Sunday, February 20, 2011

A British-Style Movie Made in America: Cedar Rapids

I would have headlined this "Made in Cedar Rapids," but it was actually shot in Michigan, one of those states that wisely cuts the film industry a big tax break.

Cedar Rapids Poster
But what a fun film!  And I say "British-style" because it's carried by believable, average-looking people who are quirky and endearing and have value.  The Dweeb as Hero.  Sure, Stranger than Fiction had some of that feel to it.  But Stranger than Fiction was built on a plot that's not likely to happen, with characters and scenes - Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hulce, the homeless guy - clearly reaching for laughs.

Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Ed Helms
Cedar Rapids, for all its zaniness and coarse language, I bought as a slice of reality somewhere in America.  In that vast stretch between New York and Los Angeles are thousands of small towns and cities where people own businesses (sell insurance!) and live their whole lives.  Guys whose biggest dream is to get married and have kids. Filmmakers seldom explore that part of the country, and when they do they usually treat it as alien territory populated by people to poke fun at because they're not hip.  Bah.

This movie has enough coarse language and dumb jokes to qualify as a Dick-Flick, but you laugh with the characters not at them.  Ed Helms is so appealing, and for all his dorkiness, clearly captures the hearts of those he meets.  Isiah Whitlock Jr. pulls off an inside joke about The Wire.  Sigourney Weaver has a little jewel of a role as an older woman feeling her post-divorce oats.

I loved it.  We will have made progress as an industry when films like this start making it to AMC, Regal, and the other big chain theaters.   I looked at what AMC had to offer this week and there wasn't a thing I wanted to plunk down money to see, in 3-D or otherwise.

Working my day job later this week on the production side of the camera.  Shooting interviews all day at a really swank hotel for a talking heads industrial.  I'm doing the interviewing.  Eh, it pays the mortgage.

Acting Demo Reel Basics

My voiceover demo is finished (Thank you, Corey Petree!) so I'm concentrating on getting my video demo reel together. The standard is 3-5 minutes, but my actor friends tell me that casting directors are now asking for a one-minute speed demo, so the structure has to be nice and tight.

Actually I can see where the shorter format can be a plus for many actors who feel pressured to fill 3-5 minutes  but don't really have that many good scenes.  I've seen demos with decent clips ruined by shots that are poor quality or go against the actor's dominant type.

The point of a demo reel is to show industry people how to cast you, so don't rush to do one if you're still building your resume and trying to discover your dominant type, but keep this in the back of your mind always: get the clips, get the clips, get the clips!  It takes a long time to gather a decent selection.

Here is the basic structure, borrowed shamelessly from Bonnie Gillespie's book Self Management for Actors, which I recommend:
  • Open with your headshot or a super brief (3 shots) montage of close-ups of you from your films.  Eliminate the headshot in the version intended for uploading to an online profile.
  • Lead with your very best clips.  If you have 15 seconds of brilliance, put it first.
  • Don't show everything you've ever done.  In creating a demo, less is more.  It doesn't have to be a prescribed length; it does have to be good.
  • Only use clips from film work that appears on your resume.  If you're short of clips from films/TV, use clips from your commercials, documentaries and industrials.
  • Show your acting range and variety of roles, but within your dominant type.
  • Stick to simple cuts, dissolves and fades. The demo should show your strengths as an actor, not the creativity of the editor. 
  • Edit the scenes to remove other actors as much as you can. This is all about you. Everyone else should have the least amount of screen/dialogue time as possible while still keeping some continuity to the scene.  Nice, tight, short clips.
  • Cut to the chase.  Don't waste time on lead in, lead out parts of the scene that are not very interesting.
  • Don't ID each clip.  Reading distracts the casting person from looking at you.
  • Begin and end each clip with your face and voice, or at the very least your face.
  • Close with a 5-15 second (depending on length of reel) montage of photos of you from your films, but don't include any from clips you've already shown.  I'll add a bit of my own advice here: if you've worked with directors or in films others in the business are likely to recognize then over this closing montage do a screen roll of your credits, including the directors' names.  It's a nice touch.
  • Add a music bed only if it helps to integrate the clips and isn't loud enough to distract.
  • For demos intended for distribution, open and close with your name, website, and contact information on the screen. Again, you can eliminate this on the version intended for uploading to online profiles where this information is already showing. 
  • Keep the Quicktime upload version to no more than 15MB and 320 pixels wide by 240 pixels high, which should get it onto most personal websites, Facebook, YouTube, etc.
  • Be sure to have your name and contact information neatly printed on the DVD label as demos and resumes often get separated.
  • Finally, no outside branding.  Never let anyone who edits or duplicates your demo put their name, logo, or contact information on your marketing materials. 
When it comes time to update your reel consider this, only replace a clip if the new one is better than what you have, is just as good but newer, or just as good as what you have but of a type of role not currently on your reel. (Tons more info in Gillespie's chapter on demo reels.)

