Hollywood dubbing: The German Bruce Willis and other invisible stars
- 21 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
While the concept of dubbing movies is alien to many British and American cinemagoers, it still remains de rigueur in many parts of Europe. The regular voice artists who dub for the likes of Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise can become stars themselves, writes Ross Davies.
Maybe it's as a cultural consequence of the myriad kung fu films spawned in the 1970s and 1980s, but it's easy for a Briton or American to think of dubbing as a kind of amateurish cottage industry, replete with inaccurate dialogue and risible out-of-synch diction.
Imagine watching a European art house film, for instance, only to have your ears met with the voice of, say, Danny Dyer. For most people it would present a jarring asymmetry. An audio-visual lopsidedness, if you will.
After all, the reason Britons and Americans often watch foreign films - apart from to flex our culture vulture credentials in front of friends and colleagues - is for the exoticism of viewing another culture in action.
Language, in its original context, plays a huge part of that experience.
With Michael Haneke's Amour up for best picture at this weekend's Oscars, it would appear that many of us cinephiles, who happen to list English as our mother tongue, are still more than happy with the standard conduit of subtitles.
Yet, on the continent, the dubbing of foreign films is still very common. And the voice actors, who may "do" one or multiple actors, are recognised as celebrities in their own right.
But just how does one become a dubber?
For the last seven years, Dietmar Wunder has been the official "voice" of Daniel Craig in the revamped James Bond canon. Like many other voice artists, he is a trained actor who inadvertently stumbled into the industry.
"I was actually doing some theatre when a colleague of mine, who happened to be a dubbing director, gave me my first role as stuttering student in Happy Days. Initially, it was pretty challenging but I haven't looked back since."
Wunder's enthusiasm for his profession isn't surprising. It has afforded him a comfortable lifestyle, including a red carpet welcome at last year's German premiere of Skyfall.
He is quick to stress that dubbing is more than just simply reading off a script in a studio.
"You need to really follow the performance of the actor on the screen to remain believable," he says. "That means mimicking his movements so that they become your own. The goal is that the audience thinks that Daniel Craig actually speaks German."
Like Wunder, Luca Biagini was a theatre actor before he entered a dubbing set in Italy which dates back to the days of Mussolini when foreign films had to be re-voiced in Italian.
In the last 30 years, he has dubbed everyone from John Malkovich and Harrison Ford to Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville.
In 2010, he also lent his intonation to the Italian version of The King's Speech, doubling up for Colin Firth's Oscar-winning turn as George VI.
Effecting and synchronising a stutter was particularly challenging, says Biagini.
"It's a role that is close to my heart, but it wasn't easy. The aim was to recreate the voice without the viewer being aware of any synchronisation - a bit like magic or an illusion. Having the guidance of an intelligent director also helped."
The dubbing process is a lot more complex than many would imagine.
The interpretation often requires a cabal of translators, adaptors, actors and a specialist dubbing director. It's a rigorous process, says Italian actress Lisa Genovese.
Currently residing in London, Genovese started out her career as an assistant to director Mario Maldesi, the self-styled doyen of Italian dubbing, notably cherry-picked by Stanley Kubrick to synchronise the dialogue from his 1972 film A Clockwork Orange.
"He was amazing , a maestro , but he could be hard work," she explains. "I remember he once called in this actress to do a very tiny part, but she ended up having to recite her lines twenty times before Mario was satisfied. We all learned so much from him."
While Biagini and Genovese speak romantically of the artistry required to be successful voice actor, Manfred Lehmann is less effusive.
The German "voice" of Bruce Willis for the last 25 years, he doesn't mince his words when asked what he enjoys most about his job.
"I enjoy the money. It pays the bills."
Armed with a sonorous voice that exudes hard-boiled machismo, it's easy to understand why Lehmann has been cast as the vocal accompaniment to a string of action heroes over his career, including Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal, among others.
However, for his home audience, Lehman is inextricably linked to Willis - himself born to a German mother.
When we speak on the phone, he has just finished recording his lines for A Good Day to Die Hard. So, has he ever met his cinematic counterpart?
"About ten years ago," he answers. "I found him to be a pretty nice guy, although we only exchanged pleasantries. I asked him whether he had ever heard my version of him."
And had he?
But dubbers have been known to receive recognition and gratitude.
After winning an Oscar in 1998 for his performance in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams sent his usual German dubbing voice, Peer Augustinski, a note which read: "Thank you for making me famous in Germany."
Biagini has also crossed paths with his matching parts.
"I met Richard Dreyfuss after we had done Mr Holland's Opus and he dubbed me for a joke. I also met Willem Dafoe , who was really gentle and quite reserved. We got on well.
"There was also talk that Hugh Laurie personally selected me as his voice double in House, but I don't know about that - you'll have to ask him."
Not all countries choose rerecording over subtitles.
While ubiquitous in Germany and Italy, as well as Spain and France, in Nordic countries, where good English is widely spoken, dubbing only tends to be found across a few children's television programmes.
The argument against subtitles, according to Lehmann, is that "they are a visual distraction, deflecting attention from the film".
Yet, a recent article published in the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica reported a growing demand among the public for original language films, citing the influence of increased online streaming, television channels with multilingual options and a greater knowledge of English among the younger generation.
However, Genovese is sceptical of a U-turn happening in the near future.
"I am not sure that Italian audiences are ready for films with subtitles," she says. "You have to remember there is a long-standing tradition of dubbing that people are used to. I can't see it being uprooted anytime soon."
"Sure, the audience now has the chance to see a film in its original language, but it is quite elite. The general public still prefers dubbing - for my sake, I hope it does."