Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Actors, dialogue and the art of listening

Writers tend to worry about dialogue, with good reason. A bad line can kill a scene. A good line can become the buzz phrase of the year. And be quoted in the actor's biography, with all credit to them, but that's the business we've chosen.

This blog has borrowed a few quotes from Michael Caine's book Acting in Film. It was written for actors, but provides food for thought to writers as well. Here's one more.

Hannah and Her Sisters
Many writers fail to appreciate just how much a good actor can extract from a single word. Michael Caine explains:
You can bring new life to an apparently mundane reply by planning a thought process based on a key word and then never voicing it.
Other actor: "Would you like some tea?"
You:  "Yes, please."
"Tea" is the key word. The simple word "tea" can open up so many responses. Let's say you would have preferred coffee. The minute the other actor says "tea," your eyes will change because you'd really like coffee. Or maybe you're allergic to tea. Then you answer politely, but with a bit of anguish, knowing that you won't really drink it. The camera thrives on niceties like that; yet you often see actors missing out on these little presents that can open whole realms of possible action.
"Tea" could be an indication that he's too poor to offer you booze, or that he regards you as an alcoholic who shouldn't be offered a drink. Take the script and explore these possibilities because to pick up key words opens a repertoire of potential response that can lift a scene off the page and into reality. Don't make a fetish of it or you will complicate things unnecessarily. You'll seem a maniac if everything sets you off. But take it to reasonable bounds and you'll find that your performance is more interesting to you and more believable on the screen.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
I have been guilty, in my writing, of underestimating actors, with the result that I compensated by overwriting the dialogue. It's about trust, really. (If you've watched as many bad film actors as I have, you'll know the fault doesn't lie 100% with me.)

Back to Michael Caine: If you think an actor can do a lot with one word, look at what a good one can do with no words at all.
When I was very young and in repertory theatre, I was given some advice by a clever director. He said:
"What are you doing in that scene, Michael?"
"Nothing," I said, "I haven't got anything to say."
"That," said the director, "is a very big mistake. Of course, you have something to say. You've got wonderful things to say. But you sit there and listen, thinking of wonderful things to say, and then you decide not to say them. That's what you're doing in that scene."
And that's the greatest advice I can give to someone who wants to act in movies. Listen and react. If you're thinking about your lines, you're not listening.
David Niven listening to Claudia Cardinale in The Pink Panther 
I first encountered that advice, second-hand, from another great English actor. David Niven published his first autobiography, The Moon's a Balloon, in 1971. In it he provides an endless stream of anecdotes from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including the following:
Irving and Norma, like all top movie people, had a private projection room in their house. One night Lubitsch brought down a print of Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and they ran it after dinner for their friends.
I sat squirming with embarrassment throughout the showing but after it was over, everyone, with one exception, was overly flattering and enthusiastic. Fairbanks and Sylvia, Merle, the Astaires, Paulette Goddard and Frederick Lonsdale, all puffed me up most pleasantly. One guest sat silent in his chair. Finally, I could stand it no longer.
"What did you think, Mr. Chaplin?"
 His answer constituted the greatest advice to any beginner in my profession.
"Don't be like the majority of actors... don't just stand around waiting your turn to speaklearn to listen."

First posted:  17 November 2011

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