I’m not a Talking Bomb, but I Played One on TV

One of the most interesting aspects of working in post-production in Hollywood was the time I spent on the ADR stage. ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) is the process by which actors are brought onto a sound stage to recreate their original performance that was marred by noisy ambience or other technical issues. I had the opportunity to work with many talented actors, most of whom were cooperative and agreeable under stressful circumstances.

The task is a unique blend of technical ability and art. Ideally, in the original performance, the actor inhabits the character while submerged in the ambiance of the location and interacting with the other characters.

On the ADR stage, the actor must re-create that original sense and emotion of the scene, while standing alone on a dark stage which lacks any of the physical cues that supported the original performance. And he must also watch him or herself on the screen and perfectly lip-sync his new performance to the original. It is that combination of re-creating an emotional performance, while also objectively observing it, which throws some actors.

Imagine yourself playing a character helping a wounded friend while dodging bullets from a sniper. All your exertions and dialogue provide the viewer with a sense of the immediacy and danger of your plight.

Now, imagine trying to re-create that same tension, without the noise, the dust, the struggle, or your co-player, all while standing on a cool, dark stage, watching yourself perform on a giant screen.

Some actors just cannot do it. Their process of acting is so integrated into the moment that doing justice to their performance, after the fact, in such artificial circumstances defeats them. And many are wonderful actors. Ultimately, if the performance is good, a little judicious editorial surgery will improve on the sync.

One such case was with the actor Robert DeNiro. Considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, the process of ADR is completely counter-intuitive for him and his style of acting. We scheduled multiple sessions, only for him to balk or cancel each in turn. He was agreeable, but intimidated by the technical process. I finally got him to do his lines ‘wild,’ with four or five interpretations of each line. With minimal editing, I was able to make one of these performances fit.

I worked with the actor Jackie Chan on one of his films. He is the most focused and exacting actor I ever worked with. Except for lunch, he never took a break. A week was scheduled for the recording and he finished re-voicing the complete film in three days.

Jackie’s film was shot in Chinese. Our task was to replace Jackie’s whole Chinese language performance with English lines. We needed to write Jackie’s lines so they would make sense to the story and also closely match the onscreen lip movements.

This task was daunting enough. But as we were starting, Jackie asked how he could get rid of his Chinese accent. Since we were preparing his film for an American release, he didn’t want his Chinese accent to distract or make the audience struggle to understand.

Having never been asked this, or thought about it, I needed to think fast. How could I solve this? Hardly missing a beat, a solution popped into my head. The ADR gods were smiling down on me.

One factor for any non-native speaker of English (or, I suspect, any second language) is the natural tendency to pronounce each word discreetly. This exaggerates the accent and creates a stilted hesitation, rather than a natural flow of expression. The speaker sounds like they are struggling over a pile of rocks, rather than floating down a stream.

I asked Jackie to say the phrase ‘American accent’ but to slur the final ‘n’ to the beginning of ‘accent’ to sound like ‘America-naccent’. By tying the two words together, much of that odd emphasis and hesitation is lost and it sounds much more natural.

Jackie tried it and immediately grasped my intent. We started work and he was pleased with the improvement in his ‘American’ accent. Whew!

Another aspect of ADR is the recording of background ‘walla’ for crowd scenes, restaurant scenes etc. Some ‘loop groups’ are very talented and will create a texture of background that adds a sense of reality to a scene.

Long ago, loop groups were told to murmur ‘peanut butter’ over and over to create a non-descript background buzz that would not compete with the foreground dialogue. Modern loop groups bring vocabulary lists and even foreign language phrases for the talent to use in order to give the walla the flavor of a specific time and place. A Moroccan street market sounds different than a corporate board room. Really!

Many actors, practice their craft and can make a decent living working in a loop group while seeking on-camera work. The downside can be that novice actors are so hungry to be ‘discovered,’ their performances must be reined in so they remain in the background.

