Thursday, January 28, 2010

Look what I found in New Brunswick!

Every once in a while I come across someone who has It.

I don't know what It is, but I know It when I see It, which isn't very often. This time, it was in New Brunswick, shooting this last job, casting for the role of the daughter.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Marie Michele Vienneau.

She's fifteen years old and until a couple of weeks ago, had never been on a set. And I'll tell you right now she's got what it takes to make it big.

Sure, she's adorable. But what she has goes beyond adorableness. She has a magical combination of confidence and innocence, awkwardness and grace. Mostly, she has a natural ability to make the camera fall in love with her.

I've seen this before. I've cast other people who have It, some of whom have gone on to success. And some who haven't.

Danny Fehsenfeld, the actor who played the lead in 'Burning Passion' has gobs of It –– although his It is more like Kevin Spacey's, an ease on screen that makes you wonder whether he's actually acting. What's weird is that Danny will tell you acting is pretending. And yet with him, I swear acting is being.

Ruthann Lentz has It, too, and I'm not just saying this because she's my wife. In fact, it's kind of the other way around: I fell in love with her because she has It. She hasn't gone on to fame and fortune either, but that's probably my fault for getting her knocked up twice and taking her out of the game for four years.

Which brings me to reality.

People can have It and not make it big. There are other factors. It takes skill and determination and luck and opportunity and timing and connections and hard work on top of It to find success in a business as brutal as film.

When we wrapped, I took Marie Michele aside and gave her some advice. Here's what I told her:
  • Learn to speak English like an American. That's where the opportunities are.
  • Don't ever do anything that makes you uneasy. If you're okay doing a sex scene or comfortable with nudity, fine, but it must be your choice.
  • Don't ever get a boob job. Gwyneth Paltrow and Charleze Theron didn't get to where they are with fake boobs.
  • Move to New York or LA if you feel you need to, but don't do it because you feel you're supposed to.
  • Find a teacher you connect with and work hard at your craft. Aptitude is not enough. You have to develop your skill.
  • Do the acting because you love it, not because you want to get famous or rich.
What I didn't tell her, but wish I did, is that success is hard. Extremely hard.

I sometimes wish I had the power to confer success on people like Marie Michele, Danny, and Ruthann, but to be honest, it wouldn't be fair to them if I could. Success is earned. When it's not –– I'm convinced –– you end up with Lindsay Lohan, who I've never met in person but I'm sure is utterly dripping with It.

I'll be keeping my eye out for Marie Michele. I'd love for her to make it big. And not just because I'd be able to say I found her first.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sometimes it pays to work with amateurs.

I just finished shooting a job in New Brunswick.

A lot of people I work with couldn't find New Brunswick on a map, which isn't to say anything negative about the place, just that it's not exactly giving Hollywood a run for its money as a hotbed of film production. Let's just put it this way: Ambitious filmmakers in New Brunswick generally move to the big city, and by that I mean Halifax.

I've worked in New Brunswick before, so I know how to adjust. The crews are great. But most of the people who come in for an audition don't bother putting together an acting resume because the only experience on it would be 'Football Player 3' in their high school production of 'Grease' twenty years ago. 

If that.

The spot I was working on called for four roles: a father, mother, son, and daughter.

The father I cast was an absolute pro. He'd worked in larger markets and moved back to New Brunswick because he preferred the lifestyle. But the rest? Two of them hadn't even been to an audition before.

For the son I cast a brash 11-year-old who tagged along to his brother's audition. He talked the casting director into letting him read –– sold her, really –– telling her that even though he was too young for the part, he'd work really hard and do a great job. Our mom had been on one shoot as an extra and thought acting might be fun. And the daughter had taken a few acting classes at the community theater.

Not that there weren't plenty of other, more "qualified" people. Actors with a ton of professional experience, some of it in huge markets like New York and LA. But what I saw in these three was magic. The boy's confidence; the girl's awkward innocence; the sparkle in the mom's eye. Of course, I'd have to work that much harder –– not just in directing each of them, but in educating them to the process.

But I was creating a family and a family –– at least a family of my creation –– is made up individuals who have personality.

