Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Production design is simple. At least when it's good.

Look around your place. Be honest. Are there things that don't fit?

You bet there are. Even in my place there are, and my wife and I both have pretty distinctive, pretty consistent taste.

There's a painting, for instance, that I hate. My wife likes it. So it's up. If you're married, you understand this kind of compromise.

It's not distinct enough from the other art we have to draw attention to itself. But it doesn't quite fit. So what does it say about us that it's on the wall?

If we were characters in a film, it would say that we don't have a really clear sense of what we like.

We're not characters in a film, which is why it's not a big deal. But in a film, it would be death. It's not consistent enough with the other art to define our taste, but not inconsistent enough to raise a question.

Communication depends on clarity.

If your character is neat, a little mess is not okay. If your character loves music, there's no reason for him to have a collection of shot glasses. Unless there's a reason for him to have a collection of shot glasses, in which case he needs to have them.

Let me hasten to explain that I'm not saying every environment in a film needs to be neat and orderly with only meaningful objects in it. What I'm saying is that you, Aspiring Director, don't have the luxury of developing subtle nuances of character in the same way that, say, a novelist does. A novelist can tell you about the shot glasses, then explain why they're there. Why they're perhaps ironic. Or a holdover from a time when the character felt a need to collect something. Or maybe a meaningful reminder to help a recovering alcoholic from falling off the wagon.

A novelist can even go on for pages about shot glasses that aren't there, that were there once, maybe, but had been tossed into a dumpster in a fit of rage by an ex-lover years ago and missed ever since. Shot glasses that might have precipitated the very breakup of the character and his lover from which he is only now, years later, beginning to recover.

You can't.

There are only two ways to communicate character in film: what people see and what people hear. And as Steven Spielberg can attest, you can never be too heavy-handed with what people see.

Keep it simple.

Is that clear? I know, I know. Clearer than my own living room.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yep, I'm actually going to use a Christmas carol to make a point about directing.

By this time every year, I'm totally, completely sick of holiday music. Call me a grinch, but the next tinny speaker that tries to get me in a holiday mood by spewing 'Little Drummer Boy' or 'Run, Run Rudolph' into the air anywhere near me is going to find itself decorated for the holidays with a dent that matches the size and shape of the heel of my shoe.

But there's one song I never seem to get tired of. 'Baby It's Cold Outside'.

Okay, it's not really a Christmas carol. But for a song that was written in 1944, it gets played a lot during the holidays –– and almost never during the rest of the year.

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what 'Baby It's Cold Outside' has to do with directing. Well, let's start with the film 'Elf', which featured the song, sung by Zooey Deschanel –– whose voice has a syrupy, 1940s quality –– and Leon Redbone –– an inspired choice to dub for Will Ferrell.

Before that, it was actually used in the musical 'Neptune's Daughter'. Twice. Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams sang it once. Red Skelton and Betty Garrett sang it the other time. And it won Frank Loesser the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Enough history. It's a great song. But the question is, why?

In a word, subtext.

And that, dear Aspiring Director, is relevant to making a quality film in a way that a little gold statue may or may not be.

Listen to the lyrics. 'Baby It's Cold Outside' is a seduction, set to music.

Here's a really fun exercise: Translate the words to the song into what you know they mean. What you end up with is something about seven seconds long and boring.

Here's my version:

"I want to have sex with you."
"I want to have sex with you, too, but I don't think I should."
"I want to have sex with you."
"Okay."

When you translate the song into plain English, it sounds like the dialogue from a typical Hollywood action film. It's the subtext that makes it interesting. Sure, we know it's cold outside. That much is obvious from the title. But as the song progresses, we get to know who these people are, what they've been doing, how they think, and what their circumstances are. Or, to put it into film talk, character, backstory, motivation, and conflict. We even know exactly what's about to happen next.

Subtext isn't easy. You have to write around something instead of saying it directly, and believe me, it's hard enough to say something directly. But when it works, you end up with something really interesting. Something people –– people like me, anyway –– want to hear over and over again, even when it happens to be 65 years old.

Happy holidays. Now get back to work.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The 60 Second Director will return shortly.

Hi.

This is just a quick note to say, no, I'm not dead, and no, I haven't run out of things to blog about. The IRS has given me until the 14th to get my paperwork in order for the audit and in the meantime, I have a commercial to shoot on the 8th. So I'm busy. Swamped.

So I'm going dark for a little while. But I'll be back and when I am, boy, will I have stories!

Thanks for all the notes and emails and stuff. The support is truly appreciated.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

If you believe in God, now would be a good time to pray for me.

What a month.

I woke up three Saturdays ago to agonizing pain. A tooth ache. I was scheduled to get on a plane the next day and I figured I'd rather have a dental emergency in my own hometown than in New York, so I went to the dentist.

Long story short: root canal.

Strangely, it didn't hurt as much as I expected. I said as much to the universe and the universe must have thought I was mocking it because I came home from New York to find a letter from the IRS waiting for me. I'm being audited.

Yes, that's right. Monday and Tuesday, one of our nation's finest is going to do his or her part to reduce the Federal deficit by pawing through my records to try and uncover untold millions of unreported earnings.

