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In 'A World,' All Voice-Overs Are Not Created Equal
Originally published on Mon August 19, 2013 5:35 pm
Don LaFontaine had a voice anyone would recognize. As a voice-over artist, he recorded thousands of movie trailers and TV commercials, and became famous for his delivery of the phrase "In a world," which kicked off countless trailers. He died in 2008, but the new comedy In a World ... -- written and directed by actress Lake Bell — tells the story of voice-over artists competing to become the next LaFontaine.
Bell co-stars opposite Fred Melamed, who doesn't just play a voice-over artist — he is one, with any number of ads, trailers and TV-network commercials. He's an actor, too, perhaps best known for his performance as Sy Ableman in the Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man.
Bell, for her part, starred with Meryl Streep in It's Complicated, and co-stars on the Adult Swim comedy series Childrens Hospital. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for In a World ..., which casts her as a veteran voice coach who wants to break into the male-dominated world of voice-overs. One of the men she's competing with is her father, played by Melamed, who's already near the top of the field.
Bell and Melamed joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about the attractions of voice-over work, researching an accent, and the perils of "sexy-baby vocal virus."
On what initially drew them to voice-over work
Bell: "I always wanted to be an actor, [and] I guess it seemed like the ultimate acting to me. You know, the idea of blind voice was very alluring — because in a way you weren't judged by what you looked like, you could be any character and create any characterization. ... It's the only medium where you can be anyone, any social [level], any nationality, any gender, for that matter."
Melamed: "I always felt, frankly, I couldn't stand the way I looked, and voice-over was an opportunity to play anything. ... [Voice-over acting] has always been my waitress job. I got out of drama school in 1981 ... and I've never had to have another job outside of being a performer. ... And it's strictly because I do voice-overs that I was able to tough it out through the periods [when] there was scant work, which is something that happens to all actors."
On how male and female voice-overs are used differently
Bell: "If a man is selling you a car in a voice-over, it's like, 'Buy this car and you'll get to be me.' And if a woman is selling a car via the voice-over, then it's sort of, 'Buy this car and you'll get to be with me.' So it's this interesting dynamic."
On sexy voice trends through the ages
Bell: "The vocal trend that is infecting the female youth in this fine nation is the sexy baby vocal virus. [It's] a huge problem for a myriad of reasons, one being ... is that sexy? Because ... I think [what] is intended is this submissive I'm-a-12-year-old-and-you-can-tell-me-what-to-do [thing], which I think is pretty weird, for that to be considered sexually enticing.
"But I think women of all ages adopted this thing. Whilst, when I was growing up and I first saw Lauren Bacall in a movie and I heard her voice — and Faye Dunaway and Anne Bancroft — I mean, that sounded hot to me. That sounded like something I wanted to aspire to. And I mean, Lauren Bacall is like 19 years old in To Have and Have Not, and she was talking like a Big Girl.
"[The sexy baby vocal virus] originate[d] and then festered from reality television, in some respects. ... I would love to talk to some of the ladies who are on reality-television shows. I have a fantasy of helping them find their true voice."
On researching what a Bulgarian woman educated in England sounds like
Bell: "The first thing I thought was, obviously, I'm going to go to the embassy, because they have a lot of those kinds of people there. So I went out there — 20 years old with a tape recorder, an American to boot — and knocked on the door of the Bulgarian Embassy. I realized that ... perhaps it's not the ideal to dress all in black with a tape recorder and start asking questions in an embassy. You know, you gotta learn. There are growing pains. That didn't play out so great. I had to go to a Bulgarian restaurant, which are really hard to come by."
On Don LaFontaine's larger-than-life personality and work ethic
Melamed: "Don LaFontaine was famous for having a white stretch limo with the letters 'DLF' on the side with a little coronet, and he would run around from one studio to another all day. And this is before cellphones. He had a very expensive ship-to-shore phone, which is a thing that costs many, many thousands of dollars, that barely worked, that he had installed in his stretch limo. And he hooked up a fax machine to it, and while he was riding from, say, Fox to Columbia, he would have the next set of scripts faxed to him so he could rehearse. So by the time he got to the studio he could do it quickly, and he could go to the next studio. So his whole day was spent going from one studio to another. ... But there was nobody who came close to him in terms of the amount of work that he did or the money that he generated."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER)
DON LAFONTAINE: In a world like nothing you've ever imagined...
GROSS: There's a voice everyone knows: Don LaFontaine, the voiceover artist who became famous for the phrase in a world. He recorded thousands of trailers and TV commercials before his death in 2008. The new movie "In a World" is a comedy about voiceover artists competing to become the next Don LaFontaine. My guests are Lake Bell - who wrote, directed and stars in the film - and Fred Melamed, who co-stars. Melamed doesn't just play a voiceover artist. He is one, in addition to being a successful actor.
A little later, we'll hear a great reel he put together of his ads, trailers and TV network announcements. He's also known for his performance in the Coen Brothers movie "A Serious Man." Lake Bell starred with Meryl Streep in "It's Complicated," and co-stars in the Emmy Award-winning comedy series "Children's Hospital," which airs on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Bell won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for "In a World."
She plays Carol, a voice coach who wants to break into the male-dominated world of voiceovers. One of the most successful men in that field is her father, Sam Soto, played by Melamed. He doesn't want her competing against him for work, not that he thinks she'd be talented enough to pose a threat.
