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Mario Maldesi
dubbing director and dialogist

Lucignano, Arezzo, February 2007

Question

Let’s talk about the past, the present and the future of dubbing with Mario Maldesi, dubbing director of films which have made cinema history. It would be lengthy to list them here; we’ll mention only “A Clockwork Orange” (“Arancia Meccanica”) (and all the other Kubrick films), “Qualcuno volò sul nido del cuculo” (Someone flew over the cuckoo’s nest), “Il laureato” (The Graduate), “Frankestein junior”...

Answer

“Frankestein Junior” has been the film, according to Fox, which has earned the most in Italy. In fact in Italy it had an enormous success, much more than in France, Spain or Germany and it’s more than likely that its success is strictly linked to the Italian version, as much as to the script and to the interpretation of the actors. And to think that at the beginning no-one believed in it. I saw it in New York at the end of 1964, and everyone was laughing their heads off in the cinema. The sales manager of Fox Italia, however, didn’t even want it to come out: he was convinced that it wouldn’t be appreciated and wouldn’t have earned a penny. And in fact, when I saw it again at the Fox studios in Rome, before the dubbing, I was surprised by the fact that no-one laughed, not one laugh. De Leonardis, perhaps influenced by this ‘depressing’ atmosphere, made a rather dull adaptation, without inventing a thing. In the cutting/control room I rearranged the script a great deal, creating all the gags which had made the film famous, also thanks to the exceptional actors that I had at my availability: Lionello, Bonagura, Spaccesi, Quinterno, Giampalmo, Piaz, all theatre actors, real actors capable of giving so much to their respective roles. “Frankenstein Junior” is the example of the value of dubbing: a perfect film in its screenplay, with a perfect cast, which in Italy earned billions thanks to its dubbed version, which is the one that the fans have memorised.

Question

What has changed today since then?

Answer

I would say that the system has imposed a certain amount of automatism on dubbing which has limited the responsibility of each single professional. It hasn’t been a profit, because in this way all roles have become interchangeable naturally damaging the quality because, where anyone can do anything it’s very difficult that that anything is done properly. Schools of thought vary, but for me, the key to dubbing remains that of its direction; the dubbing director is the real person in charge because he’s the one who creates the cast. The director can plan, talk, discuss, but he’s the one to decide, he has full responsibility. He has to form the orchestra, that is, all the elements which have to verbally recount the film. Furthermore, a good dubbing director, must, when necessary know also when to distance himself from the original work without ever losing sight of it or lacking respect for it.

Question

Now it seems always more difficult to distance oneself from the original, seeing as with DVDs everyone has the possibility of making comparisons. How much does technology condition the artistic choices of those doing the dubbing?

Answer

It’s not important that any difference between the original and the dubbed versions can be verified, it’s not an operation that has to be kept hidden when it’s noticed, simply it has to be justified, motivated with serious and coherent reasons linked to meaning and to possible linguistic clashes.

In general technology cannot and must not ever condition the director in altering the nature of his work. For Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”, my contract with Warner foresaw that I should have seen to the mixing whereas the film had been mixed in London, in my absence. I had to threaten to boycott the screening of the film until we agreed that I would see the film again and would have redone what I was not satisfied with. Just as well I did: when I went to London I noticed that the voices, especially the main female voice, were all distorted. They had manipulated them, distorted them to make them more similar to the original voices. They hadn’t taken into consideration the work done, the interpretation but only the sound levels. A foolish notion. To work at such conditions, without possibility of dialogue, is disheartening and exasperating.

Question

These things never happened before?

