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Posts Tagged ‘acting’

Christmas eve, I walked to the post office. On the way back, I saw a woman crossing the street toward me. I only noticed her briefly from the corner of my eye. But I felt her come up alongside of me. As she passed, I felt this pulse of energy – crazy, swirling energy. I had planned to walk back to work through the passageway between Seventh and Sixth Avenues, but I felt compelled to follow her down Eighth Avenue. She was a few inches shorter than me, wore leather pants and a loop-knit sweater (the kind that looks like it is more air than sweater and skin is vaguely visible beneath).

At the corner, waiting for the light (as I was catching up), she flicked her dark hair from the right side, revealing the pale, light skin of her neck. There was a kind of madness in me – I wanted to grab her from behind and kiss that neck. The light changed and I started to feel like a stalker. She wore low-cut boots and she seemed to walk on the side of the left boot (more than on the sole). Her clothes were not sloppy, but at the same time were not fastidiously groomed — they had the look of clothes that were put on after a dance class or that had been worn during a short nap. Everything about the woman felt intimate and familiar to me.

At 44th Street, I forced myself to turn away, to walk across Eighth Avenue toward Times Square (toward where I work). I was almost hyper-ventilating with crazy energy. Once I was away from the woman, I realized I was chasing a ghost- she was a doppelganger for someone I’d dated. Now, some fifteen years later, one tries to make sense of things, if it is possible to make sense of that dramatic pull of energy that comes through the senses.

Mystical writing from many cultures indicates that what draws or repulses us in others is mostly a form of our own character — we are often drawn to those who are like us or seek to complete ourselves in those who are of an entirely different mold. These kinds of relationships highlight our own personality. Thus in reviewing the effect of a relationship, we may actually come to understand ourselves better. Krishnamurti insists that the mirror in which we see ourselves in the mirror of relationship.

I met L when she was auditing a voice class. I didn’t expect to meet her- or anyone like her. Some years earlier I’d come to the conclusion that most “love” is simply a form of convenience or addiction. I’d been in a long term relationship when I came to that conclusion. I wrote a short story about a man watching a woman sleep and being unable to come to terms with the fact that she was not the one he’d anticipated, hoped for or imagined. She was the one he’d found. And despite the fact that she was allergic to his sperm – a cosmic warning if there was one -they were trying to make it work. I’d come to believe that people formed alliances or treaties when they wed and the other thing, “infatuation” or “lust” if you will, was the central ingredient in “falling in love.” I didn’t see much room or evidence of anything much else.

So, yes, I was already in a relationship that was “practical,” for lack of a better word. I was helping her get a green card; she was helping me …do something. I haven’t figured out yet what that was. I kept thinking I would grow into the relationship, even if it was awkward at every turn. I would be patient. I chided myself- I’d never lived with anyone before. I just needed to adjust. Besides, there was no such thing as “love.”

I went to class and I heard L sing. There was a lot of passion in her singing, though I didn’t pay that much attention to her otherwise. Later, in the hallway outside of class, we started to talk. Quickly it appeared as if I’d known her for a thousand years or more. There was this ease and comfort of dialogue. We walked together to the subway with some other classmates. I played an impromptu joke on one of the singers who’d gone into the supermarket, banging on the window as in “Mrs. Robinson.” L joined right in. All of us laughed to the subway and at one point I swear I heard her say, “you’d better be single.” (She later denied having every said such a thing).

When I got home that night, R, the woman with whom I was in a relationship said, “what happened?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

“You seem joyful. That’s not an emotion I’ve seen in you before…”

At this point I could spill all of my journals – the self-recriminations, the mistakes, the roads not taken – but what I want to recount is not necessarily the personal journey through these relationships, but the discovery of my character on those axes — the poles between “practical” and “passion.”

What is it that Pascal says in the Pensees – “the heart hath reasons that reason doth not know.” If reason is the tool of the practical, passion and love incite in us the irrational. I have infinite gratitude for L, as I have often said, “she woke up my heart.” I had stopped believing love was possible until I met her. What I experienced was sexual – I’m not going to deny that aspect of things – but it was more too. There was this uncanny sensation of having spent multiple life-times with L, as well as a unique energy exchange. I can distinctly recall more than one occasion on which L simply placed her hand on my back and a charge of electricity shocked through my body (and no, it wasn’t static electricity). I always felt like I could tell her anything and I made honesty my number one commitment- Of course, this was merely my perception -there were times we talked (after we broke up) and she intimated that I should never have told her x or y. “How did I think that would make her feel?” she asked. I always assumed honesty trumped smaller concerns.

