Friday, June 15, 2012

A Love Letter to Actors

A Love Letter to Actors

Actors to the average person can seem larger than life.  Let's face it, there's always at least a small part of us that gets starstruck in the right circumstance.  Of course not everyone will admit this (especially full grown adults), but hey, it's okay... we can admit it; we've all been starstruck and it happens to the best of us.  But here's something not everyone knows: sometimes in the film industry world, especially during production, this perspective can change a lot.  I've heard this dreaded sentence over and over again in the industry, even on set with actors present.  It goes a lot like this: "I hate actors!"  Many people outside the business don't know this little secret because they aren't involved with on set actors firsthand, but make no mistake, actors tend to get a bad rap amongst a film crew if they're not extremely careful.  I've heard actors commonly pinned as all being divas, prima donnas, children, etc.  To me, this is simply unfair.  This is all pretty easy and negative to say, but is it really true?  I bet some of you guys are still nodding your heads, "Well, yeah.  It is!"  Okay, then let me tell you why I respectfully disagree.

It seems to be most actors get very little respect unless they fit one of two criteria: they're either super-famous or have an unrealistically squeaky clean personal life.  Even then it seems people like to bring them down anyway.  Can we be healthy about this?  They're people like the rest of us.  Some are nicer than others, some are needier than others, and some are more difficult than others.  Guess what, it's not just actors that get like this.  We all do!  It's not job specific!  Listen, there are mean directors.  There are also nice ones.  This is nothing new... come on, you've never met an obnoxious DP?  Liar!  There are mean producers, first A.D.s (insert joke here), grips, make-up artists... in fact, in my experience, I've met nice and not so nice people in just about every area of expertise.  I can't think of one job on set that has all nice people or or all mean people.  You know why?  Because that makes no sense at all!

Let me tell you why actors deserve our respect and maybe just a little more slack.  They're doing what us non-actors don't have the guts to do.  I'm a writer and my work is critiqued all the time.  I'm over it; it's not even an issue for me anymore.  Growing thick skin as a writer is tough enough; you let your heart out for everyone to see, then get judged and criticized.  But imagine people were actually judging you not only your craft, but also on the way you look, talk, walk... cry for heaven's sake?!  Imagine someone told you that you cry weird?  What if that's actually how you cry?  You're too heavy, too skinny, too scrawny, too boring, your teeth are crooked, your eyes are crossed...  Oh gee, is that a guy or a girl?  No kidding!  Let's look it up on IMDB.  We've all said things like that to our friends and family about the actors we watch onscreen.  We do things like that... it might not be nice but it's okay, we won't fry for it.  My point isn't to take it easy on them necessarily (although we probably should), but  just about no one else has to deal with that kind of crap.  If you can find me one person in the world who can be called unattractive and not care (barring a couple of certifiably insane people), I'd be floored.  Is the actor who wants their hair to look good, their makeup to look right, their clothes to look and fit perfectly... are they really being divas or are they actually legitimately concerned they won't look good on screen?  I'll tell you, if a megastar looks awful, the media will call them out on it.  Actors are willing to take on that kind of pressure; they're special in that way.  I admire their courage.  And it's also not just looks, they also get judged on their personality as well.  That guy seems like a know-it-all.  That girl is so dorky.  That one is so awkward... he's not a leading man!   What I'm trying to say is when you meet or work with an actor, understand that these concerns, and sometimes insecurities, may affect their attitude.  This doesn't mean the actor isn't nice.  Instead of complaining about actors, empathize with them.

Oh, and this is probably the most important thing.  Acting itself... it's tough!  Think about what they do: they experience real emotions onscreen so we believe they are feeling what the character feels.  Some people may not understand this until they've tried it, but this takes a lot of emotional energy.  The craft they do is just amazing to me.  On a daily basis, these people have to forget all their inhibitions (most people usually have to get drunk to muster half that courage) and play make believe in the most truthful way possible.  I've always admired people who can just get up there and let all their emotions out on the table, completely unafraid, in order to give a vision a voice.  Even tougher, sometimes they have to yell, scream, cry, fear... Out of context it's ridiculous; in context it's art.  They need to cover anything and everything, from strong emotions to the most subtle of reactions.  No matter how crazy the role, a part of the actor will come out into their character.  You can't criticize the role without criticizing the person even a little.  Man or woman, they've undoubtedly got balls of steel.