Answer

On the contrary. The same thing happened to me nearly twenty years ago, with the dubbing of Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, a memorable dubbing with an exceptional cast: Laura Betti, Giannini, Moriconi, Sbragia. Friedkin wanted to meet us beforehand so Roberto De Leonardis, who would write the dialogues, my assistant Camilla Trinchieri and myself went to London; then, once the dialogues were written, we all left for Los Angeles, to discuss them with him. Another expensive trip for Warner, but at the time, expenses weren’t a problem: the dubbing of a film like that, of a director who was considered a god, was an important thing. In Hollywood we discussed the dialogues line by line with Friedkin and his interpreter. It was something quite comical, a film within a film. The most important discussion was on the coarse language, if it was more incisive to say whore or prostitute, blow jobber or cock sucker. He was very serious, the interpreter had difficulty in following the discussion and so we spent a week, ten days compromising. We returned to Italy with the task of having to choose the voices: «mi raccomando” (I urge you/beseech you) “the best”, mi raccomando, tutte colonne separate (I beseech you, all separate columns) – they were breaking down an open door with me because I already worked that way), «mi raccomando, dolby-cized». At the time, dolby was used in Italy only for music, it was the first time it was being used for cinema. Friedkin wanted me to dub the girl in Los Angeles. I had chosen Laura Betti, who was happy to go to America, where she had never been, but was scared of flying and wanted to go with a doctor friend. I put this to Warner and they accepted. On the mixing the pact was clear: it would have been done in Hollywood but in my presence. Whilst the dubbing went ahead, Friedkin began putting on the pressure to having some rolls of film to prepare it for the mixing, so two reels were sent to him.

In the meantime, Laura had a new crisis on the flying problem, so I convinced Friedkin that I would have registered her column in Rome. She was delighted, her doctor friend a little less. We finished the dubbing and sent off the other reels and a week later Camilla and I went over. The mixing/editing room looked like Cape Canaveral, with a 12 metre console which even made coffee, a wall-to-wall screen, three sound technicians, all very American. They told me that the first reel had already been mixed. I protested that that wasn’t part of the agreement and they answered that it had been done by someone who had won ten Oscars for sound. I didn’t want to make it a question of principle so I agreed to hear it and I realised that the voices were all nasal: they had been distorted to make them seem American. Even then, this was their criteria. An argument ensued and I told them that I would take my name away from the film and in the end they called Friedkin. They listened to my columns and I explained that Italian was like that and that Italians don’t talk as he thinks they do. So they threw everything out, even though they had spent millions.

Question

To solve the problem American companies are receiving a proposal from someone for a program which creates a sample of the voices of two actors who dub all the parts and then transforms them rendering them similar to those of the American actors.

Answer

It would be the end of this work as we know it. The point is to understand what one means by the dubbing of a film. Is it a sub-titled sound? In that case okay but what’s the point of dubbing? On a similar viewpoint, subtitles would not only be sufficient but absolutely preferable. But if by dubbing one means, as it should be, at least according to my school of thought, a retrieval of characters who have told the story in another language, a substantially respectful retrieval of an original film and not a simple voice imitation of the same, then we’re on another planet.

I repeat: the real crisis in our work began when everyone became capable of being directors. Once upon a time, the editing offices of the film world didn’t expect to do everything because the dubbing directors were a guarantee in themselves. Noone has ever told me what I should do. The director might have asked to hear voice tests but he never forced you to accept anything. Some times a director would express a preference for such and such a dubber but if I didn’t agree I convinced him otherwise. The director, rightly so, wanted to be convinced but that’s it. Then the supervisors arrived, all people who at a high cost have only taken away the authority from dubbing directors and dialogists.

Question

Talking of dialogues, the theory that translation is also something automatic which anyone can do, even an American supervisor perhaps with the use of a machine, is becoming more popular.

Answer

If for dialogues one means a literal translation then I would say that it’s useless, it’s a non-existent language. Here the judgement level has also changed, it’s impossible to understand what one is talking about and clamorous mistakes are made. When De Leonardis and I did the “Star Wars” trilogy, we changed some names because the literal translation didn’t work in Italian. For example the robot called R2D2, pronounced Ar-tu-di-tu in English, gave the idea of a nickname, of a toy. In Italian the sound was horrible and didn’t mean a thing. So we abandoned the literal translation and thought of the subject matter: it was a chemical formula so we called it C1P8, which pronounced in Italian gave the same idea. I found out that in neither France nor Spain the original name was maintained; rightly so, they translated the substance, not the form: in Spain they called him Paquito. When years later, the other episodes were dubbed a supervisor arrived and said «qui c’è scritta un’altra cosa» (there’s something else written here), and he changed the name to R2D2, without even considering the fact that by then everyone knew the robot character under another name. And the director didn’t say a word.