Working with inexperienced actors provided me with the opportunity to perform as a ‘talking bomb’. Twice. Occasionally, some absurd gimmick becomes popular with multiple script writers. In this case, a time bomb which not only had a clock, but also a voice which announced, to anyone who happened to be standing around, how many seconds they had before being blown to bits.

“Siri, should I cut the red wire or the blue wire?”

On two different shows, I ran the sessions where we needed a voice counting down from ‘ten,’ presumably to inject further tension into an already anxious scene. But the actors seemed unable to grasp the ‘motivation’ of the ‘talking bomb.’ Alternatively gleefully evil or mother-hover anxious, their bomb was over-acting.

Every Shakespearean attempt by each member of the loop group would be rejected by the director. When they ran out of actors, I offered to try.

The tension in the scene was in the characters, and hopefully, with the audience. But the bomb couldn’t care less about the pending explosion. It wasn’t a character. It had no character. It didn’t ‘know’ what was about to happen.

I performed my count-down as devoid of emotion as possible, a counter-point to the humans in the scene. This bomb had not a care in the world. Rain or shine, this bomb was indifferent to its future or the lack thereof. It was what no actor wants to be described as – mechanical and flat. My performance, with just a suggestion of boredom, was perfect.

I was the bomb. They loved it.

Hits and Misses from Storyography – 2017

Each year at this time I re-publish a selection of some of my blogs that may have slipped through the cracks, or I hope will find readers who might have missed them on the first pass.

And I include some of my personal favorites.

I am Woman, Hear Me “Wahhh!” is a little more political than usual for me but, like it or not, I felt my take on the recent sex scandals had to be said: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/11/26/i-am-woman-hear-me-wahhh/  

Gumshoe, Meet Banana Peel is a rant from a different place that I hope gives you a smile: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/gumshoe-meet-banana-peel/

Shakespeare, On the Rocks is a whimsical re-imagining of some of the Bard’s more famous plays: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/10/24/shakespeare-on-the-rocks/

Eclipsed by a Fidget Spinner is an exploration of our need for diversion and the cyclical nature of our lives. This was printed in a recent edition of the Tolucan Times: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/09/05/eclipsed-by-a-fidget-spinner/

You Kiss With That Mouth? was my most read blog this year. I’m told my misadventures with dentists is very entertaining and funny. Don’t forget to floss: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/kicking-when-im-crowned/

Liberals and the Seven Stages of Grief examines the Kubler-Ross model of grief through the prism of the 2016 election: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/liberals-and-the-seven-stages-of-grief/

Another Brick in the Wall recounts my brief tenure as a middle school teacher: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/06/22/another-brick-in-the-wall/

Love and Scar Tissue is a reprint of a review I did for the Tolucan Times of the amazing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. I wish everyone could have seen this riveting performance: https://lifestoryography.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/love-and-scar-tissue-on-display-in-danny-and-the-deep-blue-sea-and-poison/

Thank you for reading my blog this year. I very much appreciate your comments and attention. I hope 2018 is wonderful for all.

Why Movies About Movie Making Flop

It seems most movies tanked this summer. But why do movies about the film business do especially badly at the box office? I don’t mean films that use Hollywood as a backdrop, great films like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ or ‘Sunset Boulevard’.

I mean movies that present the film business as interesting in and of itself. You know, shows like ‘An Alan Smithee Film’, ‘Map to the Stars’, ‘The Player’ ‘Won Ton Ton…’ and others. Did you see any of them? Exactly my point. These films didn’t sell enough pop corn to pay the ushers.

Why audiences don’t ‘get’ Hollywood-centric stories is a question I’ve never heard answered. I think it has to do with Hollywood’s self-promotion as a land of limitless glamour and glimmering success. There must be conflict to successfully engage the audience. How can the audience identify with anyone from that fanciful place untouched by darkness?

Comedies about the film business fail because they are filled with self-aware ‘in’ jokes, funny to those in the movie and few others. Alternately, the character’s problems may seem contrived. Can I truly sympathize with Red when she actively solicits the attentions of the Big Bad Wolf?

