Journal Writing as Film Action
by Marvin Payne
Editors’ Note: Find out more about our friend, Marvin, at www.marvinpayne.com
34 Octember 200M
On the set of a movie
This is not a real journal entry. This is a prop journal entry. I’m playing a corporate president in an industrial film. I’m in the deep background of a shot down a long hallway, seen through a glass wall, writing at my desk. In a few moments, cued by the crackle of a hand-held radio hidden in a potted plant, I will fold up this book, slide it into my leather bag, rip off my glasses not unlike Clark Kent, and storm down the hall suddenly late for a meeting, intimidating the worshipful protagonist on my way past the camera and out of frame. An hour ago we got off the master shot in one take, after only two rehearsals (that word “rehearsal” suddenly reminds me of a friend in my previous ward who was so delighted when the bishop announced over the pulpit that I had been chosen to play the Man in the 1986 remake of “Man’s Search For Happiness–the bishop only knew about it because he’d had to assure the general church leadership that I wasn’t a communist or an owner of any albums by the Rolling Stones–anyway, this friend came up to me after the meeting and asked me when we’d start rehearsals, not knowing that in film you rehearse for about a minute right before the camera rolls. This is too long in parentheses–I’m feeling claustrophobic. Help! Let me out! Quick!).
Ah, that’s better. Anyway, I have to keep writing, for visual continuity, until they’ve shot all the coverage they need–two-shots and close-ups of the same action.
The remaining part of the shot is a little tricky, actually–I’m not the only actor moving. There will be several actors in traffic patterns worthy of Gary Crowton. I’m hoping there are no injuries. The director is Brian Wimmer, very nice guy–probably as nice as Gary Crowton (although, unlike Crowton, Brian’s work probably doesn’t affect the testimonies of thousands).
Brian has acted in many important films and TV shows. If my four-year-old daughter would ever let me watch TV, I probably would have seen him in something.
My main question, I guess, is “When is that radio gonna cue me? I hope there’s a Krispy Creme doughnut in my immediate future.
[End of Unreal Journal Entry.]
This would not be the first time my journal has made it into the movies. That memory of “Man’s Search” takes me to an entry of 10 July 1986. In Memory Grove, pondering on camera the questions of life. I somehow missed the transition from rehearsal to performance (It’s a master shot and the camera is thirty yards away), so I was caught on film writing in this book, whereupon the director determined it’s a useful prop, a good image for contemplation.
[Out of the journal: Hey, there’s another good reason for keeping a journal! It’s “a good image for contemplation!” Back in the journal:]
So some of what I write here over the next while may slip in and out of focus. I can’t just pretend to write, because the nib on my pen will dry out.
A remarkable difference between the two projects I’m on right now [I was doing a role in “King Lear” at the time–if you want it to rain, wash your car–if you want to play a modern character in a church film, grow a beard] is that in “Man’s Search” I have no lines at all. But there’s acting. Or it might turn out to be “Mannequin’s Search For Happiness.”
There are nice folks on the crew. The sound recordist traded socks with me, because I wore what turned out to be the wrong color.
I’m writing rapidly because to match with the master this page needs to be full and I need to be writing on the right-hand leaf. They’ve dressed me quite drably. In this version they’re concerned about avoiding any images of opulence. I hope I can get away with using this pen, which is definitely upper, upper middle class, if not downright aristocratic.
Here I am on the proper page now, which is good, because they’re on the verge of dollying in. In the original film, Everyman [that’s me] did this contemplation scene standing on a footbridge watching a duck whose leg was staked to the bottom of the pond so he’d stay in the shot. The duck, that is. [Bryce Chamberlain, the original Everyman, didn’t need a stake to keep him in the shot–they were paying him a lot more than the duck.]
[End of Real Journal Entry.]
Hey, while we’re here I have to throw you one more entry from a week later. It’s funny.
18 July 1986
Wrapped out of the canyon [San Rafael Swell in central Utah], and though there is extraterrestrial footage to shoot next week, Everyman and his family are wrapped out of the film. [“Wrapped” means you’re done.] Through the project, we’ve wrestled fairly constantly with the children, and Marilee [VanWagenen, who played Everywoman, but was designated in the script as, in what I thought was kind of poor taste, “Everyman’s Wife”] has always been patient, full of songs and rhymes and reward treats, and even caught a lizard for our “son” and cooperated in the capture of another one for our “daughter,” all as incentives for following direction in the shots.
This morning, as little Jessica [real name, no innocence to protect here] was being particularly or’nary, her kind Everymother smiled and said, “If you don’t straighten up and do this shot right, I’m going to kill your lizard.
