Oh, behave!

Behaviour as the basic building block of story in movies ☛

A couple of years a go I attended a Q & A with Dustin Hoffman. During the interview he made a comment that profoundly impacted on my understanding of filmmaking. He said:

“The movie camera is something that hates acting, but loves behaviour.”

I won’t presume to tell you exactly what Mr Hoffman meant by that (ask him if you see him) but I’ll tell you what I got from it. I realized that behaviour is the raw material of cinematic storytelling. A film is a story told through behaviour.

What do I mean by behaviour? To a certain extent it’s about actions speaking louder than words. A husband assures his wife that he loves her; do we believe him? Maybe but, this being a film, we’re not at all surprised when we discover in the next scene that he’s having an affair. When he reassures his wife he’s acting; when he’s cheating on her he’s behaving. And we know which one to believe. However words – dialogue – can be behaviour too. “Pass the ketchup” – clearly not. “Marry me!” or “I stole the money”: these are words that have consequences when spoken publicly; they tell us a decision has been made. Any moment where a character performs an action or makes a decision that reveals something about their inner life, they’re behaving.

Mackenzie Crook in “The Office” engaged in behaviour… of some sort

You know the age-old writers’ maxim, “Show, don’t tell”? Well, behaviour is that which ‘shows’. This is why The Office and indeed genuine reality TV proved to be such massive hits – they’re thick with characters who say one thing but whose behaviour betrays a different meaning. The moment we spot this, we realize that we’re reading someone and seeing behind the mask, and boy do we enjoy doing that! It prompts us to engage. It makes us feel that we can read minds like Derren Brown. It makes us feel smart.

Okay, there’s my grand theory – so what? What use is that to you? Well, it’s more a way of thinking than anything else, but here’s how it can help focus your thinking about my three areas of knowledge:


Writing behaviour

The screenwriter generally deals in the bigger beats of behaviour – the decisions the characters make that push the story forward. But the writer can also give us more detailed behaviour. That adulterous husband I mentioned earlier goes home to his wife and decides to lie, which tells us something about him. Exactly what, depends on how he does it. If he is on the verge of confessing, but then chickens out, that tells us one thing. If he denies the affair when faced with overwhelming evidence, that’s something else. If he goes further still and turns the situation back on his wife in an attempt to make her feel guilty for even doubting his fidelity, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Many screenwriters try to describe the slight hesitation the husband makes before answering a question, often in parentheticals, but often that kind of detail doesn’t come across clearly on the page – generally better to leave it to the actor to decide when to scratch their ear.  Writers are better off using dialogue strategies – having the husband pretend to misunderstood his wife’s question, ask if she’s had her hair done, pretend he’s brought some work home with him. All this behaviour is telling in different ways. Every screenwriter should bear in mind that if a dramatic moment is not based around character behaviour it’s unlikely to be interesting.


Directing behaviour

This mainly relates to how the director deals with actors. A popular technique for getting naturalistic behaviour from actors is to involve improvisation. This can lead to some wonderfully real behaviour, but the material it produces is not always relevant to the drama of the moment. While improv might be enjoyable for the audience, if it’s not focused on the dramatic point it can cause the story to become diffuse. Behaviour is the raw material, not an end in itself.

Engaging behaviour, however, can come from the actor unbidden, if they fully engage with the scenario. A small but proud moment of this sort happened in my short film Telling Mark. One character, Alan, backs out of an incredibly awkward dinner party by getting his wife to phone him with a spurious excuse. He had, however, pre-arranged with the other guests to reveal a dark secret to their host Mark. In backing out, he’s let his friends down. What I hadn’t anticipated was that Dan Mersh, playing Alan, would give Mark a bear hug when saying goodbye. Socially the gesture is overkill, being performed as it is with sincerity rather than blokey bravado. In that moment we discover that Alan feels extremely bad about not delivering whatever mysterious news he had to deliver. This hug added an element of emotional reveal to a moment that would otherwise have been dry. The fact that Alan failed to hug Mark’s wife added even more to the scene; but to know why that is, you’d have to watch the film – I’m not giving any spoilers!


Editing behaviour

At one or more points during the edit either the editor or the director, maybe both together, will sift through the rushes for hidden gems. We’re looking for good performance moments: a look or a shrug that tells us what the character is thinking. Maybe a more playful delivery of a line that persuades us to like that character more. Maybe just any moment when the actor isn’t being a plank of wood! And what are we looking for in story terms? Behaviour.

