1: LaughingBeing convincingly overcome by laughter remains for me one of the most impressive tricks I ever see in movies. The act is involuntary and often springs from utterly spurious and inexplicable sources. Since crying usually has a traceable cause of some sort, I’m guessing that it’s an easier act to summon up (even if the tears themselves can be elusive – see below).
Good laughter is terribly infectious, yet you don’t see a lot of it in movies, and I’m guessing that it falls into the same category as complex special effects and scenes with animals, in that time and money often force a director to think whether they really have the time in the schedule to get the scene.
Therefore really out-of-control laughter remains one of the things that we accept movies can’t necessarily deliver, along with genuinely convincing ‘aged’ make-up (though Benjamin Button has made an in-road on that late last year, even if it took ILM and millions of dollars to achieve).
A fund of jokes seems to be a part of most experienced directors’ repertoire of save-the-day techniques – not only can a good punch-line heal an on-set rift but a real stinger can get an actor’s sense of humour going when laughter is on the agenda. But 6 takes of a convincing laughing jag has got to be one of the hardest things to get in the can.
When the fates favour a director, howling hysteria leaves a lasting impression on the viewer…
Gary Oldman with a handy tip for assassins in ‘State Of Grace’:
Al Pacino gets some unexpected and hilarious news in ‘…And Justice For All’….
2: Not laughing (‘Corpsing’) Known in Hollywood as ‘breaking face’, the act of being unable to stop laughing inappropriately during a take is believed to have taken the name ‘corpsing’ from the English theatre. There was apparently a beastly thespian practice amongst bored casts of trying to provoke mirth from actors playing corpses.
Blooper reels featuring corpsing became very popular in the 1970s, and few more so than the outtakes from the original Star Trek series. Having made a few films for fun, I’ve been both the victim and perpetrator of this pernicious and completely infectious phenomena, which I wrote about here.
Alien Resurrection director Jean-Pierre Jeunet paid the price for his easy-going and good-natured set when some of his well-bonded actors found it impossible to get a ‘straight’ take with each other, and the director was forced to keep certain actors apart during the working day.
The problem with corpsing is that the more serious a problem it becomes, the worse it can get. With a 15,000 dollar-a-minute meter ticking and the sun going down, it just seems all the more absurd…
Ricky Gervais has trouble keeping a straight face in ‘Extras’:
The cast of ‘Friends’ crack up:
3: Simulating sexWhen wondering if we could be actors, this is probably one of the first set-ups that intrigues us; could we convincingly recreate the most intimate and private act of two people surrounded by sandwich-chewing gaffers and paparazzi hiding in the rafters? What will our partners think of it? And, if you’re a fella, there’s one thing you’re going to be particularly worried about…
Last summer a director about to embark on an adult TV series requested advice on filming sex scenes at ask.metafilter.com, prompting some general and very specific advice:
“Tight underpants for the male actor, so any ‘semi’ is er… restricted and can’t get up and say hello.”
“Choreograph it to death. The nervousness comes from them not knowing what you want and what to do.”
“Keep a handle on your own nervousness. I’ve done near-nude scenes in theater, and a calm director makes a big difference.”
For every rumour that passion gives way to hate between the leads when the director yells ‘Cut!’, there’s a corresponding rumour to the effect that the on-screen lovers were performing for real. Urban legends or otherwise, we’ll never really know if the leads went ‘the extra mile’ on such movies as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981, Jack Nicholson & Jessica Lange).
Keeping the mood light seems to be the standard defence against fatal awkwardness between the participants in love scenes. During her love-scenes with Christina Ricci in Monster, Charlise Theron found that the humorous outlook took the chill off: “I’d love to see out-takes from it,” said the actress, “because Christina and I laughed way too much. We drove the sound guy bananas by giggling into his mike. It was the first time that I had ever kissed a woman in a film, and it was okay kissing Christina except for the dental implants I had to wear, which sometimes came loose. But the laughing got us through it.”
Twilight heart-throb Robert Pattinson told GQ of his difficulties in filming a gay sex scene for the new Salvador Dali biopic Little Ashes, reporting that the hardest part was “trying to do it doggie-style. Trying to have a nervous breakdown while doing it doggie-style. And it wasn’t even a closed set. There were all these Spanish electricians giggling to themselves.”
