Sunday, October 9, 2016

(sigh) How Hard it is to be Truly Naughty

My husband and I finally went to see the local movie theater's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" event, which has been running every Saturday night at midnight since 2003.

If you haven't seen Jim Sharman's 1975 film, it's a high camp take on old horror/scifi movies with a brilliant Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, the Transylvanian Transvestite Mad Scientist. Curry plays it for all it's worth (the film launched him into starring roles) and Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick (early in their careers) also star.

But in watching local "cast members" playing along with the film at the front of the theater, I was struck by just how difficult it is to be truly "naughty" anymore in an age when there are serious (and seemingly endless) discussions about such topics as a man's right to wear a dress into the ladies' restroom.

When the film came out I can see where the action on screen would have elicited a lot of nervous giggles. But today there's no shock value, so the local cast tried to up the ante with blue language and the stated intent of "offending everyone." It didn't really work. Not their fault. We live in an age where there are few limits to behavior. Where's the fun of breaking the rules if there are no rules? That's the problem. We kept wishing they would pipe down so we could hear the film, which still has some very witty lines and was fun to watch.

My husband, however, DID win the "When Harry Met Sally Fake an Orgasm Contest" during the pre-show by channeling a scene from "The Right Stuff" and humming the Air Force's official song ("Off we go, into the wild blue yonder....) It got a huge laugh. Pure genius!

Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter

Friday, October 7, 2016

Opening this Week in Theaters

I have to tell you that all this talk lately about reaching out to women in film, creating special programs, help, etc rankles a bit. Maybe because it sounds just a bit patronizing and helping disadvantaged children. (Or maybe I'm just having one of those mornings) In any case, women have been heavily involved in producing, directing, writing, and editing films since films were first invented as an art form. Every week their work hits the theaters; it just doesn't get the marketing it deserves typically. Kind of like The Hurt Locker (6 Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Sound/mixing and editing) vs. Avatar (3 Oscars: Cinematography, Visual Effects, Art Direction).

Here's what women filmmakers have opening this week in theaters: The Red Pill, directed and co-produced by Cassie Jaye; 13th, directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay; Newtown, directed by Kim A. Snyder and produced by Maria Cuomo Cole; and 37, written and directed by Puk Grasten.

Riveting, important topics. Looking forward to seeing them all.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making Friends in L.A. (or Anywhere!)

It’s ironic that you can move to a city of 12 million people and feel absolutely alone, but you can.  Sure, you can go to actor networking events, union workshops, and acting classes and meet fellow
struggling actors (the city is overrun with them!), but if you’re looking for close friends to have fun with, people in the same hugely competitive business may not make logical soul mates. Plus crazy schedules can make it hard to connect outside of classes and auditions. When I tell an actor friend "Let's get together for lunch!" I invariably have to preface it with "What does your schedule look like?"

Bumping into someone’s shopping cart at the supermarket could have you mistaken for a stalker, and I’ve watched (and appeared in) enough Investigation Discovery crime shows to know that you don’t look for friends in bars. (A couple vacationing at the beach a couple of years ago did that and didn’t survive the night!)

The best bet for finding friends (not to mention potential dates) is to look for people with similar non-career interests who live in your same general area. Practice the lost art of being friendly: smile, make eye contact, listen more than talk, reciprocate invitations, look for opportunities for 5-minute chats with people in the neighborhood (Your flowers are beautiful! What a cute kid/dog! That’s a great skateboard/guitar/dress/etc. Where did you get that?).

Make it brief. Limiting initial conversations to 5 minutes means you don’t appear needy and gives you an exit if the person seems a little odd or not interested. If they seem cool, the next time you see them, try another 5 minutes. Or “I was just thinking about our last conversation. Want to grab a coffee?” Then you can talk/listen more.

