Posts tagged ‘documentary/journalism’

November 5, 2012

Simon Callow on playing real people


“In every one of these [films and plays I was involved in] the author has used the character for his or her own purposes, while staying broadly within the parameters of the truth. In which case one’s primary loyalty is to the play rather than to the person…

[When I played Joe Berke in Mary Barnes] the primary loyalty was still to the event in the theatre…That it had to work in the theatre, otherwise we might as well be reading a book about it, d’you know?

And always, I think, in the theatre, you’re always trying to push towards some kind of archetype, in a character. So you’re not just presenting the man who’s called Joe Berke, as it happens in this, I’m not just presenting the man Joe Berke.

I’m actually presenting the healer who is Joe Berke and the therapeutic process that he’s involved in. Trying to sort of create the essence of that…”

One of the characters I played was a Trades Union official and the way that Joint Stock worked

was that we would go to meet an example of the character that we played.


So my Trades Union official…worked for the …National Union of Mine Workers.  And I spent, you know, two and a half hours with him. And I tape recorded our conversation and then I…sat in front of the group, and they asked me questions in character. And I could only answer from the information that I had acquired from him directly.

And when they’d sort of built up a picture of me, then somebody, it would happen to somebody else, [who] had gone off to meet somebody. Then they’d put me in my character and this other actor and his character together, talking to each other, and so we built it up. But still only using the framework of the facts.

And, of course, the author Barry Keeffe was there all the time and he made notes and sort of…But in the end, of course, his fantasy then took off and so the facts were left quite far behind by then. And you would not at all think that it was a fact based play.


Facts are just information.

I mean we call them facts in the sense of a fact being something which has been proven, but I mean you, you get your stimulation from wherever you can. And personally I…like to spread out my net very, very wide indeed.

And in the end all plays, I think, all plays, all films, fictional films are in the end a sort of a dream. They’re all dreams, they’re sort of dream characters, they’re…They’ve been dreamt by somebody, they’re not ever actually totally naturalistically real, even in what look like extremely naturalistic films. They’re still, they have to have some…They’re, they are poems in a sense.

It’s poetry that we’re dealing with and, whether it’s in verse or not is neither here nor there, it’s, it’s…it’s a sort of…The characters have got to be as much made  up of our unconscious as our conscious, but the difficulty with facts is that they, you know, they’re just the conscious.

But anything that really lives in the theatre has to come from the unconscious.


When I was doing Amadeus…I was stumped, I didn’t know what to do. I was just playing what was written and it…seemed silly, it seemed light and…[sighs]  without substance.

And so then I found a book by Otto Deutsch called  Mozart: A Documentary Biography, and it really contains everything that  anybody ever wrote or said about Mozart in his lifetime.

 And this was, this was my salvation because out of that I pieced together a man who might really have existed. And it was a bit from here and a bit from there and somebody’s memoir, a review of a concert, something  from the archives of the Archbishop of Saltzburg and so on. Bits and pieces that I just put into my stew.


HS: Is there a distinction to be made between impersonation and acting in the factbased work you have done?

SC: Well, of course, it’s very interesting this whole question…Impersonation is a crime, isn’t it? If you impersonate a Chelsea Pensioner until very recently you could have been hanged and  it sort of has a…sort of  overtone of being  suspect, doesn’t it?  Impersonation. Sounds like a sort of cheap trick.

There’s a better word which is ‘personation’.  Becoming a person. But what is implied in your question is that…It’s whether the externals are…Whether there’s a difference between acting which depends on externals, and acting which comes from within, as it were.

Athough, in fact, almost all acting is a combination of the two. But most recently the great American actor Frank Langella played Richard Nixon in a play about Nixon and David Frost, and Frank said, from the beginning, that he wouldn’t impersonate, physically, Nixon. ‘Cos the designers had come along with, you know, rubbery noses and adjusting his hair line, and all the rest of it. He said it was stupid because he never really would look like Nixon. You’d just sort of think, ‘Oh, he’s trying to look like Nixon.’

