Brokeback Mountain’s Secret Weapon

March 1st, 2006 by Tim Barkow

Penelope Whitney writes about people with unusual jobs, like a cow ob-gyn, for SMITH.

“How do you make an Aussie and a California boy sound so convincingly cowboy that their accents aren’t even noticed?”

Brokeback Mountain dialect coach Joy Ellison has a voice so velvet smooth you want to curl up into it. She also has pretty green eyes and long red hair, and when she switches flawlessly from a Texas to Russian accent it’s hard not to wonder if she really is some kind of James Bond spy.

Then you find out that when preparing for her work on Brokeback she actually hid a microphone up her sleeve. This was in a roughneck bar in Riverton, Wyoming, the kind of place where people are especially sensitive to being taped. “I held my beer up and leaned my elbow on the bar,” she says, “Then I just starting asking questions about the town and what had changed.” By the time she and actress Michelle Williams roadtripped through Wyoming and up to Calgary (where the movie was shot), she’d pinpointed the sounds that would make Brokeback believable.

BrokebackDialectPad.gifTHE IN SOUND FROM WAY OUT WEST:
Dialect coach Joy Ellison’s notes for Brokeback Mountain

The work of a dialect coach includes phonetics, but more than anything it’s about having an ear. “I’ve always been good at picking up languages,” Ellison says. “The major basis of this work is to hear something, recognize it, and analyze it.”

As a child actor in California on shows like Andy Griffith, Ellison grew up on sets — but the acting bug didn’t stick. She found her true calling when she began working as a dialect coach. After her first job, when Isabella Rossellini begged her to stay and help hone her German accent, there was no turning back. Since then, Ellison has helped Melanie Griffith with an Alabama accent, Eric Bana do Israeli, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger pull off Wyoming.

How does someone who’s not from a culture parachute in and capture a precise local dialect? How do you make an Aussie and a California boy sound so convincingly cowboy that their accents aren’t even noticed?

It starts with the writing, says Ellison. “They don’t all walk around saying ‘Can’t swing a cat without hitting a Dairy Queen.’” Once you have a beautiful script like Brokeback Mountain, it comes down to the essence of the sound. “Wyoming has some Canadian dialect influences. They’ll say ‘oh no,’ with that little rounded mouth. Another vowel that really identifies Wyoming is the ‘i’ in pineapple. It’s very slight, say, compared to Texas where they’d say “pineapple upsy-ide down cake’ with a longer stress on that ‘i.’” (See her process, via her hand-written notes, above.)

To work with Gyllenhaal, Ellison sat down with the script and went line by line to break down the major sounds. From there, she’d go back through the script and find those sounds in his dialogue and make lists. “Jake might have a line like, ‘I’m trying to buy the fried eggs.’ So I’d go back and go ‘I try fry,’ take all those words out so he starts to recognize that sound in all its forms.”

Not overdoing the accent is vital to making the voice authentic — Ellison calls it 75 percent of the challenge. “Jake was funny because at the end of the movie he said to me, ‘I know, I know, pull it back.’ “Because,” she shifts to a twangy Texas accent, “he always wanted to go real strong, y’know, TEXAS.”

The two Brokeback actors had wildly different approaches. “Jake is theater trained and analytical, and pulls acting apart intellectually,” says Ellison. “Heath is very seat of the pants, in the moment, his mind is going a million directions all at once. So as an actor it was even a greater stretch for him to play this character.”

Ledger’s speech caused a stir in the dialect coach world due to the way he held his lip, as if he were chewing tobacco. “A lot of the guys that we met and voice samples we had were guys that were chewing,” Ellison explains. “We even talked about him keeping a piece of paper or gum there all the time, and then we thought that would be impractical. It so suited his character to keep that lower lip in that position that cowboys do when they’ve got chew.”

“Other dialect coaches have said, ‘What is that thing that he’s doing, why is he holding his lip like that? That was a weird choice.’ Afterward they thought it worked.”

Joy raves about director Ang Lee’s dedication to detail (”Ang knew the eyeshadow color ladies in Wyoming wore in 1963″). The Taiwanese native was also a quick study of American accents. “A couple of times during the shoot when someone would go way off with their accent, Ang would look at me and say, ‘Joy, was that right?’ He could hear the difference.”

Ellison is deep into her next movie, working with Catherine Zeta Jones on location in New York City. If you find yourself in a downtown bar and a pretty redhead starts asking too many questions, ask what she has up her sleeve. Your accent could be next.