I understand some actors aren't nice people.  I'm certainly not arguing that.  All I'm saying is don't "hate" actors before you get to know them.  Understand that most of them are good people obsessed with a specific craft (like the rest of us in showbiz).  So the next time you see an actor on set or just in life, throw them a smile... they might just catch it and throw one back.  I like actors... the work they do is admirable and fascinating.  As I said, as a director they give my vision a voice.  And if they do their job well, they'll transform the character in a better way than I could have imagined without them.  So, in short, that's my love letter to actors.

And scene...

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Insanely Creepy and Tragic Artsy Short Films About Dating in the Mob

Okay, let me start this whole thing off with a disclaimer.  I'm an indie filmmaker who likes big concept and blockbuster movies too.  I know, the horror!  Listen, I find a lot of us "serious" filmmakers may be programmed never to speak of such heresy, but it's okay, I'm not afraid.  There's such a thing as big concept, awesome movies.  There are also bad, artsy movies.  Either way, all types of genres have good and bad movies, but my absolute favorites tend to be the big ones with heart.  So even though I may have just lost half my audience, I thought I'd poke a little fun at the short film genres no one seems to talk about.  I find short films tend to fall into some of these categories: dating, mob, creepy, insanely tragic, and artsy.  Yes, these are new genre categories I sort of just made up.  But really, most short films (not all of course) are done by young directors in their early 20's and end up falling into these categories.  Allow me to explain:

Dating: The dating category can consist of what it's like to date for someone in their 20's.  They may center around games people play, shaky advice from friends, why men/women suck, or maybe it's about someone who just can't get a date.  I've seen a lot of these.  Sometimes these shorts are filled with gratuitous sex that makes you wonder if some guy just exploited a bunch of his friends just to see what they would look like naked.  Sometimes you see a main character who's confused and gets advice from the Yoda of relationships, either their best friend or a stranger.  Yup, a stranger.  Sometimes Yoda turns out to be an idiot in these things, unaware by the filmmaker who just got through college, a cesspool for bad advice in dating.  Another storyline may consist of some womanizer or cheater who learns his lesson, ending with a slow zoom out shot of him winding up alone.  Whatever the case, the problem with these, I find, is that you can't setup a really good, memorable ending.  At best, the guy you think will get the girl doesn't, or the guy does get the girl in the end, even if he doesn't deserve her.  It also works the opposite way, maybe with an uptight woman who is encouraged by her promiscuous friend to relax and have fun before she gets old.  My advice is if your short script starts looking like this: do something seriously unexpected.  What is that exactly? That's up to you.

Mob: It amazes me how I can't attend a festival without a few short films starring the mafia.  It's a pretty obscure genre these days in feature films (yet by no means has disappeared), but man, I see so many of these in short form.  One of the biggest mistakes here is it usually involves a gang of 7 stereotypical mobsters who look like teenagers in sunglasses and a suit.  Anyone with me on this?  How weird is it when these bad-ass guns are pulled out, one guy is begging for his life, and they all look like high school kids with sunglasses and a suit on?!  Usually the villain in this is a hoarse-voiced, overweight mobster with slicked back hair and one foot in the grave.  Okay, I'm the opposite of being in the world of the mob, but really?  Is it really like this?  Man, the more I think about it, what do I know?  Then again, these guys look like teenagers in sunglasses and suits yelling at some old overweight guy... it just seems wrong to me.  Even worse, they may have "just mustaches."  Come on, "just mustaches?"  No one in this world looks good in a "just mustache."  They're the facial hair of mullets.  They were in style from 1975-1985, God knows why, and somehow they live on to the 21st century?!  Okay, this genre also may move over into a more teenage gangs kind of thing.  I actually like these a bit better, because they are supposed to be about kids.  Anyway, the short film mob genre usually has solid production value, there's an f-bomb every few seconds, and there's a lot of shouting and yelling.  I get it, a lot of filmmakers want to do the action thing, and we all love action.  The genre is great in that way, because we don't have time to establish much else but that world in 20 minutes.  It's not like we have the money (or the rights) to have Spiderman shoot across the screen and knock out a guy dressed like a lizard without making people laugh for the wrong reasons because there's no budget.  If you go the mob/gang route, make sure it looks very, very good and if possible, give it a surprise ending.  I say this a lot and it's easier said than done, but you'll see a lot of shorts at festivals like yours if it's too predictable.

