Sitting in rainy Seville, researching for a book on bullfighting (see my blog here), I have been out of the loop on the world of theatre and film until the Prospect office sent me a hilarious recording of Christian Bale’s unfortunate on-set meltdown (which can be heard here at The Times). The rumour is that it was aimed at the director of photography (DP), which is a little unusual given the respect the head of the visual chain-of-command is usually accorded. However, Bale was clearly not himself that day. For a start, he seems to have no idea what accent he is talking in. He begins his swearing with a Glaswegian burr, quickly softens 400 miles further south in central London, then makes the short hop to south London to regain the aggressive edge, before leaping over the Atlantic to standard American. From there he settles into a bizarre and frenetic transatlantic ping-pong between accents. It seems that whatever the DP was up to, it didn’t merely distract Bale from what he was doing, but also from who he was.
Despite the uproar against Bale, one has to understand how tense things get on set, especially if your preferred technique for acting is inside-out (ie in the manner first written about by Konstantin Stanislavski and popularised as the Method by Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio). My favourite story is of Marlon Brando and the director Gillo Pontecorvo, who hated each other so much on the set of the 1969 film Burn! that Brando took up knife-throwing as a hobby, hurling them as close to Pontecorvo as possible, while Pontecorvo in turn stalked the set with a loaded revolver in his belt.
Visiting a fellow actor on the set of a big-budget Hollywood movie, I once witnessed a young director—admittedly an Oscar-winning one—sprint towards his veteran DP who had stopped filming because clouds were covering the sun. The DP, who had worked with everyone from Ridley Scott to Krzysztof Kiéslowski, was then subjected to a tirade which hilariously ended in, “You’re not in f***ing film school now, you motherf***er!” Needless to say, the clouds eventually parted and filming resumed.
In my own limited experience, I have always got on very well with directors and DPs—partly for reasons of self-preservation, partly from a commonality of temperament: these two roles combine science and art in a way which I find fascinating. Other actors can be harder, though…
In one film the lead actress and I were getting on particularly badly when we came to the scene where her character slapped mine. Being very committed, and following the instruction of my film teacher at Stella Adler (Marlon Brando was chairman of the school, which may gave you some idea of the style), I told the director to let her go for it, which she did. On the first take she slapped me so hard she forgot her lines (apparently her hand hurt). On the second the director didn’t like the slap (she was preserving her hand, I think). On the third she gave it so much she overbalanced forward, hitting my jaw with the heel of her hand. On the fourth, the slap was just too loud. When we took a break and reset, the lighting guy took a reading off my skin to discover that under my beard (the one I have in the photo above) my skin tone had darkened by about four shades. It took another five takes. Funnily enough, when I saw a rough cut of the movie the slap seemed oddly unconvincing whereas the kiss towards the end was much more so (a rather poor version of it is here on YouTube as the film awaits distribution). It goes to show, you never can tell.