Posts Tagged ‘actors’

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2017 Part 3 – Director for Hire: “Making a Killing”

January 22, 2018
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One of these things is more necessary on set than the other…

One of the sad facts about the career of a director is that you’ll spend longer doing collaboration projects and working for free than pretty much anyone else on set. And when you think about it, this makes sense. Partly because everyone else can be hired by several people (the producer, the director or their head of department) whereas you are only ever hired by a producer; but also because directing has a high degree of responsibility- producers are only going to hire directors that they’re confident in and usually that means having worked with them before. Plus, directing is a very desirable position and there are a lot of people who want that chair so it’s a very competitive but very closed market.

Most of your early directing “jobs” will be self-produced. You’re the one leading the project, you’re the one footing the bill, you’re the one with your vision on screen. Effectively, you hire yourself. But there’s a lot to be said for those projects where you’re hired as a director, even if there’s no real pay to speak of. I’ve done a few of these gigs over the years and, if you pick the right projects, they can be great for your reel and a great way to network. Plus, you get to feel like you’ve been hired, which gives your ego a bit of a massage.

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Darrel Draper (Jarad) and Amelia Vernede (Claudia) get a bit messy in “Making a Killing”

Early last year I spotted a directing job on mandy.com, helming a short film called “Making a Killing.” It was a script written by actor Darrell Draper and co-produced by him and another actor, Amelia Vernede. They’d come up with the film as a chance to showcase themselves and hopefully push their acting careers forward. What made this film different from all the other no-budget shorts kicking around though was the script.

It was a comedy that was actually funny.

I know, go figure… It was also well-written in general and this is something of a rarity at the lower rungs of the industry ladder (to be honest, it isn’t that much less rarefied at the professional six-figure-budget rungs either). Less than stellar scripts were something that had deterred me from accepting many other directing gigs over the years. The last thing I wanted was to jump in to the directing chair on a project where the script or story was lacking, because no matter what you do, you can’t turn it into something amazing. As many have said, you can’t polish a turd (even if you can cover it in glitter and pretend it’s gold!) and who wants a turd on their resume?

But “Making a Killing” wasn’t a turd and in fact, had a lot of potential to be a cool little film. The story was a simple, if comically absurd one: Jarad is a wannabe serial killer, but he doesn’t really know anything about it or how to get started so he enlists the help of Claudia, a marketing agent, to help him. The film follows Jarad’s attempts to join the Bundys and Mansons of the world and takes an explorative and satirical poke at people’s fascination with murder and the morality of fame and it’s less savoury cousin infamy. There’s a lot of black humour, a touch of drama and a bit of social commentary- things I wanted a bit more of in my directing career because I believe a good director needs to be versatile with both style and subject matter.

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A couple of weeks before the shoot, I went to London to see the locations we had access to. Most of the action was set in a flat in Hackney and a few exteriors in the surrounding area. The flat was owned by a friend of the actors and although we had free reign there, we had a limited window to shoot in. We had access from 9am to 5pm over two days, which wasn’t too bad, but since it takes a while to get in and set up and almost as long to break everything down at the end of the day, it was going to be a little tight to get everything done. So I decided to plan and storyboard things as best I could. In that regard, the recce was really helpful since I could work out my coverage based on the location. And since the actors were there, we were also able to block out some of the scenes in the flat as well, which helped with picking shots.

I like to think of a film breaking down into scenes and sequences. Scenes are the same as what they are in the script- a chunk of (primarily) dialogue and action set in one location and happening concurrently. They are usually shot using coverage so they can be edited in a variety of ways, although you could use a one-shot if the scene lends itself to that (and you don’t mind incurring the wrath of an editor!). Sequences have to be considered as what they are- a series of shots that narratively progress in one direction and are more of a montage in nature. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to use coverage to get these shots because they’re often specific to each beat of the story, so you’ll need to see it edited together in your head and shoot what you need- which is where storyboards can really come into their own.

