So my question is, after watching something like the fantastic "The End of the Tour," how can movies consisting of mostly dialogue be compelling? End of the Tour follows Rolling Stone columnist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he goes about interviewing David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, in an uncharacteristically good role) during the last stop of his book tour for the novel Infinite Jest.
And that's pretty much all there is to it.
Nobody dies (I mean, teeeeechnically DFW does in the intro, but it's barely part of the plot). There's no big twists or turns. At times, it can seem like there's barely any conflict. Just two dudes named David, talking about everything from sex to junk food. So where's the hook? What's the elevator pitch there? If I had tried to write something like this for my advanced screenwriting class, I probably would have been immediately shut down. It didn't help when I discovered that the writer was Donald Margulies, a guy that normally writes plays (albeit, really great, compelling plays). Then THAT got me thinking: what's the difference between a play and a film? Is a play also not a visual medium? Why is ok for a play to be talky, but not a movie?
Turns out, even though they're visual, stage plays are a different creature altogether, mainly for some obvious reasons. Plays don't have cameras, for one: they work with a single stage, and whatever you see is going to be determined by your place in the audience and your particular view of that stage. Many times, all you'll be able to work with is a couple actors and a bare bones set, so compelling dialogue is the one thing that you have to really focus on.
Sometimes, this can be translated over into film. Take Glengarry Glen Ross, for instance. It's a super talk-y movie, one of those films that I would have absolutely hated as a kid, but it's compelling, and it's adapted for the screen from what was originally a stage play. If you're able to translate the intensity and keep the dialogue tight and interest-keeping, then you're set.
And that's more or less what Margulies is able to do with End of the Tour. He takes a book about a long conversation and turns it into a movie about a long conversation. I'd like to say that framing and shots help the movie stay interesting as well, but from a technical standpoint, it's fairly average and forgettable (apart from this one shot in a parking lot that makes the physically imposing Wallace look like a child). Sure, you can go the route of David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin in the Social Network and also make it super visually appealing, but you also, surprisingly enough, don't need to. Sometimes a good script is a good script, and musings about masturbation, Alanis Morissette, and television are all you need. Which is kind of both inspiring and strangely depressing. Oh well. I guess that's David Foster Wallace for you.