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Old April 3rd, 2009, 10:44 AM   #1
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Single Biggest Unexpected Lesson You've Learned Making An Indie Feature?

There is degree to which we all learn the same lessons over and over again - the need for massive preparation, the need to think through every aspect of your production, the need to pick projects where the locations are all affordable and accessible. But what was the one lesson you learned that you don't referenced in filmmaking books?

I've produced 6 feature films now and there is one thing I have seen sabotage a lot of films that I've never referenced anywhere - that is, the tendency of lead male actors to want to turn in performances that are so lean and so, well, nihilistic that you don't actually want to watch them. I've had two friends have a very high quality film sabotaged by this. I should add that it almost entirely seems to happen with actors who are quite good. Bad actors may not be able to accomplish what I'm talking about because the nihilism is just seen as another manifestation of their incompetence.

Lead characters, even if the character in question is a real jerk, still need to be engaging on some level. And a lot of actors, without experience as leads in a real features, frequently want to strip all of the likeability away and present the audience with a cactus of a character.

As you're doing your table reads, make sure that an audience will find the characters engaging. If someone is stripping their performance so far down that there is none of the actor's charisma visible, it can turn into a black hole that will suck the watch-ability and the distribution of your film right into it.
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Old April 4th, 2009, 06:26 PM   #2
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Hi Lori.

It's a very interesting point that you've brought up. It really struck a nerve with me, because it strikes at the very artistry of the movie. My first thought was, "What's going on with the scriptwriter and director?"

If a producer wanted to have a movie that doesn't have the "watch-ability and the distribution of your film" sucked into the proverbial "black hole", then it's already very dicey to go with a script where the lead character in question is "a real jerk". It's possible for the scriptwriter to add some scenes which show some "heart" for that character (or weave this into existing scenes), instead of totally dumping this responsibility onto that nebulous thing called "the actor's charisma".

An actor will usually form his/her initial interpretation of the part from reading the script. If their interpretation which then follows from reading the script is lean and nihilistic, well ...

But this problem can also be "saved" by a good director, even when the script gives him nothing. Besides the initial discussions about that leading part with the actor - which is the other thing that an actor will often use to interpret the part (even if this discussion only occurs during the actor's audition) - the director can actually construct "bits of business" that allow that actor's charisma to be displayed during the movie.

To give a famous example, in the original Die Hard movie, the director felt that there wasn't enough in Bruce Willis's character to engage the audience, so he constructed various bits such as where he had him crawl through the air conditioning duct, ignite his cigarette lighter and say disgustedly, "Come down to the Coast. We'll get together. Have a few laughs."

I guess all I'm saying is that actors do need help to display their "charisma". And sometimes it's too easy for writers and directors to dump their hats regarding this and blame it all on the actor.

Plus the director needs to develop the skill to differentiate between when an actor is underplaying (with a very powerful result when it's up on the screen) or not playing at all (where the performance doesn't project). Then the director can step in and straighten things out accordingly, during the early part of the shoot!

And finally, in the spirit of this thread, I'll give my biggest unexpected lesson making an indie feature: Don't have your hair and make-up done away from the location!

We had one location where we couldn't get access to any electricity, so I hired a motel room (more than a mile away) to provide the power so that the make-up and hair could be done, then the actors ferried to the location. We did this on two separate occasions. Both times were a complete disaster. On the first occasion (and there were about 15 people going through that room), one person had a complete meltdown and caused such a bad reaction and fallout that it almost scuttled the entire production. The second time it was a different person who caused trouble. An indie production relies 100% on goodwill - from everybody - and anything which sours this can really lead to a debacle. Throughout the entire production, things went smoothly whenever hair and make-up were done at the same location. Perhaps because there's more discipline on the actual set, plus it's easier to monitor and straighten things out quickly. So I think it's much better policy in future (even if the production can't really afford it) to obtain a truck with a silenced generator at any future locations without access to power.