Here are a few other ideas:

1. Take a cooking class. Really, this is a no-brainer. For thousands of years people have connected over food. When warring tribes make peace, they have a feast. Think about it, there’s this wonderful nurturing aspect about feeding each other, and with the popularity of TV cooking shows, cooking classes have taken off.  Seafood! Ethnic! Vegan! Classes for singles. Classes for couples. Classes near where you live. You can find classes online at sites like Cozy Meal or  HipCooks and through write ups at LA Weekly.  Cooking classes encourage interaction and happy chatter. Plus they give you an excuse to invite people over for an evening that’s fun and relaxed. And not just people from class.  “Hey! I’m trying a new chili recipe! Come over!”

2. Volunteer for some charity or service that makes all participants feel good, and be sure it involves a group activity rather than sending you off by yourself. Think Habitat for Humanity. Cleaning up the parks/beaches/environment. Fighting for a cause! Animal rescue groups are big with actors in L.A. so check out Hope for Paws, Best Friends Animal Society, and other groups. You may strike up an acquaintance with a recognizable star while making a huge difference in the life of a homeless pet. Win! Win! You can find LA groups looking for volunteers here and at LAWorks and Volunteer Match. Most cities have a similar list online.  Again, look for a group near to where you live. It’s hard to extend friendships outside of the group if the person lives across town.

3. Literary? Music fan? Independent bookstores and music stores frequently host free events where like-minded people can get together and chat with the author, with the band, and with each other. Sometimes there’s even food. Scout your neighborhood and see what’s available.  Knowing that the other person has the same taste in grunge bands or Gothic fairy tales gives you an instant topic of conversation. Find a list of bookstores here. You might consider joining a book club. The LA Public Library publishes a list online here.

4. Join a Trivia Team. This is the one exception to looking for friends in bars. People who are into trivia tend to be smart, normal, and competitive in a fun way. They don’t come for sympathy or booze, they come for the game. Lots of bars have trivia night. Find Pub Trivia Night locations here and  here. If you’re a font of esoteric knowledge, check it out. Those who read two-inch filler columns in newspapers need to find each other. Plus you could win a prize!

5. Have a decent singing voice? Join a choir. Church may not be considered cool, but I can tell you that a lot of actors are in an ongoing conversation with God so don't be shy. Joining a choir gives you a reason to get up on Sunday morning and you can be reasonably certain that those you meet are not currently substance abusers, which is important if you’re also looking for a Significant Other. There are choirs not affiliated with religion, but those may be more into professional performances. Your choice.

6. Hang out at the dog park. People who are kind to animals are generally kind to other people (sadly, the reverse is also true.) If you have a dog that plays nice, great! If you don’t have a dog, consider adopting one. A dog park is a great place to check out the different breeds first and people love talking about their dogs more than they love talking about their kids. It's the perfect ice breaker.

7. Browse MeetUp online for all kinds of open groups that welcome new members. Least stressful for newcomers are group sports (Baseball. Soccer. Tennis. Swimming. Kayaking. Scuba diving. Whatever you’re good at.) Also check out salsa/ballroom dancing, photography, board game groups, anything that’s fun and gets you out with a crowd of like-minded people.

8. Join a hiking group. In LA endless sunshine means there are hikers everywhere so you can get fit while meeting friends, and being out in the fresh air is much more interesting that sweating through repetitions at the gym. MeetUp, the American Hiking Society, and the Sierra Club are good places to start looking for a local group.

9. Explore. There are tons of cool things to see and do in Los Angeles. Museums have free days and often sponsor special events that draw a crowd. What’s your pleasure? Here’s a lengthy A to Z list of possibilities that also make great dates if you're already a twosome.

10. Finally, be consistent. This is key. Don’t go to a place or event one time. Go lots of times so that people get to know you and you get to know them. Too many people get discouraged if they don’t connect with someone right off the bat. That great person may not be there the one time you are, or maybe you caught them in a rare grumpy mood. Good friends take time and understanding.

And as for making actor friends, let me amend what I said above. Oscar-winning Brit David Niven first arrived in Hollywood in 1935 with no acting experience and few connections. He possessed, however, a quick wit, a wealth of clever stories, a serviceable dinner jacket, and better than average skills at golf and tennis. As a result, while still working background and supporting himself as lowly crewman on a charter fishing boat (for the likes of Clark Gable, among others!), he was frequently called upon to fill out a foursome at the estate of some big star. And while he was initially escorted to the front gate right after the game, he was eventually invited to stay for cocktails.