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Adam Hudson (DP) and Joe Nichols (AC) set up for the first shot of the film with Amelia Vernede (Claudia)

In the case of “Making a Killing” most of the film was comprised of scenes- usually two characters talking- so storyboarding wasn’t really necessary for those, but I did draw a few just to get the camera placements in my head. But there were two sequences in the film- a musical montage where Jarad’s trying out different serial killer “identities” complete with costume changes and a sequence with Jarad pursuing his first victim.

The former proved problematic even up to the day of the shoot, partly because we still didn’t know the specifics of what was going to happen in the scene costume/character-wise but also because I was unsure how to shoot it. I knew where we would have to stage the scene- in the hallway because it was the only area in the flat big enough- but I didn’t know how I wanted it to go together. Originally, I had the idea of using a time-lapse between costume changes, but this would have been too complex and ultimately too limiting for the sequence. But once we knew what elements were going to make up the sequence (Jarad’s entrances and exits in each costume with a bit of action inbetween, Claudia’s reactions before, during and after each costume reveal and the notebook of possible identities getting crossed out and doodled over), we were able to get the footage we needed so it could be cut together into a narratively valid music-backed montage.

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Darrel Draper gets his stalk(er) on…

The other sequence, where Jarad stalks his first victim, was envisaged as a tense, horror movie-like moment and I planned out a bunch of shots to capitalise on this part of the story. There was also a comic twist at the end of this sequence leading into a dialogue scene, so setting things up right would make that much stronger. Sadly, time was against us. You see, we needed to shoot this sequence and the scene that followed when it was dark and unfortunately, we were filming in August, where night doesn’t fall til gone 9pm. Which meant a long shoot day was going to get longer and we didn’t have the luxury of picking the shots up the next day.

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So we filmed the important bit- the dialogue scene – first and then had to grab a few set-up shots afterwards as we walked back to the main location. As an aside, we were filming on a Sony A7S II and holy hell, that thing can see in the dark! We were filming on a path beside a church and the only practical lights were streetlamps thirty-odd feet away on the main road. We had a few battery-powered LED panels to get a bit of key lighting in there, but it was pretty damn dark and I doubt there were many cameras that could’ve produced a usable result in those conditions. In fact, I think the only reason we got a bit of noise in the footage was because we were shooting S-Log3 (Log modes don’t tend to work so well in low light scenarios and you often can’t adjust the ISO either) but it’s nothing a bit of de-noising in post won’t clear up!

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For the camera geeks amongst you, this was what the A7S II can see post-grade with minimal light, shooting SLog3 in UHD. For everyone else, this is Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

Day two was finishing up the flat scenes and it was then that we hit what I like to call the “iceberg scene.” Iceberg scenes are scenes that don’t look that problematic on paper but when you get to shoot them, you realise there’s a massive problem with them that threatens to sink the proverbial ship. The bit you can see is just the tip of the iceberg, but if you don’t take action quickly, that’s going to spiral into a huge chunk of delays, stress and lost goodwill. Mixed metaphors aside, they happen on most shoots and in my experience they usually come from poor planning. In this case, the fault was largely mine…

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Giving actors a sharp prop during an “iceberg scene” is just asking for trouble…

We had quite a chunky scene set in the lounge- an argument scene- and I knew where it was going to take place, but I hadn’t blocked anything out with the actors. And what’s rule number one? Always block scenes out with actors first before picking your camera angles…

But I hadn’t.

So when we started setting up for the master shot, that was when I tried to find business for the actors to do- in this case, Claudia would be sat on the sofa using her laptop and Jarad would be hurriedly fussing around her trying to tidy things up. It was a good idea for the scene- it showed how complacent Claudia had become in Jarad’s home and how Jarad had changed as a person by wanting things to be tidy and impress his new girlfriend. And, had I had the chance (or made the time) to work through the action with the actors, we could’ve staged a very funny scene where Jarad is always tidying where Claudia wants to be and so there’d be this great visual game of musical chairs, stressing both of them out. But instead, the action itself was a little flat and that caused some problems when it came to covering the scene: Claudia’s close up needed to pan to the side in line with her looking space when Jarad crossed the shot, we needed two close ups of Jarad for the different lines of action (both of which needed to be in awkward places within the location) and continuity needed to be super tight as a result of the business the actors were doing.