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Last edited by David Knaggs; April 4th, 2009 at 07:14 PM.
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Old April 4th, 2009, 09:51 PM   #3
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Yeah, there is a time and place for a generator. One of the things I tell first time indie filmmakers (because you do not have to tell second time indie filmmakers this) is make sure that all of your locations are accessible and function well. If you can't afford a generator, then you better be shooting some place you can string the extension cords up.

And right along that line, another lesson - don't shoot in the heat of the summer unless you have characters that need to look red and sweaty on camera.

As for the actor thing, that's exactly what I'm not talking about. I'm not about characters that are lean and nihilistic or scripts that need scenes to warm the character up. I'm specifically talking about actors who want to strip away their charm - despite what the director may want or what the script calls for - and turn in a very learn, nihilistic performance. One of the films I'm thinking about is one where the lead character is a wonderfully written, complex guy with a gorgeous wife that he loves. And he has wonderful scenes upfront with her. It's a great script and the lead actor is capable of enormous charisma. But you cannot see it anywhere in the opening of the movie and it makes it unwatchable. It certainly wasn't what the director had in mind. It was choice the actor made and there was no moving him away from it. We do post production on indie films, and it's a syndrome that I see more than occasionally. That's all. Head's up.
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Old April 5th, 2009, 07:35 AM   #4
 
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I got a good chuckle out of your post. I've had a fair amount of experience with leading actors; and actresses, I might add. For the most part, these are people who chose the acting career for a reason. Nihilism, hedonism, self absorption, and an exaggerated sense of worth seem to go hand in hand with the profession. Seems like I need a handler to wrangle the talent, many times ;o)

I read a recent book by a well known cultural anthropologist presenting the theory that Americans, in general, have become pathologically narcissistic. So, perhaps it's not fair to single out actors and actresses. it would seem it's a rampant cultural desease, here in the USA.

Come to think of it, DP's are kinda like that too....hehehehe.

Last edited by Bill Ravens; April 5th, 2009 at 10:56 AM.
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Old April 5th, 2009, 09:00 AM   #5
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Thanks, Lori. I definitely get that you are simply noting a phenomenon that you’ve observed when doing post production. And that it’s not directly related to your own actions.

And what I say next is simply a general comment for independent filmmakers who may or may not find this useful.

And it’s quite controversial.

IT'S FAR MORE IMPORTANT TO PREPARE THE ACTORS THAN IT IS TO PREPARE THE PRODUCTION.

Period.

And note that I didn’t say it wasn’t important to prepare the production. It’s vitally important to prepare the production (all of the logistics, etc.). And it’s a massive amount of work that has to be put in by the Production Office and the Producer!

But it’s more important to prepare the actors.

Yet if this is just reduced to a general two hour table read by the whole cast ...

After all, what would you think if the Producer and Production Office only put in two hours work on preparing the whole movie?

The audience really doesn’t care whether there was decent catering or whether there were proper call sheets or adequate transportation. What they mostly care about is whether they can get emotionally involved with the main characters and their relationships (which is why Lori said that the zero chemistry between the husband and wife made that movie almost unwatchable. And therefore almost unsellable).

I think that any romantic couple should always do a separate reading and rehearsal of their scenes until some chemistry develops. Sometimes you’re lucky and the actors might immediately “click”. Otherwise you have to keep rehearsing until some sort of rapport develops. Something that might translate onto the screen.

And then there is the most important preparation. The quite good actor who is being given his first lead role. The real work of the indie director with this actor is BEFORE the shoot begins. If you don’t prepare him and handle his confusions, he’ll have to adopt his own fixed ideas about how to play the part by the time he walks on set. (Perhaps this might be the real reason behind the “willful actor” syndrome that Lori has noticed in more than one production?)

I reckon the greatest example of preparing a first-time leading actor was by Terence Young, who took a young Sean Connery (who had previously only played unrefined and uncouth characters in supporting parts) under his wing and took him to casinos and showed him the finer aspects of the world that James Bond inhabits. He had Connery fitted for a suit by a top London tailor and then had Connery wear the suit in bed at night, telling him that a properly made suit will still retain its shape when he gets up in the morning. (It did.) It was a massive preparation overall, but it gave the actor the confidence and understanding to correctly interpret the part. And that’s why most people consider Sean Connery to be the best Bond. He had the best preparation!