We should all be so lucky.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Editing: The Importance of Letting it Land

I always have a book or two in my bag so that down times on set are never wasted. Meryl Streep knits. Stallone writes screenplays. I read. Everyone does something.

Recently I had the pleasure of reading producer/screenwriter Phil Rosenthal's book You're Lucky You're Funny, a smart and hilarious page-turner about the creation of the hit comedy Everybody Loves Raymond. Included are lots of advice about acting, writing, navigating the sometimes shark-infested waters of Hollywood, and a great piece of advice on editing, which I
decided to share here because I had a conversation on this very thing with a young filmmaker a few days ago. Editing dialog in a film should serve as a guide to the audience on the emotional subtext of what is being said. I called it "including the reaction." Rosenthal calls it "clarity" and "letting it land."

He said it better than I did. Here it is:

"Clarity. At any point along the way the clarity can be muddled, and then the joke, or even the point of your story, is muddled. The shot has to be framed correctly so that we can see Marie next to Frank as he says his line. Then in editing, if you don't stay on that shot for the correct amount of time, or you don't cut to it at the right moment before the line, the clarity could be lost...

"....Pat (editor Pat Barnett) makes a rough assemblage for me....Right away, if the first moment feels wrong to me, we stop and examine all the possibilities. Let's cut it, show me another angle of that, show me all four angles. What was Robert doing while Marie was saying that? Give me the B camera for this line, then go to C, then go to X, and back to A, then back to B. That's how you put together a show--making the moments clearer and clearer with each one of the choices.

"You make it clear by taking out the extraneous, which hones the focus. You know how long to stay on a shot to maybe get an even richer laugh out of it, because the look on an actor's face in close-up is so hilarious that you want to stay there. Don't cut away so fast after this joke; let it land. Ray could say something funny, and if we cut away too fast, it doesn't land, it doesn't have a second. Sometimes the actor's face is great right after the line, and because of that it seems to come from a real person. They really say it, there is some thought behind the line, and the scene is not just joke, joke, joke, joke. It's talking, and it's coming from people. This makes all the difference, and it should go by you, the audience, seamlessly, because you're involved in the story. "

Rosenthal is talking about comedy, but I think this is true whether comedy or drama. The audience needs to see and feel the emotional undercurrents. Otherwise it's all just words.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Background Actors in Hollywood's Golden Age

Oscar-winning actor David Niven came to Hollywood in the 1930s. Before breaking into speaking roles (his skill at socializing with big name stars helped) he signed with Central Casting and worked as what was then called an Extra (now called Background) in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty. It's worth noting what that experience was like before actors unionized. Here's an excerpt from Niven's 1975 memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses:

"It was grim. The wage for a crowd extra fell below $3 a day, and Central Casting reported that, including the highest paid of their 18,000, fewer than 60 extras were earning more than $2,000 a year; the rest were averaging less than $500.

"Most of us were forced to take part-time jobs and we became carhops, manual laborers, shop assistants, janitors, or waitresses; I worked on a fishing boat. Many went on relief.

"The lucky ones among us who received studio calls were expected to report for work at 6 a.m., to accept inedible meals when it suited the producers, to continue working, or rather to continue being herded about like cattle, till all hours of the night with no additional pay and to report again at 6 the following morning. For the same pittance we had to work right through the night on Saturdays, and we had to face the fact that on days when shooting was canceled at the last minute because of bad weather, a drunken  leading man, or "Acts of God" (a favorite studio ploy), we would be sent home without touching a cent. There was no compensation for the hours of travel spent on the erratic transportation system of the metropolis, and if we got hurt during filming, there was no redress except by suing the studio heads, which was tantamount to asking them if they would kindly find room for more names on their blacklists....

"All registered extras followed the same routine: Between five and eight o'clock every evening we would call Central Casting and state our names and classifications....