Early in the movie, Carol is living with her father because her work as a voice coach isn't paying enough for her to afford her own place. In this scene, they're bickering about his very young girlfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IN A WORLD...")
LAKE BELL: (As Carol) Where is the groupie, anyway? What is she, busy at a smiling convention somewhere?
FRED MELAMED: (As Sam) Jamie is doing reshoots for a Ziploc commercial she got.
BELL: (As Carol) That girl is bad news, Dad. I mean, honestly, she smells like Lifesavers, and she has a Midwestern accent, un-ironically. Moreover, she should be paying us rent. She's here a lot.
MELAMED: (As Sam) Jamie is going to be moving in, sweetheart. You're going to have to find another place to live now.
BELL: (As Carol) What? She's 26.
MELAMED: (As Sam) She's 30.
BELL: (As Carol) That's my age.
MELAMED: (As Sam) You're 31 now.
BELL: (As Carol) OK, barely.
MELAMED: (As Sam) Look, she's an adult. That's the point.
BELL: (As Carol) An adult? She collects rainbow magnets.
MELAMED: (As Sam) She likes me.
BELL: (As Carol) For the wrong reasons.
MELAMED: (As Sam) Well, they're right enough for me.
BELL: (As Carol) I'm appalled, Dad. I'm appalled.
MELAMED: (As Sam) I'm feeling happy for the first time in quite a while.
BELL: (As Carol) You know what? I think this is just a validation thing. I do. I think you should start spinning again. I've been thinking about it, and I think it's good for circulation, and you slept better. Remember?
MELAMED: (As Sam) Carol, I love you, but let me tell you something. You're not going to be able to talk me out of this, OK? Jamie printed me out an article from Yahoo Health. It was all about enabling. And I realized, at that point, I cannot continue to support your emotional handicap.
BELL: (As Carol) I understand.
MELAMED: (As Sam) Let me finish, OK?
BELL: (As Carol) OK.
MELAMED: (As Sam) Sometimes, I - I get the feeling I've done all I could for you, kid. I mean, I've let you share my crash pad with me for years. I shared all my contacts in the biz with you. Listen, if I could break you off a piece of this voice and give it to you, I would. But I can't because that's an impossible conceit. And the truth of the matter is, it probably wouldn't help you, anyway, because let's face it: The industry does not crave a female sound.
BELL: (As Carol) Yeah, Dad, you made me painfully aware of that my whole life. I don't need...
MELAMED: (As Sam) I'm not being sexist. That's just the truth.
BELL: (As Carol) OK.
MELAMED: (As Sam) And this whole voice-cracking problem you've grown into isn't doing you any favors, either. But here's what I'm trying to say, sweetheart, OK? You should stick with the accents. I mean, that's your thing. That's what you're good at. What was that great - that Russian "Star Wars" thing you used to do, as a kid?
BELL: (As Carol) Yeah, I know the one you're talking about. But Dad, can we...
MELAMED: (As Sam) No, no, what was it?
BELL: (As Carol) It was - don't make me do it right now. I don't want to do it right now.
MELAMED: (As Sam) Come on. Please, let me hear it.
BELL: (As Carol) (With Russian accent) These are not the droids you're looking for.
MELAMED: (As Sam) (Laughing) I just love that. It's so random.
GROSS: That's my guests, Lake Bell and Fred Melamed, in a scene from Lake Bell's new movie "In a World." Welcome, both of you, to FRESH AIR. It's just a pleasure to have you here.
MELAMED: Thank you so much.
BELL: Thank you.
GROSS: One of the things I really like about this movie is that, you know, it's about voiceover artists. And Lake, you used to want to be a voiceover artist, and Fred Melamed, in addition to being an actor, you've been a very successful voiceover artist.
So, Lake, let me start with you. Why did you want to be a voiceover artist? I mean, I don't really think that that's an ambition many young people grow up with.
BELL: I think, you know, I always wanted to be an actor, so I guess, you know, it seemed like the ultimate acting to me. It was, you know, the idea of blind voice was very alluring, because in a way, you just weren't judged by what you look like. You could be any character and create any characterization via this tool that is your vocal mechanism.
I love playing characters, and I aspired to be a character actor, even if they are the protagonist of the movie or the story. And I think that was the greatest opportunity to do that, because, I mean, it's the only medium where you can be anyone, any social nouveau, any nationality, any gender, for that matter.
I mean, fun fact, in the movie, I play Gustav Warner - played by Ken Marino - his agent, Siegel(ph), that he's constantly talking on speaker phone, which is a large - a very rotund Jewish man of a certain age.
GROSS: Oh, do the voice. Do the voice.
BELL: Look, I'm not going to talk to you about it, all right?
BELL: But, of course, we pitch-shift it. So...
GROSS: Oh. That's cheating.
BELL: Oh, it is and it isn't. I mean, we have to do it, because then it becomes too discernibly - you know, you wouldn't want anyone to kind of hear that it's me, because I don't want to take anyone out of the movie. So - and also, that's the fun part. You know, it's like...
GROSS: What were the voiceovers that made the biggest impression on you when you were growing up?
