Further to previous blogs about preparation and playing spontaneously in the moment rather than rehearsing and planning, I was intrigued to come across a description, by Michael Mann, of shooting the famous coffee shop encounter between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. It is a riveting scene and a masterclass in screen acting. De Niro's elite bank robber and Pacino's cop emotionally circle each other, initially vying for superiority, then cautiously opening up before finding a kind of recognition and nascent friendship, before returning reluctantly to business hostility and the possibility of killing each other.
What's extraordinary is how finely tuned they are to each other: probing and responding to tiny nuances of emotional intent. And yet I had heard a rumour that they were never even on set together at the same time. How could this be when they seemed so totally connected?
The other rumour I’d heard was that much of the dialogue was improvised by the two actors, although at least this rumour had them in the same place at the same time.
But a quotation from Pacino confirms both that the scene was completely scripted and interestingly that “there were no rehearsals. I just met him there."
And Michael Mann describes it thus: “I never wanted them to rehearse. I didn't want to miss a millisecond of Al reacting off Bob". More than this, Mann cross-shot the scene i.e. with two cameras, one on De Niro, the other on Pacino. This is almost unknown in movies because it is incredibly difficult to light, so was a huge commitment by Mann to capturing the interplay between these 2 great actors. And what's in the film is nearly all from the eleventh take. “I knew – we all knew – we’d got it on the ninth, but take eleven had some extra special qualities, little harmonics”
Now, you may not get to do eleven takes and you're very unlikely to find your performance and that of your screen partner filmed simultaneously, other than in soaps or some sitcoms (in which case eleven takes means crisis). But it does offer some pointers. Prepare deeply, rigorously: know your character, know precisely where you are in the story's timeline, know what you want and what the history is with the other characters. Then let it go. Pursue what you (the character) want and commit yourself to reacting spontaneously to what comes at you.
Judging by this quotation from Joaquin Phoenix, it is how this great actor approaches his work:
“I just like to discover things as they go along. I try more and more to be receptive to what's happening in the moment as opposed to creating these ideas and trying to impose them on the shoot. The best feeling is when you don't think you're saying the lines. You think you fucked it up and you've just been talking. And you go, oh, did I get that wrong? And they said no, everything was there.
“I always wanted to be open to finding something that I didn't intend or expect. To get to the place that's beyond the technical side of finding your light or saying the lines in a particular way and being open to your unconscious because I think sometimes it knows better than you
“Any time I try to implement my ideas, it's always bad. It's always fucking bad. And I feel the best stuff is kind of out of my control. I never quite feel responsible for it. And that's the state that I want to be in when I work"