By Kirk Woodward
[As actors in New York know, making student and independent films is a part of the business here. Most young actors do extra work on features and TV shows and audition for the projects of the film students in the many schools and programs here as well. Kirk, who’s contributed many interesting articles to ROT before, may be a tad older and more experienced than those young beginners, but he, too, found himself working on an independent film recently. His greater familiarity with the business, though as you’ll hear he’s more focused on writing and directing than acting, makes his perspective on this common experience a little more astute, perhaps. His description may be revealing to those just learning these ropes. ~Rick]
I've taught acting for years now, but I haven't been doing much acting. My principal performance activities for quite a while have involved directing and writing plays, in addition to playing keyboards in several musical frameworks. I was never an outstanding actor anyway. I picked up all the bad habits I could while I was in high school, and I didn't shed them until years later when I found a wonderful teacher at the HB Studio in New York named Elizabeth Dillon. She diagnosed my weaknesses immediately and put me on the right path.
"Darling," Elizabeth said in her deep, smoky voice the first time I called in for a scene, "all I want you to do is four things:
• Know what you want.
• Have some sort of physical life."
I never expected to make a career of acting, because I knew my limitations, but I wanted to be competent enough to act when called on to do so, and I wanted to know how to communicate with actors as a director. With Elizabeth’s guideposts in mind, ultimately I became, not a versatile actor – not a "shape-shifter" or a particularly facile performer – but at least capable of fairly honest work.
But as I said, as far as acting goes I lived up to the modified adage that "those who don't, teach." I didn't act but I did teach it. So I was in for a shock when a filmmaker named Dylan Pasteur, who went to school with my daughter, asked me to do a significant role in an independent film he was making, called On Vacation. The scenes I was in, about twenty pages of them, took place in one continuous section of the movie, which is a feature-length film.
My previous movie experience, I should note, consisted entirely of one three-line part in a New York University student film, back in the seventies, I suppose. My friend Mona Hennessy, who had a lead in the film, suggested me for a small part. We started filming about ten at night and finished as the sun came up the next morning. Movies take a lot of time to film.
On Vacation is an adventure full of mystery. The basic story would be familiar to Alfred Hitchcock – an ordinary person finds, in this case, herself suddenly caught up in ominous events she doesn't understand, where her entire identity, not to mention her life, is threatened. (In Hitchcock's films it's usually a man who has this happen to him. My favorite example is Cary Grant's character in North by Northwest.) The style of the film, I would say, reminds one of David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks. Strange, off-center, disorienting events occur, often in such "normal" settings that they seem particularly eerie.
I read the script and thought it was fine, and I formed a basic impression or two of my role, but I didn't do any serious work on it for a long time. This, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, was a mistake. The old bromide that "There are no small parts, only small actors" is true in ways I hadn't anticipated. You have to be a really small actor to think there's such a thing as an easy part. I guarantee you that if Maryl Streep somehow agreed to do a walk-on in her daughter's high school play, she'd do – proportionally – the same amount of work for that role that she would for, say, her performance as Julia Childs in Julie and Julia. There are no roles that an actor can look down on – at least not for me there aren't. If this comment reflects my limited talent level – and it does – so be it. In any case, I should have approached the part seriously as soon as I got it. I didn't.
What's more, the dates for filming my section of the movie changed several times, not that that was any problem to me; it probably reflected more the problems Dylan was finding as he tried to make his cast and his location, not to mention, his financing, come together at the same time, but it did mean I had reasons not to come to terms with the script.
First, I believe, we were going to film in Park Slope (Brooklyn), which didn't thrill me because I live in New Jersey and it would mean a lot of travel for me – a selfish attitude, because most of the actors in the film are actually from New York. Then the shooting was going to take place in Paterson, New Jersey – closer! – and finally it settled into a house in Montclair, New Jersey, that is actually just down the street from where I live, so I was able to walk to the shooting each night. I'll bet they don't get to do that in Hollywood! My apologies to my new New York actor friends, but I certainly did enjoy the convenience of the location.
It was the perfect house for the film, too. One of the actors, Lucia Brizzi, lived there; her parents were away; and the house had a secluded, off-on-its-own feeling that was perfect for the movie. (My other acting colleagues were Katey Parker, Lauren McCune, and Dave Hurwitz.)
I had a lot going on in my life at the time the shooting was scheduled, or I convinced myself that I did, so I didn't begin serious work on the script until the Monday before the filming, which was scheduled for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night of Labor Day weekend this year, 2010. As you have undoubtedly anticipated, I had not left myself enough time.
I have never been in a play, as opposed to a movie, where the director wanted the actors to come to the first rehearsal with their lines memorized, although I know there are such directors. Noel Coward was one; he always arrived at a first rehearsal "letter perfect," and he desperately wanted the actors he directed to do the same, although they seldom did, to his everlasting despair. A more usual practice in theater is for lines to be memorized after some preliminary rehearsals, when the basic intentions and the movements have been worked out.