" With up to 18,000 inquiries coming in for an average of 800 jobs, the evening hum of disappointment rising from the switchboard was numbing.

"Nothing, call later...Nothing, call later...Nothing, call later - but most people continued calling till at long last the switchboard went dead."

The Screen Actors Guild was finally recognized in 1935 and thankfully for David Niven he landed one of those coveted seven-year contracts with MGM a year later.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Director/Coach John Pallotta Offers an E-Book on Acting

John Pallotta conducting an acting class
I want to pass this along before I forget: New York Director and Acting Coach John Pallotta has written an E-Book - AUTOMATED MARKETING & SOCIAL MEDIA DEVELOPMENT -  that I think is a very useful compilation of advice and tips for those starting out in the business. John hosts insightful classes and workshops for actors all over the East and right now the book is posted on his blog where actors can read it for free.  See it linked here.  Also check out his classes at his website here. I've taken them and found his advice to be invaluable in developing a character for the screen.

Frank Capra on the Art of Directing Actors

In my free time, I love to read books about filmmaking, especially autobiographies of great directors. Recently, while reading Frank Capra's The Name Above the Title, I came across this gem on what distinguishes great directors from the pack. It could have been written yesterday (just add "CGI" to paragraph 3). Here is what he said:

"This is the artistry of the film director: convince actors that they are real flesh and blood human beings living a story. Once actors are themselves convinced, then, hopefully, they will convince audiences....Does a star, paying his hotel bill, pay it to a bit actress or to a real cashier? A bit actress, perhaps hired for one day, will be just a bit actress to herself and to audiences. But let the director give her an identity--an only daughter worried about her mother in the hospital, a wife anxious about her husband losing his job, or a woman in love going to a party that night with the man of her life--and that bit actress becomes a woman.  She many not say a single word in her brief appearance on the screen, but her "identity" will fix her mood, her thinking, her attitude.  And audiences will sense her as a real person, not an actress....

"Extras walking on sidewalks as backgrounds to a scene can walk through as a flock of sheep or as real pedestrians, depending on the wit of the director. He must give each one an identity. One extra is late for a dentist's appointment, another is looking for the address of his wife's lawyer. That one is going to a poker game. This woman is shopping for her kid's shoes. That young one has a lunch date, that other one hopes men will notice her new hairdo. It doesn't matter who the director tells them they are, as long as they are somebody as they walk through the background. One simple detail changes the scene from ersatz to real....

"Another distinguishing mark of top directors is the absence of obvious camera moves. Undisguised camera tricks are the mark of beginners who fall in love with bizarre camera angles and hand-held moving camera shots. Wrong. Fall in love with your actors. All else is machinery, and director's vanity. The audience must never become aware that there is a camera within a thousand miles of the scene. Mood scenes? Fine. Necessary. But establish moods subtly, suggestively. Don't let your cameras hang up figurative sign posts giving mileage and directions. Audiences cannot both feel and think at the same time. If they notice your "show-off" camera, the mood goes out the window. Stanley Kramer's 360-degree pan shot in the courtroom of Judgment at Nuremberg served only to distract attention from his tense drama.

"Therefore, young directors, forget techniques, forget zoom lenses and subliminal cutting; remember only that you are telling your story not with gimmicks but with actors!

"I have heard an extra ask the assistant director (he generally handles groups of extras in crowd scenes): 'Who am I supposed to be in this scene?' To such a question, vital to all actors in all scenes, the sweating assistant is apt to answer: 'Who the hell cares who you are, lady? Just sashay through the scene, will ya?' 

"That assistant will never make a director. But the background extra who asked, 'Who am I?' lit a bulb toward her name in lights."

Reading Capra's opening paragraph above finally provided the answer to a question that has puzzled me for a very long time: Why so much of director Michael Curtiz' Casablanca, from the opening shot in the souk  to the bit players and the stars, is so alive and magical? It's because great directing requires a love of actors, even background actors, and a passion for believability.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Understanding and Developing a Scene

Many actors try to gain insight into the character they are playing by writing reams of backstory and character description. For me, being a triple Aries and terribly anxious to get on with things, that approach is a struggle.

