How To Make A Film With NO Dialogue
In May 2021, I was pitched a 5 page ‘dark comedy with zero dialogue that lights the way to the end of abuse against women’.
Making a short film is almost always a challenge, but this was even more difficult. How could we convey a woman trapped in an abusive relationship without a single word being spoken by her or her controlling husband?
1) Purpose-Led (At All Times)
Initially, I worried zero dialogue was just a technique added in for a unique twist. It would have been easy for a script with no dialogue to become something of a gimmick. But there was a core purpose behind the concept: zero dialogue reflects our protagonist’s lack of voice in the relationship.
As a viewer, you’re always waiting to see if anyone is going to speak. The waiting, the silence, is designed to set you on edge in the same way our protagonist feels constantly on edge.
KEY TAKEAWAY: The lack of dialogue always served a purpose. It creates a picture of how controlled and contained she is in this relationship. MORE: Top 5 Reasons Producers Don’t Like Your Pitches
2) Every Other Sound Is Heightened (So Are Their Actions)
When there’s zero dialogue to focus on, your attention immediately goes to any other sounds and the character’s physical movements.
We often see him actively quietening her so she makes almost no noise throughout the film. Early on, he switches off the radio she’s listening to as soon as he walks in. He also uses subtle gestures when she isn’t behaving as he wants her to. Much of this couldn’t be conveyed in the script, it came from our writer/director Dympna Jardine and our actors.
In post-production we worked with our editor, Emily Walder. We made every sound the husband makes sharp, decisive. These cut through the wife’s softer, relaxed atmosphere.
In the Instagram marketing, the sound mattered less as around 85% of users watch content with the sound off. We used 5-30 second clips that conveyed the atmosphere of the film. We wanted to give people a sense of the world we’d created and pique their interest without knowing what was making our protagonist flinch.
KEY TAKEAWAY: We left room for other elements (particularly sound and movement) to fill the space created by the lack of dialogue.
3) Set Design & Props To Convey A Claustrophobic, Intense Environment
We used knitted objects to show the passing of time. Pumpkins for autumn; Christmas baubles for winter; birds for spring.
Other props have a different purpose. The phone – her means of communication with the outside world – has a lock on the dial.
Her breaking point is symbolised when the husband starts adding balls of yarn on top of each other and she is physically blocked from our view. This is usually the most ‘marmite’ scene – some people gasp while others laugh – which is why it was one of the most important moments to use in marketing.
We also created a heavy, claustrophobic feeling with the set design. There are dark, drab colours, heavy fabrics, cold lighting and a desaturated colour grade. Her dress in the last two scenes is the only real bright colour in the entire film. This signals her breaking away from the world she’s been stuck in.
KEY TAKEAWAY: When your characters don’t speak, you have to give them another way to communicate their inner thoughts and feelings. MORE: The Ultimate Guide To Producing (Plus Where To Find Producers)
4) Rehearsals & Framing
The dynamic between our two actors also took time to develop, so rehearsals were essential. They needed time to decide how to express the emotions of the scene and play off each other, as they had zero dialogue to work with.
This extended to the framing as well. We used a lot of close-ups to heighten the focus on their actions in place of dialogue. There are a lot of close-ups on her eyes or hands during moments of sudden panic.
At the dinner table, we focus on his expressions and cut off her head completely. Filming chronologically also helped the continuity of emotions.
These close-up moments – going from relaxed to panicked, with her anticipating his disapproval – were the only materials we used to establish the tone and market the film.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Don’t underestimate how well your actors will be able to convey a thought or feeling without saying a word, You can always use the framing to heighten their actions and/or hint at their significance.
5) Accept People Will Form Their Own Interpretations
People who haven’t experienced coercive control had trouble recognising it. For them, it might just be a film about a woman knitting things for her husband.
For those that DO understand coercive control, there are plenty of easter eggs. Much of the house looks outdated because he hasn’t let her spend any money on it, which taps into financial abuse.
Other details are smaller, like the handle of the radio is cracked. Our Art Director decided to wrap wool around the handle. This symbolised wool is both used to control her, but it’s also the solution.
The variety of responses has become even louder since we released it on YouTube in December. Some people have strongly identified with it, whilst others have questioned the point of the film (or misinterpreted it entirely).
KEY TAKEAWAY: Be as creative as possible with how you convey the backstory. Let the audience discover the little symbols for themselves. Lastly, don’t worry when some people don’t understand it. That always happens!
In creating Wool our aim was clear: to shed light on the issue of abuse and coercive control, all without a word. Every detail was carefully planned to convey the stifling atmosphere and immerse viewers in the reality of many people’s trapped existences.
While interpretations vary – as is clear from the YouTube comments – Wool demonstrates how creative you can be to provoke thought and inspire empathy even with zero dialogue.
Now Watch The Short Film!
Good luck with your own films!
BIO: Charlotte Atkinson is a producer and productivity strategist. She helps writers and directors create more films and get paid for filmmaking. You can find out more about Charlotte and join her free community here.