Needless to say, I'm scared. Not because I've been hiding anything, but because I buy into the universal perception that taxes are so complicated, normal people like you and me are not capable of figuring them out. Weird, huh? I can organize, schedule, and budget an entire production involving hundreds of thousands of dollars and dozens of people, but I can't even muster the courage to try and understand a Schedule C.

Wish me luck, will you?

I'll be back, posting my little heart out, once things settle down again. Unless I'm in prison.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Casting trick #8. Treat your actors like professionals.

I read somewhere that the average cost to make a television commercial is well over $400,000.

I don't know about you, but I think that's a lot of money. Although it goes pretty quickly when you have to scout locations, build sets, get permits, hire crews, rent equipment, and all the other stuff that goes into a shoot.

But when you think about it, most commercials come down to actors interacting. All the other stuff is there to support the interaction. And putting it that way, you'd think the actors would be the most important factor.

Only they're not treated that way.

It's not unusual for actors to get a phone call or email at midnight telling them they have an audition the next morning. They're given a scheduled time for their audition that's totally arbitrary, without any regard for the fact that they might have jobs or children, and even when they show up on time, they're often forced to wait for an hour or more for a chance to read for a part.

That waiting time is usually a good thing because many casting directors don't feel the need to provide any information the actors can use to prepare for the audition.

What's remarkable is that the same people who give the actors no notice, no information, and no time to prepare are often the ones who deride the actors as flaky when they don't show up and talentless when they don't have the script memorized. And not just behind their backs, either.

It never occurs to them that acting, by its very nature, requires an incredible ability to compartmentalize: Actors need to be able to respond with full emotion while performing, yet deal with the daily rejection that comes with the pursuit of work.

You want to be a better director? Of course you do. Well, take some acting classes. Go on some auditions. If you're lucky enough to land a gig, pay attention to the way you're treated. Walk a mile in your actors' shoes.

Trust me, you'll never take your actors for granted again. And your work will be much, much better.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Another reason it matters what order you see people in.


Remember, oh, about three weeks ago when I went on about how actors who come in early in the day are at a disadvantage, while those that come in toward the end have an advantage? (If you don't, click here.)

There's a mitigating factor, but before I get to it I have to talk a little bit about what you're looking at when you're evaluating an actor's audition.

There are two parts to an actor. There's who the actor is. And there's what the actor does.

Who an actor is involves not just his looks, but the way he carries himself, how he connects, how he moves, and that weird, undefinable thing, charisma. Who an actor is comes from genetics and habit and upbringing and instinct and while some actors actually work on developing this stuff a bit, you can only make yourself so tall, thin, good-looking, or charismatic.

What an actor does means the choices he makes. Is he angry or sad? Interested or bored? Turned on or turned off? A lot of actors give less thought to these decisions than they really should, trusting that their instincts will lead them to the most interesting performances, but I like the actors who take apart a scene and figure out what's really going on. These are the people who can perform a conversation with their mothers about where to park the car, but make you understand that what's really going on is a seething resentment over Mom's not intervening when Dad molested Sis twenty years ago.

In actor-speak, what an actor does is called making a choice. And when the Academy gives out awards, a lot of the praise you'll hear is about the "interesting," "brave," or "powerful" choices made by the nominees.

You don't have to see an Oscar-nominated film, though, to see choices. Actors make them in auditions. Sometimes, you'll see a really neat choice in an audition. Even in, yes, commercial auditions. Auditions where the housewife has to decide which paper towel will clean up the spill or the pizza delivery guy gets a door slammed in his face.

Which brings me back to the point I started this blog to make:

Sometimes, two actors will make the same unusual choice in an audition. When that happens, it's easy to give the first person you see doing it more credit than the second. The first time you see it, it's new. The second time, your tendency is to feel that the actor is copying somebody else's good idea.

But remember, each actor made the choice independent of the other. If what the actors do is more or less equal, then you can always make your decision based on who the actor is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. Today I'm failing spectacularly.

What a week. I spent the past four days working with some footage I shot just before I left for New York, testing a new film technique I came up with.

And it's not coming together.

The idea's there, but the process isn't working the way I imagined.

It's enough to make me feel sorry for myself. I spent a lot of time and effort designing the test. And dropped a bunch of cash to rent the equipment and hire a crew. That's money I could have spent to take my wife on vacation. My wife deserves a vacation. She hasn't had one since before the kids were born.

As I shut down the computer to head home, I had an epiphany. I realized that I haven't accomplished nothing after all. I've accomplished something much more important. I've failed.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, you're an idiot. Failure is not a good thing."

You're wrong. Failure is a good thing. It's not the best thing. Success, that's the best thing. But failure is the second-best thing. What's bad is not trying.

If everything works out every single time, it isn't hard. And if it isn't hard, what makes you think you're any good?

Directing, by the way, is hard. Inventing a film technique that nobody's ever done before is harder. And putting the two together into something that's worth watching, that's just stupid hard.

So it's no wonder I didn't nail it.