However, you can't count on this happening in a movie shoot. Most film directors I've heard of do only minimal rehearsals. Sidney Lumet is an exception; he rehearses his casts for two weeks before shooting starts. But Lumet comes from a theater background. Some film directors don't direct actors at all, except to tell them where to stand; they assume that the actors know their business, just like the sound crew and the lighting crew know theirs. The actor shows up, works, goes home.
Dylan, our director, did direct, and he had intended to hold rehearsals before shooting, but the calendar betrayed him, and he ended up having to rehearse each scene just before we shot it. This meant that we had to know our lines before we arrived. In On Vacation the lines, I'd say, looked easier to memorize than they actually were. Or maybe my brain just didn't have the necessary horsepower.
In any case, I found the first night unbelievably frustrating. It was a case of sensory overload. If I were to make a list of the factors that were rattling me, it would read something like this:
• Dylan kept telling me how excited he was that I'd be in the film, and how he knew I'd be great in it. The word "great," my friends, has otherwise never been associated with my acting and never will be. If I can just do the job as well as I’m able, that's all I will ever ask.
• Everyone was younger than me – I mean at least three decades younger than me. You would think the age factor might make a big difference in acting situations, but actually it doesn't. One acts or one doesn't. Every actor is terrified of not being able to do a good job, regardless of age, because each acting job is different from the one before it.
So with luck, a group of actors will unify itself quickly, and this one certainly did. I support you because I need you to support me – that's part of the dynamic. So my age didn't really bother any of the others, as far as I could tell; it only bothered me.
• But these were also terrific actors. Every one of them was both talented and trained, and what's more, as far as I know they all spent more time making films than doing live theater, so they were comfortable with the way a film works. They were, I must say, about the most likeable group of people I've ever been in. With rare exceptions, actors are wonderful people. I am happy to report that I didn't feel as awed by the abilities of this group as I might have felt; there wasn't time, and, as I will talk about more, I had to concentrate on the work.
• Filmmaking is fairly chaotic. There's lots of sitting around; we all chatted away to an astounding extent while waiting for something, usually unspecified, to happen. Dylan, meanwhile, was busily shaping his environment, including his actors and his crew (a cinematographer and a sound man), in preparation for whatever was coming next. Waiting, in its way, is as strenuous as doing, especially if you're not sure how you'll do when you're doing.
• Acting has its own pressures anyway. By its nature it requires very strong focus, and a film set has distractions to beat the band. You've undoubtedly seen photographs of two actors in an intimate moment in a Hollywood film, and around them are about sixty people, many of them holding major pieces of equipment. In those circumstances you need to put every ounce of concentration you've got on what you're doing in the scene, and you have to do it time after time.
• It had been years since I'd had to memorize dialogue. As far as I can tell, my mind hasn't slipped many gears in the interim, but I certainly didn't take to these lines like a duck to water – more like, maybe, a car to water. The first night we filmed, I had to stop a number of times and gasp, not for air, but for lines. I wouldn't have worried too much, because blowing a line doesn't matter – the mistake won't be there when the film has been edited.
I'm sure I could add more items to the list, but those will do.
I should say a word about the technical elements of the shoot. When I first arrived on the set – that is, the house we were shooting inside – I thought the camera hadn't arrived yet. All I saw were a couple of expensive looking still cameras. Those turned out to be the movie cameras as well. They are digital; Canon apparently makes one for a very reasonable price that can film – well, record – a fine movie, with replaceable data disks in it. Once or twice Dylan used two of these cameras; at those times he operated one while the cinematographer (Connor Stratton) operated the other, or he placed one on a surface for a static shot.
The sound man (John Hildenstein) had a pocket sized digital recorder and a pocket sized mixing board, and a microphone on the end of a very light-weight hand-held boom that could extend about ten feet. The lighting was provided by two or three portable instruments that looked like desk lights on very thin floor-lamp stands (unless those belonged to the house, which I guess they could have). When additional illumination was required, the crew taped a bare light bulb (sometimes a 200-watt bulb) onto the wall or the ceiling. I remember only once seeing a reflector, of the kind you see in photographs of big Hollywood shoots, being used. Dylan, incidentally, on this film was his own film editor.
Dylan ran a fun ship. I saw him in earnest moments but I never saw him angry or irritable. He schmoozed constantly with the cast, and – other directors take note – he never gave his instructions as though they were a matter of life and death, and he always surrounded them with praise. Occasionally, as I've hinted, he may have given a bit too much praise, but that's an amiable fault, he was aware of it, and he sometimes parodied his own enthusiasm.
