January 2011

ACTING 101: FORGET THE MAGIC "IF" AND TELL ME THE MAGIC "WHY"


First of all I have to say that I loved acting and I miss it a great deal. Being an actor was my original creative dream, it was the thing that charged my soul and made me feel alive. I began in high school and next moved on to Community Theater while serving in the Army. I went to Penn State for my bachelor’s degree in Theater and then moved to Los Angeles. After doing some plays in tiny Hollywood-adjacent theaters I got an agent, got some work and joined two actors unions. I was in heaven, moving closer to my dream of making a living as an actor. Then came the hell. This is the descent wherein your creative life and your financial life smash together as if in a supercollider. Not even the joys of a national commercial and a scene opposite Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter could keep that dream alive.

 

 

That being said, I love actors and I never discourage them from the dream. Someone has to make, why not you? The reality of an acting career is brutal to be sure but I think it is a noble profession, especially in plays and films that examine the human condition and our place in the universe or even reflect on our current events. It’s an important craft. The arts are vastly underappreciated in America and that’s not likely to change. Also not likely change: your long odds at making a living as an actor.

 

 

Let’s start at the beginning, then. The first question to ask is why do you want to be an actor? Why will you dedicate your life to that dream? If the answer is “to be famous,” you’re doomed already in so many ways; if it is “because there is nothing else I’m good at,” you need to try more things; but if the answer is “the drive to act compels me as if I were a spawning salmon,” you’re exactly right. You’re also likely melodramatic…

 

 

This is what I call the Magic Why. Why acting? You really need to be honest here. You can end up wasting an awful lot of time and money and even relationships. Do it for the craft. Do it for the joy. Do it because there is nothing more important to you in the whole world. Don’t do it to be famous, to be rich, to be loved, or to get laid. Respect the craft. Good acting entertains us, but great acting (along with writing, or course) affects us deeply, perhaps even haunts us.

 

 

Study, rehearse, expand your senses and pay your dues. Enroll in college. The very process of getting a bachelor’s degree expands your knowledge tremendously and challenges your assumptions. Push your comfort zone and act in as many different plays as possible. Read plays, as many as you can. And finally, there is no substitute for life experience. Travel, work different summer jobs and learn to observe people and their surroundings. All of this will help you master the craft.

 

 

You need to know about motivation, beats, action verbs, objectives, subtext and character arcs. You need to understand Stanislavsky’s Magic If, working from inside out or the outside in, and MOST IMPORTANTLY you need to learn how to actively LISTEN. It’s not easy listening to same lines again and again and then during each performance act as if you are hearing it for the first time. Listen to what the other actors are saying instead of waiting for your next cue to speak. And listen to the director and learn how to translate their notes, suggestions and instructions into action.

 

 

Now you see why actors who just want to famous aren’t often very good; it takes way too much effort to dedicate yourself to the craft of acting.

 

 

A flawless complexion, a gleaming smile and surgical enhanced attributes can make you rich and famous, I suppose.

 

 

But they’ll never make you a great actor.

I’m just saying…

 

 

PRODUCING 101: MOVING MOUNTAINS ONE STONE AT A TIME


Excerpt from my book “Long Night’s Journey Into Daybreak.”

Getting things all lined up, you are taking care of tasks both great and small, and are putting out so many fires that you figure you must have “Smokey the Bear” tattooed across your forehead. Producing is, above all else, an endurance game, a test of wills, and an open invitation to improvise and create minor miracles.

 

 

Procuring equipment, that is, getting the best deals on film stock, lighting and grip packages, shipping and lab work, is extremely time consuming and labor intensive. The telephone becomes your Producer School. This is how you learn to talk the talk. With every call you make, you get better at what you’re doing. On the first call for price quotes you may sound like a complete dolt, but by the third call you will sound calm, cool and professional… like a producer.

 

 

There is only so much money available for the shoot, and so much pressure to pull it off. How do you do this? Prepare as much as possible. Okay, but if you have never produced before, as I had not, what things do you prepare? There are endless details and miles and miles of unknowns on the road before you.

 

First off, you’ve got to gather specific information on what each department’s needs are. The director of photography (DP) and sound mixer are going to pitch for the best equipment they can have to make their job easier. You have to get the details on what advantages these needs will yield, and then you must weigh them against the finite amount of money that you have to best accomplish the shoot. For example, the DP wants to use Kodak Vision Stock. Do you acquiesce or push for a cheaper film stock? The requirements of my project dictated that an atmospheric look was critical to “Daybreak.” The DP needed this tool to accomplish it; therefore he got his film stock. But, it meant that someone else would not get what they wanted. For example, the sound mixer ran with an old reliable Nagra IV recorder and not the latest digital recorder.

 

Next, you have to negotiate with everyone involved. At first, the items are big: film stock, film format, camera package, sound package, grip & lighting truck size, etc. Then it comes down to the little things. In the end, we couldn’t afford a smart slate (which electronically synchs picture timecode with audio timecode) and therefore had to synch the sound and picture in post production manually. We also couldn’t afford the extra money for walkie-talkies, although we did get some loaned to us during the first days of the shoot. In retrospect, I couldn’t see doing without them. Knowing how much time they saved even on a tiny production such as “Daybreak,” I would never opt to do without them again. Lesson learned.

As the shoot progresses, you find yourself handling all of the details—such as calling FedEx to find out what happened to your shipment of “dulling spray” (seriously, it dulls an object to be filmed) from Los Angeles which is overdue only to discover that it has been damaged in the Nashville floods. You are constantly checking up on local businesses for promised meals and locations, and then rescheduling when some of them fall through, as well as canceling others due to changes in the shooting schedule.

After the shooting is finished, you are on “mop up detail.” Simply put, you’ve got a mess of tasks to clean up and organize. Beginning with making sure all of the equipment has been returned, and then paying for any lost and damaged items, known as L&D (also called missing and damaged or M&D), as well as springing for the use of “expendables” from the grip truck. You will eventually have to break into the expendables, whether for gaffer tape or nylon rope; the truck always has something you didn’t bring!

 

 

So, what if you planned a shoot and nobody came? What if they came but had no place to park? What if they came, parked, but found no bathroom facilities other than that large knotted oak tree yonder by the highway? Here I present some advice to keep even the lowest-budgeted film’s cast and crew from a well-entitled mutiny…

To find out what that advice is, you’ll have to read the book (which can be found on Amazon.com, by the way).

C’mon, help out a starving author…

I’m just saying…