And no, I'm not making excuses. I wish everything had come together the way I imagined it. I have that fantasy, too, you know. The same one you have where you pick up the phone to hear Steven Spielberg on the other end, begging you to tell him how the hell you did it.

Not going to happen. Yet.

But I'm going to go back and work on it some more. Eventually, it'll work. And if it doesn't, something else will.

When that happens, I'm going to be so fucking good at what I do that it's going to look easy. But you know what? It won't be. Unless you're me.

And I'll know that whatever success comes from it comes from skill, not luck.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When your actor is talking to the camera, don't use a dolly move.

When a character is talking to the camera, the camera is meant to be me, the viewer. So if you go and put a move on the camera, it gets freaky. Like I'm sliding across the living room or something.

Don't do that.

I'm serious. It makes me uncomfortable.

Not to mention how hard you make it for the actor, talking to a moving target.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I'm going to be in New York this week. Raise your hand if you care.

I'm not planning on bringing a computer with me and I can't write a decent blog on my iPhone, so for an entire week you're going to have to manage without me.

You'll be fine.

I'll be back at the keyboard the week of October 26th. I hope you miss me a little.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Casting trick #7: The order you see people in is important.

When I schedule my casting sessions, I keep a couple of important things in mind.

The first person to come to a casting session is at a disadvantage. No matter how dialed in I am, there are still adjustments to make, so they're auditioning while I'm settling in, tweaking the blocking, setting up my papers, and figuring out exactly how I'm going to get what I'm looking for.

The last people to come to a casting session are at an advantage. I'm looking for The One, and if I haven't found him or her by then, I'm hopeful that I will.

I'm also more confident in my approach. I've seen what's working and what actors aren't responding to. And I have a better sense of how the scene is going to work. (That is, unless I'm running way behind schedule and have a plane to catch, in which case I want to be done and out of there.)

These things may not be true for you, but they are for me. And as much as I may try to compensate for my weaknesses, I'm smart enough to know that it's an uphill battle.

So I work with them.

If there's someone I hold out a lot of hope for, I schedule him or her to come in toward the end. If I'm seeing someone as a favor, or if an actor is pretty clearly not right for the part but I want to give him or her a shot, I'll have him or her come in toward the beginning.

No, it's not fair. Fair would be doing the opposite. Tilting the playing field to favor the ones that I don't expect to do well and to put the ones I get a good feeling from at more of a disadvantage. The thing is, after running hundreds of casting sessions I've seen patterns emerge, and while I can't tell going in who's going to get the part, I can usually tell who's going to be a contender for it.

Besides, I'm open to being surprised.

It happens, too. Often enough for me to know better than to check out at any point. Or to rely too heavily on the people I schedule toward the end to come in and knock it out of the park.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Casting trick #6: Think of performance not in terms of right or wrong, but rather in terms of true or false.

My wife has an audition for a Gus Van Sant movie this morning, which is especially neat for me.

For one thing, I love getting a glimpse at how other, more famous, directors work. For another, my wife is amazingly good at breaking down a scene and constructing an entire world from the clues she finds hidden in dialogue or screen direction.

This time, though, I see the scene one way and she sees it another. And the reality is, neither one of us has a clue how Gus sees it. For all we know, we could both be totally off.

How is that relevant? Because your actors can't know what's in your head.

You can tell them. And you should. But even the most detailed explanation will leave them loads of room to interpret. This is a good thing, by the way. It's what actors get paid to do.

What that means for you doing casting, though, is that you need to think of performance not in terms of right and wrong, but rather in terms of true or false.

One of my wife's lines is, "Mind your business." Is she saying it with anger? Sadness? Frustration? Is she lashing out or muttering? Is she even speaking to the other actor or is she saying it to herself?

Who knows? At this point in the process, I'd be surprised if Gus Van Sant even knows.

My wife needs to fill in the blanks the best way she can, and if you ask me, the way to do that is to have a clear picture of her character first.

I like the idea of her character feigning ineptitude in order to avoid having to confront reality, but my wife is leaning more toward her putting on a false front of optimism in the feeble hope that she can control her fate. Whatever she decides will inform the way the line comes out. That, along with the way the line that precedes it is given to her.

If Gus is any good, and I happen to think he's pretty good, he won't care whether she lands squarely in his headspace. If he were me, he'd evaluate the decisions she'd made given the information she was provided and if he respected her reasoning, would then consider how she executed. Did she listen and react? Was she believable? Did she find the emotional beats?

In other words, was her performance true to the character?

Every once in a while you're going to have an actor walk in and nail exactly what you're thinking the first time at bat. When that happens, suppress the urge to high-five yourself. See what else he or she can give you first.

If you get another interpretation that's just as believable, then by all means, head to the nearest bar for a celebratory cocktail. But if you get the same thing again, you need to realize that if you cast this person, you're going to get what they want to give you, not necessarily what you want to get.

You're the director, after all. That means you're supposed to, you know, direct.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stay out of the middle.

There are two extremes when it comes to producing. At one end, you have the no-budget projects. The ones you do with friends and favors, guerilla-style, not paying location fees or getting permits and just hoping you'll be done before somebody kicks you out.

