Robert DeNiro sits in a chair

I was working on a screenplay with director Andy Davis (The Fugitive, Under Siege, Above the Law) when he got an odd, dissatisfied look on his face.

“Something’s missing in this sequence. We need a Private Moment.”

I can be pretty dumb sometimes. I opened my mouth. “What’s a Private Moment?”

Robert DeNiro in “True Confessions”

Andy answered. ‘Did you ever see True Confessions? Remember the scene where Robert DeNiro goes back to his room and sits in the chair? That’s a Private Moment.”

Let me explain.

A private moment, in a movie or a book, is a scene where a character (usually the lead, but not always) is alone with his or her thoughts. It’s a contemplative moment. It’s in a minor key. Almost always there’s no dialogue. Everything is communicated by facial expression, body language, or action. Often this is extremely subtle.

In True Confessions (1981), Robert DeNiro plays a rising young monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese. He’s not a priest who ministers to a congregation, he’s the right hand man to the powerful cardinal (Cyril Cusack). His duties include acquiring land for schools, hiring contractors, overseeing and trouble-shooting many of the financial and political intrigues that the diocese of necessity finds itself involved in.

He’s a fixer. An operator. He’s ambitious. One day, we imagine, he’ll be a cardinal himself.

The overall scheme of the film is that it’s based loosely on the true-life “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947. Robert Duvall plays DeNiro’s brother, Det. Tom Spellacy, a jaded homicide cop investigating this horrific crime. 

P.S. The screenplay is by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.

But back to DeNiro. In the scene preceding his Private Moment, he’s on the golf course with some L.A. big shots, making deals for the diocese. He’s dressed in civilian clothes. He wields power. He’s driving hard bargains on behalf of the Church.

After golf, DeNiro goes home. He returns to the residence he shares with other monsignors and high-ranking prelates. Here’s the scene:

DeNiro enters the residence in his civilian attire—slacks, a cardigan, a short-sleeved shirt. He mounts the stairs to a second story. The residence is like a dormitory. We glimpse on the hall several other priests. One passes in slippers and a bathrobe, carrying a towel and a shaving kit, apparently returning to his room from a communal bathroom.

DeNiro enters his own room and closes the door. The space is spartan in the extreme. A bed. A chair. An armoire. DeNiro opens the armoire. He hangs his cardigan sweater on a hanger. Inside the armoire are only one or two other items of apparel, on simple wire hangers. 

DeNiro’s posture and expression throughout are weary, self-reflective, melancholy. He seems to regard his surroundings and what they represent with a sense of defeat and futility, even despair.

He sits slowly on the single chair and stares pensively into nowhere.

That’s the scene.

What does it communicate? In the audience, we can’t be sure yet (and we won’t know until a few scenes later) but we sense that if DeNiro’s character were to articulate overtly what he is feeling (which of course he would never do), it might go something like this:

I entered the priesthood understanding the sacrifices I would have to make, exemplified by the barrenness of this room. I sought this humility deliberately, so that I could be of service to others, so that I could be a priest. Now look at me. I’m making deals like a gangster. What happened to me? I can’t go on like this.

All this is communicated powerfully with no dialogue and absolutely minimal action. More importantly, because the scene is so spare of cues, the audience is drawn in and asked to read DeNiro’s interior experience without the aid of words or other overt expression..

That’s a private moment. More on this in the next few weeks.

P.S. The story I’ve heard (I can’t vouch for its truth) is that this scene was not in the screenplay. DeNiro himself asked for it during the shooting. He felt something was missing. He felt his character needed a private moment.

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21 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on February 3, 2021 at 3:54 am

    Interesting. Thanks Steve. I’m looking forward to your further thoughts, as such a scene, lacking dialogue, would be harder to render in prose. Sounds like an interesting movie. Has anybody else seen the movie and can report on it generally?
    Peter

  2. Mary Doyle on February 3, 2021 at 4:37 am

    I saw the movie years ago, but after reading this post, I will watch it again. Looking forward to hearing more about “private moments” in the coming weeks – as always, thanks!

  3. Joe Jansen on February 3, 2021 at 6:38 am

    Good stuff. Here’s what I think is a good example of Steve implementing this “private moment” story device. From Chapter 24, “The Summit,” in his forthcoming “A Man at Arms.” Telamon and his party are hemmed in by the pursuing enemy. They’re trying to figure out a plan that might get them out of the frying pan. It reads:

    ***
    Sundry alternatives were proposed and rejected.

    At last, Telamon stood. The mercenary stretched and scratch at his beard. For long moments he said nothing. Clearly he continued to puzzle over what course of escape, if any, lay open to them.

    The others were exhausted and wished only to shut their eyes.

    Telamon began slowly to move off.

    The girl’s glance tracked him.

    After an interval, she rose as well.

    David’s eyes followed her.