On their own, these things weren’t enough to derail the shoot, but as I’ve said before, directing is largely about people management and if you don’t have good answers for how a scene needs to be shot, the crew and cast can become stressed, argumentative and worse still, defensive. If they get to this last stage, teamwork can suffer as each member of the cast and crew starts to do whatever they think is best for them, their reel and their career- actors direct themselves, DPs fuss over getting the perfect shot and many others just want to go home. Fortunately, we never got to that stage, but people did start to get stressed. I struggle with these situations because when I find myself with an iceberg scene, I tend to become very pragmatic, fall back on simple shots and coverage and try to get through the scene without pissing people off. The downside to this approach is that although the atmosphere and people’s goodwill is maintained, the scene comes out a bit by-the-numbers. I’ll often see the scene in the finished film and think if only I’d planned this one out better, I could’ve had a much better scene in the can.

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Filming on a busy intersection in Hackney, twenty feet from an all-night Tesco was… problematic to say the least.

So over the last couple of projects, I’ve been trying to push a little for what I want when I get an iceberg scene, even if that means taking a few minutes break to think things through (ADs hate falling behind schedule, but they tend to hate bungled scenes more, so they’re usually on board with this request!). Because once I know what I’m doing, I’m able to lead everyone else again. Directing is frequently a balancing act between pushing for your vision and being open enough to accept input from others- do too much of either at the wrong time and the film can very easily fall apart. An iceberg scene is always the wrong time, so taking a few minutes to get your shit together, come up with a plan (possibly with your strongest on-set collaborator) and communicate it to everyone can get things back on track.

The trailer went up over Christmas and we’ve been giving it a strong push on social media. It’ll be interesting to see how much traction the finished film has- both online and in festivals- but having seen a rough cut, I’m quite happy with how things look and think it’ll do quite well. I also think it’ll be a great addition to my body of work- something I’d like to expand more in 2018. “Making a Killing” isn’t something I could’ve ever written myself, so the underlying voice of the film isn’t mine (much like on any director-for-hire gig) but I helped bring it to life, which ultimately is what a director does.

What was really nice about directing “Making a Killing” was that I was just that, a director. I wasn’t the writer, I wasn’t the producer, I wasn’t the editor, I wasn’t wearing multiple hats. I could just concentrate on the job of directing and let the production worries fall on someone else for a change.

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Some of the cast and crew of “Making a Killing” (from Left to Right: Adam Hudson (DoP), Joe Nichols (AC), me (Director), Amelia Vernede (Claudia), Sophie Marchant (Sound Recordist) and Darrel Draper (Jarad). Absent from the shot are Cal Brown (AD) and Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

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A Short-ish Review of the Year that Was…

January 8, 2013

Yep, this is a recap post, but since 2012 was as eventful as a mormon’s party planner it hopefully won’t be a stupidly long one!

Meghann and Conor in "Eliza's Persona"

Meghann and Conor in “Eliza’s Persona”

2012 started extremely well with me landing my first gig where someone hired me for my directing ability. This is a landmark moment in a director’s early career and I threw a lot of myself into it. The project was Persona– a soap designed exclusively to stream from a smartphone or tablet app- and it was a chance to direct dramatic material that didn’t have a sci-fi element. It also meant that I was able to work with other skilled crew members such as DoP Phil Moreton, AD Emily Turton and AC Murat Akyildiz. The film looked and great as a result. I was challenged by the show’s producer, Don Allen, to come up with a story with a current events angle so I created one about a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and how it affects his non-military life. The script was written by the talented Martyn Deakin and the three principal actors- Meghann Marty, Conor Kennedy and Jake Ferretti- really bought it to life. To date, “Eliza’s Persona” has had a very positive response from audiences which is testament to the work of everyone involved and it’s probably the directing work I’m most proud of.

