Uses of Actors as Documentary Subjects in Fiction Film: Twelve or More Examples

CS Leigh

“Oh, that poor actor,” is something I often hear after screening one of my films or, “You're cruel. How can you do that to them?”, which I find somewhat more perplexing. On the surface, “that” means requiring an actor to do something consistently or, more often, to not do something as consistently as possible for roughly ten minutes, which is the maximum running time you can get out of a 35mm thousand foot magazine of celluloid, which is what I use most of the time.

In my film Process, for example, there is a sequence in which Beatrice Dalle repeatedly submerges her head under water in a bathtub. This action seems to cause an audience a tremendous amount of distress, which I must admit is partly why I do it, though putting an actor through the mill is absolutely beside the point. I remember that, on the day, the actress was mostly concerned with being certain her make-up was applied in a manner to insure that she would look as good as possible for as long as possible and that her mascara wouldn't run in a way that could make her look silly.

I flat out don't understand the expectations most people have when it comes to actors. Where is it written that what actors do is to pretend and that everybody makes nice nice and then goes out for a drink afterwards? Why should acting be any less redolent of anguish and strife than any other work people do? Nobody makes nice nice with me after I've put in an unconstructive day in the editing room and I don't expect it.

My own idea of what an actor's suffering looks like is obviously different to that of most cinema spectators. I feel sympathy when I see an actor trapped in a silly character's shape and having to pretend to be things they're obviously not. I'll admit that sometimes it's fun to watch that eternal struggle between an actor's self and the screenplay's demands, though mostly I squirm. I don't want Bogart to play Hamlet. I have no interest in hearing Meryl Streep struggle through another accent. It is of no consequence to me that Robert DeNiro gains eighty pounds to play some fat palooka.

Watching the new Woody Allen film Cassandra's Dream, I felt an urgent need to take up a collection amongst my cinema comrades to pay whatever hideous ransom necessary to get poor Tom Wilkinson out of that fucking movie. It didn't seem fair to me that an actor with that much natural presence and intensity should be reduced to playing a series of clichéd mannerisms and facial tics. I hadn't seen that many winks and twitches since I stopped frequenting the dark cafe in Wardour Street that gets the overflow crowd from the Narcotics Anonymous meetings next door.

My philosophy is to let an actor be exactly who they are and then to make the camera love them, embrace them, despise them, or anything in the world you want it to do. Whatever it is you desire from an actor you can get it when the camera rolls. Pyrotechnics are not required if the subject in front of the lens is a compelling one. That's the way it should be. D.W. Griffith knew Lillian Gish was the one to fixate on and we agree with him nearly a century later when watching Broken Blossoms.

Perhaps being part of a cultural generation brought up to revere great filmmakers and their boundary-breaking work with fearless actors has given me the idea that anything is possible if you place the right subject in front of the camera. I never think, the way some people do, “Oh, poor Liv Ullmann, having to sit still for that long intrusive close-up in Persona.” It never occurs to me that being the subject of such warm and embracing light would be anything other than rapture for its intended beneficiary. I know these inexplicable moments are sheer bliss for me to watch again and again.

Roberto Roselinni famously said, “Stromboli is a documentary about Ingrid Bergman's face,” and, for me, everything wonderful and glorious that is unique about cinema is captured in that sentence. I fell in love with cinema as I fell in love with the faces of actresses embraced by light. I don't know why, as a gay man, I'm moved by these images of women. It's something I've been trying to figure out most of my life.

The only image of a male actor that comes close for me is that of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, and partly that transcendence has to do with the reverse shots of Elizabeth Taylor, whose loving gaze we identify with when she looks at him. As Pauline Kael said when discussing Sydney Pollock's The Way We Were, we fall in love with Robert Redford because the adoration of Barbra Streisand's gaze is impossible to dispute. It is irrecoverable. We have no means with which to disagree.

None of this has anything to do with “acting”. It's about the camera capturing the physical attributes of the actors and amplifying them, and about the emotional canvas they convey, in an endless mirrored refraction. It's documentary run amok within fiction.

Can anyone who has seen a projection of Last Tango in Paris not realise that Bernardo Bertolucci's luck and brilliance was located in his ability to steal a glimpse of a man who would have preferred not to be seen, least of all by the director? That the man is Marlon Brando is the luck. The ability to steal from him is the brilliance. For whatever reason, this seems to work best when the subject offers resistance.