Here are David Mamet's thoughts on understanding and developing a scene that I've found very helpful in adding immediacy and specificity to my role. In fact, I printed this out and carry it in my wallet because it's especially useful for cold reads.

A Moving Performance from Michael Shiflett

Actor friend Michael Shiflett, who played my husband last month in Andrew Evans' short film, Anna and Thomas, plays the Vietnam vet in this video.  I had to share it as it's a lovely, understated performance. Michael often plays tough guys, but when a tough guy dials it down it can be so moving....

Two by Otto Friedrich

I don’t think one can work in film without being in love with the movies: their long and glorious history, the trends and techniques that create them, and the actors and actresses – great stars and contract players – who bring them to life.

Since starting down this crazy path as an actress, my shelves have become filled with books about the film industry and the availability of many wonderful old books on Amazon, some of them out of print, means that I always have one in my bag to pick up between scenes or devour in my easy chair during those weeks between jobs.

I’ve just acquired two by American journalist and author Otto Friedrich: City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s and Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s, the second of which provides back story on many of the European actors, writers, and filmmakers who fled to Hollywood prior to the second World War.

Friedrich is a terrific writer who captures the big picture and then enriches it with the stories (and scandals) of those who played a part. Fascinating reading.  The errands can wait.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Creating Actor Clips

All actors, at one time or other in their careers, experience the frustration of finding themselves relegated to one or two types of roles, with no opportunities to show their skills playing anything else. An actress friend, for example, said she felt she could play a lawyer, but she’s always being cast as blue collar, "lady plumber" types.

When that happens, we’re frequently told to produce our own films, which means writing a script, assembling a cast and crew, finding locations, setting up a schedule, feeding everyone, and – even on a micro budget – coming up with many thousands of dollars to pay for it all.  Then the months of waiting for editing, promotions, and the cost of submitting to festivals.

A few weeks ago, I got the idea that since an actor only needs 30 seconds of footage to show what they can do, it might be possible for two actors to shoot and edit a small scene themselves, with minimal set up, and then mine it for clips.

Having some experience in directing and editing for TV, I wanted to see if I could produce a compelling and watchable scene using just my $300 Canon home movie camera and my $350 Final Cut Pro X editing software, both already sunk costs since they were purchased two years ago to tape and edit my auditions.

The project, as I imagined it, would also be a test to see if the scene could be shot with available light and ambient sound. I've been reading about Indian (Bollywood) cinema where they have perfected shooting in natural light and with minimal crew – a process that cuts time and costs to a fraction of what is typically spent using standard methods.

I shot 40 minutes of footage that included one master shot, two 3/4 reverse shots, and two close-ups. No special lighting (I wanted dark, hard light from the chandelier), no crew, no dollar cost at all.

The result? Not perfect, but better than I’d hoped and definitely encouraging.

There were a few issues: shadows on my face, LED lights that needed covering, a refrigerator cycling on and off that left a hum on some takes and not others, tricky editing with the 3/4 reverse shot, and actors moving out of frame in the close-ups.

But nothing that can't be fixed next time.

What this means is that rather than hoping for a good film role, hoping your scene stays in, and waiting 6 months or more for a clip (if you get it at all) it's possible for an actor to film almost any two-person scene, to have it almost immediately available, and to use it on booking sites to get work.

Acting today means doing your own promotional work and beating the bushes for your own jobs (even when you have an agent).  In short, creating your own lightning rather than waiting for it to strike.

I'm game for trying this again, possibly with something lighter (comedy?), or maybe a night scene (I'd like to try shooting in kerosene lamplight), or perhaps a scene from an historical drama (although that would involve finding a free location).  Stay tuned.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Actor Marketing: Send Postcards!

In this era of digital marketing and social media, why send paper postcards you may well ask.  Here's why: A photo postcard puts your name and face in front of casting agents repeatedly, keeps them up to date on what kinds of projects you're booking, and is more likely to be successful than other kinds of contact.