BELL: Obviously, cartoons are great. And you'd hear, you know, there would always be like a family friend at a dinner party who would be like, hey, have you ever heard Donald Duck? And, you know, he'd start doing a Donald Duck impression. And I though the manipulation of sound and voice was interesting. It was just - it was just fun.
And I had a good ear when I was a kid. You know, for my parents, I would do accents and mimic people's voices as a thing, you know, to really procrastinate from going to bed. But, you know, it was like, oh, look. There's little Lake. She's going to, you know, do a Ukrainian accent before she goes to bed at four.
MELAMED: It's really interesting. It's a good illustration of how times have changed. I'm older than Lake, obviously. I'm 57. And I was most influenced by voiceovers - you know, forms were different. Commercials, television commercials, where you encounter a lot of voiceover, were typically 30 seconds, and in many instances, 60 seconds, when I was young and impressionable. So you got a huge dose of voiceovers.
Also, I think, like Lake, you have two people affected by their looks somewhat differently, but with the same results. I always felt - frankly, I couldn't stand the way I looked. And voiceover was an opportunity to play anything. Movies, as you well know, as everybody knows, are cast largely based on looks. That's just the way it is. And by not appearing physically, I had a much broader opportunity at things that I could play.
GROSS: Well, describe yourself physically and what kind of type that meant you would likely be playing.
MELAMED: Kind of like the agent character that Lake described a few moments ago.
BELL: What are you talking about, Fred, you look great. All right? We all love you.
MELAMED: No, I mean, I don't mean to be - there are obviously character actors, or what people used to call a character actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind, Paul Giamatti and others who play a wide variety of characters today. It's not quite as limiting as it was in other times. But because I'm big, bald, somewhat Jewish-looking...
MELAMED: That does somewhat, you know, limit the kinds of things that I might be considered for, and especially previously, when I was playing smaller parts. I mean, I remember countless scripts where it would say, you know, Rosenberg is the slovenly mayor's assistant who doesn't want the kids to use the skateboard park, or, you know, Stein is a pompous attorney who is intimidating to everybody.
I would just be thrilled to get a script where it says, you know, this is a man, and that was the extent of the description. That rarely happened.
GROSS: So, like, when you cast Fred in the role of your father in the movie, who is - and he is a very successful voiceover artist, did you know that the actor Fred Melamed was actually a very successful voiceover artist?
BELL: I've got to be honest. I'm embarrassed that I did not know that. But maybe it's a testament to his beautiful vocal sound, because I was wooed by his performance, as many were, in "A Serious Man," playing Sy Ableman. You know, he did have this incredible complexity to be able to illustrate someone who is both tragic and somewhat icky, whilst also being likeable and hilarious, which was perfect for the Sam Soto character.
But then when I sat down with him and shook his hand to say hey, will you come and be in my movie, really old-school style, he revealed to me that he had been a voiceover artist for 20 years. And I kind of wanted to pretend that I knew that, but I didn't, and it was a happy accident.
MELAMED: The truth is, for me, that it's always been sort of - you know, I don't want to talk about it derogating me because it's an important part of my life, but it's always been my waitress job. I got out of drama school in 1981, so - what is that? - 32, almost 33 years. I've never had to have any other job outside being a performer. And I have kids and a family, and all that stuff. And it's strictly because I do voiceovers that I was able to tough it out through the periods where there was scant work, which is something that happens to all actors.
GROSS: You know, Fred Melamed, you have - we asked you if you could send us some of your voiceover work, and you sent us this absolutely incredible reel - a very short reel featuring excerpts of your voiceover work. And I would love for our listeners to hear that. You're OK with that?
MELAMED: Absolutely, thank you.
GROSS: OK, this is really great. So this is my guest Fred Melamed's voiceover reel.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOICEOVER MONTAGE)
MELAMED: From the killing fields of Cambodia to the fields of fire in Kuwait; from the devastation of Oklahoma City to a rebirth of hope in the Middle East; experience CBS News...
...The power and might of Tony Baltazar, the fighting machine of Sammy Fuentes. When the smoke clears, one man will be the new WBA junior welterweight champ...
...Wednesday, the big hurt. He's the big stick in the South Side Batting Brigade. The NFL on CBS, the way it should be...
...Week after week, "Up All Night" has found some way to torture Gilbert Gottfried. Well, tonight, we're proud to say that we are tired of these juvenile antics. Yes, we're finally just going to electrocute the bastard and be done with it...
...Juno lost her little girl...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Your daughter Katie is dead.
MELAMED: Or did she?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I saw her.
MELAMED: Is it really her daughter?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I'm not making this up.
MELAMED: Or a dead ringer? "The Lookalike"...
...From USA Pictures, a time long ago, a place long gone, a first love forever remembered. Jason Robards in Willa Cather's classic "My Antonia."
..MTV, sometimes it can be beyond words...
GROSS: That's my guest Fred Melamed's voiceover reel, for work he's actually done in the voiceover world. He plays a voiceover artist in the new movie called "In a World," which is directed by Lake Bell, who also stars in it; and she's our guest, too. Fred Melamed, I love that reel so much. I've heard it over and over. It just...
MELAMED: Thank you very much. Any openings in Philadelphia there?
