Wild West: John Cusack and director John Badham on the set of “Jack the Bull,” the story of Wyoming ranchers whose clash has far-reaching results. Photo by Joe Lederer. Courtesy of HBO/Cinemax.
Directing Your Actors After the Cameras Have Stopped Rolling
How the Last Shot is Only the Beginning
Written by John Badham
Congratulations! You’ve finished shooting!
However, completing your last take is by no means the end of your work with your actor. There is still editing and ADR (automated dialogue replacement) to be done.
Treat these steps lightly, and you’ll get a nasty surprise. You need to draw on all the skills, manners, tricks and psychology that you used working with your actor on a set for the post-production process.
Without the acting being as good as the original, the resulting scene will be flat, mechanical and soulless.
In ADR sessions over the years, I have held Joan Crawford’s hand while she nervously learned a whole new technology. I have picked up Richard Dreyfuss in a bear hug to get a strong reaction in a fight scene and yelled at Madeline Stowe and Goldie Hawn to startle them. I have calmed panicked young actors who think they can’t do it at all and are ready to run away. I have teased, cajoled, tricked, implored, begged and had fun with actors getting them to do their best work. In other words, I am recreating the playground environment that was on the set. Would anybody else other than the director do this on an ADR stage? Not bloody likely.
The most common reason for calling an actor back is to replace dialogue tracks that have excess noise from things like traffic, airplanes or air conditioners. This process is easy for a skilled experienced actor. John Travolta and Mel Gibson can reel off huge paragraphs in one take with perfect lip sync. Kevin Costner is exceptionally good at not only replacing his original dialogue but also improving it immensely. In American Flyers, he would constantly find ways to rephrase dialogue, add new lines and enrich the original far beyond just fixing a poor recording. LLCool J in The Hard Way may have never seen an ADR stage in his life, but as a talented musician he realized immediately that he could improvise and improve his dialogue. He took a very good performance and made it sparkle. These are some artists who are very gifted at maintaining their creativity and playfulness until the very end.
On the other hand, some actors resent the post-production process. One Quinntessential actor is known for causing no end of grief for the ADR crew. He may insist they open the windows so he could breathe fresh air, when – reality check – ADR stages don’t have windows. Other actors are scared by the process and can’t seem to get it right. That really takes patience on everyone’s part. If an actor loves to improvise dialogue filled with “Um’s” and “Aah’s” he’ll have a tough time matching what she did originally.
It is very important for the director to be present at these sessions. Your ADR crew only cares about one thing: does the new dialogue lip sync with the original? ADR is much more than a mechanical voice replacement process. The actor has to re-create his character’s state of mind months after first acting it. Getting back in the mood of the original shooting day can really be tough.
After all the care and hard work that went into shooting, it only makes sense to be present to keep the movie on track. If the director goes to the final sound mix and doesn’t like the actor’s ADR tracks, it is his own fault.
There is a reason why foreign movies dubbed into English often sound so terrible. The actors hired to replace the original voices are great at matching lip movements but not so great at acting.
You, the director must be the quality controller. Your presence can help alleviate the fears of actors uncomfortable with the process. All the bonding that went on during the shoot comes back to help out now.
And then there is the editing process. From the first time they read the script to when they finish a film, all actors are concerned about their performance. Some are so concerned that they want to go into the cutting room and make sure that the best parts of their performances are being used. Of course, your actor’s judgment is subjective, and depending on the star, you may have a partner you never bargained for. As if editing suites were not small enough, wait till the 600 pound gorilla plops herself down in front of the Avid.
I worked with John Cusack on the HBO film, The Jack Bull. Cusack was both the star and producer on the project and his father, Richard Cusack, had written the brilliant screenplay. John asked to come to the cutting room after seeing my director’s cut, and as the producer he had the right to do this. He and I sat at the Avid for eight hours straight. He looked at almost every take of every scene he was in, and we discussed the merits of his performance. Though the changes we made were relatively minor in relation to the whole film, they were extremely important to Cusack. Luckily, he is an intelligent, tasteful man and had the good sense not to get crazy, as some actor/producers have been known to do. One Funny Lady, for example, has been said to cut out all the close-ups of her costars and only use medium shots of them instead. The obvious result is to put much more emphasis on her. Whether this is a good idea or not is a matter of opinion.
One infamous story involves Paul Mazursky, who was finishing a film, Faithful, starring a “moonstruck” actress. He got a call that the actress would edit her own version of the movie. Mazursky said he would happily listen to her ideas but he didn’t want her in the edit suite.
It was too late. The producers had already rented a cutting facility, hired an editor and given her a copy of the rough cut. Working with her editor she produced her own version of the film. Mazursky naively thought the studio would see there was no comparing the two. His cut was in service of the movie; her cut was in service of… herself. Surprise, surprise, the studio announced they loved the actress’ version. Mazursky pleaded for them to preview both versions to see which one played the best. The studio agreed, and audiences liked Mazursky’s version the best. Problem solved, right? Wrong! The studio opted to release the actress’ version anyway!
How can that be? The studio wanted the actress to do publicity for the movie. If they didn’t use her version, they feared she would refuse. The studio also would not let Mazursky take his name off the movie.
Norman Jewison, Academy Award Director of In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, heard about this insanity. He called all the “A” list directors in Hollywood and asked them to write a letter to the CEO of the studio saying if the actress’ version was released, none of these directors would ever make films for that company. Since this would deprive them of every good director in town, the company blinked. Mazursky’s version was the one seen in theatres. Curiously, that film studio is no longer in business. Paul Mazursky continues to make wonderful films.
Thankfully, few movies come to that kind of an impasse. But unless you’re Spielberg it could happen to you. Never forget that most movies are primarily about money, secondarily, about money and thirdly…about money. Art takes a hit. If a star insists on invading the cutting room and the studio allows it, you have two options: you can resist and risk getting removed from the movie or welcome the actor in and sit by his side at the computer. Don’t get all arrogant and huffy, it will only cause more problems. Instead, be his best friend. If you stick around, you have a better chance of damage control. Sit with him as a collaborator, while he roots around through takes. Very often, actors will have to discover for themselves why you and the editor made the choices you did.
And then, thank whatever higher power you believe in for Attention Deficit Disorder. Most of the time, both actors and studio executives play with a film for a while, then get bored and leave. If you’re lucky, a few harmless changes get made and your nemesis disappears into the night on the hunt for more fun things to do. Never let an adversarial situation solidify. You are likely to lose. Norman Jewison can’t bail everybody out.
John Badham is best known for the films Saturday Night Fever (1977), Dracula (1979), Blue Thunder (1983), WarGames (1983), Short Circuit (1986), and Stakeout (1987).