On the other extreme are the multi-million dollar extravaganzas. On these, everything is done by the book and everybody is on the clock.

At both extremes, life is difficult. On the no-budget end, if you need your actor to wear a blue shirt, you either break out the credit card to buy one or you borrow one from someone who happens to be the right size. On the huge-budget end, you're working with stars earning more than $10 million just to be there. Those stars have people –– people who often have people of their own –– who do nothing but make sure the stars are 'taken care of'. Someone recently told me that on the film 'Falling Down' (a film about a middle class guy having a really bad day) Michael Douglas wore one of eight identical shirts the wardrobe stylist was required to buy, full retail, from Barney's.

You know that Kiswahili saying, "When the elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers?" On a big show, your production is the grass. Your only hope of protecting the grass is to be an elephant yourself, which you're not, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this blog. But even if you were, you'd have to be a pretty huge elephant not to get drawn into stupid fights over who doesn't show up on set until everybody else is there and ready to shoot or what color out-of-season flowers have to be in whose trailer.

But as hard as it is to do no-budget productions –– and as hard as it is to do huge-budget productions –– it's hardest of all to do the middle-budget productions. The ones where you have enough money to rent a stage, but not enough to build a decent set. Where you get the cast you want, but you only have one 14-hour day to shoot three-days' worth of footage. Where everybody gets paid, but not enough to make their rate.

On these jobs, you can't ask for favors. And there isn't any extra money to throw around.

You want my advice? Of course you do. Don't aim for the middle. Make everything you can for nothing until something hits so big that Hollywood comes knocking.

And pay attention. I guarantee you, your first time at bat, Hollywood isn't going to back up the truck and unload stacks of money. So unless you know not only why it takes four gaffers two hours to light a bathroom, but how much those gaffers, the lights, and the bathroom cost, the first time you find yourself on a job with a real budget your ass is going to be, well, grass.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Casting trick #5: Look at one person at a time.

Funny thing about dialogue: you need two people to have one. That means if you're shooting a conversation of any kind, you're going to have to cast more than one person.

This sounds terribly remedial, I know, but it's important.

So let's say you're running a casting session for a scene that requires dialogue and you have two actors come into the room together. They slate –– one at a time, of course –– and then they go through the action.

Which one are you looking at?

See where I'm headed with this?

If one of them sucks and the other one's great, what do you do?

I'll tell you what you do. You go back in time. Before you even begin working with your actors, you take your video camera and point it at one of them –– doesn't matter which. Frame the other person completely out. Then as you're watching the performance, you make notes only about that one. And since you're a conscientious person and don't want to give one of the actors the impression that you're ignoring him, you tell him that once you're done working with the one guy, you're going to concentrate on him.

When you've got the first person's performance to a place you like, tell your first actor to keep things right there and turn the camera on the second actor. Then work with him.

There are a couple of benefits to doing things this way. First, you only have to keep your mind on one performance at a time. More critical, if you're like most directors you don't get the final say on casting. Other people are going to have to discuss your choices, and they can't discuss what they don't see.

Which brings me to a rule I try to apply, not just with casting, but with every aspect of production: Never submit anybody or anything you wouldn't be 100% happy to work with. I guarantee you that if you give somebody a choice, they're going to choose the one you don't like.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Casting trick #4. Look at the resumes.

There's a story kicking around about Steven Spielberg which might be true, but even if it's not, it's pretty informative. The way I heard it, a woman approached him in a restaurant and told him he should audition her kids for his next film. He asked if they'd ever been in movies, and she said no. And he said, "I don't put people in their first movie, but I might put them in their second."

Welcome to Hollywood. You can't get work unless you have experience and you can't get experience unless you get work.

There's so much at stake when it comes to making any kind of production that most people are reluctant to take a chance with an unknown. This is true in every department, but today we're talking about actors.

I guess my standards aren't as high as Mr. Spielberg's because I will actually hire actors for their first job. But only on a couple of conditions. One is that they really do their homework, meaning they need to know how to act. The other is that they don't lie about it.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Insist on your actors submitting resumes. And read them. Even if your actor doesn't have a ton of experience, a resume can tell you a lot about how to work with him or her.

So how do you read a resume?

First, I give it an overview. Just a glance will tell you not only how experienced your actor is, but what kind of acting he or she tends to do. There's a huge difference between the grammar of the stage and the grammar of a film, and stage actors generally need a little special care to make the adjustment to film. People with improv experience can usually improvise, but those who do it almost exclusively might not be as comfortable following a script verbatim. I don't care –– in fact, I prefer that my actors find the line that makes the most sense to them –– but there are some situations where a script has been through so many revisions, tests, animatics, and levels of approval that you can't change a single syllable.

Then I read. Usually from the bottom up.

The bottom is where actors put special skills. Someone who has a black belt in taekwando is probably pretty dedicated, whereas listing "likes cats" might mean he or she doesn't really commit to much. If I see a special skill that I know something about, it gives me an opportunity feel them out, to see how much their resume might be padded.