GROSS: But you strike like, every tone in that from, you know, like authoritative CBS News to like macho boxing and NFL, to MTV irony, soap opera and drama. You do it all. Just can you talk a little bit about what it was like to start getting those roles? Like what did you do to get your foot in the door?
MELAMED: What happened was I went to Yale Drama School and I trained as an actor, and my intention was to be a kind of serious actor. And pretty soon out of the box I got cast in "Amadeus," the first American company of "Amadeus" on Broadway, and I did a tour with it. And after a certain number of months, I found that I couldn't train my mind on the play, and I began to get terrible stage fright, really serious, bad stage fright.
And I did the play for 14 months, and it took every ounce of discipline and dedication that I had to get through the play, honestly. And I thought, oh, God, this is awful. Here I am an actor, I have this Broadway gig. A lot of my friends that I went to school with would be thrilled to have this, and I can't stand it. I made this horrible mistake: I became an actor.
And at the same time I had an agent that was very big in voiceovers, and I knew people that had - my father was a producer, a television producer, so I knew about the voiceover world. So I went to the agent, I said, listen, I think I'd really like to try doing voiceovers. And he was skeptical. He said, well, listen, they don't want sonorous voices, they want voices that cut through. That's what you need. I said, well, let me try.
So I just tried, and I was very lucky. Right soon, you know, within a couple of months of starting, I got a couple of big accounts. I got Mercedes Benz, and I got Conoco, which is a big oil company. So that was considered a big coup. So I was thrilled that I got these things, but that kind of made it easy for me to not pursue acting, the acting that I had started out doing, with any real dedication.
There were some directors and some casting directors, Woody Allen notably among them, his casting director Juliet Taylor, who liked me and would call and would offer me parts, usually quite small parts, in movies where I wouldn't have to audition. They would just say, well, Woody is doing this film, would you like to do a psychiatrist? It's three days. And I would say, yeah, that'd be great.
So I got to do seven Woody Allen films over the years by doing that and a bunch of other things, but I was still not very enthusiastic about really growing as an actor, and meanwhile was making quite a bit of dough being a voiceover artist.
GROSS: My guests, Fred Melamed and Lake Bell, star in the new film comedy "In a World." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Lake Bell and Fred Melamed, and Lake Bell has written, directed and also stars in the new movie "In a World," and she plays a young woman who wants to be a voiceover artist, and her father is played by Fred Melamed, who is also with us. He was a professional voiceover artist for 20 years, and you may also know him from the movie "A Serious Man," in which he played Sy Ableman.
We heard Fred Melamed's voiceover reel, and Lake Bell, what was your reel like when you moved to L.A. hoping to get voiceover work?
BELL: I mean it didn't sound like that, I can tell you. It was more modest. It had, you know, a spattering of different accents, sort of the new Infinity Q45, you know, that kind of thing and sort of, you know, sexy, sultry and then, you know, authoritative via that sort of sexual prowess, I suppose, which I always find really interesting, that if a man is selling you a car in a voiceover, it's sort of like, you know, buy this car, and you'll get to be me.
And then if a woman is selling you a car via the voiceover, it's sort of buy this car and you'll get to be with me. You know, so it's sort of this interesting dynamic. But I...
GROSS: Do you find it really interesting what is considered a sexy voice?
BELL: Yeah, I mean I - listen, I have a large opinion about this because I do think that, and I address this in the movie, that the vocal trend that is sort of infecting the young female youth in this fine nation that is the sexy baby vocal virus is a huge problem for a myriad of reasons, one being A) is that sexy? Because that's what I think is intended, that it is this sort of submissive, I'm a 12-year-old and you can tell me what to do, which I think is pretty weird for that to be considered sexually enticing.
But I think, you know, women of all ages sort of adopted this thing whilst when I was growing up, and I first saw Lauren Bacall in a movie, and I heard her voice, and then like Faye Dunaway and Anne Bancroft, I mean that sounded hot to me. That sounded like something I wanted to aspire to. And Lauren Bacall was like 19 years old in "To Have or Have Not" or something, but she was talking like a big girl. You know what I mean?
GROSS: They all had power.
BELL: Power, yeah, and they were resonant, you know, weighted.
GROSS: How did you avoid what you call the sexy baby voice or even the kind of up-talk? Because you're of the generation where so many girls developed that voice.
BELL: I honestly feel that I am so vocally self-aware that there is no way that I would have been able to fall victim to that. And mainly I attribute a lot of my work - I went to drama school in England, and you know, that's four years of being absolutely obsessed with your voice, and in fact to the point where I think if you study abroad in another metier, if you will, and you are just living in England, you might all of a sudden say things like brilliant or boot.
But I was the only American at my college, so I became, if anything, more American because I was the token American at my college. So I felt like my R's got even more, and I started to speak like a Brit speaking American. But needless to say, when we did eventually get to the semester where we took on the American dialect, I did nail it.
BELL: That was - I got all A's in that semester.
GROSS: When you think about the sexy baby voice or when you do the sexy baby voice, do you think that the voice is kind of trapped in the throat instead of coming from the chest?
BELL: I think it goes - I think it goes higher than that because you're pitch-shifting, and then you're also, I think you're sort of emanating a little bit of a nasal quality. So when I think about it, it goes even higher, like to the top of my mouth and then also, like, up into my nose a bit. But it's also the affectation and the (unintelligible).