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In April, almost immediately after we’d wrapped on Persona, I was hired to direct the dramatic sequences in a promo video for Snowdance acting classes. The client had arranged for a DoP for me, but it was only when I got to set that I realised that he had limited knowledge of cinematography and lighting… and a Canon 5D mkII. Since he was happy to defer to me, I ended up lighting and operating (with a camera I didn’t know very well) as well as directing in locations that were too modern and austere for the piece. The end result was a mixed bag visually and performances varied from great to stilted- the two actors were excellent given the short scene they had, but the presenter wasn’t confident in his delivery and got too caught up on the exactness of the lines rather than what he was actually saying. I also got roped into editing it- something I wanted to avoid- although it did give me a chance to edit a whole piece in FCPX rather than just bits. Jury’s still out on whether I like the new software or not.

One of the pluses to the gig was I got to meet scriptwriter Ellie Ball– a talented Scottish writer with a sharp wit- and in May/June I asked her to write some viral comedy scripts for me for Enborne River. I decided to make Enborne River specialise in drama, since that was where my track record was, but realised that selling virals was hard when you didn’t have one yourself! She wrote a series of short scripts for me… and I’ve yet to film them due to location issues, so that really needs to be pushed through this year!

Robin March and Sally Rowe, "Jason's Persona"

Robin March and Sally Rowe, “Jason’s Persona”

I was asked to do a second story for Persona and after a series of increasingly contradictory criteria from the production team, writer Keith Storrier and I created Jason’s Persona– a story about a frustrated office worker who finds a new lease of life as a stand up comedian. I was inspired by the story of real-life comic John Bishop, who kept his new career a secret from his mid-divorce wife but reconciled with her when she unexpectedly saw him perform on stage and fell in love with him all over again. For me, that reconciliation and re-falling in love were the real hooks of the story and while we had practical limitations on the shoot getting that scene to work, audience feedback has been very good regarding that payoff.

The Jason’s Persona shoot also almost cost me my day job- that necessary evil that keeps my bank placated- and while I didn’t get fired it did change my attitude to it. I realised that the job was taking up too much of my energy, time and mental real estate. I didn’t have any downtime because I was trying to live two lives (9-to-5-er and director) and cram both (and sleep) into the 168 hours a week allows. I’ve realised this was untenable and have some tricky decisions to make in the coming months regarding the day job. Do I stay, do I go or do I cut down my hours? It might be the most important career decision I ever make…

Mid-summer, I started working with Phill Barron– the lead writer/ script editor on Persona- on a low budget feature. We wanted something time-travelly and over the next few months thrashed out a few treatments, only to put the idea on hold when the plots were getting away from themselves. This too, needs to be resurrected in 2013.

"Bitter Parents" Robin March and Jo Hughes

“Bitter Parents” Robin March and Jo Hughes

I got offered a gig directing a comedy sketch for the Cold Cuts comedy group called “Bitter Parents.” It was pretty much a one-extended-joke scene but it was going to add a bit of comedy to my otherwise drama and scifi-heavy showreel. Due to the difficulties in securing the location, extras and the child performer, the scene didn’t get lensed til November and over the course of two sunday mornings- meaning actors weren’t all in the same place at the same time. Miraculously, it seems to have come out okay though.

In an effort to get a new short film off the ground (and then get some festival exposure) I started looking at all the old scripts I have floating about. A couple of old The Collector’s Room scripts looked like they could work with a bit of a rewrite. I asked TCR’s co-creator and writer, Luke, if he’d do a rewrite on them, but it seems he’s given up screenwriting because I’ve heard nothing more from him. Collaboration is always a problem in this industry which is why it’s worth having some degree of skill in all areas- if necessary, you could do the job yourself! Sadly, I’m not the greatest writer and my rewrite is still at treatment stage. I need to find a local collaborator to write with or else so many projects will go unmade.

