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.