The primary effect of L’s entrance was that I understood I would never be happy focused only on a practical life. I am an actor and I’ve had the same struggle through the years with work as during the time I tried to balance what I owed to my practical relationship versus what I owed to passion.  While ultimately passion may not be love, it is not lust either.

When I first came to NYC, my primary focus was to study acting. I’d come to the game late and was fortunate enough to have friends who’d studied at NYU and Monclair- they opened to door for me to terminology, various teaching methods, etc. When I began studying, I continued to teach writing at a Community College. It surprised me a little how quickly I picked up technique, but beyond that, how my years of meditation actually gave me a distinct advantage-the ability to focus and the ability to be in the moment (and yes, I’d heartily recommend meditation to anyone who considers acting simply for those two benefits). I was still dating the woman about whom I’d written my short story- she was thrilled by the idea that I might turn into someone famous; however, she disliked that I left on weekends to take classes, to rehearse with acting partners and all the work involved in learning a craft.

I made acting important and tried to balance it with the demands of my job (grading papers, preparing classes) and my relationship, what you might call the practical aspects of living. Had I been passionately in love with either -the woman or the teaching -who knows how I would have felt. As it was, I continually felt that time away from acting was time lost. After a year of technique and a year of basic and advanced scene study, I went to my first audition. I was cast as a lead. The play was “American Success” – a musical about the inter-twined careers of Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. It probably helped matters that at that time I sported a mustache and looked like Clint Eastwood’s younger brother (or Sam Elliot in Mask, as people often told me). The play debuted at the American Living Room series at HERE. On opening night, after my family left, I was incredibly aware that my girlfriend of the last four years had gone abroad. I stood in the triangle facing Sixth Avenue and loneliness welled up within me.(1)

My immediate thought was to blame acting. “I put acting ahead of people – and when the play was over all that I was left with was myself.” I raced off and tried to resurrect my relationship – it would involve moving to South America, giving up acting, but hell – people were more important! Even if it wasn’t what I thought of as love, I was incredibly attached to the woman.

I flew to South America, proposed, and was offered a job by my fiancé’s father. I finished the year teaching while training in Manhattan to become an import / export sales executive. And I was bored out of my mind. I kept thinking – this is a job a monkey could do. The prices are on a chart- there’s no negotiation – all I do is answer the phone (“How much does it cost to send a container of — ?”) and I’d look at the chart and read off the price. But the money would be more than I’d ever made. I struggled – could I be content with money? And a family? And what about acting?

I don’t want to get into much more personal history, but this is the lesson I’ve relived for most of my life — being forced to try and balance what I am passionate about with the more practical demands of survival in a capitalist society. In my pre-acting career, when I began writing and assumed I’d make my living as a poet (delusions of youth), I’d work for six to eight months and save enough money that I could spend the next four to six months writing. As a result, my work history has more entries than Burke’s Peerage. So this challenge has been present since I graduated from college. I understand now, however, that passion and love are not as synonymous as I once thought.

A few years ago, I re-connected with a woman who seemed to span both ends of the scale. She was a responsible young mother but also an artist. I could mention Sophocles or a minor character from Shakespeare without having to explain. I could pull out my Oedipus (ex-Rex) joke without the footnote. While it didn’t feel like I’d known her a thousand years, I could spend the afternoon walking with her and not feel compelled to invent conversation. Dialogue came and went and there was a gentle ease simply in her presence. I was patient- perhaps too patient – but I recall having walked her to her apartment. Her son was asleep in his stroller and I thought “Do I kiss her?” I leaned in close, and maybe it was the result of the stroller or my own expectations, there was suddenly no burning passion. In some strange moment of crisis, I felt that I should at least feel the compulsion of passion if I was going to kiss her. And so we hugged and that moment passed. Over time, I realized that was my one opportunity – though we’d later spent some time together and I grew more entranced each time, the kiss remained unshared.  When I was full of passion, I found myself without the opportunity.  I had yet to learn that passion comes and goes, but something else endures.

