Tag Archives: Daniel Day Lewis

Inspirations

This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.

Physical

There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.

Speech

What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins

Occupation

What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.

Inspirations

So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.

 

Congratulations….

…to Daniel Day-Lewis on his Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for “Lincoln.” And another round of hearty congratulations for his best actor Oscar nomination!

Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln

Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln

Who are Your Creative Integrity Heroes?

This above all: to thine own self be true,                                             And it must follow, as the night the day,                                             Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

William Shakespeare’s wisdom, expressed in Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, stands as a recipe for integrity.  We find quotes relevant to our lives scattered among his plays – about love, life, power and the abuse of power, betrayal, honesty, humor, fun and trust.  Shakespeare wrote for everyone, not any one specific audience; and I would speculate that he also wrote for himself, the stories that most interested him.  He was true to himself and his creative process, and his words have endured.  Oh, yeah, he also wrote for money!  Well, writers must eat, right?

I’ve been thinking a lot about integrity lately, honesty, truth, inclusiveness and the kind of caring for others that the corporate mindset leaves out of everyday work life.  As a writer, I work hard to create with honesty, to dig into stories for the human truth that will make my work inclusive.  In other words, I work to meet my own high standards of creative integrity.  I do not steal from other writers.  My imagination gives me enough stories to keep me busy for the rest of my life.  For each story, I work hard to remain true to each character’s voice and personality, and to the realities of life, i.e. scientific laws, for example.  When I feel my creative determination and momentum flagging, I turn for inspiration from my hero of creative integrity: actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

Credit: Time Magazine

Credit: Time Magazine

True, I admire and respect other actors, men and women, for their talent and artistic achievements.  I admire and respect other writers, also.  And there are musicians I admire and respect, both composers and performers, for their artistic integrity.  But Day-Lewis and I have a history that goes back to the early 1990’s when I suffered a particularly long and stubborn writer’s block.  Seeing Day-Lewis’ work as Hawkeye/Nathaniel in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, reading about how he prepared for this role, helped me focus as a writer on character as the most important element of my work.  I finally got it.  I would learn much more in the years following, especially about narrative structure from other writers, but for me Day-Lewis’ artistic and creative integrity as an actor was the light that illuminated my path.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye (photo: Morgan Creek Productions)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye (photo: Morgan Creek Productions)

Day-Lewis has portrayed an astonishing range of characters on film.  With each one, he seems to have burrowed his way into the character’s core, his soul, by studying every aspect of the character and his life.  For Hawkeye, he took an outdoor survival course to learn how to live like a Mohawk Indian in the 18th Century.  He learned how to move in a forest, to listen to the sounds, and to track animals and people, to shoot with the kind of rifle used during that time.  He added physical appearance to Hawkeye: lean, tanned, graceful, with long hair, tattoos, and other decorations (I’m certain the hair, make-up and costume departments were also involved, as well as the director).  Then you have Bill “The Butcher” Cutter in Gangs of New York, an arrogant, powerful man, a villain, who Day-Lewis gave a human dimension by the way he moved, talked, and dressed.  I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

As Bill "The Butcher" Cutter

As Bill “The Butcher” Cutter

I anticipate seeing Day-Lewis’ latest creation, President Abraham Lincoln, with excitement and confidence in his creative integrity.  His Lincoln will be not surface recreation of the man, but a full-bodied character whose energy and soul will be consistent with those of that conflicted leader.  I wonder what an actor with such high standards of creative integrity thinks of an American President like Lincoln?  I can’t wait to find out.

As President Abraham Lincoln

As President Abraham Lincoln

My gratitude and appreciation to Daniel Day-Lewis for being the actor he is so that I can look to him as my creative integrity hero.  Who’s your creative integrity hero?

Day Lewis in Ireland

He, Himself

Does Writer’s Block Exist?

In a word, yes. In it’s most extreme form, which I’ve experienced, everything the writer tries to write simply stops after the first few pages. If you foster your creativity, nurture it on a regular basis, however, writer’s block is less likely to be a problem. Ever.

Writer’s block can sneak up on a writer.  It arrives disguised as something else — a physical illness, a family crisis, a car accident — and makes it impossible to even think about writing words down to fill a blank page, much less narrative structure, story, developing characters.  Sometimes, life needs attending first.  Believe it or not, nurturing your life and your experiences will make you a better writer.  A humane writer. 

My experience with bad writer’s block occurred because of a trauma I’d survived.  The physical wounds had healed but not the emotional and psychological wounds.  My mind and heart let me know by not allowing me to write.  The problem was that I could not understand what was happening and was angry about the block.  It was two years — yes, years — before I figured it out.  During that time, I read voraciously.  I kept a journal, writing everyday in as much detail as I could to exercise my writing muscles and keep them limber.  Occasionally, I pulled out a writing project and tried to work on it, with no success.  I also learned patience with myself and my imagination during this time, something that was as difficult for me as feeling that I’d never write again.

How did I finally break the writer’s block?  I watched a movie.  I would also argue that I was ready to write again, and going to the movie, seeing a fine actor create and sustain a character through subtle gestures as well as costume and speech, proved to be the perfect messenger to tell me.  I saw Daniel Day-Lewis play Hawkeye in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.  I had been doubtful Day-Lewis could truly pull it off.  I was as skeptical as a person can be and almost didn’t go, but a good friend persuaded me to give him a chance.

Hawkeye in action (photo: IMDb.com)

From the opening frames, it was clear that Day-Lewis had stepped aside to allow Hawkeye to animate him.  I was amazed.  I ended up seeing the movie five or six times in the theater — the first to get the story, and the following to study Day-Lewis and the other actors.  It was a lesson in creating and developing character.  The thing that still sticks in my mind years later is the way Day-Lewis used his body to convey Hawkeye’s personality — his walk, his hand gestures, his stance — this actor never relaxes. 

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye (photo: Morgan Creek Productions)

Day-Lewis and the other actors sparked thoughts about the characters I had created — how had I defined them in the story?  How did they behave?  Did they have any idiosyncratic gestures?  How did they live in their bodies?  How did speech set each one apart?  I spent months on getting to know my characters, visualizing them, developing their backstories, listening to their voices as I interviewed them.  In the end, it was really this work that broke the writer’s block. 

Hindsight reveals truth.  Looking back much later, I realized the true cause of my bout of writer’s block.  It forced me to re-examine how I approach my life as well as my writing.  I certainly don’t need to be so hard on myself, just on the writing.

I’ve heard that a common cause of writer’s block is a writer’s unreasonably high expectations for himself and his writing, expecting to perform at an award-winning level even in a first draft.  The only cure for such a block is to lower expectations and write, write, write.  Perfection remains impossible to attain, no matter who you are.  Striving for excellence, however, is a noble goal as long as it’s done without taking oneself too seriously. 

So, just keep it human…..