Sure, there are times when a line needs to be delivered in 3.2 seconds or a mark hit precisely. But if I have a choice between personality and perfection, I'll take personality, thank you very much.

As it turns out, I got lots of both.

Monday, January 25, 2010

I win! Drinks are on me.


I just heard from the nice people at the Northwest Filmmakers Night. 'Burning Passion' was voted the best film of the competition, both by the judges and the audience.

Yippee!

It would have been nice if the voting had been tallied that night so that I could take my winnings ($200, American) over to the bar and buy beers for people who came out to see the show, but alas, they weren't.

So here's what I'm planning.

On Tuesday, February 2nd, I'm going to be at the Sapphire Hotel –– my newest favorite bar in Portland –– with $200 in my pocket. (The Sapphire Hotel is at Southeast 50th and Hawthorne and if you've never been there before, be prepared. The vibe is great, the staff is friendly, and the drinks are delicious.)

I'll get there around six. If you're in the neighborhood, come by. I'll be buying rounds for anybody who's nice enough to show up, introduce him- or herself, and tell me how much they like my film. That is, until my $200 is gone.

Even if you didn't vote for 'Burning Passion'. Even if you didn't see 'Burning Passion'. Hell, even if you're Nora Ephron.

See you there.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I can't put a price on my head, but I know it's worth more than $60.

I just got back from shooting in New Brunswick, where the temperature was a delightfully crisp minus 15 degrees. And do you hear me complaining?

No you don’t.

The reason? Well, okay, we were shooting inside. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to walk from the hotel to the car or from the car to the location. One time, I even crossed an entire parking lot, plus a drive-through lane, to go into an A&W Root Beer Shop to use their washroom.

Hell, I was so comfortable that I walked the entire length of Main Street in Moncton one morning, from the traffic circle on one end almost all the way to the traffic circle at the other. And back.

I attribute it all to the hat you see in the picture. A shearling hat, with fuzzy sheep’s wool on the inside and ear flaps that –– to my eyes –– look a little like wings. Wings of mercy that come down and cradle my delicate ears.

Angel’s wings.

We were shooting interiors, but we could have shot exteriors. I wouldn’t have minded. I was comfortable.

The shoot went great, by the way. And that’s the lesson for today: Shoots go smoother when the director is comfortable.

Some directors take this to an extreme. They have a hard time concentrating if they don’t get exotic fare at the craft service table, nubile assistants of the appropriate gender and eagerness to please, and a coterie of fawning sycophants to stroke their very fragile egos.

For me, on this job, all it took was a hat.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

'Burning Passion' lights up the big screen tonight.

This is just a reminder that tonight at 7:00 –– less than 2 1/2 hours from now –– 'Burning Passion' is going to screen at the Bagdad Theater in Portland, Oregon.

If you happen to be around and haven't been totally inundated by films about guys who ejaculate fire, stop by.

And please introduce yourself. Even if you don't like the film. Really.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My 2 1/2 year old could write better dialogue than some of the crap you hear in huge-budget movies.

The other night I was giving my daughter a bath.

She has foam letters that she plays with in the tub, so when she asked me to hand her one I decided to turn bath time into lesson time. Here's how the conversation went:

Ophelia: I need the purple one.

Me: This one?

Ophelia: Yeah.

Me: You know what this is?

Ophelia: Yeah.

Me: What is it?

Ophelia: I don't know.

Me: It's a letter.

Ophelia: Yeah.

Me: Do you know which letter it is?

Ophelia: Yeah.

Me: Which letter is it?

Ophelia: The purple one.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Putting my money where my mouth is.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Brian, you sure talk big. But what if, say, Nora Ephron wants to take a crack at your work? Huh? HUH!?!"

Well, Nora, I'll tell you what. Tuesday, January 19th, you be at the Bagdad Theater in Portland, Oregon, and you can do just that. Because at 7:00 that night, 'Burning Passion' is going to screen as part of the Northwest Filmmakers Night.

'Burning Passion', for those of you who haven't seen it, has a lot in common with 'Julie and Julia'. For one thing, the director (me) also wrote the screenplay. The movie was shot on 35mm film. And fire features prominently as a dramatic device (it's the heartwarming story about a guy who ejaculates fire).

Beyond that, I'll let Nora –– or you –– decide how it stacks up.

