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Shaping the Sound of The Birth of a Nation (Article)

on 28 January 2016.

Update: The film I coached, The Birth of A Nation has won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the Sundance Film Festival 2016. I'm proud to have been at the Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah, for the world premiere of this groundbreaking film.

 

In April of last year, I got a call from a producer on a low budget feature called The Birth of A Nation. I recognized the title, but this was to be a telling of the Nat Turner slave revolt of 1831, written, produced, directed by and starring Nate Parker.  The producer, Preston Holmes, wondered if I had any experience with the accents of slaves in Virginia in the early 1800s. 

The first sound recording was made in 1860, so the time period of the film predated any actual sound records.  I had recently, however, been working with an actor who was, coincidentally, being considered for one of the roles in this film, as well as a role in a television series about the underground railroad.  As part of my research for these projects, I had found recordings and transcripts of oral histories of former slaves in Virginia, from the Southern Oral History Program, the American Slave Narratives and other sources.  Several years ago, I had also helped a client learn to sound like Fountain Hughes, a former slave who’s grandfather had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  That I had experience and audio samples of this kind made an impression on Preston, who said that they were looking for a dialect coach that could prep their cast for their 4-week shoot in Savannah, Georgia.

Most of my practice is now done via Skype:  As people have gotten more accustomed to it, their resist to not being in the same room with me has dropped.  In dialect work, the important actions happen inside the mouth, which neither I nor the client can see very well; but I can hear what they’re doing and direct them to the target sound, using The Vowel Chart.  I also record the audio from the sessions so they can review it later. 

I’ve been hired by productions to coach prepare individual actors using Skype, when they didn’t feel the need to bring a dialect coach to their location, but never to prepare a whole cast this way. I was hired after a phone conversation with producer/director Nate Parker, who let me know that he was seeking accents for the cast that were as historically accurate as possible while maintaining intelligibility for a contemporary audience.  It’s often the case that producers allow a cast to approximate accents, especially Southern accents, so this was a rarity. 

Remote sessions for The Birth of A Nation turned out to be a great fit, partly due to the fact that their production budget didn’t allow them to hire an on-set dialect coach, as well as the willingness of Nate Parker to undertake this slightly unusual approach.

In addition to the resources mention above, I was able to find recordings of older Virginians, both African-American and white, to use as dialect models for The Birth of A Nation.  Recordings of older people are useful, as their accent gives an idea of what they sounded like when younger, since most peoples’ accents don’t change much past early adulthood.  This is another way to get close to the accent of an earlier time, though, of course, it’s not possible to know precisely what people sounded like in the early 1800s.

Several aspects of upper class British accents (sometimes called Received Pronunciation) were used in Southern port cities and plantation culture, including a lack of rhoticity, or lack of an /r/ sound after a vowel sound (pronouncing “mother“ and “father” as “mothuh" and “fathuh”).  This may have been thought a mark of status  or fashion.  We played this aspect of the accent in many of the white and African-American characters in The Birth of A Nation, though some characters use an /r/ sound after a vowel.  We used this to show characters of lower class or those who had roots elsewhere in the country.

Another aspect of my work with the cast was helping Chief Olaiatan learn the Ghanain language naming ceremony that opens the film.  This was accomplished by having a Twi-language speaker read the translated lines which I then isolated to only the audio track.  Chief and I then spent several Skype sessions analyzing what was being said and “transliterating” the text, that is, writing it out using our alphabet symbols in a form that he could easily understand and memorize.  Where sounds were in question, I could use recording software to slow the segments downs we could more accurately hear what was being said.  Chief rose to this very difficult task and does an outstanding job delivering the speech in the film.

I was very excited to receive an invitation to see the premier of the film at Sundance, and sat with other members of the cast, crew and supporters in the first few rows of the Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah.  I had heard positive buzz about the film, but you never really know for certain till you see the film for yourself.  The standing ovation that greeted Nate’s appearance to introduce the film was a hint at the energy and receptivity of the crowd, and this was borne out by the sold-out crowd of 1200 sitting in rapt silence as well as responding audibly to striking parts of the film.  Sobs could be heard during the parts of the film that show the painful treatment the slaves received.

The audience leapt to its feet again at the conclusion of the film, and gave it a well-deserved ovation lasting several minutes.  We were told that there were more cast and crew in attendance for the premiere than at any previous Sundance screening.  Early the next day, it was announced that Fox Searchlight Films had bought the distribution rights for The Birth of A Nation for $17.5 million, shattering the record for Sundance and every other film festival, including Cannes and Toronto.  At the conclusion of the Festival, The Birth of a Nation was announced as winning both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards.  Oscar nominations have been mentioned for Best Picture, for Nate as Best Actor and Director, for Aja Naomi King as Best Supporting Actor and Armie Hammer as Best Supporting Actor. 

As a dialect coach, I always strive to do my best work on every project, and I never know how a piece will turn out and be received.  I suspected something would be different with this film, as Nate would send emails every week of production, thanking the cast and crew for their hard work and encouraging us toward our goal.  This was unprecedented in my experience, and I knew with a leader like Nate Parker at the helm, this production was in good hands.

#TheBirthofANation  #NatTurnerIsComing  #NatTurnerIsHere.

 

 

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My past acting and directing experience uniquely qualifies me as a dialect coach: not only can I guide you in the subtleties of a new accent, I can also help you explore that accent within your character's given circumstances.

I look forward to working with you.

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