Should a trained actress read the voice-over, or should I narrate the script myself? That was the question we needed to answer before recording the oral story in the trailer. A professional like my friend Rose Portillo would certainly give a better reading than I, more polished and more detailed. My untrained voice would exhibit deficiencies in timbre, control, and emotional tone. At the same time, there were advantages to its flaws, strengths in its weaknesses, rooted in the nature of the trailer.
We were not in pursuit of a commercially smooth product starring a glossy persona. Companion to an Untold Story is nonfiction. Though singular in structure, it is factual and based in my personal point of view. Pillai’s orientation in filmmaking is likewise documentary, and while the trailer isn’t a documentary, it borrows a style from lyric films like Bresson’s Pickpocket and Malick’s Tree of Life and applies it to nonfiction. An actress reading the voice-over would push the trailer toward fiction, toward simulation and performance. The flaws in my voice are at least my flaws, and they connect directly to the real struggles presented in the Companion.
So the rationale for hearing my voice on the trailer seemed compelling, and that was the option we chose.
When the filming of visuals was almost complete, it was time to record the narration. On another hot, humid day in a parched summer, Pillai came to the river house for that purpose, bringing with him Drew Seymour, the trailer’s editor, who was to capture bird sounds while Pillai worked with me.
I confess that I dreaded this recording session. My voice—the material instrument and the symbol of self—has a tangled history, which I’ve written about in Girl Rearing. Let’s just say that, early in life, some damage was done to my voice, and that it troubles me. Not all the sounds that birds make are beautiful and pleasing, yet I accept them with a generosity I cannot grant myself.
We recorded the narration at the river house because in that environment my voice would sound more natural than in a studio. The technical results were, I think, good—the spoken words in the trailer are clear and alive. This is so even though sound was the most gremlinized part of the whole project (on that subject, see the coming post on editing). But getting these results required a passage through a crisis caused by old baggage I carried and couldn’t put down.
Pillai positioned me on the low green bench facing the fire ring and the river behind that, with the house at my back. He and Drew set up their equipment, which, as I had discovered in prior visits, takes a long time. Everything has to be just right, and there’s always something missing or not working properly. Improvisations have to be made. The sun was bright, beating down on the white sheets of paper I held before me, bleaching out the words and glaring back at my face. My neck felt hot, and I sweated.
When the equipment was ready, Pillai said, “Imagine you are talking to someone here before you. You are trying to explain to them what happened.” He didn’t want me to be reading a script. He wanted intimacy, as if I were telling an old friend about a disturbing experience.
But, of course, I was reading a script: “The Companion is about the suicide of my friend Joel …” Neither Drew nor Pillai, absorbed in technical tasks, betrayed a reaction to my disturbing experience. No one nodded in understanding or said sympathetically, “I see” or “My, that’s terrible!” I was manufacturing a voice and mood in an artificial situation. I could feel the pulse in my throat, in my face, the strain in my posture and gestures. I hurried ahead, wanting the discomfort to end.
Slow down, pause, Pillai prompted gently. The more he urged me to take it easy, the tighter I got. And that is an old story. Coaxing me to relax makes me strain harder. It’s comical, really, though none of us around the fire ring was laughing.
After several rough efforts, we took a break and marched upstairs to watch the results on the TV in our bedroom.
The person who appeared on screen wasn’t me. She didn’t match my imago, my air-brushed photo. The blasting light and heat hadn’t been flattering, let me say that. My face was slick with perspiration, and my hair stuck to my head like cooked spaghetti thrown against a wall. Every imperfection was magnified. I twitched—my eyes, my lips. I tossed my hands out like fishing line and reeled them back in. Who knew my mouth was so small and that, when uncomfortable, I did little grimaces with it. Could I not open my mouth and speak like a regular person? Not to mention the sound of my voice.
I was not a welcoming presence, gathering listeners round to hear the story of my friend. Too much quivering emotion—too pained and serious, too tortured. No one listening to me would want to read my book!
As the playback continued, I left the bedroom to stand in the hallway. I could still hear my voice, but at least I had escaped my face. Suddenly I returned to the room and in a rather hysterical tone proclaimed, “Under no circumstances should these images work their way into the trailer!” Pillai looked startled by my outburst.
Directors are more than technicians. Directors have to handle the emotional tempests of their performers, and Pillai wisely realized that one way to get control was to fix problems with the script. It was now some seven minutes long, and I had stumbled over passages that looked great on the page but, spoken aloud, were too long or literary. We needed more direct expression, turning back toward the first version of the script.
The four of us, Pillai, Drew, Richard, and I, worked away, trimming passages that were empty, clumsy, or airy: “Joel worked as a substitute teacher in a school district south of San Francisco, riding on the lip of indigence just ahead of flat broke.” The verbal phrase that begins with riding was too ornate. Cut it.
“We did not see the subtext beneath Joel’s extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had.” Subtext was professor talk. Cut the sentence.
“When almost nothing was left in Joel’s apartment, he sent the remainder to me. On November 17, a package arrived.” The precise date in November is, in the Companion, part of a detailed exposition that allows the reader to understand events and actions. In the script it was a fossil. Cut it.