There's a competitive part to the Northwest Filmmakers Night, which involves both audience members and judges voting for the best film. Whoever wins gets $200 and I'm not saying this so you'll come out and vote for me, but if I do win, I plan to use all $200 to buy beers for the nice people who support me and all the other Portland knuckleheads who think it's a good idea to make movies.

Want more information? Great. Go to http://www.mcmenamins.com/index.php?loc=9&id=1117&eventid=75217

And Nora, if you're reading this, I'm serious. I'd love to see you there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I don't hate women. Just one in particular.

I'm not a film critic. I don't want to be a film critic. But every once in a while, I'll see a film that pisses me off so much, I can't help but use it as an example of what not to do.

The other night, in a moment of weakness, I had the great misfortune to let my wife talk me into watching 'Julie and Julia'.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy anything about it. Meryl Streep is –– as usual –– delightful. It's so nice to see an actor considered "serious" having such serious fun with a character. And the historical tidbits about Julia Child were pretty neat and nicely presented. I'd heard she was a spy, but I didn't know anything else about the path that took her from the OSS to cooking icon.

So it's not Meryl Streep I hate.

Amy Adams walks a really delicate line. There's nothing redeeming about her character –– she's a self-absorbed foodie who, in an effort to prove a point to herself and her shallow friends, neglects her husband and her job. But she manages to infuse the role with a significant amount of sympathy.

It's not Amy Adams I hate.

That leaves Nora Ephron.

"Hate" is a strong word. Especially for someone who I've just gone and indirectly complimented for doing a more than adequate job in a couple of the more important capacities of a director. So what gives?

In a word: Story. Or, to be more specific, lack thereof.

Distilled to its essence, 'Julie and Julia' is about a woman who gives herself an assignment and a deadline, then meets the assignment within the deadline. Period. There's no adversity, no conflict, no potential loss. The protagonist, Julie, has nothing at stake.

'Julie and Julia' is about as compelling as watching someone shop for groceries. First she chooses some nice artichokes, then she picks up a pound of butter... It's not a film. It's a reenactment.

Sure, Julie has minor setbacks. She oversleeps and her boef bourguignon is ruined. The reporter from the Christian Science monitor cancels dinner. So fucking what? Within a couple of screen minutes she's cooked another boef bourguignon and thanks to an article in the New York Times, she comes home to 63 messages from agents, reporters, managers, and editors on her answering machine.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Okay, fine, Brian. You don't like the story. But why such vitriol?"

Because 'Julie and Julia' is a missed opportunity. It could have been a good film. Hell, it could have been a great film. There's no reason that Julie's character couldn't have struggled against seemingly overwhelming odds, overcoming adversity on her way to completing her self-assigned task, except that Nora Ephron either couldn't or wouldn't be bothered to write her character that way.

That's where I get incensed. I know Nora Ephron doesn't need to make good films, but she doesn't need to take potentially good films and make them crappy, either. She's both the writer and director here, and as Tobey Maguire says in Spiderman', "With great power comes great responsibility."

Clear your mind of what you know and ask yourself which project holds more potential for telling an interesting story, a) a movie based on a 43-year-old ride at an amusement park or b) a movie about a woman who idolizes a chef and uses that chef to inspire her to become not just a better cook, but a better person?

Gore Verbinski (with 'Pirates of the Carribbean') created an amazing story out of almost nothing. Nora Ephron, on the other hand, was handed –– forgive the food metaphor –– a beautiful dry-aged steak and decided to grind it into hamburger, smother it with Accent™, and boil it.

Now do you see why I'm so incensed?

(By the way, lest you think I'm just being misogynistic, I should point out that I consider 'Big', directed by Penny Marshall and written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, one of Hollywood's great films of –– well –– ever, and no, I don't think Gary Ross deserves a disproportionate amount of the credit.)

Nora Ephron will never read this blog, of course. She doesn't need to. And frankly, if I were her, I wouldn't change the formula that's been working since 1993, when she did 'Sleepless in Seattle', which by the way I hated for other reasons.

But please, if my wife ever comes home with another Nora Ephron movie, remind me that I would have a much more rewarding experience replacing the wax rings under our toilets.