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.
Last fall, after I learned that Companion to an Untold Story was going to be published, I fantasized about making a trailer to accompany its launch. My book, if it is to grow up healthy and strong, will need nurture, care, and feeding in the form of publicity, and much of that effort falls to me as author.
Unfortunately for the book’s prospects, I’m not keen on self-promotion—you’d have to say that I am uncomfortable with putting myself forward. (I tweeted once and then fell silent.) My natural inclination is to disappear and let the book fend for itself like some feral child. But that isn’t the way of the publishing world. There’s an expectation that the author will sell her book, speak for it, push it out onto the rough seas to set sail. And I do want to make my book visible, to let people know about it; I just don’t want to be overly aggressive, a desperate saleswoman popping up everywhere to say, Buy my book! That’s why a book trailer appeals to me: the shy self-promoter can disappear behind a screen. Besides whetting the audience’s appetite, a trailer can be a creative endeavor, a work of art in its own right, related to the book but not the book, and not pure PR. There are even book trailer awards.
Many movie trailers are, judged as creative endeavors, pretty clumsy. They do the wrong sort of magic: we’ve all suffered through previews for movies we’d have to be paid to see. But we’ve also been spurred to see films through artful introductions to them. I’ve watched the trailer for Terence Malick’s Tree of Life on constant replay, even after seeing the whole film. His ability to tell a story visually is unrivaled.
Trailers for movies have been around for a century. A trailer for a book is a relatively new development, appearing when user-generated online video—YouTube, Ifilm, Dailymotion—became popular, around 2005. Now there are sites dedicated to sharing book trailers—Vabbler, Book Trailer Central, Book Screening are some of them.
The first book trailer I watched was for Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now in March 2011. I know Ryan and had read some of the essays in his collection when they were first published; I had published one myself as editor of Fourth Genre. I knew the essay “First” that inspired the trailer, and admire how Tucker Capps, its maker, realizes the essay in a visual form. Ryan, who reads the audio, performs his work very well, and the trailer makes the experience of his voice more widely available. The trailer and book versions of “First” are related works, but distinct, and not in competition with one another. Each has its intimate virtues, and I am glad to have both accounts.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now made quite a splash, and so did the trailer. The Publishers Weekly blog noted, “It’s just a lovely example of how text can interact with film to create something that’s not merely a commercial for the book, but a piece of art in itself.” Long after reading Ryan’s book, I sometimes watch the trailer for its pleasures.
After being introduced to Ryan’s trailer, I became aware of others—some through Facebook writer/friends who were launching works, some through haphazard exploration. What I discovered is a great range of types and styles. Some authors have little role in the making of a trailer. For example, Ryan’s publisher hired Tucker Capps, who wrote the script; Ryan recorded his audio and watched the completed trailer about an hour before it was posted. B. J. Hollars gave his brother a couple of pages from a story in his collection Sightings and told him to have some fun. Brian Hollars enlisted a friend to compose a score. The result is an intriguing work with high production values, complete with original music and live-action footage. Some trailers are perfunctory, a video of the author reading the work, or informational, the author discussing it. Others are idiosyncratic, including one billed as “the longest, most depressing book trailer” that accompanies Kevin Moffett’s terrific short-story collection Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. Kelle Groom’s I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl is introduced to potential readers by a montage of lyrical images with author’s voice-over and original music, interspersed with snippets of reviews and blurbs. Between the two poles of the informational and the unique, there is a range of styles and approaches.
The book trailer, in sum, is an idea whose time has come, given the rise in radio essays, audio essays, video essays, all manner of multimedia artistic forms, and the explosion of social media. Attendance at traditional book signings and readings continues to drop, as people become more glued to their screens. Besides, touring the country isn’t feasible for writers who have full-time jobs and little money. Now it is de rigueur for publishers to hand authors a to-do list: create a website, an author’s page on Amazon, a fan page on Facebook. Trailers are going to be on that list shortly. Because writers now assume more responsibility for promoting their work, they look to a trailer as something they can produce on their own—with help from gifted and generous friends, if they are lucky, as I have been.
In November 2011, I gave a presentation about the Companion—part reading and part talk about the literary landscape of grief, death, and memory. Afterward a film scholar and filmmaker in the Department of English at Michigan State University, Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, approached me. He had been struck by the visual texture of the Companion and likened it to Malick’s Tree of Life, a comparison that startled and pleased me, since he didn’t know of my abiding regard for that director.
Swarnavel E. Pillai is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India, at Pune, the premier film school in Asia. He is an accomplished maker of short films; his award-winning documentaries include Thangam, The Indian National Army, Villue (The Bow), and Quagmire. He received his Ph.D. in film studies from the University of Iowa.
A few months later I attended a showing of Pillai’s documentary Thangam,about a young girl from his village in India, a wonderful coming-of-age portrait. I was drawn to the artistic endeavor of making a trailer and collaborating with an artist in my own department,and I asked Pillai if he’d be interested in working with me, pointing him toward some of the trailers I’ve already mentioned. He read the full manuscript; we talked about what he saw, what I saw, in different filmmakers—Bergman, Bresson, Malick. We discussed what a trailer should achieve. In an email he gave me a sense of his vision, suggesting “a first-person voiceover, which gives glimpses of the events, emotions, spaces, and objects in the memoir in a poetic, dreamlike way, where the images dissolve from each other, evoking the various emotions that often merge but occasionally subsume others and stand out—like mourning and the demands it makes on the passage of time to weaken its hold.”
Then he asked me to write a script. I’ve been a scholar, a poet, and an essayist; I had never written a script. But off I went.
Some words on that experience in my next post in this series.