Send in an 8" by 10" glossy and a resume and it goes on the "Intern pile" for filing.  Send an email and it gets lost among correspondence more important to agency business and may be deleted without being opened. Telephone? (NO PHONE CALLS!!!)

A postcard is brought in and put with the casting agent's personal mail. The agent will read it when time permits and they're not distracted by other business (during coffee breaks, for example). If you're tracking the agent's projects, a postcard gives you an opportunity to make a positive personal comment and build a relationship.

Not all casting agents like receiving postcards, but most do and especially veterans in the business do.  It's their job to know who's out there and who's booking what.

My standard postcard is my headshot with my name and union status. On the back (which I design myself) I list where I'm based and where to find agent contact information (never put direct contact information on the card.)  I get them through Vista Print at $20 for 50 (4"x6" cards on matte recycled paper) and they look as good as some I'd purchased from a specialty printing site that cost twice as much. (Note that larger cards require extra postage.)

Postcards got me on the radar at several casting agencies after more than a year of updating "profiles" on their respective websites had produced no results.  So don't forget to include  postcards in your marketing campaign. It's old school but it works. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Finding Story Ideas for Film

About 3,500 films are made each year, not all of them great obviously. Is it my imagination or were more great movies really made back in the 1930s and 1940s, during Hollywood's Golden Age?  Certainly they had a system down for identifying plots that appealed to the public and maybe that made all the difference.

I just finished Thomas Schatz’ book The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Erawhich was a fascinating read.  Schatz says that in any given year in the early 1930s, MGM staff readers alone filed reports on more than 1,000 novels and original scripts, 500 short stories, 1,500 plays, and 1,300 works in foreign languages...all in the pursuit of stories the studio could turn into hit movies.  One assumes a similar output was seen at all of the other major studios as well.

At MGM they followed “The Ten Commandments for Studio Readers” laid down by head of production Irving Thalberg, and most of it sounds like good advice for struggling filmmakers, even today. Looking for a film idea? Consider this:

1. Your most important duty is to find great ideas. You’ll find them buried under tons of mediocre suggestions.

2. Read at least two newspapers daily.  Photoplays (scripts) sell best when they’re based on timely topics.

3. Analyze all material on the basis of the players who are working for us.

4. Remember, you are dealing with a pictorial (visual) medium.

5. Make a close notation of all books you see the public reading.

6. See at least two full-length motion pictures each week, one by this company, one from a competitor.

7. Everything else is secondary in your work to the finding of a strong dramatic situation, an interesting clash between the principal characters.

8. Prove your ability to recognize creative material by writing and submitting to us stories of your own.

9. Be proficient in one language besides your own. The competition for good stories is so keen that the supply written in English was long ago insufficient.

10. Above all, train yourself to recognize sincerity in a story. Talking pictures, particularly, have made the public very sensitive to false notes in plots.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Treated to a Wisconsin Supper Club.

Just back from shooting my role as the Grandmother in "The Book of Birdie." Wonderful cast and crew. It's going to be a terrific film. Plus, Saturday night, British actress Suzan Crowley and I were treated to a delightful evening at the Hob Nob Supper Club in Racine. What an experience!

Wisconsin has some 350 supper clubs, many of which began as roadhouses during Prohibition and then continued as establishments "outside the city limits" that serve alcohol. Public TV even did a special on them.

Hob Nob has these amazing white diamond-upholstered booths that look like a setting for the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin "Rat Pack." Food was amazing and a pianist added to the atmosphere by playing the theme song from Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," which I've never heard played except in the film. Felt like I'd gone to Heaven. Many thanks to our hosts. It was such fun.

The decor looks like a movie set.  I love the upholstery.

Our table was here in the bar, which looks out onto Lake Michigan.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Filming The Book of Birdie for London-based Melancholy Star

As the New Year begins I am inundated with new film projects and feeling happy and fortunate. This week I'm heading out to Wisconsin to film my scenes for "The Book of Birdie," a feature-length psychological thriller from the London-based production and special effects house Melancholy Star. Wonderful locations. Terrific cast, including British actress Suzan Crowley.