My son is now twelve and one of the great lessons I’ve learned is that I always love him. There are days I want him to be quiet, or to leave me in peace while I work, but it is never without love. The idea of a scale balanced between passion and practicality was simply something in my brain when it came to love. While love can begin at any intensity, it grows over time. It’s not really a feeling, it’s a connection, or a commitment — many times, it’s simply putting the good of the others ahead of yourself. Or at least putting yourself out for the good of the other.

While I work a great deal as an actor and a writer these days, I’ve also gone back to a “day” job. It’s hard to raise a kid without a steady income. And maybe it isn’t so opposite – maybe the work I do gives me the leisure to make films when I so desire. And at this time, it’s all about the work – doing the work, serving the script, living the process.  Passion for scripts comes and goes, but the love of the work is constant.  This is something I have only learned with time.  Still, I dream of the day I can quit and devote myself entirely to what I love… 😉

(1) One of the things I learned after years of acting is that the sensation of “being in the moment”- one of the requisites for good acting – is that when you return to the quotidian, there is a sense of being unplugged. In my case, I’ve learned over time that this post-acting phase manifests itself as a minor depression, a deep feeling of sadness coupled with loneliness. However, at the time of this show, it was my first such experience and I did not have the wherewithal to consider that it might be something related to acting and not my life.

 

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Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………

…b…iiiiiiii…..ng

[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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I became a playwright as the result of an odd night sleeping (that’s a blog for another day).  I became an actor, at first, to learn the mechanics of how a play works: I went on stage to become a better writer.  It turned out I became pretty adept at acting as well. I believe everyone who attempts to write for stage or screen should spend some time on stage or in front of the camera.  There are things one learns about dialogue that I’ve rarely seen learned any other way.  I’ll try to catalog a few of them here.

Shortly after the turn of the millennia, I was cast in the NY premiere of a work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.  The translation was a collaboration: the producer rendered the words in English and a Columbia University graduate playwright crafted them into a verse play (the original was in verse).  The story follows the journey of a woman and her child as they seek shelter in the world as refugees. I played the captain of a refugee ship (one who charged high prices and drank extensively). The woman could only pay for one passage on my ship, so I let her work off the other passage as my mistress. When we arrive at the next port, it is morning some weeks later.  As she goes to depart, as an actor, I chose to give her a lingering look, as if in the time she was on board, she had awoken some passion or compassion within me and I was going to miss her.  There were no words.  This was rehearsal.

When I arrived at the next rehearsal, the playwright/translator — who had the liberty to do so — had added two pages of dialogue (mostly monologue) to express in words, what I’d been exploring in a glance.  I’d worked with Kelly before and had loved her original work.  Now, I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful that my glance meant so much to her that she wanted to add two pages to solidify it; secondly and sadly, the words added nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Everything had been said in the glance. I tried the words, but it truly belabored the point and if anything now made a spontaneous moment of recognition seem overworked and trite.  Now — how do you tell that to someone who’s just written the pages for you?

I’m convinced that underwriting dialogue is the first lesson any playwright/screenwriter learns when they go on stage.  Actors do so much more with a short phrase than any writer can add in a paragraph — if the situation is spot on, if the intention behind the phrase is subtle and correct. This is the relationship to subtext — the characters are rarely talking about what they mean anyway — the meaning is underneath.

Breaking up long passages is usually not necessary: writing “What?” “When?” “How?” “Yes?” simply because one character has been talking a long time and the writer wants to break it up kills the momentum and the actors.  There is no more difficult stage situation for an actor than trying to decipher where that one word comes from: am I really curious?  Is there some special information there that I want to confirm? It is usually very obvious when those words are inserted simply to break up a long passage. I love that Yasmina Reza will write a characters name (as if for dialogue) and then insert (silence) as the dialogue line.  It shows that the attention has gone to that character and the character chooses not to reply.