Wendie Malick
Starting Brenna McDonough's acting class in three weeks.  Auditioned yesterday for a feature being shot locally.  Ran into Laurie Marchesani, who does political consulting in Baltimore for a living and was auditioning for the same role I was hoping to get.  If I don't get the part I hope she does. We arrived in very similar outfits, but seemed to be the only actors who put any thought into trying to look like we fit the part. (I've been thinking of starting a takeoff on Jessica Quirk's What I Wore blog and calling it "What I Wore to the Audition.") Anyway, I liked the director. I thought he looked like Antonio Banderas.  He thought I was a ringer for Wendie Malick, formerly of Just Shoot Me and now starring in Hot in Cleveland with Betty White and Valerie Bertinelli.  It's the hair.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Standouts in Barney's Version

Up early again. Wrapping on my audio demo this week. I already have individual clips posted to my website - one of those things I've been meaning to do since forever.  I've voiced a lot of industrials and want to move on to commercials this year.  Also trying to call in some clips for my video demo reel.  I'll be working with editor Corey Petree on how to best arrange them. (It's an art for sure.) The video demo won't be posted to my website though, just sent out with submissions and on request to talent and casting agencies.

Wonderful dream last night. I was part of a cast remaking one of the Thin Man films at MGM studios (I was doing Myrna Loy's part, of course). I was rehearsing a close-up with the "William Powell" actor over and over. (Great fun!) Then a buzz goes through the cast that Michael Caine is on the set. I hold back, not wanting to appear a groupie, but later eye his upstairs office windows, which amazingly enough are just a few doors down from where we are shooting. Only I realize now that the offices in the dream were actually MGM producer Irving Thalberg's old offices. When you study film a lot of old scenes and photos get mixed up in your head. The great thing about dreams though is you're always the star.
Minnie Driver and the short guys

Saw Barney's Version last night at the art house theatre. Very interesting. I liked it. Paul Giamatti is consistently terrific, but the knockout was Minnie Driver, another tall woman (5'10") who doesn't seem to have trouble getting roles paired with short guys. God, she is fabulous! That jawline of hers is so unique and her personality on camera is so "out there." I love watching her. I added her to my Yellow Pages List down at right.

Rachelle LeFevre
The other standout was Rachelle LeFevre, who appears briefly at the beginning of the film. The role didn't give her a lot to work with, but she's gritty and her strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes are really striking.  Let's hope she stays off the "This Year's Interchangeable Blonde" List."  That means having the guts to choose roles that have you looking like hell on camera, but acting up a storm. (Compare Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose with her role in Inception, where she's basically a pretty prop.)  In Barney's Version LeFevre reminded me of Courtney Love in Man on the Moon.  I wanted to see more of her on screen.

The flaw in the film - and I remember this being the flaw in Dustin Hoffman's old film Tootsie as well - is having the central character leave a really rather interesting woman (Driver) because he has fallen head over heels, love at first sight, for a woman who is lovely and bland (a "bland tomato," as Greer Garson sneers in Adventure.)  I don't understand that.  Are some men really that shallow?

Argghhh.  Thinking of those elusive film clips again.  (!!##**!!!)  Okay, that's over with.  I'm moving.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I am an....Actress

I love the early morning hours.  Dawn just peeping through the trees.  The fur babies creeping about.  As now I light a few candles and make myself a cup of tea and relish the quiet and the complete un-necessity of being anywhere or doing anything.  It's been a frustrating week.