When cutting a dialogue scene, behaviour is key. Two stories occur simultaneously:

  1. the dialogue: what people say and how they say it
  2. the looks exchanged between the characters, the failure to maintain eye contact, the nervous playing with a lighter.

While you can edit the first story through the selection of dialogue takes and pacing the scene with pauses and overlaps, in the second story, physical behaviour, a different narrative is being told. Listen to the scene without picture or switch off the sound and watch it mute and there should be a discrepancy between the two stories. In that inconsistency lies the tension that keeps the scene alive.

Where one cuts, or doesn’t cut, can affect how we read behaviour. If you’re particularly interested in the response of one character, hold on their reaction so that we can see their face change, see the thoughts racing through their mind, all in one shot. Their behaviour feels truer without intercession: like it’s happening before our very eyes.


I’ll leave you with the perfect demonstration of the behaviour of two people telling a painfully awkward story. Although a director was present, the only directoral decision was that of the person who wisely chose to present it in an uninterrupted locked-off shot. Yes, it’s that scallywag Lars von Trier sharing a platform in Cannes with his leading lady Kirsten Dunst. Set aside, if you can, what he’s actually saying and listen to his verbal behaviour when trying to decide whether to say it and to Ms. Dunst’s physical behaviour when trying to decide whether or not to stop him. Much more darkly engaging than anything Ricky Gervais or Stephen Merchant ever dreamt up.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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4 Responses to “Oh, behave!”
  1. ivan says:

    That’s it! I knew there was some deeper understanding to be had by those comments by Lars: he was teaching young filmmakers a very important lesson in acting ‘behaviour’: a kind of educational ‘happening’.

    Aside from this great insight (and I will of course be treading dangerous ground here), but… does a typical North American viewer (and other similarly influenced people), brought up on the nonsense we know, have the wherewithal to actually sense, nay …to understand subtle or even less subtle behavioural behaviour?

    My last film includes a university level teacher who one day decides to teach 7 year-old’s primary school students. We don’t know why. I very carefully set out to not mention anything, but make one understand his reasons by his behaviour. In fact, I thought I had even laid it on thick so it would not be missed. Next thing i know, in my world premiere, an American critique slates the film in an important magazine claiming ‘we never has a single indication as to why on earth this teacher decides to teach young children’, thus calling his decision ‘pointless’.

    Point is: playing that card too much, as I have learned, may relegate your film to only a few arty film festivals.

  2. guyducker says:

    I think, no matter how bright or dim you are, if you can read human behaviour face to face, you can read it on film. Certainly on a micro level – when someone is embarrassed, angry, when they’re trying to seduce – a decent actor, director and editor can always make that clear.
    On a more macro level, as in your film, people’s decisions as to why they make big life decisions can be more difficult to portray solely through acted behaviour. If we don’t actually see the moment that the decision is made (I don’t think we do in ‘Primaria’) because it happened in the past, it’s even more difficult. Difficult, not impossible.
    What I suspect happened with your US critic is that it wasn’t his sort of film so he disengaged, and when that happens subtleties get missed. If there’s a moral to the story I guess it’s that if you set up what seems to be an important mystery, you’ve got to try to make it clear when you want people to be curious, when you want them mystified and when you want them to suspect the truth. Even mystery needs clarity.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] was duly written and then shot a short time later, in a single morning, with comedy actor friends Dan Mersh and Jeremy Limb at a grand cost to the exchequer of £9.84. You can see the result here: Click on […]

  2. […] But why this preference for unspoken moments over dialogue-driven exchanges? Part of it is to do with film’s competitiveness with other forms. Theatre, television and radio drama are all very dialogue dependent; even the most high-end TV drama will average more lines per minute than most feature films. In a cinema you have an audience of willing captives who aren’t eating their dinner, nipping off to make a cup of tea or otherwise easily drawn away from looking at the screen (okay, it depends which cinema you go to), and because of this the filmmaker can rely on greater concentration on the visuals. Besides, movies were born dumb. The talkies only came about after directors had already learned the neat trick of communicating through images, looks and body language. As we saw with the popular and critical success of The Artist, film still secretly aspires to the purity of its voiceless childhood. Crucially, however, a well-performed look is always more powerful than a well-delivered line because we believe a look: how often do people give themselves away with their eyes? Dialogue can so easily be a lie (I’ve written more about this in my article on Behaviour). […]

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