کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 53


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Each episode of Breaking Bad was slated to take eight days to shoot. When you’re employing a giant cast and crew and paying for locations by the day, you bleed money, and going over that time allotment is even more costly. Some shows go over their allotment because they’re just starting up and don’t have a routine yet or they’re too loose in scheduling or they’re dealing with setbacks or actor changes or weather issues or the sudden loss of a location. Shit happens.

But the reasons we went over our eight-day allotments on Breaking Bad were almost always story-driven. For instance, in the last season, we shot a complicated, visually powerful sequence in which Walt and his cronies rob a train. That episode took ten days. Shooting the train itself took two or three days. It wasn’t a CGI train or a miniature train we made look big on screen. It was a real-deal behemoth locomotive. Resetting a train takes a lot of time.

TV shows are complicated—so many people involved, so many ways you can veer off course. Even your run-of-the-mill show is a beast. Trying to make a show that does something different, that takes chances, that ups the ante while remaining on schedule and within budget? Good luck trying to do all that and keeping everyone happy.

Scripts are written and shot at breakneck speed with very little room for error. If the people running the show are disorganized or if a member of the cast or crew is uncooperative, everyone’s job becomes impossible. The chaos of Brooklyn South comes to mind.

Breaking Bad could have been the same way given its vast complexity and ambitions. It could have easily been a disaster, logjams and difficulties at every turn. But Vince assembled a masterful team. The organization was phenomenal, meticulous. And in the countless, countless hours of production and preparation that went into manufacturing the sixty-two hours of television that eventually aired, I had issues only a handful of times.

Early in the third season we were doing a scene. My wife, Skyler, had kicked me out of the house, and I was missing my kids, yearning to be with my family again, so I made the decision to move myself back home. When we rehearsed, Skyler entered the house, and instinctively I went to the baby.

The director and writer of that episode said: “No, no, we can’t have you go to the baby.” I was to have direct contact with the baby in subsequent episodes, and they didn’t want to cannibalize the coming story line.

“That may be,” I said. “But it’s not what my character would do. No matter my sins and transgressions, in my heart I loved my children. I had been separated from my baby daughter. I was dying to see her. How could I just pretend she wasn’t there? It wouldn’t be true or honest.”

We talked it over and figured out a workable compromise: just as I am going to the baby, Skyler intercepts me. The desire of my character is still there. Skyler’s desire to keep the baby away from me is upheld. A good solution. And a good example of how the process can work. Not everyone agrees all the time, but if everyone tries to stay true to their character and what’s best for the story, while maintaining patience and respect, a path will emerge.

Some actors come into work and wait to be told what to do. I think of my costar in Barefoot in the Park who needed to be told that she should express affection toward the man with whom she is madly in love. I suppose those actors can do well. But I’m not that kind of actor. I have a finite time on earth. I’m not interested in coasting through it. I want to be invested. An invested actor asks questions that may punch holes in the story or highlight contradictions in a character the writers may not have considered. Asking those questions might mean we have to rethink a beat in the script or redo the blocking. It might mean more work. And that might upset people momentarily. But in the end I’d rather do more work and get it right and give the finished product a richness and resonance that will last.

One day, during season three, we were shooting a scene: Skyler is angry with me and nagging me to sign the divorce papers. I delay and delay. I don’t want a divorce. I am camped out in the baby’s room, and Skyler passes by and picks up my dirty laundry and washes it. Then, she asks me to join the family at the table for dinner. A new development. After that I’m supposed to meekly sign my divorce papers? It didn’t make sense.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t imagine signing these divorce papers. Why would I do that? I’m invited to join the family at the dinner table. My wife did my laundry. If the marriage were really over, would my wife wash my clothes? If she’s separating my colors from my whites and inspecting my dirty socks, isn’t there hope? If there is hope, why would I then choose that moment to finally give up? I’m desperate to save my marriage.”

I told the writers I understood I needed to sign the divorce papers for plot purposes. I wasn’t objecting to signing them on principle—just signing them under those particular conditions. We worked through the problem. The laundry scene was cut. And the writer adjusted the tone at the dinner table so that, yes, I share a meal with my family. But my son, Walt Jr., played by R. J. Mitte, goads Skyler into inviting me there. Skyler doesn’t want me. Yes, I’m in the house, and cordial words are exchanged, but when I look at her I see she’s hardened. I feel her chill. She’s not getting over this. The distance between us now seems unbridgeable.

After those changes I could see waving the white flag. I could imagine signing those papers.

The collaborative process works well when everyone is communicating. That doesn’t always happen.

Another time we shot a scene in my attorney Saul’s office. Skyler has discovered my secret life and she’s meeting Saul (played by Bob Odenkirk) for the first time to discuss the details of the meth empire I’ve built. Skyler has an accounting background, and she rationalizes: Well, I don’t like the fact that this is going on, but if it’s going on, I should be involved; I might even be able to help, make sure all the numbers add up.

Saul is perched on the edge of his desk close to Skyler, who’s wearing a low-cut blouse. Saul hadn’t expected Walter’s wife to be so . . . hot: “Walter never told me how lucky he was.” Then Saul catches himself—these are clients—and goes skulking back to his chair. I see Saul leering at Skyler, and I feel suddenly protective of my wife. Skyler is aware of the situation and gives me a look: I can handle myself.

Working together, the actors and director built this moment. We all felt we’d given the scene as it had been written a little texture while remaining faithful to our characters and the larger plot. We blocked the scene and then went off while the crew began their work.