Recently, I screened two of the ten minute takes I shot of Chan Marshall, who is perhaps better known as Cat Power, for my film American Widow. I was showing them to an actor I'm working with next year on another film. I guess this was a sort of warning. He needed to know how bad it could get. Halfway through the projection he got up and began to stroke Chan's image on the screen as if to somehow comfort her. He was appalled and at the same time absolutely hooked by her burden.

What I want him to do for my film is to sit on a sofa with his girlfriend and kiss. I watched them do this at a party last year and thought it was very touching. I want that for my film. The idea is for them to be natural and to be romantic together in the way that they normally are. The only difference is there will be a 35mm camera running on the other side of the room. Considering that they had done this in a room full of strangers at the party, made it clear to me they are not exactly shy about intimacy.

However, the camera's presence makes it different and that's why filming it will make it far more compelling than watching it at the party. Since the screening of those sequences I have been getting messages from the actor expressing fear and panic and suggesting methods he might use to get through the experience. Whiskey, pills, grass, having his brother present, and the use of other substances have been suggested. Ironically, his girlfriend who is not an actress has no problem with the idea of it.

This got me thinking about what actors need, or what they think they need, and what they expect from a director. Perhaps actors take up this particular calling in order to hide rather than to reveal themselves. Still, the great ones certainly reveal as much if not more than they obscure. Think of Anna Magnani or Bette Davis or Jean Pierre Leaud. What are they hiding? What could they possibly add to what their eyes tell us about them? There are no secrets from the camera when the subject burns from inside.

There are moments in films where the burning light seems brighter than what is endurable. Gena Rowlands hitting herself and Joan Blondel's reaction in Opening Night is an example. Others include the extraordinary final close-up of Garbo in Queen Christina when what we see is the sum result of Rouben Mamoulian telling Grabo to think of “nothing”. In other words, to be herself, no more and no less. The translucent faces in Philippe Garrel's films or the opaque ones in Bresson's provide others, as do the most incandescent moments of the early work of Goddard.

It is clear to me you cannot stage moments like those. They happen or they don't.

The shooting with Chan was a truly incredible experience. It had been in the talking stages for over a year and until the last moment nobody knew if it was really going to happen. If you know something about Chan, you might know it is nearly impossible to reach her. She has an e-mail address and a mobile phone. However, one never knows if she receives any of the messages you send her. Once in a while, you get something in the guise of a smoke signal and then it looks like everything is going to be fine. Mostly you wait, trust, and try not to panic, and hope those emotions prove infectious.

Chan had been playing gigs in Europe and was preparing a new album. We both felt the time was right to do this, though for Chan the idea of being photographed is frightening in itself, not to mention for ten minutes without stopping in front of a full crew. She has been known over the years to play live with her back to the audience and had mostly avoided making music videos or having her concerts filmed because the presence of a camera pointed in her direction made her want to run and hide. Both of her managers had warned me that she might not be able to go through with it on the day and that I should prepare myself for a disappearing act if she felt trapped.

Still, I felt that if I could get her to open up for my camera the way she does naturally in conversation, then we'd capture a moment quite unlike any other for my film and that the risk of evaporation was worth taking. I had been looking at Warhol's screen tests preparing for the shoot. I had the faces of Nico, Susan Sontag, Jane Holzer, Cass Elliott, and Beverly Grant firmly engraved in my mind as I prepared the set. I like the nervousness and the apprehension in those screen tests and I hoped to understand the emotional perspective of their subjects as I thought about what I would do with Chan.

The shoot was in Berlin. We planned to do it late at night in a hotel because the scenario I wanted to depict was Chan on the road, playing guitar and working on her music in a strange place that is not home. I wanted to suggest that music is home for her and that when she feels homesick, she uses music to console herself. I wanted her performing because that's how she seems most comfortable, and the way she performs gives an audience access to her fragile vulnerability, which is her loveliest quality. The idea was to capture an image of a woman fully dressed, armed, if naked.

When Chan arrived, I walked her through the set-up. I find that talking about technical things in a methodical manner calms an actor down considerably, especially if they're not used to being on a film set. Her mantra seemed to be a shaky though humorous “I don't know, I don't know”, but I knew at that point that we were safe. If you're working with a human being and not a faux diva, generally the actor has a respect for a film set, and she did have that. Then she had two quick whiskeys and we went for it.

