Indiana, PA - Indiana County

IUP grad a dialect coach on Oscar-nominated films

by JAN SHELLENBARGER Special to the Gazette on February 27, 2011 3:00 AM

When you are a Welsh actor who needs to sound like an Irish-American boxer from working class Lowell, Mass., you do what actor Christian Bale of "The Fighter" did -- you call IUP graduate and dialect coach Francie Brown.

When Brown, who grew up in northeast Philadelphia, came to Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1977 and decided to major in journalism, she had no idea what she would do with her degree, since newspaper reporting appealed to her, but so did public relations and advertising.

"Writing was the only thing I did well," Brown says, "other than talking -- and who would have guessed there was a future in that?

"I also had this vision of myself gliding through skyscrapers in 4-inch pumps," she says with a smile. "Somebody ought to do a study on how life goals are influenced by how we dress our Barbie dolls."

Brown worked as a dialect coach on "The Fighter" and "Inception," two films nominated for Best Picture at tonight's Academy Awards.

While at IUP, Brown admired all of her professors, but particularly those in her journalism courses, including David Truby, "who pushed my buttons like crazy because he refused to give me A's until I stopped blathering on, which really got my knickers in a twist, because I came to college convinced that all my many words were pearls," Brown says.

"That probably did more for me than any teacher's ever done."

Brown indicates that Randy Jesick and Bob Russell were also "fine horse-hockey detectors. Their style was a little more encouraging, so I learned to look for my strokes there after David had finished batting me around," she says. "It was a great combination for me, and I learned a lot from all of them."

When Brown got "bit by the acting bug" and decided to minor in theater, she says, "Donald Eisen and Barb Blackledge gave me so much, though I wasn't even a major and they needn't have spent so much time and energy with me. I will always be grateful for that."

After Brown graduated from IUP in 1982, she attended the University of California Irvine, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and learned phonetics, the study of dialects, as well as the physiology of speech and vocal anatomy, which are extremely important in her career as a dialect coach.

Brown, who has worked for 22 years as a dialect coach for more than 80 films, including "Remember the Titans," "Fight Club," "Holes," "The Chamber," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "The Blind Side," says she uses "a library of thousands of samples from various sources," as well as gathering dialect samples through audio files on the Internet or by visiting the settings of the films.

For "The Chamber," which had a mix of Delta accents that crossed several social classes, Brown flew to Mississippi and did a three-day road trip, stopping at police stations, libraries, bars and a prison to record "whoever would agree to speak to me."

When researching for "Remember the Titans," Brown went to Alexandria, Va., where the story took place, and recorded the actual coaches, the players and some local high school students. She would then "take the recordings apart," map out the sound changes on paper for the actors, make word and phrase lists, edit the recordings and get copies to the actors.

Brown says physical films such as the "Titans" are very tough on the actors. "In the period just before shooting, they would work out and rehearse in the mornings, do two full football scrimmages a day, then come limping to me for dialect lessons," she says.

After coaching Academy Award-winner Sandra Bullock for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy in "The Blind Side," Brown earned a career first. While accepting her Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, Bullock publicly thanked Brown. Brown feels that it's a very special thing when anyone is given an award by their peers and she's grateful that Bullock included her in her moment, saying, "It's one of the nicest gifts I've ever received."

For "The Fighter," a biographical drama about professional boxer Micky Ward and his brother Richard Eklund, who helped train Ward, Brown was faced with assisting an actor with not only picking up the Lowell, Mass., dialect, but also in catching the "velocity, cadence patterns and individual ways of producing certain sounds" that were specific to Eklund.

"We were very lucky to have "Dickie" Eklund and his brother Micky around for pre-production, and they were both patient enough to speak with me while I made sound recordings," which Brown then used in coaching star Christian Bale, whom she has worked with for more than eight films for the past 10 years.

"Christian is a gifted dialectician, and when I work with him it's very much a collaboration," Brown says.

Her coaching involves having the actor speak, she listens, makes adjustments or suggestions, he does it again and they continue. Brown says coaching Bale is "a little like having the outsized luck to be Fred Astaire's choreographer. You give him these simple steps and what he does with them is just jaw dropping."

Being able to work with actors and actresses and being employed all over the world may seem glamorous, and Brown says that while it's a privilege to be able to travel on "somebody else's dime," she feels it's a little like being in the Army, saying, "What parts of the world you visit and how you see them are out of your hands." Brown admits that while "It's big-time fun to be able to say, 'So sorry, I can't chair the PTA book drive because I'll be on location in Fiji that month,'" she says that the job can be anything but glamorous.

"You get to throw up over the sides of little boats on your way to work at 4 a.m. on a tiny stretch of beach with no shade and 120-degree temperatures, while desperately trying not to scratch the mosquito bites on your feet because jungle rot makes a nasty infection and the nearest good hospital is in the Philippines," she points out.

Brown has also coached actors while in a coal-burning derelict freighter on the Black Sea "in a country which has not, by the way, heard of OSHA ventilation rules," she says, "and where you wear a paper mask and still cough all day and all night if you've been unfortunate enough to still be on the ship when a storm rolls in and maroons you at sea with 120 people and two ancient, overflowing toilets."

If she's away filming for very long, Brown also misses her family, which consists of her husband, Roger, who owns a boutique visual effects company; their oldest son Rob, a videogame designer; and 9-year-old Nick, who Brown says is unsure about his career plans, although he is currently interested in being an astrophysicist.

Brown admits that one of the disadvantages of doing her job is her tendency to speak in the dialects of whatever film in which she is immersed, sometimes because she is practicing or trying to work something out in her head and sometimes just "because."

"Everybody in my family finds this incredibly annoying," she says with a laugh.

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