Anyway, I’ll get down off my soapbox now.

Purely my opinions.


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Last edited by David Knaggs; April 5th, 2009 at 10:53 PM. Reason: Fix a typo
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Old April 6th, 2009, 06:54 PM   #6
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It's incredibly important to prepare actors. I let everyone know that if they aren't off-book two weeks before we shoot, I'm recasting. we do extensive rehearsal process to prevent those kinds of shocks. I think the bigger problem is that a lot of first and second time filmmakers don't actually know what a polished film performance looks like in rehearsal or when they're shooting. There's a learning curve for that.
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Old April 6th, 2009, 08:21 PM   #7
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Huh. It's very interesting for me, as an actor, to read these comments and get an idea of what people on the other side of the camera are thinking.

Quote:
the tendency of lead male actors to want to turn in performances that are so lean and so, well, nihilistic that you don't actually want to watch them
I can understand where this comes from. There is a real fear of overacting, of being theatrical. But yes, of course a performance of nothing is not very interesting to watch either.

Quote:
I've had a fair amount of experience with leading actors; and actresses, I might add. For the most part, these are people who chose the acting career for a reason. Nihilism, hedonism, self absorption, and an exaggerated sense of worth seem to go hand in hand with the profession.
I've worked with some really big names (with myself doing small stuff!) and have mostly found them to be friendly and helpful. Though I have run into the odd dingbat. It's kind of sad, though, that filmmakers would go through all the trouble of going through years of trouble, expense, training and pain just to be able to spend time with a bunch of people they consider to be nihilistic, hedonistic, and self absorbed.

Of course actors are self absorbed. If they weren't, they wouldn't be able to act. Filmmakers need to learn how to work with that.

Quote:
I guess all I'm saying is that actors do need help to display their "charisma". And sometimes it's too easy for writers and directors to dump their hats regarding this and blame it all on the actor.
Quite true. My overwhelming experience in doing film and tv is that the actors are given little or no rehearsal. The rehearsal you do get is blocking in order to let the camera and light crew set up and practise their own moves.

Feedback is minimal, and usually limited to when you suck. If it's acceptable, good, or great, you usually get nothing.

I will say that my experience is usually small roles in large American productions, and some big roles in smaller American and local productions here in Montreal. I don't have much indy experience, so can't really comment on how they usually work.

Quote:
IT'S FAR MORE IMPORTANT TO PREPARE THE ACTORS THAN IT IS TO PREPARE THE PRODUCTION.
This is so self evident that is hardly needs comment, but for what it's worth....what's the point of a great script, beautiful sets, lighting, locations and direction if they're ruined by having everyone whose face is on camera being unprepared and delivering bad performances?

I'm sorry, but it's the director's job to recognize that a performer is giving something that's too "lean and nihilistic' and nip the damn thing in the bud!
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Old April 6th, 2009, 09:19 PM   #8
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You make a great point, Lori. That's hit the nail on the head.

And perhaps it's the sort of thing a director doesn't learn until it happens to him/her at least once. After that you start to develop a sensitivity for this sort of thing.

And I don't know if it's really the sort of thing you can learn simply by being told about it. You really do need to see it with your own eyes before you can truly understand it.

It was a total fluke that I happened to be on a friend's set one day (before I'd started directing) and saw a magnificent performance by a supporting actor. Everyone in the room was blown away by it, unlike the performance of the lead actor, which really didn't seem anything special. I couldn't wait to see the final movie so I could view the magnificent supporting performance in this scene and see how it looked on the screen.

The great performance (in the room) of the supporting actor did not translate to the screen at all. In fact, it seemed a bit lacklustre. I couldn't believe it! Whereas the lead actor, who was underplaying, delivered a powerful screen performance and dominated every scene he was in. He had real screen presence. But I never picked up on that while I was in the room.

