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.