A case in point is a TV series I recently endured. The premise of it is absurd and I don’t recommend it. A secondary character, a writer is complaining about his sorry lot as the lead writer of a hit show. He is so put upon by his producer boss, that he has to work during ‘hiatus week’ while everyone else is vacationing or sitting by the pool. Any working schmo can identify with that. Who wants to work while everyone else is out playing? Not me.

But when you consider how much this ‘poor’ guy gets paid to put words on paper (six figures easily, plus golden time, residuals, etc.), our sympathy starts to fade. Perhaps his kids will respect him when they learn their Harvard tuition is completely funded. Meanwhile, he kvetches about his horrible job while riding around in a bit-coin powered limo and attending exclusive parties to schmooze flavor-of-the-week glitterati. Poor guy.

Understand that writing in Hollywood is a difficult and often thankless job. Writers often don’t get the appreciation they deserve. That is not my point. But Joe Blough, working two jobs just to keep up, and mowing his own lawn has a hard time feeling this character’s pain.

I never met a Hollywood writer who complained about his job. Whatever his private life, Hollywood people know they are blessed by whatever gods they grovel to. They would never be tempted to bite that beast’s gracious hand.

But that is only part of the problem. You have actors whose job is to give a gloss of authenticity to what is an inherently artificial process. It is hard enough to succeed at playing a cop, a housewife, or a lawyer. But an actor portraying an ‘authentic actor’ is beyond the best skills of most talented thespians. How exactly does an actor act, in the wild, when he’s not acting? What are they ‘really’ like? Just like you and me? Really?

Also, creating sympathetic portrayals of producers, directors and others in the business can be a task fraught with many pitfalls. Some of us ‘civilians’ may have to deal with out-sized egos and immense pressures in our hum-drum lives, but in Hollywood? Recent headlines only hint at what some of these powerful people are about.

But there is something un-real about how Hollywood elite deal with even mundane tasks. I heard Frank Sinatra had toilet paper in his house bearing his own image. Is your guest bathroom stocked with toilet paper with your smiling face printed on each two-ply sheet?

Asking an actor (read: someone truly fake and insincere) to honestly portray someone who is fake and insincere, creates a feedback loop of artifice. When it fails, it just looks like bad acting. But it is an honest attempt (by an inherently dishonest person) to portray as genuine, someone they know is dishonest. And that last bit is the problem. They try to make them genuine.

Some actors just play themselves and really only play one role, regardless how many shows they are in. Others never play themselves and completely transform once that camera starts rolling. When is either genuine though?

Not to say ‘genuine’ is impossible to do. In the recent mini-series ‘Feud,’ the story of the legendary competition between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lang) all the elements combine to form a veritable work of genius. Centered on their one movie together, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ the series does everything right that most movies about movies fail miserably at. The characters are well known and bigger than life. The supporting roles are deliciously consistent with our expectations of who these people were. The writing is superb.

We see the characters on and off camera and they behave just as we expect they behaved, cat claws and all. Despite their bigger than life personas, the actors and writers succeeded in bringing out these character’s genuine humanity and the poignancy of their loneliness while embracing their prodigious flaws. They bring out their third dimension.

And the filmmakers never try to convince us these stars were normal or ‘just like us’. Hell, no! We don’t need to believe the ‘rich Hollywood actors, being paid millions of dollars to portray people just like you and me’ actually are just like you and me.

They succeed by highlighting our lives and allowing us to see things more clearly through their depiction on the big screen.

But they are not like us. And that is alright. I don’t want their flaws. I have my own. Watching them is entertaining. Watching me, not so much. (That is why they are known as ‘stars’!) If they were like me, I certainly wouldn’t be buying tickets to watch them.

Click  to see the Storyography Video Memoir website:  http://www.lifestoryography.com/

Two shipwrecked strangers: Actress Renée Marino on ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea’

by John K. Adams

You may doubt mere words could draw blood. But you haven’t seen John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, extended through April 15th at Theater 68. It is as if Shanley writes in some secret language which penetrates our emotional core and reconnects us to that true life within us.

Brought to us by Panic! Productions, starring J. Bailey Burcham as Danny and Renée Marino as Roberta, Danny is a perfect storm of stellar writing and spectacular acting.

