Saturday, August 22, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO: "Aliya, this is Anne."

SAN FRANCISCO begins with a call from a woman to a transvestite prostitute. We do not for what reason Aliya has been called to Anne's home in Marin County, California... but we will soon find out. Anne is played by Cyndi Williams, the lead actress in my other feature film ROOM, and she will graciously begin an interview series with the three leads of SF that I'm conducting via e-mail. I've also inserted a few responses to her answers below in red.


1) What were your first feelings when being approached to play your role in SAN FRANCISCO? First thoughts after reading the script?

I’m not easily shocked. When I read the script, I thought it was beautiful and strange.

Kyle had asked me to be a reader for some of the auditioning actors, saying I was too young for the role in SAN FRANCISCO. To my surprise, he ended up offering me the role anyway. I was thrilled to accept, and hugely relieved that my character’s only nakedness would be emotional nakedness! I’d gotten enough body criticism after ROOM to last me the rest of my life. Nothing like googling yourself and half the entries pass judgment on your body! Yes, that is shallow of me, but that was my first thought about the role! Clothes stay on! Yay!

IT IS NOT THE WOMAN WHO IS PERVERSE, BUT THE SOCIETY IN WHICH SHE LIVES! Isn't it bloody perverse that Cyndi, a frankly radiant woman, should be singled out for judgment in ROOM? I remember a man at the Woodstock Film Festival (a wonderful fest, btw!), who asked "Why did you cast such a fat actress as your lead?" and I just got so irate that the whole purpose of making the film had been lost on this guy. Cyndi is more representative of a NORMAL American woman than any of the major stars trotted as "All-American" by Hollywood. I remember the filmmaker Barbara Hammer was in audience and she blurted out something like "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, I think Cyndi is beautiful!" and there was applause, which made me feel great. Wish Cyndi could've been there! I think often that film, advertising, image-making, et al, has done a HUGE disservice to our conception of ourselves and what is and isn't acceptable about our own bodies. It has also limited our connection to ourselves as sensual beings. Everyone has the capacity for giving and receiving pleasure. It is only the hucksters of more crap who want us to believe that pleasure is only possible within a narrow range.

2) What, if anything, helped you prepare to play your role?

Before the shoot, Gary and I got together with Kyle and P.J. and took photographs together at the Long Center here in Austin, for set dressing. The upscale location and our dressed-up look helped me hone in on the type of life this couple led before the husband’s accident.

3) What particular challenges did you face playing your role? Any fears you had to overcome?

ROOM was the film in which I had to wrestle many, many fears to the ground. In SAN FRANCISCO, I think the men had the more difficult time!

4) During the process of making the film, was there anything you learned about the world or yourself that you feel like sharing?

I don’t know that I learned this so much as it was graphically illustrated in this experience: Laughter and tears are not opposites on a spectrum; they are mushed up against each other in a sticky sweet mess. Underlying the words of my scenes was an urge to laugh and/or cry. But this isn’t about Anne and she keeps a stiff upper lip. This film makes me think about acts of kindness as well, how an act of kindness is a gift, and how these little gifts can come from unexpected places. Everyone is offering gifts in SAN FRANCISCO: Anne selflessly gives her husband what he desires, the hooker and the husband give each other an intimacy beyond a business transaction. Oh, yeah, and I learned that you really can’t dye hair grey.

5) Finally, anything extra you'd like to share about the process and experience of making this film?

I loved the way the scenes in the house were filmed! Our tiny crew lived, ate, and filmed in the house. There was time to shoot scenes over and over, to play them differently, to see what worked best. As an actor who has a lot more theater experience than film experience, I reveled in the opportunity to explore the possibilities in a scene. I loved my day on set; I loved the sense of purpose and teamwork radiating from cast and crew. It was a very satisfying experience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

FOURPLAY: Good news!

Well, a few people think we look pretty today! A few pieces of good news:

1) Very happy to report that the Austin Film Society awarded FOURPLAY an $7K production grant for the next segment (TAMPA or NEW HAVEN?), which will hopefully be shot in December.

2) Want to make it officially known that Jim McKay, director of such films as OUR SONG, GIRLSTOWN, EVERYDAY PEOPLE, et al, has signed on as an Executive Producer for FOURPLAY. Jim and Michael Stipe, via their company C-Hundred Film Corp, were executive producers of my previous feature film, ROOM. I'll have more exciting news about this later...


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.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

FOURPLAY: Early notices...

FYI - A few early rumblings while we are still in production:

"Barfly On The Wall" - Austin Chronicle, Aug 14th, 2009

"Kinky Sex..." - IndieWire, June 4th, 2009

Glad I was nice to that Chronicle writer! Although I'm always nice on set, because hell, why would I or anyone be mean to people working for nothing or next-to-nothing?! Although I do get cranky when I'm tired and cranked on too much coffee. Apologies all around. :)

- Kyle