monster into a bitchy teenage girl. Not only is this funnier than most other horror flicks, it also packs the sting of two childhood friends discovering that they don’t like each other any more.
CHIP: She can fly?
NEEDY: It’s just hovering. It’s not really that impressive.
JENNIFER: God, must you undermine everything I do? You’re such a player hater.
NEEDY: You’re a jerk.
JENNIFER: Wow, nice insult, Hannah Montana. Got any more harsh digs?
NEEDY: You know, you were never a very good friend to me. Even when we were little, you used to steal my toys and pour lemonade on my bed.
JENNIFER: And now I’m eating your boyfriend. See, at least I’m consistent.
NEEDY: Why do you need him? Huh? You could have anybody that you want, Jennifer. So why Chip? Is it just to tick me off? Or is it because you’re really insecure?
JENNIFER: I’m not insecure, Needy. God, that’s a joke. How could I ever be insecure? I was the Snowflake Queen!
NEEDY: Yeah, two years ago, when you were still socially relevant …
JENNIFER: I’m still socially relevant.
NEEDY: …And when you didn’t need laxatives to stay thin.
JENNIFER (furious, advancing toward Needy): I am going to eat your soul and shit it out, Lesnicki!
NEEDY (retreating): I thought you only murdered boys.
JENNIFER: I go both ways.
(Jennifer stops suddenly and gasps in pain, because Chip has impaled her in the midsection with the sharpened end of a metal broom. He collapses.)
JENNIFER (pissed off and angry): Ow. (She pulls the weapon out of herself. She is bleeding profusely.) Got a tampon? (In shock, Needy shakes her head.) Thought I’d ask. Seemed like you might be plugging.
This is a job interview scene from Observe and Report that gives a window into the main character’s massive, dangerous hero complex. The film was written and directed by Jody Hill, though it wouldn’t be surprising if Seth Rogen contributed some lines here.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, Ronnie. Today I’ll be giving you a psychiatric evaluation to determine if you’re competent to enter the police academy. So let’s start with your background. Where are you from?
RONNIE: Born and raised right here, actually.
INTERVIEWER: Local boy, okay. And do you have any history of depression or psychosis or anything like that?
RONNIE: Uh, yeah, but nothing really worth mentioning. Just a little bipolar disorder, no big deal.
INTERVIEWER: Oh. Are you taking any prescription medications?
RONNIE: I am pleased to announce that I am currently off all prescription medications.
INTERVIEWER: Congratulations! Why did the doctors take you off?
RONNIE: They didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: How are you feeling?
RONNIE: Great, actually. I met a girl. We’re in love, so that is very good. I am this close to catching this pervert, catching a robber, just generally becoming The Man, so at this point in my life, I just really feel ready to destroy some motherfuckers.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, I’m just going to write this down.
RONNIE: Yeah, write it on down.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you want to become a police officer?
RONNIE: That’s a big question, now, isn’t it? I have a dream most nights. It starts on a playground. And there’s kids, you know, laughing, and they’re swinging. There are dogs barking, butterflies just flapping their little wings. And then you hear a rumbling, and over the horizon comes a black cloud, and it’s made of cancer and pus. And it starts sweeping over the playground. And everyone starts screaming and clawing their eyes and saying, “Help! What do we do?” And you know what happens next? Out steps me, wielding the biggest fucking shotgun you’ve ever seen in your life. And you know what I do? I blow every fucking thing away. And I am getting God’s work done. When it’s all over and the dust has settled, the whole world gathers below me, and they say, “Thank you, Ronnie. Thank you for helping, being a great man and doing this for us.” And you know what I say? “You don’t need to thank me. I’m just a guy with a gun. I’m just a cop.”
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Thank you for your time, Mr. Barnhardt.
RONNIE (laughing): Eh, I think you mean Officer Barnhardt.
This early exchange is typical of the urbane wit in Fantastic Mr. Fox, written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and it picks up on a theme that strikes interesting notes off America’s housing crisis: Fox buys a house for emotional reasons, and only later does he start to fret about the property holding its value (after the farmers dig up the hill and wreak havoc on the woods trying to kill him). The funniest joke here is actually Fox devouring his pancakes after all this civilized conversation.
FOX: (reading the newspaper) Does anybody actually read my column? Do your friends ever talk about it?
MRS. FOX: Of course! In fact, Rabbit’s ex-girlfriend was saying to me last week, “I should read Foxy’s column.” But they don’t get The Gazette. (calling to the other room) Ash, let’s get cracking!
FOX: Why would they? It’s a ragsheet.
ASH: (entering the room in his underwear) I’m sick.
MRS. FOX: You’re not sick.
ASH: I have a temperature.
MRS. FOX: You don’t have a temperature.
ASH: I don’t want to go.
MRS. FOX: Hurry up. You don’t want to be late.
(Ash goes back into his bedroom.)
