We will examine voice over monologues in fiction film and documentaries and conclude with a list of recommendations for first-rate voice over narration.
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Voice Over Monologues in Film
Voice over monologues are often used in fiction films, although they remain a controversial tool. Many critics suggest that voice over monologues in film lessen the screenplay and, consequently, the film. Others expound that they are a useful tool that may radically improve a film if they are used wisely.
We will examine voice over monologues in some select scripts and try to extract basic lessons from them. These lessons are essential when we consider the use of such monologues in documentaries and voice over content in general.
Lord of War (2005)
‘Lord of War’ is a great film starring Nicholas Cage as ‘Yuri Orlov’, a gun-runner. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the film made extensive use of voice over monologues. As enjoyable as the film was, I always felt there was something immoderate about the narration.
There are several things to learn from this film. For starters, voice over monologues should be used when there are things we simply cannot show visually. If it is possible to show something, then perhaps a voice over monologue is not quite necessary in that scene.
There are situations when a writer will be tempted to write in a voice over monologue and keep images that show essentially the same thing. This sort of overstating is rather inadvisable.
‘Lord of War’ uses voice over monologues often, communicating information that could be shown in the action. Consider this moment, when Yuri Orlov’s antagonist is introduced:
They say every man has his price – but not every man gets it. Interpol Agent, Jack Valentine, couldn’t be bought, at least not with money. For Jack, glory was the prize.
Perhaps information like this one need not be conveyed with voice over monologues. We should consider a monologue a weapon of last resort, so to speak.
Check out the following monologue; most of this information could be conveyed visually and very rapidly. Judge for yourself:
EXT./INT. PUBLIC STORAGE FACILITY – MANHATTAN. MORNING.
YURI enters a public storage facility, opens a locker with a combination lock.
There’s no problem leading a double life. It’s the triple and quadruple lives that get you in the end.
He produces several passports from the locker, shuffles the passports like playing cards.
Back then I carried a French, British, Israeli and Ukrainian passport and a student visa for the U.S., but that’s another story.
The locker also contains five identical briefcases – presumably he can tell them apart.
I also packed five different briefcases depending on the region of the world I was visiting.
Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
A film which makes excellent use of voice over monologues is ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. The monologues in this film succeed because they serve as a counterpoint or addition to the action on-screen.
The film succeeds with voice over monologues because these serve to narrate things not seen on-screen or they add a layer of irony to the things that are actually seen.
Consider the end of the first scene involving Jordan at his new job:
With that in mind, at the tender age of 22, after marrying my girlfriend Teresa-
EXT. WALL STREET – DAY (MAY ‘87) An express bus pull up — its sign reads “Wall Street”….
–I headed to the only place that befit my high-minded ambitions…
Jordan emerges, kisses TERESA goodbye, then joins a sea of Commuters heading to work.
You are lower than f****ing pond scum.
Another thing that the voice over in Wolf of Wall Street does very well is illuminate character. Many of these character layers would take too much time if show on-screen.
Study the very first monologue by Leonardo DiCaprio as ‘Jordan Belfort’. It communicates a lot of things very quickly and sets the tone of the entire film:
The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars as the head of my own brokerage firm-
EXT. LONG ISLAND EXPRESSWAY – DAY (FEB ‘95) A CHERRY RED Ferrari Testarossa ZOOMS down the L.I.E.
–which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.
Fight Club (1999)
‘Fight Club’ is another film that excels in the use of voice over monologues. It succeeds in a similar way to ‘Wolf of Wall Street’. What makes these monologues successful is that they serve to expand on the thematic layers of the film. Consider this section, where the protagonist talks about how he buys Ikea furniture:
INT. BATHROOM – JACK’S CONDO – NIGHT
Jack sits on the toilet, CORDLESS PHONE to his ear, flips through an IKEA catalog. There’s a stack of old Playboy magazines and other catalogs nearby.
Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.
Yes. I’d like to order the Erika Pekkari slip covers.
Jack drops the open catalog on the floor.
MOVE IN ON CATALOG — ON PHOTO of COFFEETABLE SET…
If I saw something like clever coffee tables in the shape of a yin and yang, I had to have it.
PAN TO PHOTO of ARMCHAIR…
Like the Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern…
This scene is a very cutting critique of consumer culture and its relation to masculinity. It is also, naturally, very funny. Such an effect would have been impossible without the use of the voice over monologue. Showing such feelings would have been too complex a feat; a narration does very well in this case.
Voice Over Monologues in Documentaries
Many documentaries use a narrator. As opposed to fiction films, such narrator is something that is expected of this type of content. Voice over monologues have thus a stronger foothold on documentaries, though they must still be used wisely.
On Death Row (2012)
Werner Herzog is undoubtedly a master filmmaker, creating extraordinary films and documentaries. His documentaries in particular feature voice over narration which can teach us a lot about the proper way to employ voice over monologues.
Consider his documentary TV series ‘On Death Row’. This work features interviews with inmates on death row in the United States. It is a great example of the most efficient use of voice over monologues. And this is what we want, precisely: a standard of efficiency in the use of our voice over monologues.
Take a moment to observe the set-up of this documentary. Any essential information Werner Herzog needs to give, he communicates through voice over. Everything else, however, is communicated via the interview of (i) the inmate as such (ii) of law enforcement who were involved with the case (iii) and of family members of the inmate and the victims.
This style of narration bears great similarities to the dramatic structure of fiction films. Live action fiction films, as we know, are driven by dialogue and these documentaries are also primarily driven by dialogue. There are moments, however, when voice over monologues give us the essentials of what we need very rapidly.
Up Series (1964 – Currently)
The ‘Up’ documentaries are undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating achievements in the history of filmmaking. They basically follow the lives of several Britons from the time they were seven. The producers revisit each subject every seven years, shooting another documentary and taking a look at their lives. The project is still going and just released ’63 Up’ last year.
These documentaries teach us valuable lessons regarding the use of voice over monologues. Consider for instance, the latest documentary in the series: ’63 Up’. As usual, director Michael Apted narrates certain things in the documentary and sets the scene rapidly.
Most of the movement of the story, however, is dictated by the subjects themselves. A lot of it is done via the interviews; they focus on each subject and these discussions are pasted together in a seamless dramatic flow. A lot of it is also informed by past clips from the other documentaries as well.
The Gist of It: Lessons for Successful Voice Over Monologues
These are some of the basic lessons for the use of voice over monologues in our content (be it in long-form fiction, non-fiction or shorter pieces).
If you can show it, avoid explaining it
The old filmmaking adage ‘Show, don’t tell’ is very useful. If it is possible to show something, then voice over is not necessary.
Resist the temptation to show and explain the same thing
Similarly, sometimes a writer will be tempted to write in a voice over monologue and keep images which show the same thing. Such overstating is usually not necessary.
Narrate things happening off-screen
Voice over monologues are sometimes useful in conveying information happening off-screen in a very rapid manner.
Use voice over to add a layer of irony
Irony can be created with the combination of images and a voice over counterpoint, like in the fiction films we examined.
Voice over for character
Complexity and layers of character may be communicated via voice over. This is useful when such character development would take too long on-screen.
We must always remember to honor the theme and premise of our content with our voice over monologues. Talk for the sake of talk is to be avoided.
Let them speak
Most of the movement of the story (in particular in documentaries) will be carried by the subjects themselves, without recourse to voice over monologues.