Another script that is undergoing the rewrite treatment is a noir-esque action movie. The idea had been in script limbo on my old mac for years, but it was a renewed interest in action movies that prompted me to dig it out, dust it off and start reworking it. If all goes well, I should be shooting my own John Woo-esque gunplay action short in the first half of 2013. Hollywood will beckon!

October was a bit of a bump in the road in my personal life- my Dad passed away at the early age of 60. Quick and painless for him, complete surprise for us. It made me think about what I was doing with my life, how short time can be and rather than make me lower my expectations, instead it’s made me determined to get my career going. Just a belief in yourself isn’t enough- you have to strive for it and take risks if necessary. I’ve started to realise that and have some brave choices to make in 2013 if I want this to happen.

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At the tail end of the year my illustrator friend, Mark Stroud and I got involved with fledgling media design group Mi-Media, headed by local entrepreneur Tony Charles. It sounds like a project that’s got legs and a good chance for giving me future work and so far, things have been going well. Hopefully in the next few weeks, the company will go live and we should start seeing the work roll in.

So that wraps up the mixed bag o’ shite that was 2012. Seems more happened than I thought since this post is anything but “short!” Some things got off to a fine start, but many crashed and burned before they got very far.

I think a concerted effort is needed if I’m to make 2013 the year 2012 was supposed to be.

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Directing Emotions

August 23, 2012

Being a director is all about emotions. Finding the emotional beats in the story, getting the actors to the right emotional place for the scene and iliciting the desired emotional response in the audience. These things are somewhat obvious. But there is another feelings-based element to consider- that of keeping on top of the emotional state of the cast and crew.

When you’re actually there on set, particularly on the low budget side of things, its easy to forget that everyone there has an investment in the film you’re making- whether it be doing good enough work to justify their day rates or wanting to creatively exel themselves. Cast and crew alike, they all have practical, creative, reputational and emotional concerns about this project- is this going to look good on their reel, could they be doing something better today, is the money worth it, will this be their big break, will they regret this? And every decision you make as a director changes their feelings on this shoot a little bit, giving them confidence or cause to worry.

Once you realise this and tap into it, your job as a director becomes at once more complicated but also so much easier. On the one hand, you now have one more thing to worry about- one more thing that has a high chance of destroying the shoot if mishandled. But on the other you have a way of keeping everyone happy, productive and creative- if only you notice the signs and play things intelligently.

To give a few examples…

Kayleigh Lawrence in “The Collector’s Room: The Last Serenade”

On one of the Collector’s Room shoots, I was working with a lovely actress called Kayleigh Lawrence. The script called for a scene where she had to wear a nightie and be ignored by her boyfriend played by Chris LeHec. Now this wasn’t an exploitative scene (it was more for character and comic effect) nor was it going to be shot in a titillating manner (it was a lying-down over-the-shoulder shot and some singles) but it was obviously a concern for her. I knew I needed to make her feel more comfortable but I also knew that if I made a big deal of this it could make her more insecure. So I asked some of my crew- the male half of my crew- to start setting up the next scene downstairs. This left only Kate the AD, Bethan the Producer and Lindsey the Make Up Artist in the room. Since I was my own DoP, I had Kate jump on audio and we shot the scene quickly and Kayleigh was put at ease. Reducing the number of (male) eyes in the room was obviously the easiest course of action, but if I had drawn attention to what I was doing and why, it would’ve made Kayleigh feel even more self-conscious and possibly made things difficult for her for the rest of the shoot. By sending the others out under the “pretence” of setting up the next scene, I not only made her feel better but also saved some time on the schedule!