Since Burcham brought it to Marino over a year ago it has been their dream project. Some of Marino’s passionate comments on the play follow.

According to Marino, Burcham has her complete trust. “It is such a blessing to have a scene partner who helps lift the material as high as possible.” Trust is what you need when venturing onto an emotional tightrope like Danny.

Marino shares, “This play is the epitome of pushing my boundaries and taking the chance to reveal my heart and soul and life’s blood on the stage every night. To make the audience forget they are watching a play.”

“These stories need to be told. Bailey and I are so blessed to be able to explore these emotional depths and share them with audiences. It is really something to hear gasps from the audience.” Marino continues, “It means so much to work with material that isn’t just entertainment, but an opportunity to deeply move people.”

Marino sums up, “Shanley’s writing is so brilliant. The story is so layered, every time I review the script I find new moments to reveal.”

It is as if Shanley writes in some secret language which penetrates our emotional core and reconnects us to that true life within us.

“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” is staged on extended run through April 15th, with three performances the weekend of April 7th and two on the closing weekend, at Theatre 68 located at 5112 Lankershim Blvd. in NoHo. Tickets for both shows are on sale at Plys411.com/danny.

Note: This interview originally appeared in the Tolucan Times on March 6, 2017.

Love and scar tissue on display in ‘Danny and the Deep Blue Sea’ and ‘Poison’

John Patrick Shanley doesn’t write small talk. His characters fight like cornered animals, every syllable flung like a threat. Even expressions of love are spit through clenched teeth. There is a saying that “hurt people hurt people.” John Patrick Shanley brings that to the stage in living color. Shanley’s plays, Poison and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, playing at Theatre 68, are vivid examples of this.

In Poison, the one-act directed by Kay Cole, Kelly (Kelsey Flynn) wants Kenny (Nicola Tombacco) back. Kelly asks a gypsy fortune teller (Katie Zeiner) for a potion to get him, no matter the cost.  Zeiner’s performance as the gypsy is worth the price of admission.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, directed by Ronnie Marmo, opens with Danny and Roberta (J. Bailey Burcham and Renee Marino) growling at each other over beers in a cheap bar. Is this scenario a mating dance, an attempted murder or a suicide pact? Shanley’s play takes them through seething anger and self-loathing to tenderness as these broken souls grope toward a warm embrace in a cold world.

Words on a page are only that without talented actors bringing those words to life. Marino and Burcham draw us into their character’s intimate, horrible reality and reveal, perhaps also within ourselves, the savage redemption of the irredeemable.

Note: This review originally appeared in the Tolucan Times on March 17, 2017.

The False Karass is Your Friend

Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of the false karass from his masterpiece Cat’s Cradle (1963), has assisted me to understand how things work, and don’t in social events.

Vonnegut’s definition of the false karass, (or granfalloon) is a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. (A karass is a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.)

That Vonnegut, however cynically admits to a divine purpose in his book is remarkable in itself.

How this concept has played out in my life may best be illustrated by two small examples.

When visiting friends in Buenos Aires, Argentina an evening ‘out at the clubs’ was planned. My hosts determined that I should borrow some clothes so as not to look “too American” and thus avoid becoming a target of the pickpockets known to frequent train stations and other gathering places.

Suitably disguised (in a shirt and blue jeans), we set off for the evening. While standing on the platform awaiting a train, I assumed what I thought of as an ‘Argentinian stance’ to better blend with the crowd.

Out of nowhere, a ‘man on the street’ news reporter and camera crew approached me and abruptly thrust a microphone in my face. She urgently asked my opinion on who knows what? I was busted. All I could do was stammer that I didn’t speak Spanish in broken Spanish.

Our best efforts ended up signaling every pickpocket within fifty yards that an illiterate foreigner was primed for fleecing. However, we drew so much attention that anyone with malevolent plans steered clear of our party.

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Shortly after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to a costume birthday party to be held for the American drummer of what was then a prominent English rock ‘n’ roll group. Jane, my date was high school friends with the drummer’s wife. It sounded like it might be fun. Jane always insisted that one of their hits was about her.