After that, you start looking for it and developing that sensitivity. (But in my case it was just dumb luck to be there on that particular day and learn that lesson so early.)

It's certainly one of the major lessons in the nurturing and preparation of the indie director.
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Old April 6th, 2009, 09:54 PM   #9
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We had the opposite happen with The Bacchae. An actor who is quite well known now, and the son of one of cinema's most important directors (but who didn't wind up in the final cut) was playing the role of the Herdsman - which, if you don't know the play, is a tough role. It's a 5 minute monologue, pure and simple, where the herdsman must convince the young and inexperienced king of the power and magic of the Bacchae and the danger this presents to him if he pursues them. We were behind the camera and could barely tear ourselves away from the video monitor - one of the most riveting performances I've ever watched. He was magnificent. During a break, some of the actors in the scene whom I knew well, ran up to me bewailing his performance - literally. They were watching him perform and thought he was god-awful. But on the screen, he was pure magic.

Brad's editing a film right now where everyone, including the director, kept telling us how awful the lead actress is. The director made excuses for her - well, she looked great so I cast her. I chewed him out - this is LA, there is no reason to cast someone who isn't good just because she looks great. I heard this from several actors who worked with her as well. But no, we're cutting the scenes together and she is very, very good.

The point being that you cannot always tell during the shoot how a performance will play on screen. That's one of the reasons for dailies which are one heckuva lot easier with digital filmmaking.
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Old April 6th, 2009, 11:24 PM   #10
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Hi Vito.

I loved your comments. It's great to get an actor's viewpoint.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Vito DeFilippo View Post
I've worked with some really big names (with myself doing small stuff!) and have mostly found them to be friendly and helpful. Though I have run into the odd dingbat.
I've found this to be true with actors I've known. Most are top-notch people with only the odd one who is not. The actor has the toughest job in the industry. Bar none. They have to give so much and yet have to endure constant auditioning and constant rejection.

That's why I think it's important for a director to love actors (in general). And not to be secretly harboring a low opinion of them.

If you look at breakthrough indie movies where they broke through into the big league (such as The Evil Dead and Bottle Rocket) and even some of the finer Hollywood partnerships (between the director and lead actor), the preparation was dependent on a great affection developing between the director and the lead actor (or actors). To the degree where they would hang out together in cafes, etc., outside of the rehearsal room and really chew the fat about different aspects of the role and performance - just in a casual, relaxed way. But you'd be surprised how those creative juices bubble on these occasions.

It always helps when the actor and director are already great mates. Such as Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead. How many creative ideas about the part would have been travelling back and forth between them over a beer or at the ball game? The same thing with the Wilson brothers and Wes Anderson in Bottle Rocket.

In Hollywood examples, look at John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. They used to love hanging out together. Bogart made his breakthrough role (where he went from B-list to A-list) in Huston's The Maltese Falcon and later won the Oscar in a Huston picture. Look at Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (they both hit the A-list following Mean Streets and then made several hit films together).

This sort of thing is getting way beyond the original subject which Lori noted. But I just wanted to point out that the degree of preparation can go way beyond simply making sure that the performances will "work" on screen. If the director and the lead (or leads) have a genuine liking and actually hang out a bit during the preparation to really let the creative juices flow concerning the part, then it's more likely to get something really special from the actor.

James Dean gave one of my favourite acting performances in Rebel without a Cause. But I didn't much care for his next performance in Giant. It was a good, professional performance, but nothing special. Dean used to fight on-set with the director of Giant, George Stevens, and they didn't get along at all. The director of Rebel without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, used to get Dean and the young cast to come over to his house on the weekends as part of the preparation for the movie and they'd just hang out and bounce ideas off one another. With the final result of great performances by the whole cast and especially from his star.

The only downside of those weekends was that Dennis Hopper had his girlfriend, Natalie Wood, stolen by Nicholas Ray and, when Hopper complained about it, Ray demoted him to a very small part in the movie.

