Like many Hollywood hopefuls, dialect coach Francie Brown first went to Los Angeles to act. Unlike most, she ended up actually making a living in the movies, though not in the way she had anticipated.
"I was always interested in accents," she says without a trace of her native Philadelphia inflecting her diction. "I collected dictionaries for years and always liked picking up bits and pieces of other languages. But I never realized there was actually a living to be had in it until a few years after I got into Hollywood."
While she knocked on agents' doors and struggled as a typist to pay her bills, one of her professors from University of California, Irvine's graduate acting program began recommending her around town as a dialect coach.
"My first job, I had 26 Norwegian actors," she recalls. "That was eventually called Shipwrecked here in the States. My job was that all the Norwegian actors had to be intelligible in English. Norwegian is what was spoken on the set, which was a challenge because I'd never been on a set before."
Today, Brown, 48, has been on numerous, including Thelma & Louise, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Almost Famous, Batman Begins, I'm Not There and Gone Baby Gone. Recently, she worked with Welsh-born actor Christian Bale, a master of accents and one of her most frequent pupils, to help give voice to Arizona rancher and Civil War vet Dan Evans for 3:10 to Yuma.
Bale has done many Yankee accents, so it took Brown only about eight hours to coax Evans' rural American sounds from him.
"Yuma was fairly simple," she says. "What we wanted to do was be careful not to allow him to become Southern, because he was a character that was born in Boston and came west. The trap when you're doing a rural or an uneducated person is to fall into a Southern accent, because there are things native to the Southern accent, like dropping 'ings,' that are also native to a rural sound. Particularly for English and Australian actors, it's easy to go Southern, because it's such a musical sound and it's catchy and because so much of the Southern drops 'R' sounds, which are also dropped in English and Australian a lot."
Unlike most actors, who have Brown stay on set to monitor their accents, Bale sends her away as soon as the cameras roll.
"Christian likes to focus on his acting when he's on set, so he wants to get the dialect work under his belt before he starts," she says. "He's particular about his voice as well as his speech. He's very conscious of vocal mannerisms. We'll read through the script, and then I will get samples for him of particular dialects that are useful: people from an appropriate background and education level, males, of course. We do drills with phonetics books [and] one book that I use called Speak With Distinction, which is just this compendium of every sound you could think of in the English language paired with every other sound you could possibly pair it with.
"Then we'll go over the script, and I'll make a word list from the script of which words change and how they change and look at rhythms and patterns of speech and inflection. Then he goes away. I very often will review the finished cut and look for places where there are slips, so that he can ADR [automated dialogue replacement] those slips."
In Brown's business, a good first impression is a shortcut to success. "The first scene should be dead-on," she says. "I don't know if there's any study on this, but I have always found that if you get people right away to accept where you're from and who you are, they kind of put that away. So if you nail the first scene or two, people are more forgiving."
And Brown never goes far without her tape recorder.
"I have hundreds and hundreds of dialect samples that I took years to get," she says. "When you need them in a hurry, you get them wherever you can. If you're on a TV show or a movie and a line comes in and it's in Russian, you go down to your neighborhood Russian restaurant, Russian gift store, whatever it is you have to do. You get a lot of it when you travel, and if you strike up a conversation with somebody who's talkative, you just say, 'Would you mind talking into my tape recorder for 20 minutes or 10 minutes?' I'm always on the phone with consulates and embassies and asking odd questions like: 'How do you say "cheese" in Japanese?' I'm sure I'm in an FBI file somewhere!"
Cristy Lytal writes for the Los Angeles Times.