"So much of who people are is expressed in their speech," dialect coach Michael Buster said. The master of many accents lent a Southern inflection to two upcoming movies: Fox Searchlight's "12 Years a Slave" and Cinemax's "Quarry."
Raised in Minnesota, Wisconsin and upstate New York with relatives from Illinois and eastern Kentucky, Buster, 56, grew up hearing what he describes as "that real hillbilly Southern sound and then the Northern sound."
He got involved in drama in high school and studied to be an actor at the Juilliard School and at the Professional Theater Training Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Ear training and speech work were essential parts of his classical theater education, and he studied with dialect legends Edith Skinner and Tim Monich.
Buster acted in regional theaters, earned an MFA and eventually joined the faculty at Boston University, where he taught voice and speech to master's degree students in the theater education program. He also taught at Atlantic Theater Company, founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy, and at the University of Texas at Austin.
It was during his time in Texas that Monich recommended Buster as a dialect coach for Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio for 1998's "The Newton Boys."
Not long after, Buster moved to Los Angeles and started steady work as a dialect coach, working on such films as 2002's "Minority Report," 2005's "Red Eye" and 2009's "Star Trek."
Free samples: If the shooting location is the same as the script's setting, Buster interviews locals to get dialect samples. If not, he Googles it. "Now with the Internet, it's a gold mine," he said. "There are interviews, historical characters, regional churches that put their sermons online, town hall meetings. And then I do an analysis of what the sound changes are and teach it to the actor."
Alphabet soup: Each dialect has its signature sounds. "One of the first things you want to find out is: What's going on with the Rs?" Buster said. "Are they dropping their Rs? Are they rolling their Rs? Is it a real hard R in the root of their tongue, like in west Texas? Or is it just a really light R?" The letter L is also telling. "Americans have what I call a 'lazy L,'" he said. "So in some parts of the South, the L gets dropped. You see people saying 'footba'. I couldn't he'p it.' Irish has a really clear L, really forward. And the Slavic L is really thick."
Southern comfort: As the story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War United States, "12 Years a Slave" called for a variety of Southern accents. "We don't know what slaves sounded like in the 1840s, so I just used rural samples from Mississippi and Louisiana" for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Buster said. "And the same thing for [Michael] Fassbender — rural Louisiana. And then for Benedict [Cumberbatch], I found some real upper-class New Orleanians from the '30s. And then I also worked with Lupita Nyong'o, who's Kenyan but she did her training at Yale. So she really shifted her speech so she could do American speech."
Long-distance relationships: Buster prepped the "Quarry" cast over Skype. "There was one actress in England, and then Stellan Skarsgård was in Sweden," he said. "They were doing Memphis area [accents] — except Stellan's character was not from Memphis, so we were working on a neutral American for him, being as he's Swedish. I would work with Stellan every day before he went to shoot — over Skype."
Spare me the details: Buster can adapt the dialect to the abilities of the actor. "When they're really good, you can give them so many details, and they just snatch it up and incorporate it," he said. "When the actor doesn't quite have the ability, you just don't give them all those details." Instead, Buster will select a few key sound changes to convey the general feel. "That will give it the flavor of the dialect, so it'll still be in the ballpark," he said.
The enemy of the good: At times, the best take isn't the one with the best dialect work. In these cases, the editors can either fix it in post-production or schedule an additional dialogue recording session with the actor. But it doesn't always have to be perfect. As Buster explained, "Sometimes you make the decision: 'The acting and everything was so fine in production. Let's leave it alone.' And the thing is, if the audience is listening to the dialect, we've failed. We want it to be seamless. We want them to be involved in the story."
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