L’esprit de l’scalier is the French term for the phenomenon that occurs when you think of a witticism or a perfect turn of phrase when it’s too late to have its desired effect. We’ve all experienced l’esprit de l’scalier at one time or another. Maybe you were out with a group of friends and one of them tells a “your mom’s so dumb” joke. Frantic to verbally strike back, all you come up with is “yeah, well…”, and before you finish your thought your closest buddy is already buying you a sympathy/don’t embarrass yourself further beer. It’s not until the next morning, whilst nursing a hangover with Gatorade and bacon, that you realize you should have come back with “your mom’s so dumb, she tried to wake up a sleeping bag.” Calling your friend at that moment to relay the comeback to him would be pointless, and you chastise yourself for not being quicker on the draw.
Last Saturday, we resumed shooting Super Knocked Up, and I experienced something similar to l’esprit de l’escalier, only it lasted longer than a few fleeting moments, and I realized actors must encounter this feeling quite often.
Our shoot was spread out over two days, and on day one Jeff decided to shoot mostly my lines, meaning the camera would be pointing towards me, filming my close-ups, medium shots, etc. It also meant that the performance I gave would be the one to end up in the episode. Natalie, on the other hand, would mostly be shot from behind, with most of her lines being filmed the next day. (Note: for the sake of brevity, this is just a brief over-view of how the scene was shot. I by no means mean to minimize the magnificent work Natalie did on the first day. She had plenty to do on that day, and had an infinitely more difficult job than I did the whole shoot).
When day one finished, I was fairly happy with what ended up on camera, and even happier that I had received a few fist-bumps from Herr Burns (you know you’ve done good work when the director gives your five digits a pound). I had no idea that the next day I would be filled with that dreaded l’esprit de l’escalier for most of the shoot.
As the lighting set-up was already in place for Natalie’s lines, we began shooting right away on the second day. Not only did I spend most of the day in bed (no really, Captain Amazing doesn’t leave his comfy mattress/spring box combo once), but off-camera as well. My job on day two was pretty much to bounce off of Natalie verbally as she gave her performance as Darkstar. While I could have put in minimal effort, as the camera wouldn’t see my acting and the audio used would be Natalie’s and not mine, I decided to do the opposite and play the scene as if a camera was capturing everything I did as well. I figure that it would help Natalie get into her character (and the scene) more. (Not that she needs any help). The results? L’esprit de l’escalier.
I found myself doing things and uttering my lines in ways I wish I had done the day before, when my performance was being captured. Not huge, scene-altering things, mind you, but a line here, a line there. An eye roll. A head bob. For some reason, my work as Michael Masters felt a bit meatier, a bit more fleshed out on the second day.
Of course, that could have all been in my head, and when I see the finished product I’ll realize that everything I did on day two I did on day one. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with my performance from the first day, far from it. It simply comes down to that damned old l’esprit de l’escalier, and how it makes us feel like we could have been better when it’s too late to do anything about it.