Just above special skills, most actors put their training. There are a lot of acting schools, each of which has a slightly different take on both the business and the appropriate approach to acting. I like seeing actors who have attended a variety of schools because it means they're probably looking for what works best for them. Call me a cynic, but I think finding the perfect acting school right off the bat is about as likely has finding true love with your high school sweetheart.

Of course, once an actor has done enough work to fill out a resume, he or she has probably learned the rhythms of an actual set and the shorthand we use to communicate, so that stuff is a little less critical.

Right above training, actors put their experience. They usually break it up into film, television, stage, and commercial, with the more experienced actors (or the ones who want to appear more experienced –– remember what I said about using special skills to see how much they might be padding their resumes?) putting the line "conflicts available upon request," which means, "I've done too many to list here."

It also means, "I'll audition for your Burger King commercial even though I shot a McDonald's commercial last month and if you want me I'm going to hope that nobody notices." This, by the way, is a really bad move.

One of the things I look for in the experience section is anything that might be interesting or relevant. Believe it or not, there are some directors whose work I really admire. If someone's worked for one of them, it means that he or she impressed that director enough to get the job. I give points for that.

I never take off points for working for a director whose work I loathe, by the way. Work is work, and it's certainly not the actor's fault if the director who hires him or her happens to suck.

All this takes me maybe a minute, by the way.

And what if your actor has absolutely no experience and absolutely no training? Well, unless you're dealing with a kid –– and I'm talking a kid under five or six –– that person has been up to something, right? Whatever that something is can tell you a lot about how to work with him or her.

A lawyer can't be a lawyer without learning to think a certain way. Just as a mother can't be a mother without learning how to deal with kids. Those things are relevant because they tell you how to communicate with them. If I find the perfect person for the role, I'm not going to make a silly detail like lack of acting experience keep me from working with them.

Spielberg has every right to hire only people who have worked before. But if we all did that, he would never have been hired for his first job.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The most expensive $29 hat I ever bought and why it was worth it.

I was hired to shoot a job for the the Arizona Department of Tourism, and since Arizona is, as you well know, hot and sunny and since the whole point of shooting a project like that was to show, well, Arizona, I had a pretty good feeling I was going to need a hat.

I'd like to point out that I already had plenty of hats, most of them baseball caps and most of them black, which if you read this blog on April 12th, you understand why.

But this was Arizona Tourism. Jobs like this don't come along all the time, so when they do you need to get a hat worthy of them.

So I went to REI.

I found a hat that I liked. A Tilley Endurables.

The brim was wide, the crown vented. It had absorbent padding where the inside of the hat presses up against your head. But what really sold me on it was the pocket. There's a little pocket up in the crown that even has a fabric patch on it specially designed for you to write your name and phone number on it.

When I saw the price tag, I balked. It seemed like a lot of money.But my wife insisted. It was a good job and it would be better with a good hat, she said.

When we got out to the car, I took out a Sharpie and wrote my name and phone number in it. That way, at least I had a little bit of a chance of recovering the hat if I lost it.

I told her I felt silly spending $29 for a hat, and she got this funny look on her face. "Twenty-nine dollars?" she asked. I thought for sure she'd seen the price tag.

"Uh, yeah. Didn't you realize how expensive it was?" Now I felt really bad. I'd already written in it. There's no way I could return it.

"Yeah, but you didn't," she said.

My turn to get a funny look on my face. I asked her what she meant. She dug the price tag out of the trash bag and showed it to me.

I'd read it upside down. If I felt $29 was extravagant for a hat, imagine how I felt when I realized I'd dropped $65.

For a hat.

Okay, a hat with a pocket which, by the way, is incredibly useful. I stuff currency in mine –– US, Canadian, Mexican, and Turkish, so far. And a Lactaid pill, since I'm lactose intolerant and you never know when you're going to be out shooting in the desert, get separated from your entire crew, and have no choice but to eat ice cream in order to survive.

As for the other features, they do everything they're supposed to. The wide brim keeps the sun off my ears and neck, the vented crown keeps me only moderately sweltering, and the absorbent padding does a really good job of absorbing. I soak it with water and let the evaporation cool me down.

And the hat comes with a lifetime guarantee. If you destroy it or lose it, the Tilley company will replace it.

Of course, they only do that once. But still, that's like getting two hats. For $65. Which works out to $32.50 apiece.

Talk about a bargain.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Casting trick #3. Looks aren't everything. In fact, they're about half.

Unlike the Triumph Spitfire, this trick is actually both powerful and reliable, so pay attention.

The first thing I do when I get a casting log is draw a line from top to bottom, halfway through the area designated for comments.

That's not what makes this trick so powerful (or reliable). The part that makes it powerful (and reliable) is how I label the sections. One side is "Look"; the other side is "Performance". What this does is allow me to evaluate each actor for both how well he or she suits the role superficially and how convincingly he or she plays the part.

Sure, the guy may look like the quintessential matador, but if he's a lousy actor we're better off going with someone who doesn't look quite as convincing, but can actually perform. (I'm amazed that in 16 years of working with casting directors, producers, copywriters, art directors, and creative directors as a director –– plus all those years of working as a copywriter on shoots with other directors –– I never once came across anybody else who broke it down like this.)