Stage directions on how to speak a line (line readings given by the writer instead of the director): Actors know their craft.  A great deal of it comes from a place that is not scientific (even if it is sometimes called Method). Most directors with whom I’ve worked insist on cutting stage directions before we begin. (This is less true of film).  Assume the writer adds the direction: TED (sarcastically) “Yeah, I’m racist.” What happens?  The possibilities of the actor can become limited.  They may start thinking of ways to make that line sarcastic.  In rehearsal, the actor is free to explore — try it as truth, try it as a questioning moment.  But the reality is the subtext — to whom is Ted speaking?  what do they want from them?  Why would they use a line like that?  Is Ted joking?  Actors need to discover what the action of a phrase is — not what the manner of speaking it is.  Therefore, to an actor, the phrase (sarcastically) shouldn’t mean anything.  It’s not an action.  Ted can be tweaking his listener to get x result.  That’s an action. Unfortunately, too many actors get screwed up by paying attention to the manner of speaking and forgoing actually focusing on taking an action.

More on subtext: In a film I wrote, a very Goth fringe theatre director — a Korean woman who is perceived to be lesbian — happens upon her lead actor standing near the piers along the Hudson River.  Out on the pier, gay couples are twined about one another.  She asks him, “Do you come here often?” I like to use this as an example when discussing subtext: what is she really asking him?  Does she actually want to know if he spends a lot of time at the river? No.  In my mind (the actor can make other choices), she’s asking him if he’s gay.  It is also the first revelation in the script that she may actually not be lesbian (why else would she ask him? Would it matter to her in any other way?).

Actors constantly look for subtext.  They break scenes apart and try to determine what is going on in the relationship?  What’s at stake? What am I trying to achieve?  This information should rarely be on the surface.

Not everything is subtext.  There will be times when a character will ask “which way is the train station” and really want to know.  But there are layers of other information there as well — why don’t they know?  Are they in a foreign city?  Are they confused? Lost? Delayed?  At no time in a film should precious seconds be wasted simply ascertaining the direction to the train station.  The situation has to have further significance.  This is subtext as well.

Knowing the Whole: A good actor takes a script apart, creates timelines, biographies, backstories.  The actor will likely curse any writer who does not consider the whole story.  I remember working on two plays, almost back to back.  The first was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, where I played Doc.  In the opening scene, Doc tells Lenny that he’s dropped off his child at the dentist.  Naturally, as the actor playing Doc, I need to know how old the child is.  So I do the math.  Meggie left 5 years ago.  I was injured for a year.  I went up North, met my wife.  Even if we conceived a child on the first day we met, given the 9 month pregnancy, the kid can only be 3 years old and change.  Now I have to make a decision — did I just drop off my three year old at the dentist?  By himself?  What the hell kind of father am I?  What kind of three year old needs a dentist? Does it mean that Meggie is so much more important to me than my own family?  Am I really a rogue? Possibly.  But Doc in the rest of the play does not jibe with a man who leaves a three-year old at the dentist.  It was infuriating trying to resolve my character to the text. How do you feel telling someone that you just left your three year old at the dentist? Does it mean anything?

In the next month or so, I was playing George Deever in “All My Sons.”  There is a bit of dialogue between Joe Keller, his wife and George, where George catches the family in a lie — the wife says “he’s never been sick a day in his life” — but Joe called in sick the day there were flaws in the manufacturing, giving George’s father the instructions to “ship them out.”  George is a lawyer, so naturally he’s used to listening to stories for the flaws.  Naturally he picks up on the lie and pursues it.  Additionally, in a brilliant bit of writing form, Miller has Joe cross-examine George in the sequence just before the information comes out (as George is about to accept their insistence that Joe is innocent). Having worked on both pieces back to back, I found a distinct comfort in making choices based on the text with the Miller play that I did not have with Crimes of the Heart.