Question

Is the responsibility of the supervisors only?

Answer

No. It’s just that there aren’t real directors anymore. Directors who have the competence, the knowledge and the courage to speak out at all costs: if I have to do it then we do it my way. And for these reasons, not because I’m arrogant or mad, I decide the changes with the dialogist, and only with him. The problem is that nowadays there aren’t any real dialogists either: once upon a time there were intelligent people like Jacquier, De Leonardis, who knew what they were doing and you could talk to them. Nowadays it’s improbable that one discusses with someone else the substance and sound of the language, also because often one doesn’t even know who prepares the dialogues. Dialogist and director should be able to establish the guidelines to be followed for the Italian version which has a life of its own and mustn’t be conditioned or hindered by the English original. Nowadays there are DVDs, at the time, they didn’t exist and people didn’t know that, for example, in the original “Star Wars” film, the robot was called R2D2. Now people know but the principle remains the same regardless: I changed it because, in my view, it was better.

Question

So the paradox is, that whilst the law has recognised the status of author to the dialogist, the same dialogist, who before behaved as such, nowadays no longer does so.

Answer

The two main elements of our line of work were the dialogist and the director. The orchestral elements were formed on them who then performed the music. If the dialogist and the director are eliminated there aren’t any reference points any more and it’s clear that it all goes into the hands of the producer, the editing director, or of whoever comes from America. Before, to get as far as director was immensely difficult.

Question

It was an auto-regulated system.

Answer

Once upon a time, actors were part of a cooperative and if the assembly decided to nominate a new director the actors also had to increase. Just like in an army, the colonel doesn’t command three soldiers but a whole regiment, if there are ten actors there can only be one director, not five otherwise it becomes ridiculous.

Question

It becomes an army of colonels.

Answer

That’s right. To become a director you had to have the go-ahead of the assembly, of the board of directors, of the already nominated directors, of the production companies. It was a very severe system, very rigid, but at the same time there was enormous reciprocal respect.

Question

Maybe a way to make dubbing become a healthy profession once again is to train new dubbers to be aware that dignity comes from the construction of an independent system and therefore it cannot suffer impositions. With the “talent” trend, the voice becomes a characteristic element and more important than the direction for a film to be successful. Buena Vista is even doing auditions amongst commercial movie traders.

Answer

Formation/training is the right road to take…..the problem is understanding “who” and how it should be done!

Question

I take it that professionalism isn’t a preferential factor…..…

Answer

Unfortunately that is so.

Question

You’ve worked with directors who were very careful with the dubbing, who recognised the value of your job, for whom you were a collaborator. Now the directors are not only disinterested in dubbing but often from the word go they’re against it. The latest is Lynch, who, presenting his “Inland Empire” in Venice thought well of saying a negative word also on the fact that the film would be dubbed. If you found yourself working on a film of a director who thinks of your job in the same way, how would you react?

Answer

I would simply say that I would never have found myself in such a situation because I deeply respect the different points of view of every director and I would never like to work with a director who wouldn’t be pleased with my work: for a dubbing director, the director’s satisfaction is a fundamental aspect. To answer Lynch…..even if the dubbing of his “A true Story” (“Una storia vera”), which I directed, in my opinion is a great dubbing job…I think a director should always have the freedom to decide on whether or not he wants his film to be dubbed. On the other hand I understand the directors who ideologically refuse dubbing because it’s clear that dubbing is something for industrial and commercial ends and not for artistic ends. Nevertheless, although bearing that in mind, dubbing can acquire a cultural value if done with seriousness, respect, professionalism and passion.

Question

Do you mean to say that the objective of the distributor is surely commercial but the fact that dubbing allows the masses to see a film and have knowledge of it gives it also a cultural value which should interest the director…..

Answer

I wouldn’t say that it should necessarily interest the director but it is certainly a possible value which should be considered by the director…! Many of the directors with whom I have worked were very happy with the Italian versions. Kubrick for example wanted dubbing and he considered it a creative moment of extreme importance.

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