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.