The Art: Neighbours, a short film by Norman McLaren (1952)
Since this film is 8 minutes long, our exercise will only prompt you to watch it once. We’ll also take advantage of the fact that this is a silent film to practice crafting some dialogue. One of the hardest things about writing dialogue is to make it sound natural. An important tip in that regard: people rarely talk explicitly about what they are literally doing or feeling, they circle. Just a quick heads up: there are some allusions to violence in the last two minutes of this film that, while not gory, may not be your cup of tea — skip that bit if you want!
Watch the film (or a portion of it). No need to take notes, just try to keep a keen eye for details and, as always, your own emotional responses.
In a page or two (about 5-10 minutes of writing), jot down what you just witnessed. When in doubt, keep it factual — describe the events: the gestures and facial expressions, the objects and colors. No need to look back at the film. You’re just making a record of how you saw it/ remember it.
Review your first batch of writing, circling places or passages that stand out to you. What feelings do you think the characters are experiencing here — anger, passion, fear? Write those in the margin.
Locate a passage in your writing that has a lot of these margin feelings happening. You may even want to re-watch that portion of the film. Then, go ahead and draft a little dialogue for the characters involved. No need to use quotation marks and dialogue tags (like the classic prose format: “Well that’s a mighty fine newspaper,” he said.) unless you want to. You can just make a new line each time a new person starts speaking. Another tip: Try not to use dialogue to simply describe what’s happening in the film. Instead, try to reveal something the film cannot — some deeper aspect of your characters’ interiority — by how they say what they say. Is their language curt and formal, or do they sound drunk? There’s a big difference between “Top of the morning to you, neighbor! Can I offer you a pinch of this lovely Burley leaf for a bit of a shmokey smoke?” and “Morning Bob.” Feeling experimental? Maybe the flower or fence posts get a voice, too!
I'm so glad you liked the film, Abbey! This convo is excellent -- I love how you leave certain actions that are depicted in the film (like the literal building of the fence) implied, pushing to the reader to envision on their own. I also like how the conflict spirals - -at first it's about the flower's location but very quickly it becomes about each man's personality and, finally, about their place in the community. Feels true and compelling!
Tessa, fantastic film. Thank you!
You know this belongs to me, right?
Hold on a second, sport. It’s pretty obvious that it’s mine.
No, no, no. Look? See that property line?
Yeah! And it’s clearly on my side.
Oh, like hell it is.
If you think I’ll stand here and let you take this from me, you’ve got another thing coming.
Aw, shut your trap, would ya? I don’t think I’ve heard you shut up since the day I moved into this neighborhood.
And I’ve been nothing but nice to you since Day One! And this is how you treat me now?
You aaaaalways have to be the victim, don’t you?
And you always have to be the bully. Wait here.
What’re you doing? Come on.
How’s this? Does this help clear up your confusion? The flower is mine!
A fence? A goddamn fence? Really? Fine. How’s that?
That's it! No more Mr. Nice Guy. It’s my fence. And it’s my flower. And it’s my goddamn neighborhood. I tried to be a good neighbor to you, but you’ve gone too far.
WOW! Check this out! Most amazing smell, EVER!
Woah! What IS that thing? Put your nose right there. It’s like the backside of a waterfall and lilacs all rolled into one! Ok, actually, I think it’s making me high.
Let me try. Let me try. Yeah, I see what you mean. Wait, it’s super powerful, like I accidentally snorted Wasabi.
Also, what is with the way it moves around in the ground? Are you seeing this? Is this a plant or an animal?
I don’t know but let’s just have another sniff and…hmm. I can’t keep from dancing!
I know right? Hang on, let me just get a closer look here. Wait, actually this is really on my side of the property though, dude. For sure it is.
Wait, what? I think it’s on the property line, exactly, but if I have to draw it out for you, I will.
Really? You’re kidding me, right? I saw you draw that fence line just ever so slightly around it, and I can do the same damn thing. See?
Well, I’ll see you and raise you a double fence. How about that? Now, you can’t even see it!
Hey Dude! It’s looking like a fine morning for reading the paper and having a smoke.
I agree! I think I’ll also pull the old pipe out and light it up... Hey man, do you have any matches?
Here you go dude, I always keep some on hand.
Hey, did you see that? I think that flower was dancing. Let’s go check it out man.
Holy Shit! That smell is intoxicating!
Dude! You’re right! I feel as if I am flouting around the yard.
You’re right Man! I think the flower is dancing!
Ah Dude, I feel so good! It’s like the time I got drunk at your house.
I think I could lay here and smell it all day long.
You know what Dude? I think that this flower is on my property.
Yeah Right! You wish! The dancing flower is on my property and I’m putting up a fence to prove it.
Look dude your janky fence doesn’t prove it’s on your property. It’s on mine!
It’s on my land and it’s all mine!
Like Hell it’s yours!
What's up with you, man? One minute you're all buddy-buddy, and the next you're some crazy lunatic!
You're the lunatic here, pal. You suddenly decide it's all yours and you expect me to just smile and go back to my paper?
Yeah, maybe check those stock prices again--make sure you're still rich enough to push everybody around. I've had it with your entitlement bullshit; I'm keeping what's mine this time!
Then you better lawyer up, you jerk--by the time I'm done suing your sorry ass, you'll be down here in the grass, looking for your stupid little bowtie!
Thanks for another enjoyable exercise Tessa!
Here's some pre-war/fence dialogue:
Hmmmmm. Yum. Yum. Yum. You gotta smell this Ronny!
Woah, woah. Woooah. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m flying. I’m floating. I can’t stop. I need more of that flower.
What is the smell? It’s otherworldly.
It’s making me high, so many scents in one whiff!
It’s like breathin’ a flood of memories and good times. Your fresh cut lawn on a sunny day.
And a juicy steak on your grill. Or that milky chocolate Sylvie makes.
Uh. I can smell the butterscotch biscuits your Pam makes.
Wow! I just got hint of a clean diaper we didn’t have to change.
Don’t forget the sweet stink of worms on our fishing poles.
Or the bitter lagers that follow a catch. Oh Jim, we’ve had some good times. We’re two lucky son of bitches.
Look at that flower dance Ronny!
Look at us dance!
Is there anybody better than us?
There’s nobody better than us.