Archive for March, 2012

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The Pitfalls of Hot-Seating

March 10, 2012

We’ve been doing callbacks for the Persona casting this week and as with all parts of the auditioning process, it’s been somewhere between tough and enjoyable. One of the more interesting parts has been seeing another director at work (the producer, Don, is a director in his own right) when he’s talking to the actors. One of the techniques he often uses during auditions is hot-seating- asking the actor questions and having them answer them in-character and he suggested I try the technique here.

I have to be honest, as a director, I’ve never been a huge fan of hot-seating. When I trained as an actor as a child, I loved the exercise. I felt like I was allowed to improvise but also refine the improvisation, developing it and revisiting ideas until they solidified into a coherent whole. It was a great way to create a character because you were following ideas as they came to you and each new element or memory was like adding a new connection within this character’s brain. The character came out stronger as a result.

And actually, that was the reason I was less enamoured with the idea as a director. Hot-seating encourages the actor to create the character completely and fill it with their ideas and thoughts and feelings. Great in principle, but if those ideas, thoughts and feelings take the character too far away from the one that sits on the page and in the director’s head, it can be hard to get the actor to come back to where you want or need them to be. For instance, whilst hot-seating, one actor took an idea to heart because of an off-hand loaded question- that idea soon grew and dictated his whole performance for the rest of the audition. A performance I didn’t want him to give and couldn’t get him to come back from. End result- an otherwise fine actor became completely wrong for the role. I’m not pointing the finger here- not at the actor nor the person who asked the loaded question- just remarking that, like in Inception, once an idea has taken hold, it’s very difficult to shift.

Having said that, I’m always open to new directing methods and wondered if there was a way I could allow the actors to really create the character and make them whole and believable without losing sight of what I want to see on screen. There is. And I found it’s actually the same technique you want to avoid when shooting interviews for documentary- you load the question. Rather than just giving the open “what do you think about such and such?” question, follow it with a simple “do you think this or this?” The trick in all this semantic shizzle is that the first choice is nearly always forgotten once you’ve offered the second. So it’s the second answer they respond to- either in strong agreement or complete rebuttal- and if you pick your words carefully, the choice for them is obvious. They still feel like they’ve created this character and responded intuitively and you’ve gently steered them where you wanted.

Obviously, this trick should only be used when you want to steer, otherwise you end up accidentally steering them in the wrong direction (as happened in the audition) and because they feel they thought of this intuitively, the actor is reluctant to let this “truth” go because it feels “right” to them.

Another downside to hot-seating is you’re in danger of over-analysing a character. Actors and directors alike love doing this- finding reasons for characters behaving the way they do and then weaving that into the discussion:

“…And that’s why she has a hard time trusting Michael, because she thinks he’ll leave her just like her brother did growing up.”

“…He’s never once had to commit to anything because everyone else has always committed to him.”

“…It’s about his relationship with his mother blah blah Freudian blah!”

It becomes psychobabble so very bloody quickly and when that happens, the truth and naturalism that was in the character has gone and instead they’ve become this intellectual puzzle that the actor has just joyfully solved like an autistic kid with a Rubik’s cube.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. If hot-seating is done well and steered/nudged properly by the director, the actors’ understanding of the characters improves dramatically. I noticed that after just a few minutes of this hot-seating the performances had much more depth and nuance to them. Looks, gestures, subtext I hadn’t even asked for. Less of that forced-breathing and nervous looking around/random steps malarky actors do when they’re not confident enough to do “nothing”… They felt much more real. And most of the actors that are on my casting shortlist are the ones that went through the hot-seating process.

So, in a way, this is a positive vote for a technique that I previously shunned, thanks to someone else making me try it. And I’m glad because it means that I’m always learning as a director. After all, the more tools you have in your toolshed, the more likely you are to be able to build a cupboard. Even if you don’t always follow the instructions!

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Sha na na na na na na nah! Baby, Give It Up!

March 4, 2012

It’s a shame when good people give up.