While there are a few things I can try to pass on, nothing replaces the experience of actually being in front of people or a camera speaking words.  I recall being in the theatre a few days after Heat was released.  There were places where the dialogue was so bad that the audience was laughing  at the writing, not the situation or because the line was finny.  Despite the fact that credit belongs to Michael Mann, as a writer I cringed.  I don’t want to copy any of the dialogue for fear of copyright infringement, but you can read some of the sequences here.  Say the lines out loud — try it.  See how they feel in your mouth.  I cannot believe that lines such as those could have come from anyone who’d possibly spent a few minutes acting (even if he did write for TV).  In all fairness, Michael Mann wrote The Insider, an amazing film whose dialogue is three miles from this work.  So it’s possible that the writer was trying a stylized language.  But when the audience laughs at the language  — when it sticks out so badly that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cannot make it sound any better than dinner theatre fare — the words did not succeed.

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–There are two nuns walking….
–So, there’s these two nuns, right?
–A couple of penguins is hoofing it down the street….
–Yo, check it out, right, there’s these two nuns
–Two sacred vessels of God shining in glory
–Ha ha, nuns, look! Where they think they’re goin’?

I had the good fortune when I first began to study acting to take classes with Michael Beckett. His approach was always very individual, but one of the lessons that resonated in my mind was a class in which he insisted that “words don’t mean anything.” There were mutterings about the class — “that’s not true,” “How can you know anything about a play if the words don’t mean anything…” etc.

Michael then proceeded to scream “I love you” at someone, then he said the words again as if he were mocking the person to whom he was speaking and then again as if the idea that he would love the person at whom he’d directed the phrase was the most ludicrous thing in the world (the subtext was along the lines of “yeah, right, like anybody would love you”). It was suddenly clear that the phrase “I love you” could mean multiple things and that much of it depended on context. He went on through several more variations, but not one of them meant “I love you.”

In other words, something that David Mamet made me think of:  People never say what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.

I was also lucky enough a few years after that to translate Fabio Rubio’s Mosca from Spanish into English for a production that included a Spanish director and several Spanish speaking performers. One of the trickier elements was finding English language equivalents — not just for the words that were spoken, but for the manner in which each character spoke. The play is an retelling of Titus Andronicus and each character is very distinct: Aaron the Moor is blunt and brutal, Chiron comes across as the idiot son of Tamara while the elder son, Demetrius is aristocratic and dainty. Tito has the aura of a no-nonsense woodsman and his daughter Lavinia has been very affected by her years of illness (there are traces of it in her speech).

One of the items I exploited in translation was the multiple meanings of various verbs (one of the things that translators begrudge is lost in translation). For example, the verb espantar can be translated as “to astonish” or “to frighten.”  Might one character mean “to frighten” and another to “astonish”?  Next,  one tries to add multiple layers in English to words that are written the same in Spanish, i.e. the phrase “Por fin, llegamos” could simply be translated “At last, we’re here.” For Demetrius, however, I would translate “Finally, we’ve arrived.” For each character, I tried to find a distinct way of speaking so that the actors would have more room to create variety (and to feel what was in the original).  Oddly, the Spanish speaking actors were the most demonstrative against such liberties (“It simply means ‘we’re here!”).  However, the director backed me on this.

If one looks at the list with which I began, it is clear that each line is a repetition of the same phrase said — not just in a different manner, but by a different sort of character. One of the more difficult things for a writer to do is to hear voices other than his or her own. I love East of Eden — one of my top ten books simply for its wisdom and compassion — however, most of the main characters sound like they’re the same person speaking through the mouth of a differently named character. I’m not saying every writer  has to imitate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the varieties of dialects and phonetic spellings, but there is an advantage to paying attention to things like rhythm, word choice and sub-text when writing dialogue:

Rhythm: people speak in different rhythms. I knew a man once who kept winding one story into the next. I wanted to move on to another conversation at the party, but he seemed to begin each new story without taking a normal break. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that he would break for breath mid-sentence. I had been anticipating a story would end with a breath-pause; it never happened. I had an “American Renaissance” professor who spoke like train — wheels running down a track at medium speed. Clack-e-ta-clack-e-ta, he never broke stride, never hurried, never slowed, never paused. There were no emphatics, no points of humor. My notes from his class would leave a long streak that trailed off the bottom of the paper; I’d fallen asleep mid sentence and the pen slid down the page. There is no way to write rhythms without hearing them. If one lives in a city, it is easier — one can hang out in a part of town with a different ethnicity. The rhythms there are always different — and more easily heard. Sometimes I sit in a crowded place and simply try to hear voices like music — as sound only, so that the rhythmic quality of the voices comes through.

