Saturday, August 15, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO: Highlights...
It's been over six months since we shot SAN FRANCISCO, in both that beautiful city by the bay and what I consider to be its Texas sister city, Austin. In no particular order, below is a list of some of my personal highlights/insights from that shoot:
1) OVERSHOOT: As much as producers, the industry, directors, academics, critics, filmmaking textbooks love to analyze a final film as if it was hatched fully formed from the mind of the writers/directors, filmmaking is a process, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just simply a liar fishing for the "genius" boobie prize. We shot A LOT on SF, I mean like a 20:1 ratio, which is why I LOVE video and do not fetishize film. I love performers. I love performance. I love giving these amazingly talented, fragile, wonderful people who are insane enough to pursue an acting career every possibile opportunity to get not only my interpretation of a scene "right," but for us to co-create at least several workable variations within each an every take for the moments they are inhabiting. I want to get into the editing room and be as surprised by the range the film's characters have as I am when reading a draft of a script or working with the actors on-set. I want to squeeze as much life out of the material as possible. So, I say, if you are shooting on video and have the time, overshoot.
2) SEX SCENES ARE CHOREOGRAPHY: With SF, we had three days of rehearsal. Every movement during the sex scenes was blocked and rehearsed with the actors (clothes on) days before the film shoot. The last thing I wanted the actors to feel was physically vulnerable. They and I needed to know what they were doing, how they were doing it, what would be seen, so all those technical/vanity questions could get out of the way so the real work, acting, could take place. Good performances, at least in my book, are created through trust. The actors have to know there is a safety net that you the director are providing and rehearsals are the first step toward creating that safety net. Without it, emotional vulnerability is not going to happen when you say "roll camera" and that's what I need: raw, naked, vulnerable human beings revealing themselves to each other and to me.
3) HIRE REAL ACTORS: There's a lot of talk these days about non-professional performers being fresh and new. That somehow not knowing what you are doing can be more revealing than what trained professional actors can reveal through crafted performances. I don't believe that one bit. Behind all the stuttering, mumbling, frightened performances we are given in these films, I see people flailing around without a clue what they are doing, let alone what their next line of dialogue is, and there is nothing fresh about it. NONE of the people I know are as inarticulate, unfeeling, uncritical, unemotional as these film's characters would lead us to believe. The idea that non-professionals, who are not in-on-the-process as co-creators, since they lack valuable skills of re-creating and simulating heightened emotional states that we all experience, are somehow better equipped to deal with the VERY phony and fake environment of a film set is naive at best, deluded at the worst. What you are given is a flat-lined, narrow bandwidth expression of "realism", and it's a gimmick I think that is worn out it's welcome. I don't mean to beat a dead horse here, and for low-stakes drama this is a perfectly adequate approach, but these FOURPLAY shorts are high-stakes, emotionally complicated stories that require active co-creators with skills.
So, Carlos and I auditioned as many people as I could for the role of Aliya, assisted by the hard-working and amazing casting director Vicky Boone, and luckily Paul Soileau walked through the door. Carlos and I had seen Paul perform several times as Rebecca Havemeyer, but this wonderfully campy character did not prepare us for how amazingly subtle, genuine and sincere Paul could be as a film performer. He blew us away and we knew we had a film after his audition was over. Cyndi Williams, star of ROOM, was serendipitously a reader at these auditions and it also was self-evident that she would make a perfect caring, confused, fragile yet determined wife of the man requesting a session with a transvestite sex-worker. For the character of Tom, who has a special medical condition which I won't reveal, finding the right actor was a challenge. Naively, somehow I thought mature actors in town would be chomping at the bit to act in a short with a transvestite sex-scene. Wrong! Several turned me down without reading the script. A few humored me with a reading and a phone call but forthrightly stated that they weren't comfortable with this film as part of their oeuvre. Finally, contacted Gary Chason, an old friend from Houston who actually gave me my first film job as a video-assist operator when I was twenty years old. Gary is one of those amazing Renaissance men whose had ten careers: ballet dancer; casting director for such films as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON, BREWSTER McCLOUD, PRETTY BABY and PARIS, TEXAS; director of commercials and his own feature films; and most recently, an actor, starting w/ Bryan Poyser and Jake Vaughn's DEAR PILLOW. He read the script, we met for drinks, he asked me about my intentions, listened, then said something along the lines of "You know, I always tell my acting students to be fearless, and although this role scares the shit out of me, I'd be a complete hypocrite if I didn't do it, so yes, I'm in."
The performers and crew, the people I work with and get to know better over the course of a film shoot, are always the highlight of production.