Recently, I heard a fellow filmmaker- who’s been quiet on the production front for the last year or so- has just decided to give up pursuing his directing dream. Why, you may ask? Well, to be honest, I don’t know exactly. But since his facebook updates have been concerning his recent nuptuals and plans for starting a family, I’m guessing such ordinary things as mortgages and decorating the spare room in a fetching shade of pink (or blue) are the more pressing priority.

It’s a shame really, because he had a lot of skill as a director. He was one of those directors with “vision” (whatever the hell that is) and a few good festival credits to his name. I hate to sound judgemental, but from my point of view he’s thrown it all away. I suppose he believes that it’s all worth it (and ultimately, it’s his life so he’s right!) but it just hammers home to me not only what I’m missing out on, but also how important it is to achieve my goal of the professional director’s chair before it’s too late for me to have some of that stuff too.

I’ve turned down better-paid ordinary jobs because they wouldn’t realistically allow for me to do film stuff. I’ve held back on starting relationships if I didn’t think it would survive the film work situation. I’ve suffered (and still suffer) low-paid day jobs because they have a bit of leeway for me shooting stuff- even if it means wallowing in debt and living hand-to-mouth. I’d hate, after all this, to fail at getting into the industry properly. In part because I’d hate to fail anyway and also because a part of me wants all this normal stuff too and I recognise that time’s ticking by and soon it’ll be too late to have these things. So I can understand what my contemporaries go through- even if every time they give up, it chips away at my resolve.

I’m just into my thirties, so I’ve seen this a lot recently. My long-time writing partner recently decided (after a year or so of inactivity) that he wasn’t going to pursue a screenwriting career- a decision punctuated by the closure of his writer’s twitter account and website. Again, he had a lot of talent but real life intervened and combined with a feeling of expectation from everyone else, he started to place more importance on the day job, his band and a pursuit of the house/wife/picket fence path to happiness. And he’s not alone. Less than half of my graduating class are working in the industry. Some gave up after several years of not-instant-success and some just didn’t try from the start.

Such is life, I suppose. And indeed, life it most definitely is. If you want to pursue such a rare and competitive path as a drama director, at some point you’ll need to weigh up the odds, assess your time and make a choice between “life” and your possible-if-unlikely career as a director.

Fact is, as is often noted, this industry is competitive and although a lot of people give up within three years of trying, there’s always a steady stream of new aspirees clawing at the first rung of the industry ladder. The trick, though, is perseverence. If you can keep going and keep putting jobs (no matter how small) on your CV, you’ll eventually become “experienced.” And that gives you a much better chance of surviving. Just know you might have to delay that marriage/mortgage combo until you succeed.

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Casting- The Great Mutual Awkwardness

March 1, 2012

If there are any actors reading this, hands up who likes the auditioning process? Anybody? You at the back, was your hand in the air? Oh, you were scratching your head, okay…

No actor likes the auditioning process. Of course they don’t. It’s like going for a job interview and having a medical exam all rolled into one. And if you’re thinking that depends on the sort of roles you’re going for, nudge nudge wink wink, think again.

From an actor’s perspective, the casting process goes a little like this:

You hear about an audition through your agent/acting websites/friendly neighbourhood casting director and you turn up at the venue, possibly with an idea of the film, possibly with some sides to read, possibly with the wrong ideas on both. You check in and see various other actors- some very much like you (but potentially better looking/talented/right for the role) and others whose similarities to you include breathing air and having eyes- and you try to guage your chances of landing this gig with no frame of reference. You peer at the sides you’ve been given, trying to find some hidden clues in there as to who this character is, who the director/producer/writer want them to be and if there is anything in you that fits that bill. You try to learn the lines- you want to be off-book, they like it when actors are off-book. Makes you look like you know what you’re doing… doesn’t it? But the lines aren’t sticking, the dialogue doesn’t feel right or it feels too right and you feel like you want to improvise. Will they like that? You start to second-guess yourself and whatever approach you’ve decided on, all the while watching the others go through the door at the end one by one and then come out again, trying to read something on their faces about what it was like, did they do well, are you going to be the better option?