Creepy: Okay, this usually works the best for me with short films.  Creepy films can either be spine tingling or flat out grotesque, depending if you want to go with eerie or horror.  I like these because if you can do the cool anthology thing, such as "The Twilight Zone" did.  It's very natural and much easier to come up with some twist ending that can blow audiences away in this genre.  I find a common mistake with these is when the setup takes up half the film.  That's not a good idea.  Too much of the same thing will bore people, and suddenly audiences find they've been watching people creeping around an old abandoned house for 10 minutes of your 15 minute film.  I'm not a fan of this at all.  To be fair, this is done all the time in feature films, so maybe I'm wrong.  Still, with so little time, instead of having one setup that is good, have a setup, spin it on its head, do it again towards the end, then one more time to really freak everyone out while keeping them guessing.  If we're going creepy mystery thriller, keep it as mysterious as possible.  An audience that can predict the end by the the time the setup is introduced is never a good thing.  Another thing is executing the gore.  I may be stating the obvious but you'd be surprised... no rubber masks and buckets of blood.  If you don't have the money to make it look good, don't do it.

Insanely Tragic:  Yeah, these are fun.  Okay, not really.  As someone who isn't in love with tragedy to begin with, I really think some filmmakers are having a competition on how much like absolute crap they can make us feel.  It'll be about some man who has flashbacks about how his father used to whip him with a belt when he was bad and his mother watched while drinking Vodka straight from a funnel.  Then you'll hear his wife has been missing for days and the search is on.  Then you see a flashback where he had to kill his father with his mom's Samurai sword, which was hanging from the wall next to photos of the dad slapping himself in the face.  I mean, these things get so, so dark.  Then we'll have hope he'll find his wife alive, but she's dead, next to his brother and sister, who were forced to shoot themselves.  Then we get that fun finale of the main character killing himself off camera, right after a melodramatic scene of hysterics and fake tears.  The theater leaves quietly as we all contemplate suicide on ourselves for sitting through the most depressing story of all time.   Another kind of insanely tragic buckets of fun short film may be a trippy story about a heroin addict who hates his life and we see why as he obsessively works to get his next fix.  We see how he started using because of his evil friends or parents, then we watch as he slowly overdoses in the end.  Yay!  Pizza for everyone!  Okay, obviously I'm not a fan of the insanely tragic walk through hell on a stick.  Instead of insanely tragic, maybe just try regular tragic so that the audience actually learns something from the main character's journey in the story.  There's always a place to shock audiences in film, but it's our responsibility as filmmakers to at least have a point.

Artsy: Artsy movies are a dream for a director of photography.  They usually rely on the visual aspect of storytelling.  Some of these are awesome.  Some of them, I think, can really end up to be the most boring of the boring if they don't work.  There's a fine line to artistic and self-indulgent/over-the-top.  The best artistic films, in my opinion, are the ones you catch on to subliminally while being driven by a strong story.  First off, this style usually commands insanely extreme close ups.  You'll get to know the eyes of the main character very well, including the left part of their cheek, the length of their fingernails, and every gray hair growing in their eyebrows.  It might even be about an artist who is obsessed with painting, writing, or photography in a borderline creepy fashion.  Then the art of the artist will be featured more than the film itself, sucking any story there was out of it.  It may even be a movie about making a movie!  Usually these stories end abruptly with the audience wondering, "That's it?"... because nothing really happens.  We just see things.  My advice here, though it may seem obvious, is have a story and make it the main focus.  One of the great things about movies is that you have art within the art, so don't lose track of what art is being featured here: filmmaking.  So, if you decide to go artsy, visually driven stories can truly come out cool, just don't lose focus of the overall story and make it stand out.

Really, I'm just poking fun at some genres that really can be great sometimes, as long as they're original and/or visually interesting.  I'm sure I missed some other genres that tend to pop up at film festivals every once in a while.  The important thing is to make a short film that speaks volumes, that way you won't let anyone let you go unnoticed.  So if you haven't and need to show someone what you can do, go for it and do a short film.  Get noticed!