    Telamon moved away along a narrow trail.

    He seemed unaware of the child Ruth shadowing him.

    The mercenary halted once, knelt, and scraped a design in the dirt with a stick. The girl stopped too, maintaining a distance. Telamon stood again and, still ruminating, resumed his ramble.

    The ground lay flat and unbroken between the camp and the trace upon which Telamon trod. David watched from a distance. He remained beside Michael and the sorceress with the animals.

    The girl Ruth continued to trail Telamon as he drifted, deep in thought. She kept behind him, deliberately it seemed, remaining wide of his field of vision.

    When he stopped, she stopped.

    Each time she remained perfectly still, observing him.

    At length the mercenary came to a likely spot and sat.

    The girl took up a seated position as well, yet behind him, at a distance, out of his line of sight.

    The mercenary remained upon his station.

    After an interval, the child stood and advanced, one step at a time into the periphery of the man-at arms’ vision. She sat. Clearly Telamon was aware of her now.

    He did not react.

    The girl got up and moved closer.

    Finally she sat directly across from him.

    David could not contain his curiosity. He rose from the camp and, advancing with no small stealth, made his way to a stony rise from which he had a prospect of the man-at-arms and the girl.

    The man did not speak.

    He did not look at the child or acknowledge her presence.

    But he made no attempt to send or drive her away.

    The girl for her part offered neither sign nor signal. She made no grunt or gesture.

    She did not scribe in the dirt.

    David watched.

    What were they doing, the child and the man-at-arms?

    The boy could come to no conclusion. All he knew was he felt a keen pang of envy.

    ****

    • Joe on February 3, 2021 at 6:53 am

      And a non sequitur here, but I next read this, from Light Watkins’s “Daily Dose,” and seemed worth sharing in this place where creative minds meet. Light offers a quote:

      ***
      Go further

      “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that. And the other thing I would say is that if you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

      — David Bowie

  4. cheryl on February 3, 2021 at 7:44 am

    Love this so much, and DeNiro is so talented, The choices we make are our talent, Only a great actor can do this 100%,

  5. Randy Gage on February 3, 2021 at 7:53 am

    Gold.

  6. Sam Luna on February 3, 2021 at 8:12 am

    First thing that comes to mind is Michael Mann’s “Heat” with DeNiro, which is an entire movie about cops/criminals and their Private Moments.

    Great post!

  7. Michael Esser on February 3, 2021 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for the great insight.

    Just as Peter Brockwell, I look forward to some examples in books of “private moments.” While I can remember many such moments in movies, I am a bit at a loss when it comes to novels.

    • Renita on February 3, 2021 at 7:02 pm

      Agatha Christie did this a lot in her mysteries. There were times when Hercule Poirot sat and said nothing, looking around his office. Or his eyes became very green. There are ways of showing that something is going on. She was good at it.

  8. Joan Clair DiStefano on February 3, 2021 at 8:39 am

    Having a private moment is the island in our ocean of distractions.

    • Diane on February 3, 2021 at 1:04 pm

      What a beautiful image, Joan!

  9. Steven Hartov on February 3, 2021 at 9:08 am

    I’ve always done this since my very first book, and it’s great to have the device affirmed by a master.

  10. Scott Mann on February 3, 2021 at 11:22 am

    Love this Steve. I’m looking for some private moments for Master Sergeant Danny Patton in our “Last Out” play thanks to this post.

    Good stuff Pal.

  11. David James on February 3, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    Love this reflection of how it is in life, so ought to be in writing too. Me I think of all art as ‘presentation of contrasts’, so some stillness amid the flurry makes total sense. People seem to get all into conflict or melodrama to make their characterization/story entertaining. But listen to any great music in any genre, and there will be moments of pause, or even peace, that make the rest stand out.

  12. Renita on February 3, 2021 at 6:58 pm

    It’s important to give the audience something to do. Like project or imagine something.

  13. Frank Gugino on February 4, 2021 at 8:58 am

    The “Private Moment” is the opening scene of my next book project. The protagonist contemplates his current situation/dilemma. “What am I doing?” “What have I become?” It’s a wonderful opportunity to set the stakes for what lies ahead and set up a backstory for how he got there in the first place.

  14. Cher on February 5, 2021 at 1:11 am

    Fantastic blog post…and like everyone else, I’m very much looking forward next. Also, fabulous commentary from others!

  15. Fernando on February 5, 2021 at 9:13 am

    Bravo!! great post, Steve!

  16. Daniel on February 7, 2021 at 4:18 am

    Warrior Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall), DeNiro’s brother, has his private moment at min. 42 of the film, then mystic Monsignor Robert DeNiro has his mirror private moment at min. 57.

  17. Antonio on February 26, 2021 at 2:42 am

    I am amazed at how interesting the article you posted. I am fond of this Leather Jacket. Keep uploading more nice articles.

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