FOX: (to Mrs. Fox) I love the way you handled that.
MRS. FOX: (to Ash). Your cousin Kristofferson’s coming on the 6th. I want you to be extra nice to him, because he’s going through a very hard time right now.
ASH: (re-entering) Where’s he gonna sleep?
MRS. FOX: We’re gonna make a bed for him in your room.
ASH: I can’t spare the space. Put him in Dad’s study.
FOX: (cutting a real estate listing out of the paper) Dad’s study is occupied by Dad.
(Ash leaves again.)
FOX: (to Mrs. Fox, as she sets down a plate of pancakes in front of him) I don’t want to live in a hole anymore. It makes me feel poor.
MRS. FOX: We are poor, but we’re happy.
FOX: Comme ci, comme ça. Anyway, the views are better above ground. (kisses her paw) Honey, I’m seven non-fox years old now. My father died at seven and a half. I don’t want to live in a hole anymore. And I’m going to do something about it. (He tears the pancakes to shreds and gobbles them up in two seconds, leaving pieces all over the table. Then he stands up, takes a sip of his coffee, and walks to the door.) Well, I’m off. Have a good day, my darling.
MRS. FOX: You know, foxes live in holes for a reason.
(Fox shrugs. Ash re-enters, wearing a bizarre outfit and brushing his teeth.)
FOX: What are you wearing? Why the cape with the pants tucked into your socks?
(Ash just glares at him, spits off to one side, and goes back into his room.)
FOX: Well, I guess he’s just … (waves his paws in the air) … different.
Quentin Tarantino did some of his best writing in Inglourious Basterds. This is a long scene, but the length is necessary for the director to turn the screws. I’m only quoting the last third of it. The German-speaking members of the Basterds (including Hicox and Stiglitz) have disguised themselves as Nazis and met with Bridget in a French bar, only to have Gestapo Maj. Hellstrom and his ear for German accents interrupt them and bring the whole operation to a crashing halt. Most of this conversation is in German; the translations were reportedly done by Tom Tykwer. I love Hicox’s use of the word “pickle” just before the shooting starts.
HICOX: Well, Major, I don’t mean to be rude, but the four of us are very good friends, and we haven’t seen each other in a long while. So, Major, I’m afraid you are intruding.
HELLSTROM: (stonily) I beg to differ, Captain. It’s only if the fräulein considers my presence an intrusion that I become an intruder. How about it, Fräulein von Hammersmark? Am I intruding?
HELLSTROM: I didn’t think so. It’s simply that the captain is immune to my charms. (After a pause, Hellstrom bursts out laughing.) I’m joking! Joking! Of course I’m intruding! Allow me to refill your glasses, gentlemen, and I’ll bid you and the fräulein adieu. Eric has a bottle of 33-year-old whiskey from the Scottish highlands. What do you say, gentlemen?
HICOX: You’re most gracious, Major.
HELLSTROM: (to the bartender) Eric, the 33! And fresh glasses! (to the table) You don’t want to contaminate the 33 with the swill you were drinking.
ERIC: How many glasses?
HELLSTROM: Not me. I like Scotch, it doesn’t like me.
BRIDGET: Nor I. I’ll stick with champagne.
HICOX: (holding up three fingers) Three glasses.
(Hellstrom sees this, and his expression changes. He waits patiently while the waitress arrives, sets out the new glasses, and fills them. She leaves the table.)
HELLSTROM: (raising his glass) To a thousand year German Reich!
EVERYONE: To a thousand year Reich!
HELLSTROM: (drinks) I must say I grow weary of these monkeyshines. (He pulls his gun and cocks it, leveling it under the table.) Did you hear that? That was the sound of my Walther pointed right at your testicles.
HICOX: Why do you have your Walther pointed at my testicles?
HELLSTROM: Because you’ve just given yourself away, Captain. You’re no more German than that Scotch.
BRIDGET: (at the same time) Herr Major…
HELLSTROM: (to Bridget) Shut up, slut. (to Hicox) You were saying?
HICOX: I was saying that makes two of us. I’ve had a gun pointed at your balls since you sat down.
STIGLITZ: (pulling his gun and placing it in Hellstrom’s crotch at point-blank range) That makes three of us. And at this range, I’m a real Fredrick Zoller.
HELLSTROM: Looks like we have a bit of a sticky situation here.
HICOX: What’s going to happen, Major, is that you’re going to stand up and walk out that door with us.
HELLSTROM: No, no, no, no, no. I’m afraid that you and I both know, Captain, that no matter what happens to anybody else in this room, the two of us aren’t going anywhere. Too bad about Sgt. Wilhelm and his famous friends. If any of you expect to live, you’ll have to shoot them, too. Looks like little Max will grow up an orphan. How sad.
HICOX: (switching to English) Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.
HELLSTROM: (in English) By all means, Captain.