So, you know, I think it's just layers of all of these things. I think it sort of originates and sort of then festered from reality television in some respects. I think vocal trends have been, you know, blossoming at different ages of society, you know, whether it's, you know, the '40s had a certain cadence and musicality to their sort of song of language.
And then I think there are other trends. For instance Marilyn Monroe had a very distinct way of talking. You know, I think that breathy, sexy thing that she did probably was mimicked by, you know, a handful of female ingenues who were trying to be relevant. But because there isn't this, you know, infrastructure of mass media that made it so rampant, I don't think it could spread in the same way that it does now.
You know, if there's one It Girl who has a television show, and then all of a sudden, you know, her voice becomes the pop culture way to speak or whatever it is, then people start adopting because it's everywhere. It's on the Internet, it's on the television, it's on repeat, it's on every channel, it's on talk channels, it's on - you know, it's everywhere.
GROSS: Lake Bell and Fred Melamed will be back in the second half of the show. Their new film is called "In a World." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lake Bell and Fred Melamed. Bell wrote, directed and stars in the new film "In a World," about voiceover artists competing to be the next Don LaFontaine, the guy whose trailers made famous the phrase: In a world.
Bell plays a young woman trying to break into the male-dominated world of voiceover work. Melamed plays her father, who is a successful voiceover artist and sees himself as the heir to LaFontaine. Melamed also co-starred in the Coen Brothers film "A Serious Man." Bell costarred with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in "It's Complicated," and is on the comedy series "Childrens Hospital."
Lake, one of the things that your character does in the movie - because she's also a dialect coach, she works with actresses trying to teach them accents and dialects. And one of the things your character does is go to places and surreptitiously record people that she hears so that she can get their accent and play it back. So for instance, she's in a laundromat kind of like hiding her recording device while a Chinese man is talking to somebody on a cellphone and he's an immigrant who has a fairly strong accent. Is that something that you used to do?
BELL: So, OK. I did, but with great respect. I did carry the tape recorder around. I got the idea initially because I was encouraged from drama school to go out into the field and if I really wanted to master a dialect that I'd have to understand the musicality of that dialect in its own context and its own habitat. So yeah, I really I loved the in-the-field kind of, you know, trenches of it. And so I would, I had a little tape recorder and with, you know, the kind of cassette - not the ones that I had in the movie, which are the little Dictaphones. I father actually still till the state tilts one of those, and that's why put it in the movie because I'm nostalgic for the Dictaphone. But - 'cause those little tapes, I mean they're so silly. But anyway, so I would go out into the field and record people, certainly, in England. And there was one time I remember I went to - I was in "The Pentecost," the play "The Pentecost. And the protagonist that I was playing had a Bulgarian accent, but she was educated in England, so it was highly specified and I had to go into the field and try to find - into the city of London - and find a Bulgarian woman, or man, who was educated in England so he had that - sort of those vowels.
So the first thing I thought was, obviously, I'm going to go to the embassy because they have a lot of those kinds of people there. So I went out there - 20 years old with a tape recorder, an American, you know, to boot - and knocked on the door of the Bulgarian embassy. And I'd realized that, you know, very quickly that perhaps it's not the ideal to dress all in black with a tape recorder and start asking questions in an embassy.
BELL: First time, you know, you gotta learn. There are growing pains. But, anyway, so that didn't play out so great. I had to go to a restaurant, a Bulgarian restaurant, which are really hard to come by, by the way.
GROSS: Well, your new movie is called "In A World" and it's called that because it's about voiceover artists. And the hero of the industry is, was, Don LaFontaine, who's famous for his...
BELL: In a world.
GROSS: Thank you. And, like, how many trailers did he do that started that way?
BELL: Oh boy. Fred, you're going to have to help me with facts.
BELL: Yeah. I mean it's so many.
MELAMED: You know, our business is not famous for being modest or getting, you know, numbers right. It's a lot of hyperbole involved. But there's no question that there were thousands. And he...
GROSS: That he started with in a world?
MELAMED: He claimed to have written the line in a world. He was a...
BELL: He did. He did.
GROSS: Oh, really?
MELAMED: He started out as a copywriter. I don't know if it's...
BELL: Yeah. That's...
MELAMED: ...really so, but he always said that he wrote it.
MELAMED: And somebody didn't show up.
BELL: Which is where I got the idea to do that's how Carol gets into sort of inadvertently gets sort of brought into the A Team because, you know, she was just in the studio when they needed a temp recording. And I got that idea from how Don LaFontaine, how he got his start, which was he was just a copywriter exactly, and actually penned the words in a world, and in a world where, and they threw him in the booth and, you know, a legend was born.
GROSS: You use a little collage of Don LaFontaine in the beginning of your movie, so I thought we could hear that...
GROSS: ...so that everybody can reacquaint themselves with his memorable voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IN A WORLD")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LAFONTAINE: In a world like nothing you've ever imagined, without a single unified voice, humanity has been left searching for answers to the unknown. Now, one man has the power to change that. One man. Me.
GROSS: So was it like in the movie where everybody in the industry wanted to, like, be him and get the gigs that he had but, you know, but he was the king and you couldn't...
GROSS: You couldn't get those gigs?
