Robert DeNiro sits in a chair

I was working on a screenplay a few years ago 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 had never heard of a Private Moment. What could it be? I asked Andy.

He 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.”

Robert DeNiro as Monsignor Des Spellacy in “True Confessions”

Let’s examine this.

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 film is 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 immediately 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 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 in 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 expression throughout is 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 looks 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 never would), 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 speech or other overt expression..

That’s a private moment.

P.S. The story I’ve heard (I can’t vouch for its veracity) 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.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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40 Comments

  1. Jan OHan on July 5, 2023 at 3:03 am

    DeNiro is a masterful actor. Reflecting on your account, it seems his private moment was a crucial add. Taking the time to reflect in the middle of a path adds so much suspense and pull for the audience to move inwards to the character, and even to momentarily while watching the scene, or later after the show is over, to reflect on our own path in life. Brilliant.

    • Joseph Badal on July 7, 2023 at 6:10 am

      This is a device I often deploy in my books. It adds depth to a character and aids in the reader’s relationship with that character. I loved your DeNiro example. Keep these tips coming.
      Joe

  2. Daniel on July 5, 2023 at 3:21 am

    Detective Tom Spellacy (Robert Duvall), DeNiro’s brother, has his private moment at min 42 of “True Confessions”, then Robert DeNiro has his mirror private moment at min 57. I wonder if the writers planned this or De Niro wanted his own private moment.

  3. Jerry Ellis on July 5, 2023 at 3:53 am

    That’s a beautiful gem, Steven. Thank you.

  4. N. S. (Vish) Vishwanath on July 5, 2023 at 4:18 am

    Pure Gold. Thanks Mr. Pressfield.

    I am working on a scene for the sequel to my debut novel and this is what I was missing … a private moment.

  5. Jackie on July 5, 2023 at 4:58 am

    Steve,
    Having a private moment last week (in a kayak, no internet or phone service, nothing but sky, water, and wildlife), I missed last week’s post. I wanted to extend condolences on the loss of your friend and exemplary human being and to thank you for sharing the Foolscap Method. May we all take a private moment to reflect on our journey through this wilderness.

  6. Mitch Bossart on July 5, 2023 at 5:26 am

    Silence is powerful. The two movies I think of are Witness and Sweet Land. Thanks, Steve. This one gave me chills.

  7. DeWayne Mason on July 5, 2023 at 6:18 am

    Very much enjoyed this post. Question, Steve. I read your memoir and loved it, but I wondered about the extent to which you used every element of the Story Grid approach. Thanks for your efforts.

  8. Kathy on July 5, 2023 at 6:33 am

    Wow, just wow. Thank you Mr. Pressfield.

  9. Joe Jansen on July 5, 2023 at 6:40 am

    Hemingway’s iceberg. What is left unsaid.

  10. Stephen S. Power on July 5, 2023 at 6:40 am

    That’s great. I’m reminded of DeNiro’s character in THE IRISHMAN having a similar moment in his bedroom at the end of the movie, clearly thinking the same thing, What has my life come to? The same question, and the horrible answer, is what animates the movie THE MENU. It would be interesting to study where these moments come in a movie: the beginning (or before the beginning, the realization only revealed later), the middle or the end, and what purpose they serve.

  11. Diane Young on July 5, 2023 at 7:22 am

    Oh, WOW is right! I like the idea of the Private Moment. It’s amazing how silence sometimes speaks louder and more powerfully than words.

  12. Franceen Brodkin on July 5, 2023 at 8:05 am

    A Private Moment from screenwriter to actor is a gift to the latter. As a former professional actor, and acting teacher
    for decades, nothing is more powerful and illuminating than watching a great actor’s thought process.
    Silence can indeed be golden.

  13. Liza Bernstein on July 5, 2023 at 9:57 am

    Thank you for this, and for everything that you do—I love this idea too! I am curious about the difference in treatment of a Private Moment in film/screenplay vs novel. It brings to mind how effective “show don’t tell” can be in the visual/kinetic medium of film. If that private moment were to be rendered in a novel, how would you recommend a writer craft the scene to convey what we’d experience as movie-watchers? Would you recommend that the book’s narrator or character share inner reflections?

  14. ward degler on July 5, 2023 at 11:06 am

    In my own writing I have discovered that a few details surrounding a character can provide such a reflective moment: Birds singing in a tree outside the window; a dirty shirt meant for the laundry but left on the bedroom floor; perhaps an overflowing ashtray.

  15. Beverly Lyle Patt on July 5, 2023 at 12:09 pm

    This works so well on screen – how do we show it in our written work? If we are writing in close third or first person, do we spell out those thoughts? Or maybe the character just asks himself a question or two, but doesn’t answer it…

  16. Barbara Rosenberg on July 6, 2023 at 5:01 am

    You talkin’ to me?

  17. Tolis on July 6, 2023 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you very much dear Steve,

    Ah, a private moment… doesn’t that reflect all of us? We all show a social face and energy to the world, maybe even to our families and our children and our friends. But there are those moments when we are alone and “free”… then we are us, and the real energies inside imerge in one way or another… perhaps they are not as crystal clear as DeNiro’s private moment, but really… we know that we are something else… something dark, clear, silent, all wise, or maybe something very different from all those traits. Maybe we don’t even wash our hands when we must, or we don’t put our clothes where we must (except if we build a kind of character, but that again may be not the whole of us). That social smile and look run away from our face, and some expressions may reflect our inner distress when we have stress, or show a neutrality when we are cut off from the world, all the things that don’t matter in the shadows.

    A private moment could then be a chance for the spectator to get a glimpse to the Self of the hero, or at least something closer to the self. Since then, the spectator was just seeing the hero in relation to the other beings/circumstances. Are we, our truths, those in the social interchanges or those in the empty room? If we are the one, then what or who is the other?

    So maybe the self is missing when a movie or work doesn’t have a moment with the hero alone! What a loss!

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  20. E.G. Hamilton on July 7, 2023 at 7:43 am

    What is the writing prompt here? Are we to think of or create a private moment in the lives of our characters, in our own lives?

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