Then it’s your turn. You go into the room and there’s a table separating you from several strangers, many of whom you’ll never see again (even if you get the job) and an empty chair that would have your name on it if didn’t have “some actor” scrawled on it in invisible ink. Several pairs of eyes stare at you, scrutinizing your face, your hair, the clothes you’ve picked out. They’re seeing all the little flaws you know you have, picking them out and scribbling them down on notepads or swanky laptops. You’re introduced, you hand over a CV or headshot (whilst secretly totting up the cost of these things and how likely it is to land at the bottom of a shredder) and after a few seconds’ chit chat, you use all you’ve deduced so far from the meagre sides and clues given to you to create your version of this character and pitch it blindly to the people who actually created it in the first place. If you’re lucky, you might get to go again. If you’re really lucky, you might get some direction. You might get told “that’s great” but either way, you soon find yourself leaving the venue, walking past other hopefuls, with the crushing feeling that your audition was too short and replaying everything you did in that room on mental loop on the tube ride home. And then you have to lie and pretend to be positive when your mum/partner/goldfish asks how it went.

Sound like a nightmare? It is. But it’s a nightmare actors go through on a (potentially) daily basis because you don’t get to the good dreams without having a few nightmares along the way. On the plus side, the actor’s nightmare is often over mercifully quickly. The director’s nightmare can go on all day…

You’re casting for this film or show you’re working on and your casting director has arranged a day of auditions for you. They proudly tell you they’ve got loads of people turning up and show you a schedule that will need military precision to carry it off. You get to the venue early and try to eat your hastily-purchased McBreakfast while one of the more organised members of your production crew tells you who’s coming in when, who’s going to be late and who’s swapping their times… and all through this you’re trying to hold in your head what you’re looking for in each of these characters. A look, a feeling… anything. Half of the time you don’t know and when the casting director asks you what you’re looking for, you try to describe the character in words that they’ll be able to act on. Words that they’ll have their own definitions for and you can guarantee they won’t quite be from the same dictionary as yours. With you on the panel are several other people, many of whom you’ll never see again (even if you get to keep the job til the wrap party) and each of them have their own agendas and ideas for the film and the casting of it.

Then it begins. One by one, actors are bought in and presented to you like you’re in a dim sum restaurant. You can see they’re nervous, anxious, some of them really want this job. But there’s no time for chit chat, no time to put them at ease and no time for introductions. They don’t even know you’re the director half the time- you’re just one of the people on this panel judging them on criteria that no-one there has a complete grasp of. You get a CV or headshot and try to read it or look at it but the words are blurring and the faces look the same (yet remarkably different from the people in front of you). Then they read the scene. Some are prepared, some are off-book, some are on-the-nose and awkward, some are great. If you’re lucky, they get to go again. If you’re really lucky, you might get to direct them. You might have to say “that’s great” (and sometimes it genuinely was!) and watch them leave, knowing that they feel they failed when all that actually happened was they sat an exam when no-one, including the people doing the marking, knew what the answers were. This goes on for hours- watching great and not-so-great actors alike go from nervous to hopeful to despondent in less time than it takes to cook a TV dinner. The faces and performances blur and you hope the brief notes you’ve been taking are enough to help you remember what everyone was like. At the end of the day you have to decide who to call back for another round and with all the names and faces and notes and headshots you try your best to remember and choose and bend your incomplete vision of the film and its characters and the understandably nervous and rushed but talented individuals you saw together. You produce a shortlist for callbacks. You know you’ve missed someone. You know you’ve written the wrong name somewhere along the line. You hope that somewhere in this list is your leading lady, your hero, your antagonist and your character player. Because there has to be. You’re not getting this chance again. You soon find yourself leaving the venue, walking past the other panellists, with the crushing feeling that you might have missed something and replaying everything you did in that room on mental loop on the tube ride home. And then you have to lie and pretend to be positive when your producer/AD/goldfish asks how it went.