Word choice: I had a classmate in high school who, while everyone else was saying “that’s cool,” coined the phrase “that’s casual.” Someone I knew in college called women either “beauteous” or “hideous.” There was nothing in between. He also would walk into my room, pick up a cup (or pen or anything, really) and say, “what have you got here? A little cup-de dup?” He’d rub his hand on his belly while expelling air between his lips and add, “I seen betta in Maine.” My son and his classmates are now in the habit of calling anything excellent “o.p.” (over-powering). I had another friend who continually modified one description by a second — “She’s cute, in a big nose kind of way.”  “It’s good, in a stinky kind of way.” There are people who always phrase things as questions.  I acted with a model who always attributed her ideas to someone else (“I read in a book that….”; I also used this in a play).  When you add to the mix people who speak English as a second language, it gets more interesting.  Spanish speaking people frequently mix up “to make” and “to do” — thus the phrase “I have to make my homework.” (In Spanish, it’s the same verb, hacer.) A Japanese student once explained to me that “a dream has a lot of wish.”

Screenwriters who work in cityscapes have many choices to diversify their character content, not just in stereotypical ways (i.e. Pakistani cab driver) but in power-broker circles as well: club owners, grad students, library researchers, etc. can be given extravagant rhythms of speech by thinking about word choice and rhythm.

Sub-text: This goes back to my Mamet inspired statement about people not saying what they mean.  Most of us are dishonest.  We make allowances for people who can advance our careers that we’d never make for family.  We bypass honesty to be expedient.  But we still try to get what we want! Couples break up over the minor issues, never the major ones — if one is a profligate spender, the confrontation with the spouse is about some stupid six dollar object, not the repeated pattern of spending. How many times does a spouse say “You could have called me!”  But what is she or he really saying?  Possible answers: you don’t respect me. I think you’re cheating on me. I want out of this stinking marriage.  It’s important that the screenwriter never employ those last three sentences in such a context unless the character who speaks them is ready to step off a cliff.  We never say those things, not because they’re true, but because they seem irrevocable.  Once we’ve crossed into that turf, there’s no going back.  No, we much prefer to blame things on the other person, push them to leave or stay, push them to make any decision.  Right now, we’re too emotional to think clearly at all.

I was engaged many years ago to a woman in Ecuador from a very wealthy family.  Naturally, she didn’t want to leave Ecuador and insisted I go there to live.  I told her that I wanted to be sure that if I wasn’t happy in Ecuador, we could look at other places to live — i.e., I wanted to marry her, not Ecuador.  She cancelled the wedding.  I had already surrendered my apartment and my assistant professorship (tenured) and spent several days trying to get each back.  I succeeded.  In my summer job, I received a call from the young woman who had rented my apartment and had it taken back (via a real estate agent).  She told me she wanted to bring her mother by the place, as co-signer, to give the mother some idea of the places the woman was looking at.  I told her I needed to run, but she could come by around 8 p.m.

At this point, I was still numb.  It had only been a couple of days and I had been in constant motion to repair my life.  I hadn’t cried or even thought about the loss all that much.  It truly was just numbness.  I got back at 6, went for a run, and beat the woman back to the apartment by 10 minutes.  I was still breathing a little heavy from running up the stairs when they buzzed.  I let them look around.  The girl asked a few questions, showed her mother.  We made some small chat.  She was in her early twenties, dark-haired, willowy and simply dressed in jeans and a flowing blouse.

“I really just wanted to make sure the real-estate agent wasn’t pulling  a fast one.”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re really going to stay?”

I don’t know whether it was the innocence of the question, the long run, the possibility that I’d let down my guard because these people had nothing to do with my life, my lost fiance…. Suddenly I was bawling. Full out, body convulsively bawling.  The women felt awful.  They backed away, apologizing — “oh my god, I’m so sorry.  So sorry.”  They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As a writer and actor, I always remember — that is truth.  It is the emotion that seeps out when we least expect it — and it almost never comes from the words you would expect.  Sub-text is emotion.  It is truth.  It is what we really mean or feel when we’re busy saying something else.