Actors Robin March and Lily Beck larking about on the set of “Jason’s Persona”

More recently, on the Jason’s Persona shoot, we were filming in a pub function room. We had the pub to ourselves all day but we had a cubic fuckton of material to get lensed. To make matters worse, it was a very hot (for Britain anyway) summer day and we had blacked out the windows because we were filming day-for-night. We were quickly shooting some open-mic-night stand-up comedy sequences for one of the film’s scenes and we were having issues with where we could place the camera so we got a good close-up. I wanted to cheat Robin’s eyeline and place the camera further round so we got a more traditional 3/4 CU. David, the DoP, had the shot in near-profile and didn’t understand what I was getting at and why the current framing wouldn’t work. Obviously, neither did Robin or Lily, his co-star who was providing his eyeline. In fact, no one got what I was going on about- as far as they were all concerned I was being nitpicky and awkward when we were short on time and everyone was short on patience. Knowing that I had to strive for the right shot and knowing that if I pushed too far everyone would get pissed off, unhappy and less productive (working for free, remember) I asked David and Robin to humour me and told Emily my AD to call a break after this shot. Even though the ten minute break would set back the already back logged schedule, it was necessary for everyone to have a breather so the stress would be forgotten and good spirits bought back.

I’ve also seen things go the other way.

I was DoP-ing on a short film last year where the director was pretty inexperienced and didn’t really communicate well with the cast or crew. The leading lady wasn’t particularly confident in his directing so when he blocked her movements a certain way to set up his shot, she objected saying it felt wrong. In these situations, it’s all about knowing what you want. If you want a good performance and need the blocking to work a certain way, then you need to let the actor know you understand where they’re coming from, assure them that on camera the blocking will work better than it feels on set and between you try to find a playable direction that she can use to justify the blocking. I often get the actors to walk the blocking with the camera rolling and then show them the footage so they can see where I’m coming from. That way it builds mutual trust in each other’s skills an opinions and you start working together on the problem.

This guy didn’t.

In fact, he got very flustered and couldn’t explain or justify his thinking. The actress, sensing his loss of direction turned to what I call “actor’s self-preservation” where she decided the film didn’t matter anymore- only how she was going to look and how bearable the rest of the shoot was going to be. She flat out refused any direction, preferring to do it her way, made diva-like requests and at the end of the shoot demanded higher expenses than previously agreed. While all this was going on, the other actors and crew started to get restless- some saw her behaviour as holding up the shoot and some started to side with her. The director never recovered that situation or the shoot. The AD and I managed to get through the last few scenes but the performances from everyone suffered because of that single loss of goodwill. And as a post-note, the film has never been finished to my knowledge.

These incidents all go to prove that directing is a lot tougher than many filmmakers assume. For a lot of aspiring directors it’s about being in charge, telling your story and getting your own way when in fact, directing is usually about deferring to and filtering opinions and ideas, telling the story and often letting others think they’re getting their way while finding out what your way actually is.

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A Director’s Priorities

August 16, 2012

Some of the cast and crew from “Jason’s Persona”

So the second Persona shoot is finished and in the can and I can’t help but wonder how we got everything done.

While I’ve not been the frequent blogger I intended or promised to be over the period of this project’s development, I have made a few mentions to the difficulty of doing the Persona shoots- particularly in the areas of pre-production time, tight schedule and self-imposed standards of story and performance. You see, the average Persona story has a turnaround time so tight it could open a strategically-placed beer bottle with a cough- many are turned from vague plot idea to finished product within six weeks. And, with a timescale like that, something has to give and that something is usually quality. Quality of writing. Quality of casting. Quality of performance. Quality of cinematography.

On the two shoots I’ve directed, we’ve tried to not let that happen, but obviously compromises have to be made somewhere. But we’ve tried to put the hours and effort in where we can make the most difference and let the least important areas slide instead. And the areas we’ve let slide aren’t what a lot of emerging (hate that term- sounds like you’re a badger or something coming out of hibernation!) filmmakers would choose to scrimp on. So here I’m going to share our approach to achieving better results with less- picking your battles carefully and putting the effort and money in where it matters most.

The single most important thing is the story. If this doesn’t make immediate sense to you then you are either not a director (and instead likely an unprofessional wannabe-DoP douchebag) or you’re a fucking idiot.