I've been thinking about a good-natured debate I had last weekend with a woman I've shared the set with on occasion.  It was over the term "actor" as applied to women who act.  That's the trend now in the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere, but let's keep a good thought) and I seem to be bucking it by referring to myself as an actress.  I've heard the argument that it just makes sense because, after all, you wouldn't refer to a female doctor as a "doctoress."  But does it follow that we should call a female lion just a lion and not a lioness?  Now we're getting silly.

My acting colleague was of the opinion that it was good to apply one term - actor - to both males and females because it felt "inclusive." Oh please. Oh heavens.  This goes hand in glove with the trend of staging Hamlet (or pick your play) with an all female cast.  The message is, women have always been so oppressed and put upon and we want to make damned sure that men know that we know that they've been getting all the good parts and we've been getting the...! Well, it strikes me that what is really being said is that women are something less than men, so we have to pretend that we are men.  Self hatred?  How progressive is that?

Kathleen Warfel as Queen Margaret
If the point is to rail against the fact that women were kept off the stage during Shakespeare's time, then it should be understood that this temporary condition was only in Britain due to the political influence of the Puritans (like Carrie Nation and Prohibition.) Everywhere else apparently women have acted for as long as there have been plays to act. Moreover, the ban, while it lasted, didn't prevent Shakespeare from writing strong leading roles for women - Queen Margaret, Lady MacBeth - and roles open to interpretation, like Katarina, which is after all what acting is about.

I guess dropping the term actress wouldn't bother me so much if the term used previously had the word "man" in it and there was a gender-neutral alternative.  Like changing fireman to firefighter or fisherman to angler.  Then it makes sense.

Marilyn Monroe
But lumping us all together under the traditional term for males who act seems to me a denigration of women who act.  Worse, it cuts women off from a long line of wonderful "actresses" - from Sarah Bernhardt and Clara Bow to Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe (no dumb blonde) - who succeeded regardless of the political and social climate of their day.

So I remain an actress.  I enjoy being a woman who acts.  I celebrate it. Which reminds me that Mark Westbrook has a wonderful post at his blog directed at up-and-coming actresses.

As for my frustrating week, I have lived long enough to know that when all the doors seem closed you just have to hang in and trust that there's a plan to all this and that at some point you will understand why things unfolded as they did.  It's daylight.  Time to get moving.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Up early to tape a promotional interview in DC for Clear and Sunny Skies with co-lead Tamieka Chavis.  Writer/director Anthony Greene has promised production stills mid-week, followed shortly by a copy of today's interview.

Aiming a .22 pistol on the firing range
Then it was off to learn the basics of loading and shooting a pistol.  I wasn't raised in a house with guns and the first time I was confronted with a prop gun on set the director and prop person were almost as clueless as I was as to what I was supposed to do with it.

So today I learned something about the parts of a gun, how to load the clip, the weight of different guns in my hands, how to pull a gun out of a holster, stand and fire it.  I can say after one lesson and time on the firing range, that most actors who fire guns on camera - particularly women - have never actually done it for real.

We started (wisely) with a BB gun while I was learning to load, hold and aim, then went out on the range, moved up to a .22 and then to a 9 mm, which I'm told is typical of what a police officer might carry.  The .22 is deceiving.  It can kill someone, but it feels like a toy when you shoot it.  Pop, pop, pop.  Not so the 9 mm.  Big bang, flash from the muzzle, much more kick.  A guy two lanes down from me was shooting a .45.  I couldn't see it, but it sounded like a cannon going off, even with a headset on to muffle the noise.  My whole body could feel the concussion.  Jesus.

A 9 mm. is plenty big enough, and I didn't do too badly with it.  I've been offered a chance to fire a .38 revolver and a 9 mm. machine gun on a subsequent trip to the range.  Sounds like a plan.  I don't think I'd ever taking up shooting as a sport, but even after one lesson I feel much more confident about handling a gun on set.  Some things you just need to experience to get it right.

Firearms.  On your actor profile it's listed under "Performance Skills," after diving and before Harmonica .  

