Monday, November 21, 2011

Seen but not heard

No spoilers ahead!

Ever get the feeling, when watching a movie, that a character doesn't have any dialogue because the filmmakers didn't want to pay the actor more?

It can be distracting.

Got that feeling yesterday, quite distinctly, during a key climactic scene of The Descendants.

See, one of the rules regarding actors in movies/TV/what have you is that the moment they open their mouth, you have to pay them a considerably higher chunk of change for their appearance. You know how I don't like looking things up -- I just did some quick googling but didn't come up with the exact parameters of the rule. In fact, I found one rule that mentions the actor's status changing to that of "day player" after five lines of dialogue. But I know there's also a big difference between zero and one line.

Anyway, I most often notice this phenomenon in television. It often seems to be the "pretty girl syndrome." Let's say, oh, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother has a scene demonstrating his fitness with the ladies. He'll have a beautiful woman on each arm, and they may be in the shot for as long as a minute or two. But you'll never see them open their mouths, because even a throwaway line of dialogue will send those actresses' pay through the roof. Essentially, the show can't afford a "casual" line of dialogue that would contribute to the naturalism of the scene and make their presence seem less awkward. So, the use of these actresses is allowed to be slightly awkward -- and in this case, probably slightly objectifying -- in order to save money.

But why did The Descendants need to save money on Cousin Milo?

To establish what I'm talking about here, I need to give you a brief bit of the plot of The Descendants, though it's not anything that wouldn't be available in any synopsis of the movie. George Clooney plays Matt King, the descendant of Hawaii land barons, who is the trustee on a choice parcel of land that his family could sell in order to make millions for himself and about a dozen cousins. Most of those cousins are played by unknown actors; one is played by Beau Bridges. And one falls somewhere in between, a guy I recognized but couldn't quite place. This guy:

When I first saw him, I thought "Is that Art Garfunkel?" Nope. Too young. I then went on to Willie Aames. Rejected that one too. I determined to wait for the closing credits to see who he was, and I recognized the name right away: Michael Ontkean! As in, the guy who played Sheriff Harry S. Truman on Twin Peaks. He plays Matt's cousin Milo here.

So Cousin Milo appears in one scene at the beginning, in a board room, where there's no dialogue at all because Clooney narrates over it. He then appears, quite prominently, in a scene near the end, and this is where the problem came up.

Matt and Bridges' character, Cousin Hugh, are together at a family meeting -- the family meeting where the family is scheduled to decide on one of several buyers, and Matt, as trustee, is scheduled to sign the paperwork allowing the sale to go through. The two get into an intense discussion stemming from a difference of opinion on what to do with the land. Yet there is a third man at the table: Ontkean's Cousin Milo.

Who just sits there.

That's right, even though he is as directly impacted by the decision as Cousin Hugh, and appears in every reverse shot alongside the arguing Bridges, Ontkean is not permitted to open his mouth.

And because his other possible reactions would seem like overacting -- you know, pantomiming shock and disbelief without saying anything -- Ontkean really does just sit there, this look of mild bemusement on his face. I likely noticed it more because this was a person who has achieved a limited amount of fame, not just some no-name extra off the street. But I think even a no-name extra would have been distracting to me if used like this.

Now, I can't say for sure that this decision was motivated by financial considerations. But if not, it represents some really poor decision-making by director Alexander Payne. If you're going to include this guy in the scene, give him some dialogue, even just a random line or two of protest -- something to indicate his emotional investment in the proceedings. And if he really can't have dialogue, at least direct him in some way so he doesn't just sit there like a bemused bird.

Remember when I said I wouldn't give any spoilers in this post? Well, that includes telling you what I thought about the film, whether I liked it and if so, to what extent. Not enough of you have seen it yet, and I'd like you to go in unbiased.

If you think you know the answer to that question based on the fact that I'm choosing to poke fun at it in this post, well, you shouldn't jump to that conclusion. I never know where the minutia I write about in The Audient will come from -- I just know that once I think of it, I have to express it.

Unlike certain actors, who are obligated to stay mum.


Nick Prigge said...

Clearly Uncle Milo has been subservient to Uncle Hugh for so long he has essentially gone mute in all family matters.

Yes? No?

He ticked off on Beau Bridges on set and Beau went to Payne and said, "No lines for that guy or I'm walkin'."

Vancetastic said...


A) Did you see the movie?

B) Did you notice the same thing during that scene? My wife also noticed it.

C) Did it distract you?

Mike Lippert said...

Haven't seen the movie (but will soon). Could be multiple reasons, but never thought of the idea of paying the actor less. Maybe lines were in the original script that got cut from the final draft? Maybe all the dialogue was left of the cutting room floor because what was there seemed pointless without more time to develop the character? Maybe there's just such a demand to work with Payne that actors will take on roles that have no dialogue? All of the above would be better than maybe he's a hopeless drug addict who can't remember a single line of dialogue. I'm sure it's happened.

Vancetastic said...

Right, Mike, it's hard to know for sure. I leap to the pay issue automatically because I'm fairly cynical about the lengths people will go to to save a buck on a movie. (Actually, you don't have to be cynical -- it's smart not to be profligate when making a movie.) I wouldn't think any dialogue was cut from the scene in question, because it wouldn't paste together otherwise, but he definitely could have had a line that was dropped elsewhere. I'll be curious to read your review when you do see it ...

Deb said...

Too funny! I just saw the movie last night and was also distracted by the fact that Michael Ontkean never said a word. Instead of listening to Beau Bridges I found myself trying to remember if Milo was introduced earlier as mute. I'll give the powers-that-be benefit of the doubt that perhaps Ontkean chose to play the role that way, because nothing else makes sense.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for stopping in, Deb! Now that it has been the better part of a year since this movie came out, I can freely say that this was not nearly the only thing that bothered me about the movie. What many people praised as Payne's best film, I find to be his worst. In a truly well-made film, the distracting Cousin Milo scene is fixed before it even has the chance to distract us.