I was told the planned theme of the party was for everyone to dress as the ‘minister of a church’. There didn’t seem to be much to that requirement. Having lived in the South, I thought I could do a funny version of a huckster – Southern preacher/snake oil salesman.  I found a loud, plaid, polyester jacket to go with a straw hat, string tie, spats and some other details.

When we arrived at the party, I was chagrined to see everyone dressed in long black robes as ministers of the Church of England. One was dressed in drag as a nun. The theme was in the vein of what Monty Python might do.  It made perfect sense that an English band would play with that theme. I didn’t get the memo.

Of course, everyone ignored me. They didn’t know me and it was a party for a member of a close knit group. I had no standing. A non-entity, I felt as appropriate as a beach toy at a baptism.

Then came the big surprise. Jane’s ex-husband arrived carrying a cheap prop cross and dressed to look like Jesus Christ.

He didn’t dress according to the rules either, but being long-time friends with the group, he got a pass. It annoyed me since I was technically dressed as a minister – perhaps in the uniform of another team, but hey…

I always maintained a standard that if dressed in costume one should try to be ‘in character’. When the ex and I were introduced I mustered up my best Foghorn Leghorn, southern drawl and delivered a line that bordered on ironic genius.

“Ah’ve heard a lot about you but I don’t believe we’ve met.” If he was in character, his graceless portrayal was too subtle for me. I offered my hand to shake but his cross was apparently too cumbersome for him to reciprocate.

And not one seemed to notice the brilliance of my delivery.

The rest of the party has faded from memory. Like many parties, the most interesting moment is when you realize you have no reason to be there.

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Nowadays I side-step any false karass that looms on the horizon. I have a strong sense of those with whom I am cosmically linked. The evidence is irrefutable.

Sherry Theater’s ‘The Widow’s Testimony’ provides a dramatic guilty pleasure

Review by John K. Adams

This lurid story of murder, adultery and incest is set in the courtroom of a small, present day, Southern town. Dark secrets are revealed.

The structure of the story is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a courtroom drama. But this story is anything but conventional.

Director Christine Roberts keeps the proceedings moving along at a good clip. Twists are revealed rapidly and sometimes with comic effect.

Roberts guides the large cast to a solid, unified performance. Supporting roles, and even non-speaking roles like the stenographer (Piccora Manning), are delivered with style.

Shalonda Shaw wrote, co-produced and stars in the title role, and delivers a nuanced and believable performance as the beleaguered widow. Shaw’s writing provides a rich showcase for 15 talented performers who we certainly will see more of again.

Donald Prabatah, playing the accused Pete Walker, has few lines but is a riveting stage presence around which the unsettling story swirls.

Malika Smith plays the defendant’s mother, Betty Walker. Portia Kane portrays the murdered man’s mother. Both display poignancy and depth.

Joie Williams and Lex Michael play energetic prosecution and defense attorneys.

Local newscasters, played by Wynter Eddins and Skip Pipo, provide an amusing counterpoint to the dark proceedings.

Six members of the audience act as the jury, so even the cast doesn’t know the outcome of the trial until the very end.

“The Widow’s Testimony” was staged at the Sherry Theater located at 11052 W Magnolia Blvd. in NoHo. For more information on the cast visit Facebook.com/WidowTestimony.

Note: This review originally appeared in the Tolucan Times, December 18th, 2016.

Angel City Chorale brings on the joy

Review by John K. Adams

Merry Christmas!

Last weekend, Angel City Chorale once again delivered Bring on the Joy, their program of glorious chorale music that was unambiguously and unapologetically Christmas music.

If you have never heard music that was transcendent, you have not heard an ACC concert. I can imagine God listening to them with pleasure and turning to his angelic choir to say, “Listen to them. Sing like them.”

Ranging in material from ancient to contemporary, with three Hanukkah songs included, the program offered a rich variety of selections all dedicated to celebrating God’s love for his creation and especially the birth of our Savior, Jesus.

