Presented by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Levi Agee’s Screengems: A chat with Vivian Schilling about Toys in the Attic
September 19, 2012
By Levi “Big Daddy” Agee
Toys in the Attic, which opened in Northwest Arkansas last week and is scheduled to open in central Arkansas Friday, is a whimsical and sometimes tonally dark film by the great Czech stop-motion animator Jiri Barta. The film uses the voices of notable actors Joan Cusack, Forrest Whitaker, Cary Elwes and Fayetteville’s Vivian Schilling, who not only adapted the film’s screenplay for English audiences, but provides the English voice of the main character. I interviewed her via e-mail.
- Can you first tell me how you became involved with the project as a voice actress and in adapting the film?
- Originally, I was simply hired to play the lead role of Buttercup. I was offered the part at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 by Daniel Lesoeur of Eurocine Paris, and the production was set to record the voices in Madrid, Spain. When I saw a screener of the original Czech film … I fell in love with Jiri Barta’s incredible animation and the imaginative world he had created. I not only loved the political analogies of the film, but the glimpse into a Cold War-era attic in Prague. I loved knowing that even during the Cold War there were children in Czech houses playing with many of the same toys American children were playing with — dolls, teddy bears, modeling clay and marionettes. I loved that the film reflects that even under the looming eye of an evil dictator, life continues and creativity and imagination can thrive and even triumph.It wasn’t until I got what I thought would be the … script … I realized that the film had yet to be properly adapted into English. When I voiced my concerns … Lesoeur asked if I would be interested in taking on the adaptation myself. He was familiar with my writing and film work. At first I was reluctant … the original film already had a very loyal following. … The last thing I wanted to be was the American who adapted his film into English without his approval or input. After speaking with Jiri … I accepted the job. …I felt if I didn’t do the adaptation myself there was a possibility it would never get made. As much as I love Europe, I didn’t want to spend a tremendous amount of time there producing and directing the adaptation. That’s when I involved (Fayetteville-based) Hannover House and with their help was able to bring the production to the United States, where I could take on the project closer to home.
- Can you talk about your approach to vocalizing the characters and any inspiration you drew from?
- While I drew inspiration from the original Czech film … and wanted to remain as true to it as possible, the characters began to shift and change — first in the writing of the adaptation and then in the actual re-voicing of the new cast. No two actors will give the same performance, and rather than try to mimic the original performances, I felt it important to let the new actors bring their own interpretation to their roles.In the adaptation, I wanted to keep the original European feel of the film, as well as support its underlying Cold War analogies. The original Czech film features characters that are all Czech with the exception of one Vietnamese character. Somehow, putting American voices with American dialects to the film seemed wrong, as did simply assigning the Czech dialect to the English-speaking voices.After a lot of thought and with the blessing of Jiri Barta, I gave the characters a wider range of nationalities, all European – Czech, Spanish, Polish-Yiddish, British, French and German. Jiri’s only request was that I keep the one character Vietnamese. With the exception of Cary Elwes, who is British, all of the voices in the English adaptation are Americans affecting other nationalities. …
I also had the good fortune of working with an amazing cast. Voice-casting is usually done by audio submissions, so I was able to cast the film from here in Fayetteville, even though the auditions were held in Los Angeles under the guidance of my casting director. I was having a particularly difficult time casting the role of Mrs. Nemechkova, the tired and at times gruff grandmother.
My casting director, Sandy Holt, had submitted some really top auditions for the role of the grandmother but none of them were quite right. It was very frustrating. Finally Sandy submitted the audition of a woman named Eva Braverman, who was absolutely perfect. Only after I approved the hiring of the actress did Sandy tell me that she was actually the voice behind the fictional Braverman. We got a great laugh out of it and Sandy attempted to withdraw herself from the role but I wasn’t about to let her go. She was absolutely perfect for the part and she did a great job with the character. It was amazing to hear what sounded like an old woman coming out of the mouth of a much younger person.
- I imagine doing voice over can be quite an isolating process, being directed in a sound booth, were you able to collaborate at all with any of the other actors or were you mainly on your own for your performances?
- As I needed the latitude of editing each character’s voice individually, the actors were all brought in separately to preserve the integrity of the sound. Naturally the more people you put inside of a sound booth, the higher risk you have of contaminating the sound. The last actors to be recorded had the benefit of playing off of the previously recorded performances. I also offered the option of hearing the original Czech performances leading up to the cued line to be re-voiced. Most of the actors chose to simply have silence before their cue.Voice over work can be very isolating for some performers. It is a completely different experience than film or stage-work and poses a different set of challenges for the actor. In many animated films, actors are recorded first and then the animation is built around their performance. As this was an adaptation of an existing film, the actors not only had to concern themselves with their performance but had to match the sync of the original picture. It can be a little intimidating for some actors, so I tried to make it as comfortable of a process as possible. Some actors preferred that I direct from inside of the sound booth with them, while others were comfortable with me remaining in the control room where I could not only direct them over their headset, but I could hear the line in clarity as it was put against picture by the dialogue recordist. I had a dialect coach present for all of the performances. Some actors preferred she be in the booth with them while others preferred she remain in the control room. It all depended on the actor’s comfort.
1. Were you able to see the completed film before recording your lines? Was there anything from the original concept or story you found to be strange or untranslatable?
2. In casting the name actors it was important for their agents and representatives to see the original Czech film as well as the adaptation script before passing the material on to their clients. I never asked the actors if they watched it, but knew it was available to them if they chose to.
The supporting and bit actors were given scripts but were not given a screener of the Czech version. They saw only the clips that they auditioned against. For some actors, it can be creatively stifling to see someone else performing their role – even if it’s merely hearing the performance in another language. I wanted the actors to bring their own fresh take to the material without the burden of trying to match someone else’s performance.
There were many lines in the original Czech version that were not easy to translate. It was a bit like detective work – trying to get to the original meaning of Jiri Barta’s Napude. Much of it involved watching the scenes in question repeatedly, looking for clues as to what was actually happening. I used a number of translation programs as well as had the benefit of communicating directly with Jiri if I needed to. Even then, there were times when the language barrier was difficult to surmount. In the end, I’m confident I was able to bridge the gap between the original Czech film and the English adaptation —perhaps not in every single line of dialogue, but in the picture as a whole.