MELAMED: It was absolutely sealed up.
MELAMED: In the days before cellphones and before home studios, these home studios - like the home studio from which I'm speaking to you now - are ubiquitous.
GROSS: Your home studio. Yes.
MELAMED: My home studio that I work out of. But before those things existed, people who did voiceovers used to have to schlep around to various studios. And in L.A., as everybody knows, things are very far spread out. So Don LaFontaine was famous for having a white stretch limo with the letters DLF on the side with a little coronet.
MELAMED: And he would run around from one studio to another all day. And this is before cellphones. He had a very expensive ship to shore phone, which is a thing that costs many, many thousands of dollars that barely worked that he had installed in his stretch limo. And he hooked up a fax machine to it and while he was riding from, say, Fox to Columbia, he would have been next set of scripts faxed to him so that he could sort of rehearse, so by the time he got to the studio they could just do it quickly and then he could go to the next studio. So his whole day was spent going from one studio to another in his car. There was nobody who came close to him in terms of the amount of work that he did or the money that he generated. A lot of people were secretly - and sometimes not so secretly - jealous of him and said, well, all he can do was a thunderous voice, that's all he does, you know, talked him down somewhat out of jealousy.
BELL: That's crazy.
GROSS: My guests are Fred Melamed and Lake Bell. They star in the new film "In A World."
More after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Fred Melamed and Lake Bell. And they both star in the new movie "In A World," which is about voiceover artists in LA. Lake Bell also wrote and directed the film.
Because it's about voiceover artists, there's a lot of competition in the movie between different people competing for the same trailer voiceover work. And I thought I would play an example of the three people competing for this trailer. And so we're going to hear Lake Bell, Fred Melamed and Ken Marino. Three different characters doing a voiceover trailer for - Lake, you describe what the trailer is for.
BELL: So this trailer is for an epic quadtrilogy - because trilogy wasn't enough. That's coming down the pike in the industry. It sort of akin to "The Hunger Games" or sort of between chick-lit kind of stuff but it's basically an epic female warrior movie. And in the movie all three characters sort of end up vying for it, via this uber serious voiceover competition battle.
GROSS: OK, here is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IN A WORLD")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BELL: (As Carol) In a world...
MELAMED: (As Sam) Where a hybrid breed of mutant male samatees.
KEN MARINO: (As Gustav) Are feeding on the barren lands of Mother Earth.
BELL: (As Carol) A time where mankind has been replaced by womankind.
MELAMED: (As Sam) A battle of epic strength will collapse a barbaric enemy.
BELL: (As Carol) One woman...
MARINO: (As Gustav) Dare to rise up and exceed the boundaries of the impossible.
MELAMED: (As Sam) From the literary phenomenon that inspired a generation.
MARINO: (As Gustav) Comes a quadrilogy...
BELL: (As Carol) Of one brave warrior who must fight for her land.
MARINO: (As Gustav) From BAFTA-winning director...
MELAMED: (As Sam) Terence Bouncer, "The Amazon Games."
BELL: (As Carol) It's a broad new world.
GROSS: I love it. Man, that's Lake Bell, Fred Melamed and Ken Marino in a kind of collage of your auditions for this trailer in the new movie "In A World." And Lake, did you write that?
BELL: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Every line is a perfect cliche.
BELL: Yes. Thank you. I appreciate that.
GROSS: Yes. Intentionally or not.
BELL: It is possibly the most fun to write all of the fake trailers that I had in the movie. So I'm really proud of that one. It really, it was a good laugh.
GROSS: So, Fred, of all the voiceovers that you did, which were like the ads or the trailers that people actually recognized your voice from?
MELAMED: When I do them the way that I did then, they're often recognized but they wouldn't recognize me as I'm talking in my normal voice. If I say, for example - I don't want to overload the microphone here because I'm very close to it, but if I say: the NFL on CBS.
MELAMED: Or let's see: Mercedes-Benz, engineered like no other car in the world.
GROSS: So Fred, are you saying that unless you go into a public place and say something about Mercedes or the NFL that no one recognizes your voice?
MELAMED: Generally that's true, yeah, people don't. I mean if I said, you know: I'll have a diet Coke then people might.
MELAMED: But there is a degree of artifice in it. It's not exactly what I sound like.
BELL: They'd say, wait a minute. You're the Mercedes...
GROSS: Did you train your voice to get that kind of very like elegant diction that you have?
MELAMED: That's just sheer pomposity. Just an accident.
MELAMED: I didn't mean it. It just happened that way.
GROSS: Speaking of pomposity, I want to play a scene from "A Serious Man." And this is actually the first time I saw you and I knew that was you because it was such a great role, I had to find out more about you. This is a Coen Brothers movie from a few years ago. And you play somebody named Sy Ableman. And you present yourself as a new man - very sensitive, very touchy-feely, but really you're a total narcissist, completely self-absorbed. You've been having an affair with the main character's wife. The main character, Larry, is played by Michael Stuhlbarg. And you Sy, have already told them that you and his wife have been having an affair. And you and his wife had asked him to meet them at it's a diner or a deli.
GROSS: Embers. And so this is the scene where the three of you are meeting - a very tense scene. And you're acting - you're not only giving him the bad news that, like, basically, his marriage is over, but you're trying to console him...
