The effusive words of praise lavished on Monich by those who have worked with him just so happen to be backed up by his jam-packed schedule. When first contacted for an interview, he replied via email from London, where he was living while working on a Martin Scorsese film called Hugo Cabret, a mystery centering around an orphan who lives in a Paris train station. By the time we arrange an interview, Monich is in Los Angeles, and as we wrap up our discussion, I ask him what he has planned for the day — he’s headed to meet Nicole Kidman to prepare her for a role.
The genesis of Monich’s involvement in most any film he works on is extremely informal and can occur as much as months before production or as little as a week in advance. “Sometimes an actor calls me, or sometimes the producer or director calls me,” he says. “I’m pretty much first come, first serve. I don’t have a standard for what I accept, except that I’m incredibly lucky that everything I’m offered seems to be high quality.” While his involvement in film projects can be a matter of serendipity, Monich’s approach to preparing actors to speak in the appropriate dialect is formal and rigorous.
The ideal scenario for Monich is to learn about a project in advance, because it allows him the opportunity to do extensive research. Before Monich started working with Daniel Day-Lewis to prepare him for his role as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York, which is set in the 19th century, he consulted with Scorsese. “Marty specifically wanted Daniel Day-Lewis’ character to not be the fast-talking New Yorker, but to have a kind of measured tone,” he recalls. “The other thing he said about it is that he wanted it to be eerie.”
Once he had input from Scorsese, Monich probed Day-Lewis to find out his interpretation of the character he was about to play and discovered that the Irish actor wanted Cutting to have a relatively educated sound. But what to do with this input? For Monich, working on films filled with contemporary characters allows him to utilize the extensive library of recordings he has compiled; he has more than 6,000, a combination of well-known voices like J.R.R. Tolkein’s and Gertrude Stein’s, though most are from everyday people he interviewed himself. Each recording represents a place, a time period and a social class. “Sometimes it’s straightforward,” he explains. “The character is supposed to be from Memphis; she’s a lawyer and she’s black, so I go to Memphis and record as many black, upper-middle-class professionals as I can, and the actor playing it imitates and selects what she wants that fits the character.”
But in the case of Gangs of New York, the number of recordings that were useful was limited, and Monich concedes that the best that can be done for a period film is to make educated guesses. To do that, he thought about what Day-Lewis wanted the character to sound like and used that to guide him to source material that would be helpful. “In those days people were encouraged to read, if only to be able to read the Bible,” he says. “For the practice material for that, we read from the Old Testament, and I said the author at the time who was very much influenced by the cadences of the Bible was Walt Whitman,” Monich says. “We used both the Bible and Walt Whitman poetry as practice material because he wanted to have this kind of authority and enjoyment of the word.” In fact, during the course of their prep work together, Day-Lewis latched on to a word from a Whitman poem that he worked into his performance. “The word Daniel discovered in one of the poems was excrementitious,” he says. “We were doing a reading and he said, ‘Oh, God, I have to use that word somewhere.’ ”