Vol. 12 No.3 VASTA Fall 98 p. 8
Dialect Coaching for the Movies
A Theater Veteran on his First Film Gig
by PAUL MEIER
in late December, the Kansas City, MO Film Commission called me to say that
Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm,
etc.) was again collaborating with Good Machine Films to produce To Live
On (working title), a civil war film focusing on the Missouri/ Kansas
border wars, and based on WOE TO LIVE ON, the novel by Daniel Woodrell.
This was to be shot in my area in the spring and summer of this year and
was I interested in coaching dialects for the film?
I was immensely interested! Although I had scores of stage plays, radio dramas, and some television dramas on my dialect resume, had taught dialects at several London drama schools (including RADA and LAMDA), as well as in this country at the North Carolina School of the Arts, I had never been dialect coach to a feature film before, at least never on this scale. And from the script I learned that it was a dialect coach's dream! A smorgasbord of American regional dialects mostly Southern and several European immigrant accents. I also learned that several of the actors were non-American (Jonathan Rhys-Myers was Irish, Simon Baker-Denny was Australian, and my old school chum Tom Wilkinson, fresh from his triumph in THE FULL MONTY, would be swapping his R.P. for the dialect of a Missouri farmer), so there was plenty of work for a vocal coach. James Schamus' elegant adaptation of the Woodrell novel brilliantly catches the idiom of the period and portrays the full spectrum of mid-century American society, all the way from Virginia blue-bloods, to strong Missouri/Arkansas hill speech.
I talked with James Schamus and with Ang Lee, demonstrating my take on all the voices, and to my delight, they asked me to join the team. I went to work producing tapes, working by phone, rehearsing one-on-one with the principals (which included Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright and Jewel, in her first-ever film).
I called on the full resources of the VASTA network and beyond for help in assembling useful materials. Gillian Lane-Plescia's excellent tape on Dialects of the South was very helpful, and I received invaluable help from Mira Kehoe (some excellent
Mississippi Delta black field workers), from Janet Rodgers (Virginia voices), Sandra Shotwell, Pat Toole, from D.A.R.E's (Dictionary of American English) archives at Madison, WI, and from other people too numerous to mention. I got great advice from numbers of my colleagues who had done movie coaching, notably Ginny Kopf, as well as Brooks Baldwin on everything from on-set protocols to contract negotiation. I was more than ever convinced that VASTA is the greatest network imaginable.
Beginning in February, nearly two months before shooting began, I talked to the eleven principal actors by phone, discovering their attitudes toward and experience with dialects, so that I might tailor an approach for each of them. As might be imagined, I had a mixed bag to deal with. Some wanted to hear the lines demonstrated for them on tape, isolating each sound; others didn't want to discuss their lines with me at all, preferring to extrapolate from my analysis of the dialect required, or simply to be given primary source recordings. Some were rather nervous of dialect work while others relished it. According to phone conversations I fashioned an approach for each actor, preparing tapes and written material. After they had had these in their possession for a while, further phone conversations took place. Sometimes these led to wholesale revisions in the approach or even the kind of dialect undertaken.
March 1 the eleven actors arrived for three weeks rehearsal, or "boot camp" as it was called. During that period I met face to face with each actor between two to a dozen times, depending on each actor's need. Again, the m.o. ran the gamut from improvised conversation in dialect, to meticulous scoring of the lines. Sometimes Ang Lee would sit in on these sessions, so director and dialect coach would work in concert. This was immensely beneficial as it provided an opportunity for dialect, acting and character work to proceed synergistically.
All the while I continued to work by phone and tape with supporting cast as they came on board the project. As new actors were hired, it was my job to work with them so that the dialect world we had created was understood by all and that all cast were
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