Who’s Talking? An Adventure in the French Film Industry

When Did John Wayne Learn Such Fluent French?

September 24, 2014By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update StarsCollageForDubbingArticle
The face is familiar, but I can’t place the voice…

It was quite a day. By lunchtime I had already been in four fights, and had gotten knocked out cold every time. I had been in a concert and a demonstration, worked as a photographer, security guard, chef and hospital orderly, and acted as host at a fancy costume ball that turned into an orgy. No, I wasn’t asleep and dreaming — I was awake and working. In a dubbing studio.

As everyone knows, but as I’m going to explain anyway, there are two ways to adapt a film or TV show for an audience that speaks another language: you can put written subtitles at the bottom of the screen, or you can have local actors re-record all of the dialogue and overdub it on the original soundtrack.

Of course, neither solution is entirely satisfactory. Reading subtitles takes time and draws attention away from the action on the screen. On the positive side, fans of foreign porn films tend to develop excellent speed-reading skills.

And dubbed dialogue, no matter how well-synchronized, looks, well, dubbed: the movements of the actors’ mouths never precisely match the sound. To put it another way, it turns the entire cast into uncannily realistic ventriloquist’s dummies.

Still, if the recording is done by true professionals, i.e., gifted actors with mellifluous voices, lightning reflexes and a deep understanding of their roles, dubbing can be quite effective. And that’s why it’s so important for post-production studios not to hire me.

Unless you count lying to customs officials about how much wine I’m carrying, I have no acting experience whatsoever. And I’m not even that good at lying to customs officials. So what was I doing in that studio?

I had never done dubbing before, but I had done a few non-dramatic voiceovers over the years. For example, I once recorded the off-screen narration for a documentary about the artificial insemination of cows.

It was quite educational. You know that Latin two-handed obscene gesture that’s supposed to symbolize plunging an arm into a thankfully-rarely-seen orifice? In the cattle breeding industry, it’s not an insult. Nor a metaphor.

For another example, Anglophones taking the audio-guided tour of the Rex Theater on Boulevard Poissonnière hear my not-so-mellifluous voice in their headphones. It was that job that led to my so-far-only dubbing session.

The company that handled the Rex project keeps a database of everyone who records for them, and since their software doesn’t have a separate column for “reedy-voiced nerds with more dandruff than theatrical talent,” they list me under “actors.”

Which is where a production assistant found my name one day last month. To be honest, I think I was offered the gig based on three criteria:

1) Independent of my own volition, I have an American accent, which is what the contract called for.

2) They had my phone number.

3) It was August — in other words, I was in town when all the real actors were on vacation.

And I accepted, despite being unqualified and inexperienced, based on three other criteria:

1) It was only “background” work — no extended lines, just crowd noise and isolated short phrases for the extras in the cast.

2) I thought (correctly!) that I could get a “C’est Ironique” out of it.

3) It was, as I think I mentioned, August — in other words, I didn’t have a lot of work, and the pay was good.

The project turned out to be an episode of a television series that I would not otherwise have watched, some kind of semi-science-fiction-action-thriller thing. If I were writing the TV Guide summary, I’d describe it like this:

“A remarkably good-looking man travels all over the world encountering a remarkable lot of remarkably good-looking people and beats the crap out of most of them.”

Sorry to say, that’s about all I can report about the plot. Not because I’m sworn to copyright-related secrecy, but because as a member of the Background Dubbing Team, I only saw about five minutes of the show, and even that was in short, random snippets scattered throughout the whole thing.

Of course, this is also how I read Remembrance of Things Past for World Lit in my sophomore year of college, but that didn’t stop me from going on and on about it in class, hoping to impress the fumante chaude French exchange student who sat next to me. Ah, Monique…

But that’s another story. Back here in reality, I did the job. I confess that I had some trepidation at first, especially because I was working with three other (genuine) actors. But it went all right — in fact, it was fun. The hardest part was the fight scenes, of which, as implied above, there were many.

This was difficult for me because, unless you count merging onto French freeways, I have no fighting experience either. According to what biologists call the “fight or flight response,” I’m definitely a flight guy. The only variable in my reaction to the threat of violence is the exact speed at which I disappear over the horizon.

If the secondary characters in the show were all like me, the TV Guide summary would read: “A remarkably good-looking man travels all over the world encountering a remarkable lot of so-so-looking people, who all run away as soon as he looks at them.”

It would not make for a very exciting concept (Flight Club?), although it might originate a new genre: the “traction movie.”

But putting my instincts aside, I did my best, gasping, ugh-ing and oof-ing in time with the fisticuffs. Or pretty much in time.

My synchronization was far from perfect, which made me glad (and the director even gladder) that it’s easy with digital technology to cut and paste oofs and death rattles into the desired spot in the soundtrack. The sound engineer, on the other hand, probably wanted to punch me.

The rest of the job consisted mostly of cheering and chanting along with the other actors for, respectively, the concert and demonstration scenes, and delivering a few bits of dialogue.

Actually, “dialogue” is an exaggeration. The following is a nearly exhaustive list of the clearly audible lines that I recorded (all in different scenes):

“Over here!”

“Hold it.”


“Let’s go!”

“Good evening.”

Note to Monique, if she ever happens to read this: I think I really brought warmth, feeling and intensity to each syllable. Especially the “kay” in “Okay.”

So sometime in January, when that episode airs, people all over France will settle in for an evening of televised drama, adventure and brutality, and they will hear, from time to time, my voice.

I doubt that my name will appear in the credits (punching bag: David Jaggard). But that’s all right. Just knowing that someone, somewhere out there, is listening to me gasp my guts out will be reward enough.


© 2014 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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