All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

SHIRLEY HENDERSON TALKS ABOUT “TOPSY-TURVY”

Shirley Henderson, the gifted young Scottish actress whom viewers might remember as Gail, the unfortunate girlfriend of Spud (Ewen Bremner) in “Trainspotting,” visited Dallas recently to talk about the experience of working with Mike Leigh on his extraordinary new film about Gilbert and Sullivan, “Topsy-Turvy.” The focus of the conversation was on Leigh’s unique way of building a script through long periods of conversation and improvisation with his selected stars. Actually, as Henderson explained it, “there’s never a script–not ever, even when you start filming. You only know the scenes that you’re involved in. I didn’t know what anybody else was doing” during the shoot, she said.

The process, in fact, was extremely complicated, and even Henderson couldn’t explain precisely how or why it works so well. It began, she said, with an invitation from Leigh to come in to talk with him on the chance that he might offer a part in his next project, neither the title nor the subject of which was known to her. “When you take the job, you don’t know what you’re going to be doing in it. So I just accepted the
job hoping it would be something nice.”

As it turned out, Henderson was offered the role of Leonara Braham, the leading soprano of the D’Oyly Carte company which produced the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the 1880s. And she was immediately put to work in effect creating her character through intensive research.

“I discovered that she was a real lady,” Henderson said. “I didn’t know how you researched someone who really lived–I’d never done that before.” So through books and a search of the census files at the Public Record Office, she learned as much about Braham as she could. The singer turned out to be a young widow with a child, a little boy, and in 1885 at the peak of her career. But she had a drinking problem that almost got her sacked.

In addition to learning as much as possible about the actual Braham, Henderson studied the milieu in which she lived. “You just immerse yourself in things you probably ought to know about”–using novels of the time and works on Victorian life–“so that when you do start to improvise you’ve got all that information at your fingertips,” she explained. Even the formal language of the period “just kind of naturally became part of you. You just kind of immerse yourself in that, and when you start to improvise you pluck up the courage to start
speaking and getting comfortable doing that for a long time before you even start filming, so that it’s just there.”

The actual shoot took twenty weeks, but it wasn’t all devoted to filming. “We would improvise for hours and hours at a time and over days, and then we’d come back and improve until you finally got a 2-minute scene, and then the next day we would film it, and then move on to another scene. Before then we’d been improvising kind of on a one-to-one basis with Mike and getting your character, your personal life going, and then you’re put in with people,” the other actors, actually to improvise out the final scenes together.

Asked whether she found Leigh’s unusual creative approach frightening, Henderson replied, “Not frightening–well, a little bit nerve-wracking, because I felt it was a long journey to try and get that kind of way of speaking and conducting oneself, and then to be able to improvise like
that…. And also the singing!” (All the actors performed their own songs in excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan’s scores, especially “The Mikado.”) “The whole thing was just a lot of hard work. But once you started doing it, it’s great fun, becoming people so different from yourselves.” She added: “You have to take a chance. It’s a very unique way of working, I think. I’ve never done anything like it. And it requires a lot of self-discipline…. I don’t know how he Leigh] creates what he does, because he’s clearly under some kind of schedule and some kind of budget. But he’s letting you,” as an actor, “bring what you can to it.” And on the basis of the raves that “Topsy-Turvy” has received, it’s a process that somehow works.

Henderson will next be seen in a more contemporary light in Michael Winterbottom’s “Wonderland,” which was well received at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year and is expected to be released next fall.

PAUL WALKER ON “THE SKULLS”

In Rob Cohen’s thriller “The Skulls,” Caleb Mandrake is the son of
east-coast privilege and prestige, an initiate into the ultra-secret,
ultra-powerful titular society at an Ivy League university whose father just happens to be the group’s rigorous–and, it turns out, rather maniacal–taskmaster. But Paul Walker, the dynamic young actor who plays him, comes from a very different background.

“I grew up in the Burbank area,” Walker explained during a Dallas
interview. “It was a stereotypical southern California life growing up as a kid–surfing, skateboarding, and all that stuff. I played football and basketball. And I grew up around a bunch of contractors, roofers and painters–my father’s a contractor, and he doesn’t make a whole lot of money.”

Another difference lay in Walker’s friendship with his dad, who has a brief cameo in the picture in his son’s boxing scene. “My father and I are really, really close,” he said. “I think that Caleb more than
anything else just wants to feel unconditional love from his father.
But it’s not like that at all.”

Walker went on: “I think that the character of Caleb wants to be like Luke [the protagonist played by Joshua Jackson, a blue-collar student initiated into the society who eventually challenges the group’s power]. That’s what, basically, I held onto the whole way. You know, everything was handed to Caleb; he never had to work for anything–he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Caleb’s never been allowed to fail, either, because it’s just not acceptable in his family. Luke comes from the poor side of the tracks, and it’s basically through determination, hard work and dedication that he’s made it to this Ivy League school and is being rushed by one of the best secret societies. I think Caleb almost idolizes Luke–everyone likes Luke, he’s a man’s man–but Caleb questions everyone around him and their intentions, whether they like him because of all the money and power that he comes from.”

But if Walker isn’t much like Caleb, he’s not exactly a ringer for the
hard-working, disciplined Luke either. Though he comes from a similar blue-collar background and has a close-knit family, the actor wasn’t exactly ambitious in his early years in the profession. “My parents liked the idea of my someday going to school, so my mother started taking me around to interviews” for commercial spots while he was still very young, Walker explained. He got parts, he said, “but I never really took it seriously,” even after spending over a year in a regular role on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” In fact, he went on something of a binge after leaving the soap, using up his savings and going deeply into debt. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do until an aggressive casting director tracked him down and not only got him a role on “Touched By an Angel,” but persuaded him to work hard on building an acting career.

“Basically it’s been on-the-job training ever since,” Walker said,
smiling. He landed a part in “Pleasantville,” followed by roles in
“Varsity Blues,” “She’s All That” and “Brokedown Palace.”

“I’m definitely into it now,” Walker continued. “Before it was, ‘This
isn’t a real job–I know what a real job is, it’s manual labor, it’s
digging holes all day in the baking sun, it’s calluses and blisters on
your hands.’ But it’s become very real, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Walker’s next picture, due out later this year, is “Squelch,” a thriller directed by John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction,” “Rounders”) in which he co-stars with Leelee Sobieski and Steve Zahn. And he’s scheduled soon to begin shooting “Racer X” with “Skulls” director Rob Cohen–in which he’ll play an cop who goes undercover to infiltrate a street-racing gang and break up a hijacking ring. He’s especially looking forward to the film’s race scenes–he hopes to race cars for real in the future–and to doing more of his own stunts, as he did in “The Skulls.”

Meanwhile, he intends to be off again to Fiji, a favorite vacation spot, for a few weeks in the sun before going back to work.