As a director, you are the ombudsman for the audience- you care about about what they care about. And, as a rule, they don’t give a toss about pretty bokeh porn or picture grading or anamorphic lens flares (that means you, JJ Abrams…). All they care about is the story- what it is, how it’s told, who the characters are and what happens. These are the important things- the things you need to focus on. If you have limited resources, then they all need to be thrown at things that enhance the storytelling process first. And sadly for a lot of filmmakers and DoPs, that actually doesn’t include the camera at the top of the list.

In fact, the list (in descending order) goes:

1. The script.

2. The cast and crew.

3. The performances.

4. The world.

5. The presentation.

The script is the single most important thing for a fiction film to work. While it’s not exactly the metaphorical blueprint frequently referred to (blueprints are supposed to be definitive and unchangeable, unlike a script which is more akin to a sketch with rough measurements), it is the creative product that the rest of the show is based on. Rushing or compromising this can only lead to a less than stellar film. Certainly one which is inferior to it’s potential. Don’t go into production until the script is great.

The cast and crew is second. And by cast I don’t mean the executive style of casting where they try to find a household name to pin the project on- I mean choose the right cast for the roles and the project. Choose actors that you think/know you can work with, that trust you and know that you can rely on them to “get” the story and the characters. Cast a difficult actor or one that you can’t direct and pay the price- no matter how talented they are, if you can’t get them where you need them, the show will suffer. Choose your crew with similar care- their creativity and knowledge are what you hire them for. Make sure they work well with you, then you can trust them and their imput. Remember, filmmaking is not a solo activity- you need the people with the skills that you don’t have to make a film that pools your creative skills.

On the set of “Jason’s Persona”

The acting performances follow naturally on from the cast. Choose the right cast and they can deliver the right performances. Why separate cast from performance though and place the former above the latter? Because while the performances are extremely important, if you have limited time and resources you might not be able to give the attention that you’d like to performances on the day. Cast the right actors, trust their judgement and allow them to create the roles- if you make the right decisions in casting, you’ll make your job a lot easier on set. But obviously, there’s more to it than that. You can’t just hope the actors will deliver fried gold on take one without any imput from you. They will still need direction. And it’s this direction that will help mold their performances into the sort of on-screen drama and characterisation you’re looking for.

Now, the first three are somewhat self-explanatory. They are the things an audience actually notice and respond directly to. Ask for the average Joe’s movie review and he’ll talk about the story, how believable the actors are and whether or not the script sucked. Everything else is a bit more abstract or subtle for people to register. The world is one such element and essentially, a lot of it’s about the art department and production design. A good story creates a believable world but if this world cannot be created, insinuated or shown on screen, the audience’s faith and immersion won’t be as powerful. This doesn’t always mean great matte paintings or detailed craft workshops- an effective world can be created with a complete design and attention to detail with key props, costumes and location choices. Don’t just settle for what you find- make the world the audience sees.

But where, I hear you cry, in this list is the cinematography, the look, the style, the editing? Actually, they all come under point five- presentation. Along with pretty much every other facet of the filmmaking production process. Yes, camera department, that means that the writer (script), the actors (cast and performances) and the production designer (the world) are more important to the film than you are. Galling though this sounds, it’s because from an audience’s perspective, the cinematography isn’t something they register on any conscious level. I’ll admit, they register it subconsciously- different colour palettes and lighting and shot choices all affect the mood and the story conveyed, there’s no denying that- but an audience notices a bad script, a poor performance and an unbelievable world before they realise that the bleach bypass look made the film feel gritty. This isn’t to degrade the cinematographer or their work- far from it- but the common camera department opinion that theirs is the most important and medium-defining role on set is bullshit.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that what you as a filmmaker might think is the most important thing to focus your money and creativity on, probably isn’t to your audience and as a director, you need to refocus. With a budget of nothing and resources of next to nothing, focus your attention on the script, the people you’re working with and the actors’ performances because these things are both cost-effective and best for the story.

Because after all, the story should be a director’s primary concern.

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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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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.