There were also sing-alongs of traditional carols. The audience sang these beloved songs, joyfully joining artistry with worship. There are so many great Christmas songs available from across the centuries and cultures. ACC sang sublime arrangements from the best.

The concert was ably conducted by ACC founder, Sue Fink, including her personable introductions to each song which emphasized “diversity.” Associate Conductor Dan Barnett lent support on the sing-alongs. The orchestra provided warm accompaniment led by Concertmaster Liliana Filipovic and principal accompanists Mark McCormick and Gordon Glor. The many soloists all sang beautifully and with feeling.

ACC now embarks on their annual Tour of Hope, where the singers take their holiday program on the road, performing concerts for the homeless, the elderly and any who could benefit from an infusion of holiday spirit.

Stay tuned for ACC’s upcoming annual Spring Concert in June 2017. Visit AngelCityChorale.org for updates.

Note: this review appeared originally in the Tolucan Times on December 9th, 2016.

‘An Evening with Betsy O’Connell’ is an evening well spent

Review by John K. Adams

An Evening with Betsy O’Connell spoofs the perennial one-woman show about a diva whose ego is larger than her career and is compelled to share the wisdom acquired over the decades as a marginal star of commercials and minor film roles.

While bawdily recounting her 60-year career as a child actress, star of Japanese beer commercials, voice-overs and as an almost-memorable character actor, O’Connell dishes about her many lovers and her long life as an “almost” star. For each missed opportunity or disappointment she assures us she will always “bounce back…like a boomerang.”

It is a daunting task to single-handedly hold an audience’s attention for the duration of a full length play. To do so while generating nearly constant laughter defies belief.

Completely fictional, and yet ringing hilariously true, Betsy is a gem of a play. Ira Heffler’s ironic writing reveals a deep knowledge of how Hollywood works – and doesn’t.  Heffler co-directs and co-produces with long-time collaborator and musical director, Bob Wayne. They keep the tempo light and lively.

Betsy is played by virtuoso Rosanne Limeres. Her sense of timing in her line delivery, singing and her physicality, borders on genius.

Firing on all cylinders, Betsy’s writing, directing and acting coalesce beautifully to make the elusive alchemy of comedy look easy.

“An Evening with Betsy O’Connell” is staged through November 27th at the Lankershim Arts Center located at 5108 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. Tickets can be purchased at Betsy.BrownPaperTickets.com.

Note: this review appeared originally in the Tolucan Times on November 10th, 2016.

Kiki Ebsen’s ‘Joni Mitchell Project’ a fresh take on classic sounds

Review by John K. Adams

It’s that time of year and Kiki Ebsen has once again presented the Joni Mitchell Project at the E-Spot Lounge in Studio City on Friday, November 4th.

In honor of iconic singer Joni Mitchell’s birthday, Ebsen and her band of Joni-inspired musicians delivered an evening of favorite songs spanning Mitchell’s long career with style and devotion.

Mitchell’s intimate, witty and astute tumble-out lyrics and quirky melodies broke all the rules, and still draw us into her tapestry of images.

Ebsen and company did an amazing job recreating those great songs integral to the musical fabric of our lives. Each song sent me into a reverie of where I was when I first heard the song, and the mood of those times.

As familiar as these songs are, and as faithfully as Ebsen sang them, her honest delivery also coaxed nuances out of the songs that I’d never heard before. She and her band really brought Mitchell’s music to fresh life.

Ebsen sang beautifully and accompanied herself on piano and guitar. She was backed by stellar guitarists Grant Geissman and Terry Wollman. Steven Lawrence played bass and the drummer was Matt Starr. Everyone played flawlessly.

Kiki Ebsen performs each song as if just for you. Next up for Kiki is “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen,” on December 28th at Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles.

The E Spot Lounge is located above Vitello’s Italian Restaurant at 4349 Tujunga Ave. in Studio City. For reservations call (818) 769-0905 or visit VitellosRestaurant.com.

Note: this review originally appeared in the Tolucan Times on NOVEMBER 10, 2016.

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