So he lost his hot girlfriend and his part. This is the sort of thing actors have to put up with.
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Old April 6th, 2009, 11:30 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lori Starfelt View Post
The point being that you cannot always tell during the shoot how a performance will play on screen. That's one of the reasons for dailies which are one heckuva lot easier with digital filmmaking.
Those are good stories, Lori. Thanks for posting that.
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Old April 7th, 2009, 08:24 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by Lori Starfelt View Post
The point being that you cannot always tell during the shoot how a performance will play on screen. That's one of the reasons for dailies which are one heckuva lot easier with digital filmmaking.
I experienced exactly the same thing in one of the first projects I did. Another actor working with us completely overplayed everything, or so I thought at the time. When I saw his performance in the final project, however, I realized he had played it completely right, and stole the show. Much better than the rest of us in the same scenes. I learned a big lesson from that.

And speaking of giving actors preparation, he was told one hour before "action" that his character had an Italian accent. You think they might have mentioned that before? And this was a big role. He probably had 10-15 days on set.
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Old April 9th, 2009, 03:38 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Vito DeFilippo View Post
I experienced exactly the same thing in one of the first projects I did. Another actor working with us completely overplayed everything, or so I thought at the time. When I saw his performance in the final project, however, I realized he had played it completely right, and stole the show. Much better than the rest of us in the same scenes. I learned a big lesson from that.
I'm glad this thread was posted.

I'm about to start filming on my first feature. It's also my first everything. I've never done a short or anything of that nature, just worked background on a couple of projects and listend to a lot of directors give advice.

While i know and firmly believe in prepping the actors, I'm afraid of having an actor blow me away during shooting only to have it fall flat on playback.

what are some of the signs that something doesn't look good on screen? I'd assume that if it's powerful enough being played out for the camera, then the cam will pick up the performance and translate it to the screen. Obviously you guys see it differently.
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Old April 9th, 2009, 08:05 PM   #14
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Ryan,

Before I respond, how skilled are your lead actors? How much theatre experience do they have and what kind of training? Are you completely cast? How much rehearsal time do you have scheduled?

I think we can give you some good pointers that are specific if we know that.

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Old April 9th, 2009, 11:55 PM   #15
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I'm about to start filming on my first feature. I've never done a short or anything of that nature
...

listend to a lot of directors give advice.
Hi Ryan.

If you're going to jump straight into features, then there's a great book on directing by Sidney Lumet called, "Making Movies", where he gives great advice on every stage of making a feature - from the director's viewpoint.

Amazon.com: Making Movies: Sidney Lumet: Books

It'll be the best $11 you ever spent.

In Chapters One and Four, he extensively covers how to work with actors, especially the preparation. AND HOW HE CAN TELL when he's got the level of performance that he's after.

The whole book is a remarkable act of generosity by an A-list director.

He didn't just "work" with A-list actors. He got remarkable performances from A-list actors.

But the advice he gives, really, is applicable for working with actors at any level, not just the A-list.

But, in this sense, I would minimally define an "actor" as someone who has at least had a couple of lessons. And preferably a bit of stage or short film experience.

As to screen presence, Lori has already pointed out that shooting digitally gives you the opportunity to watch it on the screen as it happens. Or, if you like to be near the actors on set as you shoot, you can always play it back and inspect it while the DP and gaffers set up the lights for the next scene.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ryan Kincaid View Post
what are some of the signs that something doesn't look good on screen?
One simple tip: If it's an important scene and you find yourself captivated as you watch it back on a screen, then all is well. If you're not captivated, then chances are that the audience won't be either. They'll just be looking at their watches.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ryan Kincaid View Post
I'd assume that if it's powerful enough being played out for the camera, then the cam will pick up the performance and translate it to the screen.
If that assumption were true, Hollywood would never need to do screen tests. Yet it's been their staple for over 90 years. In the 1930s, after talkies came in, the studios brought Broadway actors out to Hollywood by the bucketload. They all had great stage presence, but this didn't necessarily translate to an acceptable screen presence. So a lot of them were sent straight back to Broadway while others, such as Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, were put on contracts.
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