I encourage the ad agency people I'm working with to break down their evaluations the same way. This does two things. The first is to keep the conversation focused –– if we don't agree about a particular person, we can more easily figure out why. The second is a bit more subtle, and that's so I can get a clearer picture of how the agency people see their spot. We all have our own pictures of what a shaman looks like, and it's often only when we each respond to the actors who come in that I can see clearly what the art director and copywriter had in mind when they came up with the concept. Which, by the way, are often wildly different from each other.

I'll give you another tip. The evaluations are relative, not absolute. What I mean is that you could go insane trying to find the perfect space hooker when all you need to find is the best space hooker.

There's a neat implication to this that I discovered about ten years ago. I rate each actor on a one to ten basis, with ten being the highest, so the first person –– no matter how good or how bad –– gets a five for both look and performance.

If the next person is better, he or she might get a six. Nobody ever gets a ten because I always want to leave open the possibility that somebody else better might come along. I've passed on people who scored 9.875. And I've cast people who scored a five.

Sometimes, I can't help but give a zero, because I can't imagine how anybody could possibly be worse. Invariably, somebody is, which only goes to show that my system, as good as it sounds in theory, is pretty hard to put into practice.

At the end of the session, I take the top scorers for both looks and performance and figure out which contestant meets both criteria the best. If the ones that look the best aren't the same as the ones that perform the best –– and this is the case a lot –– I make a judgement call.

But then, that's what I get paid for. To make judgement calls. My particular way of evaluating casting is only one way for me to make the best decision.

If it works for you, great. If it doesn't, find another way that does.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Casting trick #1. First impressions count.

Now that I've given an overview of the casting process (http://tinyurl.com/knnno6) and told you how I write a casting breakdown (http://tinyurl.com/ld7dyx), let me give you a trick I use to help make casting go smoother: The first thing I do when I review my submissions is watch each actor slate and jot down my first impression of him or her.


This isn't stuff like "Yuck!" or "Hottie." It's the first thing that comes to mind about the person. On the job I just finished, some of my notes are "Irish cop," "1950s news anchor," and "Al's friend from that New Year's thing."


These aren't judgments. They're impressions. And it doesn't matter if anybody else can make sense of them.


So what's the point?


Most commercials have more than one role and your first submission can be as many as 300 people. So you have to be able to keep them straight, especially when you need to discuss actors with art directors, copywriters, creative directors, and producers. Jotting down a first impression is a way of crystalizing it for me, kind of like a mnemonic device that helps me recall which actor made which impression later.


I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, how come you do this with the slate and not the head shot?"


Excellent question.


Actors put a lot of effort into head shots, for the simple reason that it's the thing that makes the difference between being called in for an audition or not. That's good, at least in theory. The problem comes when the photograph goes beyond presenting an actor in a favorable light, which a lot of them do.


There's a talent agency in LA that requires its actors to use the same incredible photographer for their head shots. I love getting submissions from them because every single photo is beautiful. But I also hate getting submissions from them because a lot of the actors who come in only bear a passing resemblance to the person in the photo.


Besides, an impression isn’t necessarily based on how someone looks. It could be based on how they move, how they speak, or the way their clothes hang.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

You can learn a lot about casting from my ex-girlfriend's pot roast.

I had a girlfriend once who wasn't much of a cook. One thing she made pretty well, though, was pot roast.

I love pot roast, so I asked her to teach me how to make it.

The first step was the one that threw me. "Start by cutting off the end of the roast," she said.

I asked her why, but all she could tell me was that that was how her mother taught her to make it. One day, she asked her mother about cutting off the end. "I don't know. That's the way your grandmother taught me how to make it," her mother said.

Fortunately, her grandmother was still around. So I asked her mother to ask her grandmother. The answer came back eventually. "We had a small pot. It was the only way to get the roast to fit."

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what cutting off the end of the pot roast has to do with casting. Well, I'll tell you.

Everything.

Directing, like cooking, is 75% common sense. E
ven if you have no idea what you're doing, you (and by you I mean anybody who wants to) can direct something that's 75% good just by following the directions. Just as anybody can follow a recipe and turn out a perfectly good pot roast.

That's kind of reassuring, especially when you've just been handed $400,000 to make a commercial. Even more so when it's $40 million to make a movie.


But if you want to do something better than 75% good, you need two things. You need to practice. And you need to pay attention.

My girlfriend made lots of pot roasts, so she had plenty of practice. What she didn't do is pay attention. So her pot roast never got better. She never figured out what worked and why.

And that brings me to my casting tricks.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to be doling out techniques that I've come up with that help me find incredible casts. I didn't pick these up by watching somebody else work. I developed them on my own, over the years, through practice and paying attention. So before I tell them to you, I going to give you the following warning:

Think.

These tricks work for me. That doesn't mean they'll work for you. They probably will. But only only only if you understand why you're doing them.

Do I have to spell it out? Okay, I'm going to. Don't cut off the end of the roast just because you heard somebody say they do it that way. Even if it's me.

Go that?