After much more such editing, we went back outside. This time Pillai sat me down in a red chair on the back deck. Here we made several more recordings. I felt dizzy from the heat and stress, but I did better. Do directors sometimes break actors down, doing a scene over and over to get what they want? That was Bresson’s method, I recalled.
The material of the script remained sad and painful. There was no way to make it easier to say or hear, no way to add lightness. I felt exposed—my emotions displayed for everyone to see. My impulse was to pull back, to spare myself.
We took another break, and Richard and I talked about my complicated feelings, the need to express feeling without suffocating under it. “You need to be both personal and impersonal,” Richard suggested. “Like the book.”
Sure. No problem. How much does Meryl Streep charge for a short voice-over?
Back we went to my performance. It was late in the afternoon now and Pillai wanted to record inside to try a different quality of sound. We set up in the dining room, Pillai directly in front of me with his camera.
I realized that the slow pace and the pauses made me sound weary and sad. I had too much time to think. So in the last takes I picked up the pace. I wouldn’t call it brisk, but it was faster and cleaner. I started improvising—dropping certain parts, or just a word here and there. I felt my voice change. I no longer worried about speaking into the microphone. I started to explain myself to a friend.
By the final take we had cut the time of narration roughly in half. I had worked weeks on the script, adding fabric, building the length from two minutes to seven or eight minutes, as if sewing an ornate costume. Then in an afternoon we stripped its sleeves and skirts, and it was much more attractive.
Too short, too long, just right. Like Goldilocks finding a chair that fit her.
Pillai’s first ideas about the trailer and the script were derived from reading Companion to an Untold Story and from our discussions. He hadn’t yet visited my house, which sits above the Red Cedar River—a shallow creek in a summer of drought—within a grove of maples and oaks. Cedar-sided and stained a rustic red, the river house is wide but not deep, its aspect dominated by windows. From inside, in whichever direction you look, you look out on water or woods.
Before visiting the house to check out its possibilities for filming, Pillai had contemplated various scenarios, as I said in a previous post. What he saw at the house changed his thinking and set him on a path that determined the evolution of the trailer. Gone was the idea of filming me driving a car and hitting a boy. In this environment, Pillai was moved by the flow of the river, the experience of light, the sun striking and shifting through the tall trees, the window-framed views. He wrote: “It is inspiring to think of the visuals for our trailer because of the spacious windows and the descending landscape, and the play of light and shadow because of the greenery around, and the stream of water.”
Early in our discussions Pillai had recommended I watch some films by Robert Bresson. I couldn’t bear to see the cruelties done to the donkey—O black beauty!—in Au Hasard Balthazar, but I did watch Pickpocket, about a man driven by a self-destructive compulsion to steal. Bresson builds his story out of images of things: hands, doors, door knobs, the stairs ascending to the man’s room, the movements of a wallet that is spotted, fingered, nabbed, lifted, shifted, hidden, transferred, emptied, dropped, abandoned, dead.
Our trailer would likewise tell its story through views of things. Pillai commented, “The more I think of the narration, the more I think of a minimalist Bressonian style as far as the visuals and the voice-over are concerned—music could be sparse and used for simulating/complimenting affective sound effects, like the occasional chirping of the birds, the sound of the flowing stream or the wind bristling through the leaves, or fluttering of the pages/papers, as you rightly suggested. [In my first version of the script, a breeze ruffles the papers on a desk.] In a Robert Bresson / Terence Malick style we can use the sounds, apart from the main voiceover, minimally so that they are noticed.”
At the time I had no good sense of how such a visual and auditory style would be realized. While I had given up the idea that my script would prescribe what scenes would be filmed, I still had a rather literal notion of transferring an image from page to screen. Words about birds and bottles, I thought, would coordinate with visuals of birds and bottles, an assumption that led to some anxiety on my part. We had discussed filming in a bathroom, for example, since that is the room in which Joel died, but the bathrooms in my house bear no resemblance to the one described in the Companion: “Viewless, bookless, laid with cold linoleum, at once the most ritualistic and impersonal room in the apartment, stripped down to its dull tiles …”
In the process of filming, however, we found—Pillai found—new objects, ones not mentioned in the book, to carry the trailer’s feelings and themes. We weren’t going to rattle and roll a bottle down the hill; there was already a river flowing downward for us. Joel’s cherished roses, an iterated image in the book of love and desire, don’t grow in the filtered sunlight that comes down through the forest around my house. But I had red geraniums, red flower pots, and lots of red food coloring, which Pillai in filming would set in contrast to the cold purity of water running down the sides of my shower and down the drain.
A swing in my backyard that hangs on a single rope from a high branch suggested children to Pillai, for Joel was a teacher, involved in their education and play. Two lawn chairs, drawn next to one another, implied my friendship with Joel but, empty and disused, also expressed his loss and absence. An overturned canoe across the river hinted at capsize and suicide.
I learned an art of visual improvisation from the director, who, able to imagine a scene from the book by mining the materials at hand, was gifted in serendipity, in finding new images to convey the emotional terrain of a book that we couldn’t literally film.
I discovered, when we began shooting, just how flexible and accidental filmmaking can be.