What I tell my actors is: “Don't stop no matter what happens unless I say cut.” I tell them this is because ten minute rolls of 35mm celluloid are expensive, which is true, though the reason I say it exists in a different, less practical, place. I like how actors behave when they don't have an easy way out and the camera is sitting there rolling.

Most of the time, if they're good, they follow the instruction.

On the first take in Berlin, after the whiskeys and while the camera was rolling and Chan was singing and playing the guitar, at about the eight-minute mark, Chan kind of went blank and started freaking out a bit, looking very directly in front of her and struggling for direction. I said nothing, the crew looked at me with accusation in their eyes, nobody moved and Chan started to do something strange with her hands, like she couldn't continue. Again I said nothing. I did nothing. I didn't look at her. The soundman's eyes implored me. Then she found a way to start up again, though it was tentative and broken. The moment where she is lost, though, is absolutely beautiful.

When I was making Far From China in 2000 in London, I remember Marianne Faithfull doing something like that. She lost a line in a very long dialogue I had given her to remember and it really threw her. Like the trouper she is, she kept going because I didn't say cut. When I said cut several minutes later, she really lost it and laid in to the crew, though she apologized for it many more times than was necessary. In the rushes, that moment before I said cut, that point of fissure when she was looking for her way out of the fog was inexplicably revealing. It was her finest moment in what we shot that week, mostly because she nearly let down her guard.

For me, each shoot is the sum of the many steps in the process that gets you there. I want to capture the emotional intensity of the moment more than any other thing.

Recently, while I've been thinking about this article and watching documentaries and films of the “non-fiction” variety, it has come to my mind that the subjects of these films are often performing more than the actors in fiction films. An obvious example is the Michael Moore psycho-cabaret. Another is the perhaps cruel use of Jonathan Caouette's mother in Tarnation, where he seems to induce her mania to breakdown. What you want to say is, “Jonathan put down the camera and she'll stop.”

However the inclination spreads outward to the Avant-garde. I saw this in several films by Jonas Mekas of Herman Nitsch. In one film in particular, shot in a shop run by Hassidic Jews in lower Manhattan where Nitsch is trying on the clothes of the Hassids, that is nearly vaudeville in its height of performance. This could be the clowning of Eddie Cantor or the yammering of Martha Raye if one could manage to forget the resonance of the shadow of twentieth century history that hovers right there outside the frame. I know this is filmmaking amongst friends and that is the strength of Jonas Mekas's best work. Still, for me, the distance between filmmaker and subject seems essential. I don't want my subjects to feel comfortable with me. I don't want them to entertain me. I don't want them to rely on me or to count on me.

The examples I've mentioned from my own films, not placed in the company of other illustrious works mentioned here to suggest parity in any way, but only to illuminate something of the way I work and how I think about actors, in each case rely on a warm feeling with the actor before the shoot and a sometimes harsh distance on the set and while the camera rolls. I don't want my actors to look to me for rescue when the shooting gets tough. I want them to look deep inside themselves and to find a way to convey that sense of emotional turmoil outward toward the audience. I want them to project it. I want the audience to want to rescue them, to make them feel better, to console them, to embrace that image they see flickering there on the big screen.

Marianne Faithfull in Far From China, Beatrice Dalle in Process, and Chan Marshall in American Widow do that and more. They demand to be loved. This is something cinema can do that no other art form can do as well. It moves, it and us.

As we approach the last years of the first decade of this new century and cinema seems to be limping on its last legs, while the onslaught of video navel gazing takes over, I try to hold on to my sense of wonder and fascination for what is cinema. I know that to be nostalgic is to admit old age. Still, it's hard to resist that inclination.

In Cannes this year, I found a morsel of this turned into beauty in Atom Egoyan's short film Artaud Double Bill where two spectators send text messages back and forth from separate cinemas. As a fan of this form of communication, I am deeply moved by the sense that this new smaller than life technology can carry within it the sense of love Egoyan obviously feels for cinema and for the face of Antonin Artaud in Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc as referenced by Godard in Vivre sa vie.

This tribute thrice removed is brought into deep focus when Joan of Arc and the home in Egoyan's Adjuster simultaneously burst into flame. The fire within bursts out of the frame as the women watching separate films agree by sms that Artaud's image is hot. This communication and its content summarises what is flammable in cinema.