Friday, September 4, 2009

My newest toy is just like my career.

Last Saturday, I stumbled into a garage sale where I saw something I've coveted for years, but could never justify spending the money for.

A Pavoni.

I got it for $20. And since then, I've become obsessed with learning how to use it.

A Pavoni, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is to espresso as a Lamborghini is to driving. They're stupidly expensive, temperamental as hell, and stubbornly unwilling to compensate for your shortcomings. They start at $800 new (the Pavoni, not the Lamborghini), and you would think that for that kind of money it would roast and grind your beans, deliver a steaming demitasse of espresso precisely at 7:15, and tell you how sexy and thin you look in that shirt. On the contrary, a Pavoni requires you to do incredible amounts of work before it will deign to deliver a one-ounce serving of liquid.

First, there's the grind. Your coffee has to be so specifically fine-but-not-too-fine that even after five trips to two different coffee roasters, I'm only in the ball park. Fortunately, I live in Portland, where coffee is taken as seriously as ballet, political philosophy, and basketball in other cities.

Then there's the tamping. Unlike a drip coffee maker, the Pavoni has a stainless steel filter that the coffee goes into. The grinds are tamped –– pressed into place –– with a little hand tool. Tamp too hard and the water takes too long to make it through the coffee; not hard enough and the water comes through too fast.

And then there's the pulling. The pulling is the part that looks theatrical. It's where you pull up a lever, hold it, and then pull it down, forcing the hot water through the coffee grounds. The amount of time that you hold it and the amount of time you take and the pressure you exert to pull the shot are absolutely critical as well.

Add to that the blend of the beans, the darkness of the roast, and their freshness, and you have so many variables that affect each other that you'd be lucky to pull a decent shot of espresso with a Pavoni after you worked at it for three weeks. With a year of constant practice, you might be able to serve good espresso fairly consistently. And if you dedicate yourself completely to your Pavoni, not just learning its quirks and eccentricities, but also studying the arcane minutia of coffee, in several years' time you will find yourself creating shots of espresso that are sublime.

So what, you might ask, does this have to do with directing?

Everything.

Directing, like coffee, relies on a bunch of interrelated variables coming together. And there are two fundamentally different ways to combine those variables.

One approach is the equivalent of using a drip machine –– the actors, equipment, and crew are like the beans, coffee maker, and water. The more you spend, the more likely you are to end up with something pretty good, but not great, whether you know what you're doing or not. All you have to do is follow the instructions.

The other approach is the equivalent of the Pavoni. You must dedicate yourself to learning not just about the components, but how all those components interact. Eventually, after years of practice, you get to the point that you have little tolerance for inferior beans and you can tell that because it's a little more humid today, you're going to need to tamp a little harder and pull a little more slowly.

And with every single shot, you extract the absolute best that the combination of coffee, water, and heat can give you.

Until I got the Pavoni, I didn't realize just how important espresso could be to me. But I should have figured. Earlier this week, I shot a two-day job that was the equivalent of pulling a shot of espresso in a rainstorm while badgers gnawed on my ankles. In 16 years of directing, it was the most messed up, political, dysfunctional job I've ever experienced. And in spite of the circumstances, I extracted the absolute best that the actors, equipment, and crew could have given me.

I've been smiling ever since we wrapped.

Of course, it could be all the caffeine I've been drinking.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This is the blog I should have written before I wrote the last one.


You know how actors complain that they're treated like cattle? Well, there's a good reason.


Actors are to film what meat is to cooking.


Really.


Does that mean it's okay to treat actors like cattle? That's not where I'm going with this. The point I want to make is that if you find the best meat, you don't need to throw as many sauces, seasonings, and fancy cooking gadgets at it to make something tasty.


Which means that everything starts with casting.


Over the years I've developed a few really good tricks that help me not only find really great casts, but also work with the copywriters, art directors, creative directors, and producers who hire me. I already gave you one of my tricks in my last blog. I'm not going to give you any more, though, until I give you an overview of how casting works.


How casting works.


If you've never worked with a casting director before, here's how it usually goes down. You send out a breakdown, which is a description of the roles you hope to fill.


The casting director puts out a casting call, which is just a fancy way of saying that they let people know about the role. Depending on the casting director, the budget, the specifics of the role, and the time available, that could mean pulling head shots from their files, calling agents and asking them to submit people that fit the bill, putting a listing up on Craigslist or one of the online casting services, or trolling the comedy clubs, looking for new talent. If there's something particularly unusual about the role –– say you need a paraplegic rodeo clown –– they might contact the rodeo, the VA, local stables, and anybody else they could think of who might be able to connect them.


After a day or two (it used to be a week), the casting director filters through the submissions and asks the most likely candidates to audition.


At the audition, the casting director slates the talent –– which means asking them to state their name, then turn to face profile on both sides. The camera is then widened out to show the actor from head to toe and sometimes he or she will also be asked to turn completely around. If you're using a body part (for instance, if the actor is holding a can of soda), the casting director will shoot close-up shots of those body parts involved.


