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.