GROSS: ...after having stolen his wife. So here's the scene, and you speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A SERIOUS MAN")
MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) Larry, I want to thank you for coming. It's so important we be able to discuss these things.
MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Larry) I'm happy to come to Embers, Sy. But I'm thinking, really, maybe it's best to leave these discussions to the lawyers.
MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) Of course. Legal matters, you let the lawyers discuss. You don't mix apples and oranges.
SARI LENNICK: (As Judith) I have begged you to see the lawyer.
STUHLBARG: (As Larry) I told you I'm going Monday.
MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) Monday is timely. This is not - please, Embers is not the forum for legalities. You're so right. No, Judith and I wanted merely to discuss - practicalities. Living arrangements. After all, this is an issue where no one is at odds.
STUHLBARG: (As Larry) Living arrangements?
MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) I think we all agree that the children, not being contaminated with the tension, the most important.
LENNICK: (As Judith) We shouldn't put the kids in the middle of this, Larry.
STUHLBARG: (As Larry) The kids aren't...
LENNICK: (As Judith) I'm saying we. I'm not pointing fingers.
MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) No one is playing the blame game, Larry.
STUHLBARG: (As Larry) I didn't say anyone was.
LENNICK: (As Judith) Well, let's not play he said, she said, either.
STUHLBARG: (As Larry) I wasn't.
MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) All right. Look, look, look. Let's just take a step back and we can diffuse the situation. You know, Larry, sometimes I find that if I count to 10 - one, two, three, four...
GROSS: What a great scene.
GROSS: So great.
MELAMED: Thank you.
GROSS: I think it's so great that somebody who is a big of a jerk as that character is should exude such self-confidence.
BELL: Totally, it's so great.
GROSS: That's one of the things I love about the portrayal. You know, in listening back to it, having heard you do all of like so many of your voiceover roles during our interview, I'm thinking like you have some of that quality that you're bringing to that character. It's not really your voice, it's part of that trailer voice that you're using.
MELAMED: Yeah. I think there's truth to that. I think, you know, I'm trying in a sense to hypnotize, to seduce. So I think that's accurate in a way. I'm interested in playing characters that are kind of extreme. I find them interesting as people, but whose extremity is grounded in humanity - that they have to - they can't just be, you know, artificially extreme. I like people that are extreme but you see their human roots. That's what interests me as an actor.
GROSS: And Lake, you cast Fred Melamed in part because of his role in "A Serious Man"? What did you see in that performance that you wanted in your movie "In A World"?
BELL: I mean, Fred is a master at making someone utterly likeable whilst being despicable. And, you know, just to mirror kind of, or piggyback, what you said, I think it's, you know, so clearly a defined character but also so beautifully icky and specific. And I think, you know, Sam Soto has...
GROSS: That's the character in the movie. Yeah.
BELL: Sam Soto, yeah, who Fred plays in my film, you know, has unsavory qualities insomuch as he is the father that cannot quite support the success of his own daughter and finds himself in a full on competition or put - actually injects himself into a competition with his own daughter. So, I mean, that in itself, you know, you're not going to win Dad of the Year with that conceit to begin with.
But because Fred is so inherently a good person as we speak to him today and as a real man, what I love is that you sort of feel that underneath whilst he puts on this characterization of kind of, you know, an unsupportive father.
BELL: And this is this sort of battered, hubris man.
GROSS: Lake Bell, I want to play a scene from something that you were in that's really funny. And this was - this is a scene from the pilot of "Children's Hospital" and "Children's Hospital" is now on Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. And this is a satire of hospital shows, a satire of the kind of shows where all the doctors and the nurses are always flirting and having affairs and it's like a soap opera with surgery and medical problems.
And so in the pilot, patients are being totally ignored as people are - literally - having sex, and flirting, and breaking up with each other. In the pilot, you break up with your boyfriend, who's also a doctor. You're a doctor; he's a doctor. You break up at the hospital, and he asks if you're breaking up with him because he's Jewish, and you say no.
Then in a scene later on, you're telling one of your women friends, also a doctor at the hospital, about the breakup. But the scene starts with you doing a voiceover.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL")
BELL: (As Dr. Cat Black) But we all have brains, and brains are messy things - filled with jelly. And although jelly is sweet, it made me do a silly thing.
I broke up with Glenn.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As doctor) What? Why? He's the hottest doctor at Children's.
BELL: (As Dr. Cat Black) I just can't imagine spending every Christmas with a Jew, you know? Lighting candles all the time, telling knock-knock jokes.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As doctor) Totally. Driving minivans, reading books.
BELL: (As Dr. Cat Black) Right?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As doctor) I'm going to break up with Owen.
BELL: (As Dr. Cat Black) Why?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As doctor) Well, you broke up with Glenn. We're roommates. That would be totally confusing.
BELL: (As Dr. Cat Black) Right. How are you going to do it?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As doctor) I don't know. I need to think of a good lie. Ugh, I wish he were Jewish.
GROSS: And Lake, you work with two actors from this series, in your movie. You have Rob Corddry in it, who is the creator of "Children's Hospital," and Ken Marino, who is one of the stars.