Then the casting director asks the actor to read the script. Usually a couple of times, with adjustments suggested by the casting director to make the performance more appropriate to what you're looking for.


There's a misapprehension that casting directors are cruel. And yeah, some are. But those are the stupid ones. A casting director is hired to help you find actors for your roles. Those that berate actors, make them uncomfortable, don't provide thoughtful direction, and are generally dismissive are going to have a harder time finding you the right people. Which means you're less likely to want to turn to them to help you find the right people.


On the other hand, the way budgets and timelines have shrunk, it's a wonder casting directors have time to say hello, much less work with the actors. And to be fair, actors have a responsibility to be prepared. I'm always astonished at the arrogance of some actresses in Hollywood who can't be bothered to change out of their yoga clothes or brush their hair when they're auditioning for a role that clearly requires someone attractive. Most of them do it because they want to be taken seriously as actors, not just as decoration. Which is fine. But if you're playing the role of a trophy wife, a love interest, or even a spokesperson shilling a product, you're going to have to accept that your appearance is integral to your effectiveness. Besides, you're going to have a better shot at impressing both me and the casting director with your acting ability if you come in looking the part.


Sorry. Where was I?


Oh right. Casting.


Picking your selects.


What you end up with is a stack of head shots, a log listing the names of the people auditioning, and a tape/DVD/link where you can see your hopeful candidates performing the role.


Up until this point, your involvement has been limited to waiting. But now you get to watch the magic unfold.


A lot of directors make a huge mistake at this point, which is to eliminate people who don't give them exactly what they’re looking for. They're looking for the exact performance they have in mind, but up until now they’ve been playing a game of telephone: They tell the casting director what they want, the casting director tells the actor what he thinks they want, the actor does a performance that he thinks the casting director thinks they want, and the director watches in horror as one person after another doesn't "get it."


If the project has a substantial budget, they either do another three days of casting,hire another casting director to see if they can do better, or go look in other places.


I've done jobs for ad agencies that are so caught up in this spiral of failure that right off the bat they'll hold casting in LA and New York and sometimes Chicago and Toronto. I'm not saying you can find exactly the right person anywhere. Especially if there's something really critical aobut the role, it makes sense to look in more than one place. It also makes sense to look in the most appropriate place.


I once worked on a commercial involving two Swedish speed skaters. Speaking Swedish. The agency and production company automatically held casting in New York and LA (we were going to shoot in Calgary, so we would have to travel our talent, regardless). It was only after we came up completely dry on both coasts that we were able to hold a casting in Sweden.


I know, duh!


Sorry. Where was I?


Oh right. Casting.


The callback auditions.


So you’ve got your casting tapes/link and your log. Now you get to choose who you bring in for a callback audition.


A callback audition is where you, Aspiring Director, get to direct your talent yourself. It’s an exhausting process because you invariably see more people than you have time for and because you have to develop at least a bit of a relationship with each one before you start working on the part.


Actors often complain that they didn’t get much time in the callback. The alternative would be to bring in fewer people, possibly missing the one who gives you gold.


The copywriter, art director, agency producer, and creative director are often –– usually –– at the callback audition, which creates several other problems and opportunities. One is the dynamic between the agency and the director. Do the agency people defer to the director? Or do they expect him to execute their vision? A lot of agency people aspire to directing themselves, and have no compunction about jumping in and directing the talent themselves.


Another is the tendency for copywriters and art directors in particular to focus in on one aspect of a performer. I’ve had ten minute discussions about an actor’s eyebrows.


But there’s also an opportunity to set the tone for the way in which the actors are treated. I make it a point never to talk disparagingly about actors, or to make fun of any physical characteristics they might have. Sure, if the announcer has a lisp, he’s probably not the guy you want to choose to sell Listerine, but you make the point and move on.


I also don’t allow any discussion of one actor in front of another. It’s just not nice. And there really is no upside.


The biggest benefit is that you get to discover just what the copywriter and art director had in mind when they came up with the spot. Often, they won’t even see eye-to-eye with each other, so having a chance to talk about the broadness of the performances, the physicality of the humor, or the subtextual stuff that deserves to be emphasized will help them see the potential in what they’ve done. And hopefully convince them that you’re working hard to add value.


Making your recommendations.


Once you’ve seen all the people, it’s time to decide on your recommendations. Again, the dynamic with the ad agency is going to have a huge effect on who gets what he or she wants. But I’ve figured out a couple of things that help keep the discussion on relevant points. (I’ll get to those in a later blog.)


What a lot of aspiring directors find disappointing is how little power a director actually wields. You have to come to consensus with the copywriter, art director, creative director, and agency producer. And then you present your recommendations to the clients, who not only have their interpretations of the spot, but generally get veto power on every aspect of its production.


I’ll get to things you can do to help streamline that process later, but in general, you present a first choice with at least one back up choice for each role. If all goes well, you have a cast. If not, you find yourself scrambling, trying to figure out how you’re going to satisfy a client and/or agency person and still create something the way you know it ought to be done.


By the way, that last sentence pretty well sums up the entire process of commercial directing. It’s fun as crap, but it’s also a lot of work that has very little to do directly with putting images on film.