I’m not kiddin’. It was somewhere in the middle of watching ‘Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans’ that I really start to really freak out.
Now bear with me. I’m not a huge ‘Underworld’ fan. I think they’re pretty slick B-movies that tread the line between horror and melodrama, action and style. They remind me, for some reason of the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ series. Pop-culture snapshots, trying to tap into some kind of common visceral thrill specific to their era. Film scholars can pin meaning to 80’s horror (AIDS, Cold War Nuclear Shenanigans), and will probably look at the Underworld war between the Lycans (short for Lycanthrope – or Werewolves) and the Vampires (short for Vampires) and assign some sort of pithy understanding as to how this series spawned three films and an in-the-works-tv series (post-911war-between-sleeper-agents, anyone?).
But that’s not what freaked me out.
I had been planning a ‘Shockwave, Darkside’ script reading for a long time. I wanted to hear the dialogue up on its feet, spoken by real actors. I wanted to see if the rhythms of speech sounded realistic. If the characters developed the way that I thought they should throughout the narrative. I wanted to see if the recipe for this goulash of a story had the right elements – do we need a dash more of exposition? A pinch more character interaction? Is the dialogue too salty, etc…
I had lined up my reading cast. Folks who I thought could inhabit the roles in ways that I wanted, yet bring something extra to the table. They were actors and non-actors. Comedians and friends. Some I had directed before – and others I knew from different circumstances entirely. A few were science fiction buffs, while others wouldn’t touch the genre with a ten-foot remote control. This was as diverse group of people that I could come up with, and I frankly worried how they would play with – and against each other. In the story our five main characters are essentially strangers, so I was interested to see how essentially five strangers would interact when they came to their parts.
I’m reminded of a story of when Walter Matthau was cast in original The Odd Couple. He desperately wanted to play the Felix part, saying that he could phone-in the Oscar part and it wouldn’t be much of a challenge for him. Essentially he was overruled and told that if he wanted to stretch his wings as an actor, he was more than welcome to - just not on The Odd Couple. Now I’m all for casting against type, and I really believe a good actor can pretty much play anything. But I also believe that film is the medium of the close-up, and if you want to get a truly remarkable performance, then the actor will find it if the role is tied into some aspect of their personality (whether they like it or not) or some personal experience they had.
So needless to say, I tried to cast for the personalities of each actor, reasoning that they’d tune into some internal logic that would only help as we negotiated the script an their character. It was also a bit of an experiment.
So there I am. Sitting in the movie theater. Watching werewolves and vampires duke it out in 35 mm Dolby surround, when it occurred to me that the why these movies work have very little to do with Kate Beckinsale’s pleather costume, Bill Nighy’s creepy cheekbones or growly fang-on-fang action. It actually has to do with the writing. Take a step back and there’s Michael (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) Sheen emoting against Bill (creepy cheekbones, Love, Actually, Notes on a Scandal) Nighy with all the ferocity of, well, a Shakespeare play. And through most of the movie, I couldn’t remember what bloodline (no pun intended) the Corvinus family was in allegiance with, or who Lucian, the head werewolf, was secretly in cahoots with on the Vampire side….
None of that mattered to me.
But it sure as hell mattered to the actors. They played it with all the pomp and seriousness as if they were treading the boards at the Old Vic. They knew how to hit specific words specific ways that could make me believe in dynasties and coups far beyond what was shown on screen. Their inflections let me know what was at stake and who was in danger. Now I’m not saying that ‘Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans’ is great writing, but it is a great example of letting your actors carry the bulk of the cinematic world-building in ways that made the whole thing seem much more serious (and dramatic) than it really is. It reminded me of the first time I saw a Shakespeare play when I was in junior high. Although I didn’t understand everything that came out of the actors’ mouths, I could still follow what was going on because they were using inflection as a road map.
And I realized if my little script reading of eight people in a 12 x 10 rehearsal room on 84th street would be pulled off to its fullest potential – I’d have to so a lot more homework.
So I started writing. I wrote character biographies, in the voices of the characters themselves to get a feel of where they came from and what they thought about it. I had most of this stuff in my head as I was writing the script, but jotting it down on paper was a different matter. I also constructed an autobiography of the ‘world’ of Shockwave, Darkside - a timeline of future events so everybody had a shared history that provided a context and framework to the story. I gave the timeline to all the actors, but, as I really wanted to keep each performance a mystery, none of the character bio’s were shared between the actors. Each actor got their character’s bio and that’s it.
Essentially I approached it as if this was the final cast, and we were about to go into production. I wanted to see if these little tricks would work, and if they did, how.
In the end, we read the script twice. Once with the stage direction – once with just the dialogue only. That first reading clocked in at ninety minutes – and forty-five of that was stage direction tirelessly read by Shockwave’s producer Stuart Ginsberg. We took a break, bought some beers and discussed the script. What we thought worked. And what we thought sorta worked. What we thought didn’t.
We then read the script again – but just the dialogue, so I can hear the flow of conversation unfettered by scene description or stage direction. The difference was startling. I know that movies (especially lower-budget ones) are a confluence of what is seen and heard, and a script reading essentially takes care of the ‘what’s heard’ part. Music cues, edit notes and visual motif’s don’t really enter the equation. It’s akin to a radio show - which is apt, because I listened to quit a bit 1950’s sci-fi radio while writing ‘Shockwave, Darkside’.
Suggestions were made, then rescinded. It was almost like we read another script. Through it all, my actors were real troopers. Fielding questions and thoughtfully putting forth arguments. My casting also paid off, and by the end of the first reading, I could tell that they were taking ownership over their roles. They stopped referring to their characters as ‘he’ or ‘ she’ and started saying ‘I’. Some had read the biographic material, others couldn’t get through it – and a few just took a cursory glance. Each had their own process into the material and it was fascinating, and gratifying to watch.
In the end, I recorded the reading so I can play it back on my iPod. And I’ve been going through it, line by line. Listening to the inflections – hearing for points of confusion or storytelling hiccups. But mostly I hear a lot of laughter. Eight strangers coming together on a rainy winter night somehow bonding over words that I saw fit to put down on paper. They believed enough in it, or me, to take hours out of their lives to help me make it better. In truth, I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea if any of my ideas would hold up.
For the script, I’m sure this reading will yield some tweaks, which will inevitably yield more tweaks. Stuart said how surprised he was at how witty the script was. Elwaldo Baptiste, our other producer, lent his voice to a few other roles in the reading and otherwise listened keenly, taking mental notes. Of course what I really wanted was for everybody to say that the script was perfect and that they were moved beyond tears and I should not touch a thing. But alas…
From ‘King Lear’ to ‘Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans’, writers have always listened to actors, saying their words, sometimes brilliantly and sometimes not. Recording the inflections, the nuances and the confusions on paper, tape, digitally, or in their head. And through it all, I guarantee you; most of them are also biting their nails.