Closed sets are often requested, and the odd pre-shoot tipple is said to help, along with keeping the crew to a bare minimum. Sometimes, as during the filming of the Jennifer Aniston movie The Break Up, the crew are asked if they’re willing to strip off too.
The love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nick Roeg’s supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) has been widely commended for putting sex and eroticism into the context of a relationship/marriage. Roeg made the scene the very first on the schedule, much as any director will start out a shoot with the most challenging scenes in order to give them attention that may not be possible later. Christie was reportedly terrified, since the director added the scene at the last minute as an antidote to the couple’s arguing throughout the movie…
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nick Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ – (NSFW):
4: Crying In his excellent bio/tute I’ll Be In My Trailer, Wargames and The Shield director John Badham discusses the thorny subject of being able to produce tears on demand:
“If you want to be an actor and you don’t have your emotions right at the surface, you may as well hang it up right now…I am not saying that if you cry at the drop of a hat or shriek at the sight of a bug you are a talented actor. It just means that you have some of the basic tools to become a good actor… if you see a crazy emotional sort of person come into an audition, don’t assume that a great actor is in your presence. They may just be neurotic.”
Yet being unable to cry on demand can prove a face-losing shame akin to impotence for actors, with glycerine or CGI tears the ‘cop out’ no ‘real’ actor should need to resort to. At least, many actors seem to feel this, based on their anecdotes.
Another director seeking web-advice over at dvxuser.com got – amongst others – these replies from peers when asking about the problem of getting an actor to cry:
“In soaps, they use what in Brazil we call ‘Chinese crystals’.”
“Slap Her/Him really hard.” (well it worked for Billy Friedkin on ‘The Exorcist’)
“Insulting an actor, or trying to hurt them emotionally to get the result of crying is a bad idea in most cases because that isn’t how actors are trained to work. Most times, that sort of approach will totally shut an actor down, if not cause them to leave the set entirely…You could still resort to using fake tears, but the problem with fake tears is that it’s usually just icing on a fake face. If your actor can’t get close to the emotion needed, having fake tears on their face won’t do much to bridge the gap.”
As far as I can tell, whether or not an actor’s approach into that painful emotional zone will work when the cameras roll is something of a crap-shoot. Usually, the director hasn’t got all day to wait for you to crumble.
On the other hand, you can get lucky. Though Jane Fonda’s excellent performance in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971) deserved its Academy Award for more than one scene, her genuine (and rather snotty) crying jag in front of killer Charles Cioffi in the finale couldn’t have hurt her chances at the Oscars. Fonda was intending to play the part ‘scared’ – which is apposite for the scene set-up – but on listening to the tape of her on-screen friend being murdered, she reacted with waterworks instead…
Jane Fonda hears the bad news at the end of ‘Klute’:
5: Learning Lines If you moan about having to remember a new password, can you imagine trying to cram a Shakespearean soliloquy into that 14k of RAM you call memory (actually, I’m talking about myself here)…?
Learning by rote is some of the most laborious yet essential work in acting, although John Badham reports that not every actor takes it seriously…
“I’m not talking about forgetting lines. Every actor forgets lines. I’m talking about not having learned them in the first place…it’s lazy, disrespectful and inexcusable…Older actors do have a legitimate reason for not being able to remember dialogue…the only answer is patience, print and pick-up.”
Adherents of the Stanislavsky method are pretty famous for viewing rote dialogue as a constriction that’s likely to threaten the freshness of their performance. Of these, Marlon Brando may be the most famous – the superstar actor would usually end up reading his lines from cue-cards or dialogue taped to pieces of the set or to props. During the filming of Superman, Brando read his valediction to young Kal-El off the super-baby’s nappy. On the set of The Freshman, he wore an ear-piece with lines fed to him by an off-stage assistant, which trick he also used on The Island Of Dr. Moreau. Co-star David Thewliss recalled: “He’d be in the middle of a scene and suddenly he’d be picking up police messages and Marlon would repeat, ‘There’s a robbery at Woolworth’s’.”
Freddie Jones proves that age is no obstacle to obdurate dialogue in David Lynch’s ‘Dune’…