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I was not about to tell anyone that the last time I’d ridden a horse had been as a nine year old in day camp.  That horse, “Old Bill,” was basically glue that hadn’t yet hit the pot.  A camp counselor led him around a track inside of a corral that was smaller than a Manhattan studio bathroom.  Bill’s top speed was limping trot and he only hit it at the end of the day, when he wanted to throw us off his back and get to the hay feeder.

On set, I told the trainer that it had been some time, but did not specify the amount.  I’m sure he knew pretty quickly.  I was told that Seamus was used in rodeo shooting competitions, where the rider often had to be hands-free.  He’d be pretty responsive, if I gave him a strong enough command.

I’d have worn a cup if I’d known how much I was going to bounce in the saddle.  Seamus got moving pretty fast — at least in my estimation.  I’d been told that the scene was going to be shot in one take — we’d gallop toward the barn, I’d dismount and lead the horse to the side of young Walt and we’d walk through the shot, going through our dialogue as we did.  Later there’d be two punch-in close ups for Walt and I.

They were trying to shoot out the Disney family — other than young Walt.  They would be finished at the end of their shots and free to move on to their next project.  I rode for an hour or so.  Got off.  Watched the filming.  Got miked up.  Tested.  Waited while singles were being taken of various shots.  (I later learned that the Hollywood B-level soft porn producer had shown up and was asking the producers — why isn’t AT getting this shot or that one?  Producers leaning on AT’s ear — please explain.  Filming bogged down in the second guessing).

The sun was low on the horizon and I was just getting on Seamus.  We did a rehearsal — I came charging toward the barn, flipped a leg over the horse, landed on the ground.  Walked to the front of the horse, led him by the reins.  All good.  Except, do you think you can make getting off the horse a little faster?  And — come charging at the barn faster.

“I’m heading toward a kid.”

“I know.  Stop before you get there.”

Camera rolling.  I was off in the distance, out of the shot.  Seamus decides he wants to go backwards — and not stop.  He’s been out in the field all day.  He’s getting restless.  Action!  It took some doing just to get Seamus moving forward.  Cut.  Can you hear us?

Can someone flag me?  It’ll be a little easier.

Take two, I come charging at young Walt like hellfire. Hat flops off, but is held on by a string.  I slow the horse, flip my leg up — and my other boot is stuck in the stirrup.  I almost fall over on my back.  I gain my balance and they let the scene continue.  AT, afterwards: “My god, you looked like a menacing figure from the old West — until you stumbled out of the saddle.”  Seamus’ trainer loosened the stirrups a little.  I hadn’t practiced with these boots on when we rode after lunch.  That was clearly a mistake.

Light is fading.  We take a couple more cracks at it.  I try one with my foot almost out of the stirrup before I get up — foot slips.  Need for cup exacerbated.  I’m beginning to think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, except, each time I ride, I’m getting a better feel for being on horseback.  I know now how responsive Seamus is, but also how much pressure to apply, how to assert myself without over doing it.  The last few takes are great, though I never quite fly off the horse like I did in the first take.  Adjustments are made — they want to get me riding out of the sunset — sun glowing around me.

It’s dark in the barn when we turn to close ups.  They use reflectors, to try and match the lighting.  I’ve seen still shots of the scene — it looks phenomenal.  The people involved were first rate.

There’s a party that night at a local pub.  Everyone gets tickets for a set number of drinks.  I hand my tickets off.  I’m happy — don’t need any enhancer.  Work has always been enough.  AG catches me on the way into the place.  He mentions how much he likes one scene I wrote — where young Walt imitates Charlie Chaplin at a stockyard performance night — it’s not in the biography, but it matches certain facts.  I’d pretty much invented it out of whole cloth, and AG let on how much he was looking forward to filming it the following day.  (I would be on my flight back to NYC).  I was encouraged by the fact that he was openly admitting I’d written the script.