Unbeknownst to us, as we were working out the scene, the episode’s writer was calling Burbank, calling the writers’ room. Vince decided he didn’t want Saul to be flirtatious or to even come close to Skyler in the blocking. But no one discussed that decision with the actors. When we were summoned to the set to shoot the scene, we were told that the blocking had been changed. No conversation. Just: This is how it’s going to be.

They had usurped our jobs as actors. Extremely disrespectful. I was furious and had to blow off some steam on a walk.

The producers came to my dressing room. “Here’s the problem,” I said. “The writers are making decisions on blocking in a theoretical world eight hundred miles away in California. Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, the actors and directors are charged with taking their words and descriptions sincerely and mounting the scene. We take the theoretical to the practical. That’s the actor’s job. We bring your words into the third dimension. At a certain point, a writer needs to let go. A writer needs to say: ‘I trust the actor to carry the ball forward.’?”

We had built that scene into a true triangulation. Each of our characters had something to react to and there was room for discovery and spontaneity and surprise. We liked it and felt we had created a great and legitimate interpretation of the script as it was written. And if it didn’t work, that’s what reshoots are for.

Had Vince and the writers seen what we had come up with—the fleeting moment that Saul was distracted by Skyler—I honestly believe they would have loved it. But Vince just heard it described secondhand and made a judgment. It also seemed to me that the writers had a basic misunderstanding of our roles. The actor’s job is to interpret the script. Instead of letting us do our jobs, the writer acted like a spy, an adversary. The problem was less about the changes to the scene and more about how they came about.

Ultimately, we actors acquiesced. The scene turned out fine—slightly weaker, to my mind—but fine. Perhaps it seems like splitting hairs, but these small decisions are meaningful. They add up. And aside from the end product, I think it’s important that everyone on a set understands that everyone brings value. In this case, that didn’t happen. I didn’t like it, but I let it go and moved on.

And then it happened again. Hank, my DEA-agent brother-in-law (played by Dean Norris), is in the hospital with gunshot wounds, and the insurance won’t pay for the expensive physical therapy he needs; the doctors are saying he could end up a paraplegic. I’m in the waiting room with Skyler and her sister, Marie, Hank’s wife (played by Betsy Brandt). Skyler says to Marie: “Walt has the money to pay Hank’s medical bills.” For a minute, I think she is going to tell Marie everything. Oh God. A look of panic flashes across my face. But then, to my utter shock and . . . delight, Skyler comes up with an incredibly brilliant and elaborate lie that integrates shards of the truth and explains how we happen to have the tens of thousands of dollars needed to pay for Hank’s treatment.

“Even I myself didn’t understand the impact of Walt’s diagnosis,” Skyler tells Marie with wet eyes. “It wasn’t just that he was facing death. He was faced with the devastating knowledge that he was going to leave nothing behind for his family. Less than nothing. He started gambling, Marie. He was good. He won. He paid for his treatment. We were suddenly rich.”

The writer created a great scene, a powerfully layered emotional triangle. I react to Skyler’s lie first with alarm and then shock and then almost a kind of pride that she would go to this length to cover for me. I see my wife in a new light . . . and I like it. Marie is in teary disbelief, grateful and incredulous that meek, quiet Walter is not only a degenerate gambler but also capable of raking in that much money. Skyler is in tears, too—the last months have been so taxing and stressful for her; even as she constructs this lie, she’s overwhelmed by what she knows to be the truth: her husband has become a drug kingpin. He’s become a stranger. The moment marked a milestone for each of these characters.

At first, Michael Slovis, our director, set it up the way it was described in the script: the three of us lined up in a row on a banquette seat, Skyler in the middle and Marie and Walt on either side. We tried it that way, and as Skyler spoke to Marie, she had to turn her head back and forth between the two of us as if she were watching a tennis match. I couldn’t catch an eye with Skyler to react to the initial shock of her lie or to help her build it as she went along. Marie had to crane around Skyler to look at me. We all agreed it didn’t work as written.

So Michael moved Skyler into a seat across from Marie, and he had me on a chair almost between the two sisters, forming a triangle. Now I could see Skyler tell her tale, and I could shift my eyes to monitor how it was being received, whether Marie was buying the lie, and Marie could easily look at me like, “Gambling?” In my body language and eyes I was able to shrug as if to say, Uh, yeah. Once we changed the seating arrangement, the scene became honest. It became fully realized. Off the actors went to allow the crew to do their work.

Wondering what was taking so long to set up a pre-lit hospital scene, I came back an hour later and our first assistant director was outside. I asked what was holding us up. She made a phone symbol with her hand. “They’re calling Burbank on this?” I said. “How we reblocked the scene?” She nodded.

Goddamn it. That made me angry. I walked into the producer’s office. The group was on the phone with the writers’ room. Our director was in there trying to fight for what we had done. I said: “Is this conversation about the reblocking?” It was. I said to our director: “Michael, do you think it’s the best thing?”

“Yes. Without a doubt.”

“So do all three actors involved. That’s the way we’re going to shoot it. Let’s go. We’ve got work to do.” I was rightly or wrongly usurping control.

Vince was on the phone, understandably a little upset. He said, “If that’s the way you’re going to do it, there’s nothing I can do.”

I said: “Vince, that is the way we’re going to do it, because it’s best for the scene.”

As an actor early in my career I didn’t have the power or the confidence or the clout to emphatically and honestly state my opinion when I disagreed with the way things were going on set. Now I did. And I felt I did the right thing. The whole enterprise is about discovering the best way to tell the story. It’s worth raising hackles on occasion when the integrity of the story is at stake. One disagreement doesn’t affect the essential mutual respect Vince and I had for each other. We smoothed things out later in person. Our spat was not unlike a couple’s argument. Natural. Predictable. Totally solvable.

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