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To the French, I am Michael Caine

When French movie-goers hear Michael Caine speak, they are listening to the voice of French actor Dominique Paturel

When French movie-goers hear Michael Caine speak, they are listening to the voice of French actor Dominique Paturel. Despite an association going back 40 films, Mr Paturel has met Michael Caine only once; a few weeks ago, when the Oscar-winner was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in Paris.

How did you get started in your acting career?

I came to Paris from Le Havre when I was 20 to go to the Ecole Nationale du Spectacle and did a lot of theatre and then roles in television series, for French TV and internationally.

I did three years at the Théâtre National Populaire with Jean Vilar [actor, director and creator of the Avignon Theatre Festival] and five years with the Renaud-Barrault company [founded by Jean-Louis Barrault, who played the mime Baptiste in Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis] at the Théâtre de France.

I toured the world with them, and acted in a lot of Shakespeare [in French], which I adore.

You went on to dubbing. Have you done more of it than ordinary acting?

No, I did more theatre and television, though I have done a lot of dubbing too. It was just something that happened: one day I was asked to dub Michael Caine in The Ipcress File (1965), one of his first films.

Did you know him then?

Not at all, but straightaway I loved the way he acted. I thought he brought to the cinema a tone and style that were very new. Having dubbed him about 40 times or so, I find he has an extraordinary ability to change characters. I've dubbed him in comedies where he was very funny and quirky, and then in very dramatic ones, like the last one, Harry Brown [which came out in France in January].

So you have been dubbing Caine from the start of your dubbing career?

Almost, though the first person I dubbed was Robert Wagner, in one of his first films, Prince Valiant [1954], who I am also still dubbing. I have dubbed almost all his films and series, perhaps even more than Michael Caine. For example, I dubbed [British actor] Alan Bates and all episodes of the Six Million Dollar Man [L'Homme Qui Valait Trois Milliards - three billion francs] and George Peppard [Hannibal] in The A-Team.

What do you enjoy about dubbing?

It's always a lot of fun. You learn from watching other people act, especially from good British or American actors who are stars. Dubbing is like a game. I used to some have problems, though, as I dubbed Larry Hagman as J.R. in all 350 episodes of Dallas. There were times when I was set to do a Michael Caine film and the French distributors said: "Oh, we can't have J.R.'s voice." It was silly. People are used to hearing a certain voice and want to hear it.

When I've not been able to do one, for whatever reason, if I was filming abroad or I was ill, people were not happy at all; reviewers even complained, "What's it coming to if they are dubbing the dubbers?"

The dubbing actor and the original actor become a couple. It's the same voice for J.R. as, for example, Robert Wagner, but no one gets them confused because the image has the biggest impact; plus the way I act and the lines I'm given. If I'm playing J.R. it's his image and what he's saying that's important.

Before dubbing a star, do you spend time listening to them, to get to know them?

Most of the time, if it's a major film, say Harry Brown or Mankiewicz's Sleuth [1972], that I loved dubbing, they give us a video or DVD and we listen to the original version at home. Then, when we come to do the recording, it's cut up into bits and we listen to the original scene two or three times before we record the French one.

We always listen first, so as to be as close as possible to the same tone, the same spirit, the same humour, to recreate exactly what the actor did, so as not to betray them.

How does the process work?

There's a lot of work before it comes to the studio. There's a translation, a dialogist who adapts the translation into French dialogue, and then what we call the detector, who makes a visual representation of the actor's voice, where it goes up and down, where there are wide mouth openings, or closures, where phrases start and end, and it's on to this that the dialogist fits the dialogue.

It is written on a strip, and at the studio we have the image onscreen, and underneath a strip moving at the same speed as the image, 24 images a second, with a mark on the strip. Each time the text scrolls along, and the phrase hits the mark, if you start speaking at the same moment you are perfectly synchronised with the image.

It needs great concentration: you must be attentive both to the text scrolling and the image, so as to act exactly like the actor. It's a delicate job, but once you have mastered the technique it's quite good fun; it becomes a kind of game. It must be well-synchronised and above all it must also be well-acted, and acted just as the American or British actor acted it.