At the production office, before the party, I sat in the back room.  They’d put up a cork board on the wall and attached to the wall were photos of the players.  Mine was prominently not there.  The casting associate (FL) saw me looking and made a remark about having to get my picture.  He didn’t have one as I was cast by AG.  I nodded.  I can do that.  Then FL started talking about how strange it must be to be a ghostwriter on the set — knowing you’ve written something and not able to let on.  It was the first time that I’d heard the word ghostwriter used.  As I’d mentioned, initially I was to be the script doctor (uncredited); afterward, once I’d created the thing from letter A (with the exception of the two scenes I’d doctored early in the process), I’d been told I’d be getting some form of credit.  I almost corrected FL, but decided that maybe he wasn’t in the loop.  AT was playing a lot of sides, one against the other.

This also came at a time when AT and the producers were locked up in a meeting.  Later, AT told me that he’d laid down the law — on the set, he was the captain of the ship.  He wasn’t going to have anyone undercut him, no matter how many B-level credits they had.  Was that understood?  I rode with him to the party and he made a remark about having to out Alpha male a bunch of alpha-male posers.  I let him vent and kept my mouth shut.

So to have AG acknowledge that my writing was impressive, made him laugh — I took it as a good sign.  I asked him how the death of Diane Disney Miller affected his  prospects.  (She’d passed away in mid-November).  He’d told me in Orlando back in October that they were familiar with one another and he was hoping to get her approval of the project as a green-light for distribution. “Yeah, it’s sad, isn’t it.  I think she would have liked it.”  My son called at that minute, and I went out into the courtyard to talk with him.

I’d been told they were still going to shoot the shower scene (as Doc Sherwood look-alike), but they wanted to wait until AG was a little more buff.  With all the production preparation, he’d had little time to work out.   AG seemed genuinely disappointed that I wouldn’t be around to see more of the filming.  I told him that when I came back, I’d plan to spend a few more days on set.  He seemed in agreement.

Things I know or have been told:

AT filmed AG and finally convinced him, via the daily rushes, that he was not the caliber of actor to carry the film.  Over the holiday break, AG got a new Disney and cast himself as Ub — the actor AT brought in to play Ub and tried to switch into Disney, was let go.  AT was fired via e-mail during the holiday break – actually he was offered a position as “helper” to the new director, someone from L.A. who would work on spec., simply for the credit. I was aware of this, but I’d signed a contract to play Doc.  I told AT that as a member of the union, I’d be obligated to fulfill my role.  I’d directed a few e-mails at the production coordinator asking for block out dates, was always told he’d get back to me.

I never heard from them again, except once in April, AB wrote to ask for payroll information.  They’d had some issues with SAG (I received a letter from SAG in February saying they were persona non grata and not to work for them).

Any chance of my receiving credit for my work was out the window.  AT told me at one point that he’d put my name on the IMDb site a writer, but by the time I’d looked it was not there.  Additionally, I never received any credit for the work I did as Doc Sherwood (at least not on IMDb).  It seemed the further the production moved forward, the more the producers wanted to distance themselves from AT and myself.

And so I did become a ghost.  Someone who’d been an integral part of the production, but who simply disappeared from the production notes like a thought you had yesterday.  I don’t take sides — I liked the producers.  They both had their merits and their blind spots; they were nice enough to me.  I would consider working with them again, but I’d make sure I had my contract laid out up front.  I probably won’t work with the director again — I’ve known him a long time, but he has a habit of promising things that aren’t in his power to give.  He believes contracts are expedients (to help him get what he wants) that can be adjusted or renegotiated later, somewhere along the way.  Some people do business that way — I don’t.  The bottom line is I allowed myself to be swayed — rather than getting credit, more pay, etc. in writing when I was told that a new script was what it would take, I let the looming deadline affect my judgment.  So a full one-third of the responsibility falls in my lap.

Every now and then a rumor bubbles up — I was told, for example, that after AT was gone, the producers, the new director and several of the actors were writing their own versions of the script.  That this ur script is eventually what was shot.

I looked at the website recently and a pang of nostalgia kicked up — I actually had a good time on set. Several of the scenes seem exactly as I laid them out — including the imitating Chaplain in the stockyard scene. One wants to believe that somewhere there is a credit due on the cosmic balance sheet; but in my experience of the universe, it rarely works that way.  The fact that I’m alive, that my son is healthy, these are cosmic balances I’ve done nothing to deserve.  I’ve no right to expect more, but it would be nice to believe in a Hollywood ending once in a while.

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