BELL: Yes. And it needs to be said that, you know, "Children's Hospital" is in its fifth season. It's now on Adult Swim and we also just got - we won an Emmy last year and we got nominated again this year. So we're really proud because it's a little - it's sort of this mini comedy family that we've been - we've taken this little web series that was a - that was actually the pilot for the web series which was five minute episodes.
GROSS: Right. Right.
BELL: And then it upgraded itself to Adult Swim at 11 minute episodes. So...
MELAMED: I also want to point out, since Lake might not, that Lake not only stars in "Children's Hospital," she also frequently directs it.
BELL: That is true. And that is - thank you, Fred. Yeah, that's been a great pleasure and really came about because David Wain, who's also one of the executive producers, and Rob Corddry, saw my short film and they knew I was making "A New World" and they invited me to start directing episodes of "Children's Hospital." Which I was honored to do because it's really one of my favorite jobs I've ever had in my life.
GROSS: My guests are Lake Bell and Fred Melamed. They star in the new film "In A World." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guests, Lake Bell and Fred Melamed star in the new movie comedy "In A World" about voiceover artists. Bell also wrote and directed the film. I think both of you have parents or a parent who had some connection to the entertainment industry or show biz. Lake, let's start with you with your father and the racetrack. Which is kind of entertainment. I mean, it is entertainment.
BELL: I mean, it's interesting you sort of see it that. I suppose you're totally right. I always thought of myself, you know, no one in my family has ever stepped foot in Hollywood, you know, with any sort of ambition, though my dad, you know, was good at accents and definitely is a showman at his racetracks. But that's sort of the extent of it. I was the only person in my family who wanted to be in the actual film and television world.
But my father, yeah, I think at the racetrack he'd always - you know, my father is definitely somebody everyone who meets him loves to hang out with him. And he's the - his name is Harvey Siegel. I know he will be listening to this and I'm sure he's excited. But anyway, he had Virginia International Raceway and also New Jersey Motorsport Park. So I was always around cars and saw him sort of be a leader and be unafraid to get on the track and push some barriers.
Which into his 70s he's done that. So.
GROSS: Are you a good driver?
BELL: I'm an avid - I am athletic driver. I can say that. I mean, I love street driving. I'm not a speed demon. I do write a car column for the Hollywood Reporter.
MELAMED: What she's not saying is - because she won't toot her own horn - but she's actually a car expert and writes this column in the Hollywood Reporter all about cars and it's very knowledgeable - all, all about cars, particularly high performance cars.
BELL: Hmm. That is true. It's called Test Drive and it was a great bonding experience for my father and I. I think at first when I started writing the column he was surprised and his reaction sort of stunned me. And not dissimilar, in a way, for the thematics in the movie between father-daughter where you would think he would immediately say I'm so proud of you. I think at first he was sort of did you write that? You know?
Which hurt my feelings initially because I was so excited to share it with him. And I think the idea was that he just had not realized that I had sponged so much love and information from all of our trips together to the, you know, Jacob Javits Center, at the auto show. And it was the only real way that we had a sense of deep communication. So.
GROSS: And Fred Melamed, your father was a producer?
MELAMED: He was. He was an early TV producer. He worked with a guy that most people don't remember anymore, sort of a pioneer, called Nat Hiken. And he worked on a show called "Car 54, Where Are You"? That was one of his shows.
MELAMED: The "Bilco Show," which was Phil Silvers original TV show. So it was that era.
GROSS: Those are great shows.
GROSS: So he was a producer on the show. So you...
MELAMED: He was a producer. And then he got out of it for a while. He wanted to be a novelist and then he wound up eventually doing advertising, which was kind of a step down, he felt, I think, probably rightly.
GROSS: So what were you exposed to as a child from either the advertising or the television world?
MELAMED: Well, he used to take me on the set sometimes. When I was a young kid, about five, six, seven, he was doing "Car 54" which was shot at Filmways Studio which was up in the Bronx. We lived in New York City. So we would go up to the Bronx and I remember being on the set and I remember meeting Fred Gwynne many times who was one of the stars of that show. And just the kind of general atmosphere of being exited by it.
And seeing how it all worked. And then years later when I decided to be an actor and announced that, that was met with lots of eye rolling and worrying. They were not - my parents weren't too pleased about that, having seen it firsthand how tough it can be.
GROSS: Do you ever wish there was a TV channel or a website, or maybe this website already exists, where it's just like the greatest hits of, like, trailers and voiceover TV commercials. So you just hear it's like voiceover after voiceover.
MELAMED: Those do exist already, where you can look at 900 trailers, you know, some current, some old.
BELL: But the trend now is that there's no voiceover in it. There's not as many voiceover in trailer anymore because it's considered a little bit kitsch or dated. And if it is, it's often that ironic guy. You know, the kind of: Meet Jack. He's one guy who's got one foot in the door...
BELL: You know, that guy. Like it's no longer those girthy epics, you know.
GROSS: It's really been great to talk with both of you. I want to thank you so much and good luck with "In A World."
BELL: Thank you so much.
MELAMED: Thank you. It's our pleasure.
GROSS: Lake Bell and Fred Melamed star in the new film comedy "In A World." Bell also wrote and directed the film. You can see a video tribute to Don LaFontaine, the voiceover artist who made famous the phrase in a world on our website. It features highlights of some of the trailers he voiced. That's at freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and follow our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.