“It’s said that Chaplin wanted you to like him, but Keaton didn’t care. I think he cared, but was too proud to ask. His films avoid the pathos and sentiment of the Chaplin pictures, and usually feature a jaunty young man who sees an objective and goes for it in the face of the most daunting obstacles. Buster survives tornados, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders, and falls from great heights, and never pauses to take a bow: He has his eye on his goal. And his movies, seen as a group, are like a sustained act of optimism in the face of adversity; surprising, how without asking, he earns our admiration and tenderness.”
The ability on a camera-laden set to inhabit a character without a twitch of distraction or preoccupation or visible hint of the internally or externally irrelevant is a scary but brilliant feat.
Ordinary people cannot do it. But I have seen great actors do it even at cocktail receptions full of cell phones. In a world where major writers have announced that they cannot focus on their work without extracting or blocking the modems in their laptops, this kind of thespian concentration is worth noting. (One thinks of the writer Anne Lamott’s remark on her own maturing undistractibility: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink,” she has said. “Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”)
I’d never had to sit and try to think about exactly what I meant by each thing I was saying, because normally, I had written it. And so honestly, what I tried to do was picture what an actor I admired would do, and I copied that. And that is the absolute truth. I imagined what somebody would do if they were given this part, and then I did all of those things.
“When you’re an actor, you can act on your own, but you kind of need to get hired. You need to be chosen. And when you’re chosen to act in something, the thing itself is already validated—it’s already real in some way. But for the most part, people who are creators—writers and directors—are always starting from zero. Nobody is asking them to make what they make. Every time you set out to create something from nothing that nobody has asked for, you feel the void more than you do in any other art form. I do, anyway. I’d never experienced that with a film before Frances Ha, where at first there was nothing, and then there was something because we made it. Frances Ha felt like I gave birth to it. And then I realized that that’s what you have to do on every single project for the rest of your life, if this is what you want to do.”
“Comedy thrives inside a fixed frame. It’s not an essential element, but as with dancing and magic tricks, it’s always more impressive if the viewer can see the performer’s hands and feet at all times. In Sherlock, Jr, Keaton moves the camera when he has to, during all of the movie’s crazy chases. But even then, the motion is limited: Keaton tracks alongside the actors, or he attaches the camera to the front of one of the moving vehicles so that he can keep all the action inside the rectangle.Sherlock, Jr. is at its funniest, though, when the camera stays still, and the characters move in and out, like figures in a side-scrolling platform videogame. Maybe that’s because the fixed frame emphasizes the characters as characters, arriving into the picture exactly when needed for the plot—and sometimes remaining stuck there, like the projectionist, never confident that he can find a way to break out of the box.”
Noel Murray kicks off our Movie Of The Week discussion of the 1924 classic Sherlock, Jr. with an examination of how Buster Keaton’s physical comedy thrived in a fixed environment of boxes and lines. [Read more…]
Terry called one night and said, “I want you to play the part.” I had to get up very early the next morning to go to work, and I was driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in a little Mazda. I was listening to a Dylan album I was fond of, and the song “Desolation Row” was playing, and the sun was rising, and it hit me that I was going to play the role of my life. I had been a professional actor since I was eighteen. I was thirty-one, I had four children, I was struggling, doing a lot of television—a lot of bad, silly work just to make ends meet—and I wasn’t having any luck in features to speak of, and here was the part of my life. And I was overwhelmed, and I pulled off to the side of the road, and I wept uncontrollably.
Also, from assistant director Bill Scott:
We were so green. A couple years ago, Terry told me that on that first morning of filming, after he got his big wide shot, the cameraman turned to him and said, “Should we go in for coverage now, Terry?” And Terry said, “No, let’s do an over-the-shoulder shot’"—which is coverage. And I remember when someone asked me if I had ordered the honeywagon, I said, "Yeah, the catering’s all lined up.” The honeywagon’s the toilet truck.
Caan comments on Frank’s manner of speaking and how he never uses contractions. He and Mann determined Frank was a man who was trying to make up for lost time, and his way of speaking slowly, methodically, and clear makes it such that he never has to repeat himself. […] “You knew he didn’t say anything he didn’t mean”.
Costner was a big star who had agreed to make an art film while Eastwood was determined to make a Clint Movie, and they were at cross-purposes. Finally, Eastwood called Costner from his trailer for a scene, and Costner told him to wait — that he wasn’t ready.
“Find his extra,” Eastwood said, “and put a shirt on him.”
He wound up shooting the scene with the extra — with the extra walking through a field, and the camera so close to him he became a blur. Then Costner emerged from his trailer and announced that he was ready to work. “Never mind,” Eastwood said, “we’re moving on.”
It’s a very odd thing with Hollywood, where you do stand-up, you’re good at it, then they go, “How would you like to be a horrible actor?” Then you say, “All right, that sounds good. I’ll do that.” So I’m fucking excited about not having to pretend to know what I’m doing with acting.
I love abandoning shit, because I don’t like doing shit over and over and over. I’ve thrown so many jokes away. First of all, I’m not a good enough performer to pretend that “I just thought of this,” that kind of shit. It’s saying the same word over and over again, it loses its fucking meaning. Also, generally I don’t like traveling around saying the exact same thing. I don’t think that’s a very good thing to do with your life.
I don’t really care about success or money or shit. I could give a fuck. I hate fame. I hate being recognized, because I don’t know how to talk to people. I see Sandler, man, and I’m like fuck, goddamn, I don’t know how he does it, those people are fucking everywhere he walks. If you’re walking with him, all you hear behind is people whispering. It’s almost like being fucking stoned, or a paranoid schizophrenic or something, where you think people are talking about you, but they actually are talking about you. It’s fucking surreal.
“I am not funny. My writers were funny. My directors were funny. The situations were funny…What I am is brave. I have never been scared. Not when I did movies, certainly not when I was a model, and not when I did I Love Lucy.”
–Lucille Ball (Rolling Stone, June 23, 1983) (photo by Walt Sanders for LIFE, 1943, click to enlarge)
Here’s a movie idea: two 45-minute films, as identical as possible in setting, costume, lighting, framing, tone, etc. but with a different set of lead actors. Not too many, maybe 1-5 switched out. Film them as contemporaneously as possible. Screen’em back-to-back. Anyone ever done this?