HICOX: (lighting a cigarette, taking a puff, and picking up his glass) There’s a certain rung in Hell for people who waste good Scotch. Seeing as I may be rapping on the door momentarily… (he drains his glass) I must say, damn good stuff, that. Now, about this pickle we find ourselves in, it seems there’s only one thing left for you to do.
HELLSTROM: And what would that be?
STIGLITZ: Say auf wiedersehen to your Nazi balls. (He shoots.)
Here’s the best script I heard all year, In the Loop, written by a team of four writers. In the following scene, the prime minister’s communications director Malcolm Tucker — one of the most tyrannical bosses in movie history, and a man who’s so addicted to profanity that he says “Fuckity bye” before hanging up his cell phone — dresses down cabinet minister Simon Foster for saying in a radio interview that war was “unforeseeable.” In the middle of it all, Simon’s deputy Judy tries to introduce a baby-faced new employee Toby. David Mamet must have been soooo jealous when he saw this movie; this is the political satire he’s been trying to make for decades.
JUDY: (hanging up) Malcolm. He’s coming.
SIMON: Oh shit, he’s still alive. When’s he due?
MALCOLM: (entering the room) Now. And don’t say you weren’t prepared, because I rang ahead. (to Judy) Give us a minute, would you please, love? (She leaves.) In the words of the late, great Nat King fucking Cole, “unforeseeable,” that’s what you are.
SIMON: Come on Malcolm. He asked me for a personal opinion.
MALCOLM: Well, why didn’t you say? I mean, he asked you. Of course! Fuck, that explains it. Say he’d asked you to black up, or to give him your PIN number, or to shit yourself. Would you have done that as well?
SIMON: I would have blacked up, because it’s radio. Nobody would have known.
MALCOLM: Very good.
SIMON: War is basically unforeseeable, isn’t it?
MALCOLM: That’s not our line. Walk the fucking line. Look, we’ve got Karen Clarke over from Washington today. We’ve got enough fucking Pentagon goons to stage a fucking coup d’etat.
JUDY: (re-entering with Toby) Minister?
MALCOLM: Not the time, love. I’m busy. Fuck off.
JUDY: This is Toby.
SIMON: (gets up to shake Toby’s hand) Toby, hi. Glad you could make it. It’s been a bit of an odd morning here. Welcome to the madhouse. I apologize for Malcolm.
MALCOLM: Don’t apologize for me. Apologize for yourself. (to Judy) Didn’t I just tell you to fuck off? And yet you’re still here.
JUDY: It’s true. I am. Still here.
MALCOLM: (to Toby) Hey, Fetus Boy. Lesson Number One. I tell you to fuck off. What do you do?
TOBY: Eff off?
MALCOLM: You’ll go far. Now fuck off. (Toby leaves.)
SIMON: Judy and I were thinking that I could row back on Question Time tonight.
MALCOLM: You’re not going on Question Time tonight. You’ve been disinvited.
SIMON: What? We’ve been prepping Question Time.
JUDY: Why wasn’t I told about this?
MALCOLM: Why the fuck would I tell you about this? I’ve just told you to fuck off twice. And yet you’re still here.
JUDY: You should tell me about it because it’s a scheduled media appearance by this department’s secretary of state, and therefore it falls well within my purview.
MALCOLM: Within your purview?
MALCOLM: Where do you think you are? In some fucking Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel!
MALCOLM: Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock.
JUDY: Your swearing does not impress me. My husband works for Tower Hamlets and believe me, those kids make you sound like Angela Lansbury. (She leaves.)
MALCOLM: She’s married? Poor bastard.
SIMON: Malcolm, Judy’s lubricated horse cock aside, are you saying that I’m now no longer allowed to make media appearances?
MALCOLM: Correct. Not until we can trust you to keep the line.
SIMON: I was going to keep the line. I was going to say I don’t think war is unforeseeable.
MALCOLM: What is it, then?
SIMON: I don’t know. Foreseeable?
MALCOLM: No! Not foreseeable! That’s fucking declaring war! Do you want to fucking declare war?
SIMON: I’m a cabinet minister. I didn’t get here by screwing up every media appearance I ever had.
MALCOLM: Write this down. It is neither foreseeable nor unforeseeable.
SIMON: Right. It is neither inevitable nor …
MALCOLM: You better walk this fucking line.
(Malcolm leaves Simon’s office and goes into the main work area.)
MALCOLM: (to Judy) You, hey! Put the snifter out there. If the BBC ambushes a minister with another surprise question about the war, I’ll drop a bomb on them.
JUDY: Well, I can’t do that, can I? That’s political.
MALCOLM: Does that not fit within your purview, Mary Antoinette? Listen, why don’t you just scuttle back to fucking Cranford and play with your tea and your cakes and your fucking horse cocks. Let them eat cock! (to Toby) Hey you, Ron Weasley! You do it.