Did you know that the way a musical instrument sounds depends to some degree on the way the sound is created (lips buzzing together, a reed vibrating, horsehair dragged across strings, things like that) but also very much upon the shape of the instrument? There is a reason why violins are shaped the way they are. The spaces within them resonate different frequencies, the combination of which sound like a violin. Change its shape very much and it wouldn’t sound like a violin anymore. That’s the main reason why there is so much variation in people’s voices, from one to another, and why people study singing so hard–they’re trying to create internal shapes that maximize their talent. (Violinists can’t do that–change the shape of their instrument.) Sometimes it’s subtle. I have two guitars, each made by C.F. Martin, of comparable workmanship, but one is a more square “dreadnought’ shape and the other is a little more tight-waisted, a little rounder, but about the same size overall. They sound different, and their shape is why.
In acting, characters are different shapes, because people and their spirits are different shapes. I’ve had to stretch (sometimes uncomfortably) to fit the shapes of different characters, with surprising results. (At least, I was surprised.) When I played Pap Finn in “Big River,” I had to fit the frame of a dark murderous drunk. It was different enough from my elders-quorum-presiding and Meridian-Magazine-column-writing self that I couldn’t rely on my everyday tools of expression and gesture. The director (who had, in fact, been drunk–but not very murderous) gave me a push in a certain direction, and then it was right-brain all the way. I communicated things that plain old Marvin couldn’t have communicated. Boo dog, my favorite role of all, knows things that Marvin only suspects, and can say and do things that Marvin (or other humans like him) would be terrified to attempt.
This phenomenon assumes that you’re willing to think like the character. One recent evening in a theatre in Springville, Utah, the stage manager came backstage just before curtain time and very quietly, very humbly, announced to me that there were four people in the audience and what did I want to do? I first thought, can I do this show for four people? and it didn’t sound like much fun. Wrong question. I then asked myself, how would J. Golden Kimball talk to these two couples? Suddenly I was quite eager to spend the evening with them. We had a great time together, and I learned a lot about how to be J. Golden. There’s a journal entry that illustrates this immersion into character pretty well.
3 May 1991
(We were shooting the first episode of “Lorenzo’s Songbook,” in which I played a coyote-like puppet that pops up out of an old trunk in grandma’s attic.) My character was a puppet at the other end of a long reach through the false back of an old trunk. Hidden away as I was, the microphone on the boom was ineffective. So the sound man came around behind the trunk and knelt down and began clipping a lavaliere mic to my shirt. It took a long moment of careful thought and a measure of will power to keep myself from doing what came naturally, which was to crane my neck around the trunk lid and, referring to the puppet, say “Don’t mic me–mic him!” He was, after all, doing the talking.
But none of this would work if there weren’t inside me someplace a wise and innocent canine, a scary dark drunk, a swearing general authority, and a magical coyote. Who else might be in there?
On closing night of “Funny Girl” at Sundance, our good director read to us some words of Fanny Brice that he found comforting. I might have forgotten them, but they’re also printed in a “women’s” calendar that my wife has, Fanny Brice being also a woman. Ms. Brice said, “Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because, sooner or later, you will forget the pose, and then where are you?” Good advice, I guess–you don’t want to be a hypocrite or a fake. But this “as you are” thing. I mean, who are you, really? And when do you finally know? And how do you find out?
Another quote: “We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant…talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God…born to manifest the glory of God within us… in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Those are the words of Nelson Mandela.
Yesterday I drove down to BYU for a costume fitting (I’m playing the attorney who prosecuted the murderers of the Prophet Joseph in a new play by Tim Slover, called “Hancock County.”) The costume is tailored from the ground up. It took an hour of pinning and marking, squinting and nodding of designers’ heads. As I had it on, I began to feel the attributes of Josiah Lamborn (not unlike Frosty the Snowman, I felt the magic of the costume).
Well, when else do we get to “try on the costume”? When else are we allowed to imagine ourselves not merely as someone different, but as someone greater than we are? And is’t there just the breathless possibility that when we get the character right, we won’t be so much pretending to be bigger as discovering that we really are?
I don’t think this process is an exclusively thespian enterprise. Every calling is a form of “casting.” Every new friendship has the potential to be legendary. Every new chance to serve can make a dramatic difference. Maybe there are heroes to be found within the least of hams.
That discovery may require, on the one hand, tremendous imagination and presumption and, on the other hand, reckless submission. There is, after all (or before all), a divine Playwright–and, as suggested by one of his apprentices, “all the world’s a stage.”
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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