I am an audiobook narrator. In my day-to-day work I deal with many hundreds and thousands of words passing in endless formation in front of my eyes hour after hour… and I love it. But this blog today is not about those multitudes – it is about a mere 11 words – and how they have come to mean more to me in the past three months of anticipation than any other sentence I have uttered in the past year.
Now, why should this be so? Probably because I’m a bit of a geek and am unreasonably excited about being a small part of something so much larger than I’m usually involved in. This project goes by the name “JOHN CARTER”. It is a movie… directed by a two time Oscar winner… it supposedly cost $250 million dollars to make… and I have a line in it!
Over the years, first lines (only lines) have become quite important to me. In Grammar School in the UK at about age 12 I took part in my first school play. It was Julius Caesar and my line (my only line) was “Sirrah, give place”. I have no idea why it has stuck in my mind for so many years, but there you have it; like that first kiss, that first taste of a really fine malt whisky, the first time… well, you get the idea. This line is uttered by the character Publius, a Senator, not far into Act 3 Sc 1. As I look at the original text I see Publius has other lines in the play but I know this was all I uttered in our production, so the rest must have been cut. Not an auspicious beginning.
Back to ‘John Carter’: After the movie had been ‘put together’ (I’m not good with technical terms) the director screened it several times to spot anything that needed improving and amongst several other little tweaks (more on one of those later) the director felt that a line as uttered by one of the minor characters just didn’t sound right in the context of the movie and they needed it replaced (I heard the original later – the actor had a strong Irish accent). Word went out and through my agent I was asked to send in a sample recording. Oh, I was ON it. Fortunately so. I heard later that I was hired because I was the first actor to supply anything that matched the original actor’s voice. A few days later I traveled to Marin County and entered the world of big movie making at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.
Now, thirty or so years after asking ‘Sirrah’ to ‘give place’ (this is another flashback) I landed a spot in my first TV show, Nash Bridges. This was Don Johnson’s vehicle being filmed locally in San Francisco. I was hired for the episode “Out of Chicago” as a hotel concierge. Talk about anticipation! Over the next couple of weeks I must have received a script update at least once a week FedEx’d to my house… a full script each time… and each time I still had only one line, and it NEVER changed. I must have run that one line through my head a thousand times… was I getting the emphasis right, was I using the right tone of voice? I knew that one line backwards, sideways and upside down.
Finally came the day of filming, at a hotel in downtown San Francisco. I was ready for anything. The director called for a rehearsal… I waited for the female character to come to my desk and ask the question that was my cue and I gave my best line reading EVAH. For weeks I had had the line in my head and I was not going to get it wrong. I was PERFECT. Then the director came over… and changed the line. Just like that. At the last minute. But… I’m a professional and I handled it. I can still recite that one line from memory: “There’s another stand on the plaza. Through those doors, ma’am.” Awesome.
Here’s the snippet:
At Skywalker Ranch, in January of this year, in a small room off a small corridor, off a longer corridor, off the huge reception area (it’s a bit labyrinthine) I was shown the few seconds of the movie in which my reading of the line would be inserted in place of the original actor’s. We practiced a little and then Andrew Stanton (the director of the Oscar winning movies ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Wall-E’) came into the room and gave some direction. The actor was crouching to his knee as the line was spoken and I had to imitate his movement so that the sound was authentic on screen. We recorded several takes and that was it! Since they had to be sure it all went together well I was asked to hang about while the work was done and it was suggested I might like to sit at the back of the much larger mixing studio and watch as some other part of the movie was being worked on. Being in this mixing studio was like being present at NASA during some crucial phase of the moon landing… it was amazing.
The studio (the Kurosawa studio) had just been refurbished at a cost of a million dollars or so and it was, is, truly impressive. It’s about the size of a small movie theatre with banks of NASA-like desks and monitors in rows facing the screen. It’s here that sound effects and music and … oh I don’t know, so much of what gets put in a movie gets put in. I watched as a 35″ clip of a sequence of JOHN CARTER was run over and over as they tried to balance a background sound effect with the music score. They were tweaking the tiniest detail, something that would blow by the audience’s ear in a second, but they know that it’s the attention to detail that can make all the difference.
At the time of writing, the critics have not been kind to JOHN CARTER. I’m going to take the family to see it tonight and I shall conclude this particular blog, after I get back, with my verdict … on my line AND the movie – I may even tell you roughly where in the movie my line is heard…
********* Several hours later**********
Hey! That was FUN!
No, it’s not a great movie (if it won Mr.Stanton a third Oscar I’d be very surprised) but as a piece of escapist entertainment I’d say it was pretty darn good and at times it is that wonderful cliche a ‘visual feast’. It occasionally stretched believability (what SciFi/superhero movie doesn’t) but no more than, say, a Tarzan movie might. I mention Tarzan because the author of that series was also the author of the John Carter series of novels, Edgar Rice Burroughs. So you have to bear in mind the origins of this tale… It’s a Saturday matinee serial writ large. I’m a big kid at heart so for me it was, without a doubt, worth the cost of admission.
My line in the movie? Right towards the end… and it was brilliantly done. That’s all I’m saying.