And…he carried it off triumphantly, you believed that he was Nixon absolutely, and he had nothing by way of make-up whatever [SC emphasis].  So in a sense it was in contradiction of the facts that we have, the visual facts. But he just took right into his brain…

[But] there’s such a thing as a visual fact. If you played Hitler…as a…a tall blonde man, would it be Hitler? You know, I don’t know, maybe it’s…You know, the theatre’s a strange place…the signs, the semiotics of things.”


Verbatim can never be a play because as soon as you start selecting you’re interpreting.

Audience issue – whether they are seeing truth or fiction. If they believe it’s true then stating the facts on stage can be sensational – the actor can be in a position of huge power. But if they don’t entirely recognise it as true then the image may be powerful but it has been received differently than if they were convinced it was true.

October 26, 2012

9/11 on TV: A Visual Essay

An interesting commentary on qualities of the TV footage that shaped peoples’ perceptions of  9/11.

The attack was designed to be telegenic, marked by visual and sonic spectacle. Yet much of the horror unfolded off-screen: inside the planes and buildings, on the ground immediately below the towers, and in desperate phone calls to loved ones and 911 operators.

For more: On suffering and human eloquence: commemorating 9/11, televised U.S. coverage in 2011 by Isabel Pinedo.

July 8, 2012

Anderson Cooper on the personal vs the professional

Anderson Cooper on his decision to come out:

“For my safety and the safety of those I work with, I try to blend in as much as possible, and prefer to stick to my job of telling other people’s stories, and not my own…

Since my early days as a reporter, I have worked hard to accurately and fairly portray gay and lesbian people in the media – and to fairly and accurately portray those who for whatever reason disapprove of them. It is not part of my job to push an agenda, but rather to be relentlessly honest in everything I see, say and do. I’ve never wanted to be any kind of reporter other than a good one, and I do not desire to promote any cause other than the truth.

Being a journalist, traveling to remote places, trying to understand people from all walks of life, telling their stories, has been the greatest joy of my professional career, and I hope to continue doing it for a long time to come.

Anderson Cooper: “The Fact Is, I’m Gay.”  –Andrew Sullivan

June 14, 2012

Guy Talese, The Art of Nonfiction:


When did you realize that you had talent?


Never. All I have is intense curiosity. I have a great deal of interest in other people and, just as importantly, I have the patience to be around them.

About Guy Talese

“Talese occupies the strange position of being both legendary and misunderstood. His innovation was to apply techniques from the craft of fiction to his newspaper and magazine stories, giving them the shape and life of short stories—a style, later referred to as New Journalism, which he originated in his days as a New York Times reporter in the fifties.”

From the Paris Review

June 3, 2012

“Hood Rat”, New Journalism, and what I want to do

I’m always hunting for my voice. For new ways to tell the stories I want to tell.

Recently, found this book “Hood Rat” at the Holborn Library. It’s based on over 100-hours of interviews Guardian journalist Gavin Knight conducted while embedded with anti-gang units in some of the UK’s big cities.

According to the jacket, the story is “researched on the front line and told like a thriller” — written in the present tense, third-person POV, the journalist himself invisible from the story.

There is something here that relates to what I am seeking to do: topical issue, examined systemically, based on interviews. From one review: “In its approach and style, Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat follows the New Journalism that revolutionised the form in the 1960s…His experience crosses two worlds: he does no report simply on the gangs, but also on those entrusted with the powers for bring about justice and change.”

I twigged on New Journalism, not knowing exactly what is was — it’s this: ’60s and 70s journalistic style bringing a literary style to reporting, for example Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

New Journalism reminds me of what I’ve read about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, meant to be an article before it became a non-fiction novel full of James Agee’s lyrical overwrought prose, and other work I’ve read about in Robert Coles’s Doing Documentary Work. 

But my thoughts are still coalescing. It’s enough to say that the research work behind “Hood Rat”, it’s fictionalized style, and ecological aim all resonate with me artistically. There is a curiosity here, and a desire to tell stories about the world as it is (especially stories that newspaper and broadcast media either ignore or are unable to report on because of their more abbreviated form) that appeals to me.

The hunt continues.