Have techniques changed over the years?

Very much so. These days, the sound engineers work on computers and the films are on DVDs, not on reels of film. Work routines have speeded up because we no longer have to manipulate the image reel, the sound reel, and the one with the French text. Now, all that is concentrated on the same computer-generated image.

We are forced to go faster and faster; studio time is expensive, so we have a lot less time than before to dub a film. You have to work just as well, but in less time.

Is it done with a specialist dubbing firm?

Yes, there are several in France; many in Paris have certain clients they work for. Especially for American series, a certain house might dub it for years on end.

Do they call on actors they already know?

Yes. The profession has opened up a bit more now: they used to make a lot of use of theatre actors, but now they take a lot of people who specialise in dubbing, but don't do much else. I think it's a shame, because to dub well you need to master the technical requirements but above all you need to know how to act well.

They take more care if it's a major film, but for TV series they can be less careful, which goes for the writing as well. You need good, well-written dialogue for perfect dubbing.

Can you point to dubbing that was especially successful?

Sleuth, which starred Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier, was magnificently dubbed. We took a long time to do it and it was a film director who directed the dubbing and we were congratulated by Mankiewicz, who thought the French version was as good as the original, which was very pleasing.

What about bad dubbing?

There are series where it's been done very fast and the dialogue is not very good. It feels as if it has just been dashed off. It is inadmissible for the synchronisation not to be perfect, but that does happen sometimes.

Some little firms do TV with untalented actors, people who are not actors at all, and some Chinese or Japanese series are a disaster; translated word for word and it comes across as complete gobbledygook.

Are there any Michael Caine films you especially enjoyed doing?

There are so many, but recently there was Flawless [2007], where he played a janitor in a diamond firm, where he decided to steal gems. He was dazzling; funny and at the same time there was suspense. He played a rather pathetic character who thought up an amazing hold-up. No one suspected of being such a mastermind.

He has a distinctive voice and accent; how do you approach that?

The Cockney accent is inimitable; it would be ridiculous to try to find an equivalent, for example, to do it with a strong Parisian accent. It's more a matter of copying his rhythm, his phrasing and above all his humour. It's better to try to be as close as possible to the actor's performance.

When you met him was he how you expected?

He was charming, marvellous. He is an elegant, courteous and very intelligent man; someone exceptional. I think he was very surprised and happy to meet me because he had already heard some of the French versions, but had no idea who dubbed him.

For me it, was a bit of a strange sensation to finally find myself in front of someone who I feel like I've known very well for ever and to think "he talks in my voice"; it's very odd.

Doing J.R. must have been enjoyable, too, when it was so big in the 1980s?

Yes, and I met Larry Hagman three times. I had a lot of fun; it's always funny to play baddies. It's very different from my own personality, so it amused me enormously to play this odious character. I could really lay on the nastiness. The last time I met him he had come to present his memoirs and he dedicated it to me with a phrase I thought was lovely: "Thank you for giving me a sexy voice."

It was very kind. His American voice is quite metallic and nasal, but I think I was a good choice because it sounds even worse if it's nice, gentle voice that saying such horrible things.

Did you enjoy the A-Team?

Hannibal was marvellous, I had a great time, it was very funny and very well-made and it was a huge success in France. People still talk to me about it in the street because it is often on TV.

Does it bother you people don't see your face and you don't get credit in reviews?

No, because when I started dubbing I was already well-known from the theatre and TV, and people can put a face to my voice.

Most English-language films are dubbed rather than subtitled. Why do you think that is?

I think people are not very used to subtitles and don't like having to move their eyes off the image to follow the text. I think people would rather go and see the original [without subtitles], which you can often do in Paris, or see it in French. When a film is shown with subtitles on TV, it doesn't work very well, the subtitles are too small and you can't read them very well. Because most people are not about to go and see the original, I think French versions have a good future.

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