thinking onscreen

Everyone meet Alexis Chevalier.  Super talented, method actor currently studying at Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.  He lets me figure out how to use my camera, while he hones his craft.  This video is the first project we worked on together.  In my outstanding directorial debut, I gave him the most vague and mundane proposal for a project: "... So could you maybe smoke while you think about something and I'll film you?"  Fortunately, Alexis also had some scenes he wanted to practice for a film he's writing.  

Part 1: Inner Monologue

The beginning of this video is about Alexis' character reflecting on some bad news.  Since the character is lying down, we filmed from above. The black background gave really nice contrast. You don't see him cast any shadows or create impressions in the fabric, so he looks a little like he's floating.  We tried two takes, one with his arm behind his head and the other without... really simple.  I think the arm was interesting since it adds a diagonal to the composition and his bent elbow pulls the fabric of his shirt in tension.  The one without the arm is nice too, because you can see more of his neck... which allows you to appreciate the moment when he swallows.

Part 2: Inner Monologue:

Next, we decided he would rehearse the scene in which his character is having a difficult conversation with another character. However, no other person would appear on screen and he would not actually deliver his lines verbally.  Alexis did all the speaking with his eyes. It seemed best of course, to film in close-up. 

In one sequence he: 1.) Looks down at a diagonal, 2.) Leans forward towards the ashtray (off camera), 3.) the camera pans right and down slightly following this motion, 4.) Then he returns back to his original position but the camera has moved so he's only in the Left Third of the frame.  

What I like most about this sequence is that there's a division created between two expressions when his eyes leave and re-enter the frame.  Two unique expressions and two different compositions.

inspiration: inner monologue

Here's a clip with Steven Spielburg on Inside the Actor's Studio interviewed by host James Lipton.  Lipton picks up on an important theme in Spielburg's films which relates to our study.  Click the image to view the clip...

Lipton: I also noticed that your actors not infrequently stare at something off camera.   
Spielburg: Every actor, you know, has his or her own way of seeing and sometimes I often find it interesting to watch people thinking. I miss that in movies, today.  You don't show people who think.  I like watching people thinking... that invites us into their thought process.  It's like a magnet.  Once the character, you know, spends a little time not running the lines but thinking about, it draws us into the curiosity of 'What are they thinking about?' and it respects us and it allows us into the film-making process and allows us to become participants in the story, not just observers.

Part 3: Improvised Dialogue

Next, Alexis read a poem and then began improvising as though he were discussing what he read with someone across from him.  I asked him to try the same action from two positions, with two camera angles, and two kinds of light hitting his face.  When he's sitting on the right, he's more comfortable and confident, he's higher than the camera, and further away, removed.  On the left he's visibly combatting some of the direct light falling on his eyes, at eye level with the lens, and doesn't have the cigarette as something to wave around and control.  It's interesting how these subtleties, editing, and sight lines can help separate one person as two.

Part 4: dialogue first person

Finally, we filmed Alexis reading the poem as seen from first person view of one of the characters in the dialogue.  As I was setting the focus, he was waving the book around and I caught a glimpse of the poet's face on the cover, so we thought to incorporate it into the close-up.  I was also surprised how the red color on the cover made an impact as well, since the rest of the video is neutrals.

monologues / dialogues between a character and himself

To conclude, let's reflect on some memorable cinematic moments when only one character or one actor is speaking on screen.

character and mirror

De Niro in Taxi Driver, asks "You talkin' to me?" and in Raging Bull delivers the "Could have been a Contender" speech from On the Waterfront.  In both scenes, the character uses a mirror as a device to create another subject that he is speaking to, though we only see and understand it's just his own reflection.   At the end of De Niro's monologue in Taxi Driver he even says, "We I'm the only one here."  In the scene in Raging Bull, De Niro was supposedly meant to quote from Shakespeare's Richard III, but Scorsese eventually settled on these lines spoken by another boxer. Unlike Brando's character who speaks to his brother Charlie, Jake LaMotta delivers them as a soliloquy.

two actors as one character

I know, *spoiler.* Here's an entire movie who's main character is actually portrayed by two actors, or rather the dissociated personalities of the same person.  As Norton plays the narrator, Pitt's character Tyler Durden manifests out of the narrator's insomnia and portrays him as who he wishes he could be. 

dialogue                       with personified object

How do you create credible dialogue in a movie when most of the film is shot on a deserted island featuring only one character?  Invent a persona for an object and have the character interact with it.  Even though we know Wilson is not a real being, Hanks can still makes us cry in Castaway when he loses his best friend... even if it's just a volleyball. Great idea and great acting.

One Actor as Two Characters

In Mrs. Doubtfire, there's tension that Robin Williams' character, a father disguised as an elderly nanny, might have his identity revealed. This almost happens when another character unexpectedly visits his home and he's wearing the nanny's clothing but no face makeup or prosthetics.  The camera films him from within the fridge as both characters simultaneously, just before he masks his face in frosting.

♫ Oh, and to credit the music in my video, Martha Argerich plays the Chopin Preludes No. 20 in C Minor and No. 4 in E Minor from Opus 28.  The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet play Bach's Fugue.  (Thanks, Mama for playing those Chopin pieces at home all the time.)