These days there are still a smattering of silent films being made (mostly on the independent film market), and thank goodness for that. An artform all their own, silents have a uniquely cinematic quality every prospective filmmaker should take note of, and yes, that includes screenwriters. But, without screenwriting conventions and dialogue formatting as we know them today, how did the streamlined Hollywood productions of yore set about writing up their stories?
The short answer is: descriptively. Take this passage from Cecil B. Demille’s original, silent treatment of the epic he is best known for adapting today: The 10 Commandments, written by Jeanie MacPherson.
“The scene should look like a group in Dante’s inferno. Finally, in a great gush of wind, the remainder of the tent is blown down – and everything is uprooted and blown from one place to the other. So that Moses and Joshua, and Aaron and Miriam, with their huddled group – are standing out under the storming sky, with the overturned calf flaming up, fanned by the terrific wind.”
Make note of how dramatic and charged the language at work here is. Though there are many ways to shoot a scene like this biblical tempest, the voice projected by MacPherson during this passage is undeniably apt for Cecil B. Demille, who did nothing in small measures.
There is more thought given to cutting continuity these days, though as late as 2011’s The Artist there are massive passages dedicated to action without so much as a hint of a cutaway; only slug lines (i.e. Ext. Movie Studio – Day ) and the rare title card here or there (replacing the function of dialogue, and thereby negating overlap). When a title card signifies dialogue, the line is written as is, while sound effects are communicated through title cards and housed in quotation marks. This comes into play in one
of The Artist’s best uses of silent film as a medium, as we intercut between the main character, George, clamping his teeth down on a loaded gun, and the woman he loves, Peppy, barreling at dangerous speeds in her car to meet him before its too late. George closes his eyes. Title card: “BANG!”. The audience draws its conclusions, before we discover that George has not pulled the trigger; instead Peppy has rammed into a tree outside his window. It’s a creative use of the sort of device that could only work in a silent film, or indeed, a silent formatted script.
A lot has changed since the runaway success of The Artist, and a great deal more since general audiences had a taste for movies without the benefit of sound. Silent films may be few and far between as of late, but that makes them all the better to stand out amongst. When you’re sure you can make a film that can stand on its own under limitations, imagine what you’ll be able to bring to a project without them.