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Yellow Pages List

I like interesting faces. Chris Cooper. William H. Macy. Vanessa Redgrave (magnificent.) Their faces carry the story of a lifetime - pain, joy, triumph, disappointment, survival.  It isn't just age that makes a face memorable though.  Nor does having an interesting face relegate an actor to character roles.  My actor friend Erik Mueller has a face that is sweet, sad, and funny, a kind of everyman. An interesting face makes an actor fascinating to watch on screen.
Erik Mueller

Perfection is rather boring when you think about it. That's not just opinion speaking, there actually seems to be some scientific basis for it. Fashion models are held to certain standards of physical beauty because we are meant to look at the clothes. Designers actually want the models themselves to fade into the background, and they do! It is only when something mars that perfection - a gap in the teeth, a mole on the cheek - that a model becomes known by name.

But when I look at "up and coming" actors - especially on television - I am struck by their homogenized and lovely sameness, made worse for the men by the ubiquitous three-day beard. (Isn't that fad over yet?) Unlined faces. No stories. How hard it must be to break out of the pack if you look like a thousand others.

British television does a much better job of casting people who look real and that may be why I recognize more British actors by name. The Brits have this odd idea that you can be middle-aged, balding, dumpy, have acne, bags under your eyes and less-than-perfect teeth and still carry a show. In fact, a woman can be a bit zaftig and have a bad scar on her arm and have one hit series after another. (Amanda Redman. What a babe!) It isn't just that the Brits are better actors, although it is generally agreed that they are, it's that the physical expectations are different.

This is what I was trying to wrap my head around after talking to Richard Cutting, who contacted me a few weeks ago about auditioning for this terrific web series he's getting off the ground. He said he thought that older women were an untapped resource in film and television, that they had viewpoints and stories (gravitas, as they say in Washington, which I believe means something like serious credibility.) I think older actors in general are an untapped resource these days and, with few exceptions, Hollywood hasn't yet figured out how to mine it.

So I'm starting a list of actors so good I would pay to see them read the Yellow Pages (see column at right.) Just their name at the top of the credits will induce me to take out my wallet and buy a ticket.  I will add more later.

Busy day sending out headshots, which is something for another post.
"Real" Housewives: A lovely sameness

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Swan Dives

Despite having a lot of terrific things going for it, Black Swan turns out to be a mixed bag. I am told that a reviewer in the Wall Street Journal referred to it as a roller coaster where you begin in the middle of the ride. I would agree with that.

Here's what I liked about it:

The writing. Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin, and Scott Franklin do a superb job of showing us the pressure (including the pressure to stay thin), the bitchy rivalries, the drug use, the libidinous director, Nina’s immaturity and sexual repression, and the overbearing mother living out her unfulfilled ambitions through her daughter. In their story, the world of professional ballet is only beautiful on the stage.

The lighting and editing. It’s powerful. It’s disturbing. This is a horror story in the best sense - enough shocks to keep you nervously giggling, but not so many that it becomes an ordeal.

Natalie Portman. Losing twenty pounds gives a delicate touch of Audrey Hepburn to her face. Her dancing is lovely and she reportedly worked long and hard to make it so. (I’m sure a professional could pick it apart, but to the untrained eye it looks impressive.) She turns in an Oscar-worthy performance. If she wins, she earned it.

But here are some of the problems I had with it. Again, the writing. In the classic hero’s tale, we’re introduced to the main character(s), the story unfolds, tension rises to a climactic point, and then there’s a denouement in which everything is explained.
Black Swan jumps into Nina’s life in the middle and then jumps out. It presents an interesting puzzle, but you don’t learn enough about her to care what happens to her. Tension is already high when the film opens, then it builds higher, there’s a shocking climax and the credits roll, leaving a whole lot of questions unanswered.

Was the rival slipping her drugs all along? Was she simply going insane? Since so many shocking events in the film seem to have been hallucinations, was the final event also a hallucination? What happened to the mother? The rival? The retired prima ballerina? We will never know.

Yes, I came out of the theater convinced I had gotten my money’s worth, but just as convinced that I would never want to see it again…ever. Since DVD sales are a good part of a film's profits, Black Swan is going to have to make its money up front in ticket sales. So far it's doing well there.

Submitting this week for an HBO pilot and a feature being shot down in Richmond. Checking out the talent agencies from North Carolina to New York. I've also arranged firearms instruction for the weekend. As I said, a useful skill for an actor.