As I said, we filmed for three nights, and I had no tolerance for praise the first night, because I was too mad at myself for not being fully "there" in the filming. I knew, though, what I had to do. When I showed up the second night, I had my lines pretty much down cold, I stayed "in the moment" as much as I could, and I focused on my partner as though my life depended on it.
In doing these things I was, remarkably, actually doing what I teach in acting class, which can be boiled down to the words, "Focus on getting what you want." The theory is that at any moment in life each of us wants something. That something may make sense or be crazy, it may be a small, everyday thing or a huge, life-changing one, but we always want to achieve something specific at any given moment.
As I type, for example, I'm focusing right now on what I want – I want to write a decent article. (You may be wanting to read one.) Actors have different names for this want – they may call it the objective, the action, the need, the victory, or many other names. The point is, there is something – which may change from moment to moment – that they want to achieve, and they focus on achieving it.
Identifying the "want" isn't always easy, but focusing on it can really take work. In making a film, I discovered, it takes even more work than on stage, or at least a different kind of work, because of the following factors:
• As already noted, you have potential distractions all around you, sometimes right in your face, when you film a scene.
• You will likely have to do the same piece of a scene over and over. Some directors, like Clint Eastwood, don't like retakes. (Eastwood will sometimes actually film a rehearsal without the actors' knowing it, and use that instead of a formally filmed scene.) I don't remember Dylan's making more than four takes of a given scene, but four is plenty, take my word for it. I can't imagine what it must be like working with a director who makes fifty – which is not unheard of.
• Since the film will probably shoot out of sequence – the ending of the film might even be shot before anything else – you need to know as an actor exactly what's going on at that moment in the film in relation to the whole. This was not a problem for us in On Vacation, because we shot more or less in sequence, with some exceptions. However, whether you shoot in sequence or not, you have to be in the correct moment each time the camera rolls.
• The hours can be lousy. I mentioned how long it took to film the NYU student film – all night long. In the case of On Vacation I never had to stay past midnight, but some of the actors did. People get tired late at night – that's a biological fact. When that happens, one's determination simply has to exceed one's fatigue. There's no alternative, and that can be difficult to deal with.
• Concentration is just plain hard work. There's no way around it. I tried to focus on my partner(s) in a scene with every ounce of energy I had, and I left feeling like I'd been wrung out like a sponge.
If I had more experience making movies, I imagine I'd learn to pace myself better. Coincidentally, during the filming I talked with someone who had worked with Jack Nicholson. This person reported how during the filming of a scene Nicholson would focus with such intensity that it was like he was surrounded by some overwhelming, powerful force. The second the director yelled "Cut," Nicholson would completely drop the character and seem like some random goofball. I'm sure Nicholson taught himself to do this so he'd have energy to draw on for the next shot, and the next, and the next, and not waste his strength. For me, I had to stay partially – not completely – in character as much as I could between shots, when I wasn't looking at my lines again.
Dylan's basic approach was to first run the lines for a scene, so the actors had the chance to say them without pressure. He made comments on how we were doing things if he had any. Then he staged the scene very roughly, so that everyone knew approximately where they had to go and to stand. Sometimes the details didn't matter, because the shots would also be filmed from various close angles anyway. Sometimes the details mattered a lot, and Dylan and the cinematographer would confer on them at length, then stage certain bits very specifically, in terms of what the camera needed.
Then we'd do two or more takes of the whole scene from a wide angle, with the camera rolling the entire time, and then shoot the same scene with the camera focused on each character in turn. Then we'd shoot the special bits and inserts that Dylan knew would be required in editing the film, like, say, a shot of two canvas bags lying on the floor, or a minute of someone singing a song. Eventually he'd have all he needed, and we'd move on to the next scene.
Dylan's triumph came on the third night of filming, when we had to shoot ten pages of dialogue. This is a lot to film in several days, much less in one night. The crew shot the scene as a continuous shot, moving from room to room, then broke it down into its component parts and filmed those, and we were finished before midnight. Remarkable.
That's my movie experience. I got several things out of it:
• Friendships, for one thing, with several remarkable performers, along with new respect for actors and what really outstanding people they are.
• Admiration for people like Dylan, Connor, and John, who think visually (or, in John's case, auditorially) with as much ease as people like me think literarily.
• Astonishment at what goes into a film – I find that I see movies in a whole new way now, because I'm aware of the range of choices behind what the filmmakers finally include.
• And increased respect for the art of acting, which takes pretty much all you've got, but gives you back so much in return.
At the start of this article I mentioned the four things Elizabeth Dillon told me to do in order to be able to act:
• Know what you want.
• Have some sort of physical life.
These turned out to be exactly the things I needed to do in order to survive this little episode in filmmaking. While Elizabeth was alive I always thought I'd like to go back to her class to see if I'd actually learned anything. It's lovely to find out that I actually had.