Friday, December 1, 2017

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is a Must-See

Actresses have been complaining for years about the lack of roles (and meaningful roles) for women, but one really positive thing that has come about as a result is that more actresses are not only opting out of Hollywood and finding great roles in Europe (Kristen Scott Thomas, for one) but many are also starting to produce/write/direct their own films.

One of these is Greta Gerwig, an actress that I just loved in the quirky 2015 film Mistress America, which she starred in and wrote. This year she took a turn as writer/director of Lady Bird, which has set a new record as the most well-reviewed film of all time at the online movie site rottentomatoes.com.

This is a story that will reveal more and more each time you watch it. The performances are wonderful, especially Laurie Metcalf.  Here's the trailer:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Getting Your Clips

Our local actors group had an online discussion recently of ways to gather your clips together for your demo reel, a topic I’ve touched on before and worth repeating as young filmmakers especially frequently seem to have something “better to do” than get clips out to their cast.

If the film or TV project you appeared in is somewhere online, there are online services that can get the clip for you. Actors have used ripit.me or clipgrab.org, which has a program for both Mac and Windows. Expect to pay a small fee however.

If the project is posted to YouTube, you can easily download the whole thing to your desktop by simply replacing the “www.” in the url with “ss” (without the dot). This will redirect you to Savefrom.net, where you can click on "download video in browser" (look on the lower right third of the screen) and select the video quality you prefer. Done in less than a minute and free.

If the film/TV project itself isn’t posted to YouTube, see if you can at least find the trailer, which still gives you something to post on your websites. You can also use software (I use "Grab") to capture stills from the trailer, which are in the public domain since a trailer on YouTube is already public.

The best strategy is getting a clips commitment from the producer upfront, either when you sign the contract or during shooting, and establishing a time frame, as in "you will get HD clips within three months of shooting the film." Follow up after filming with a 'thank you' email reminding him/her of the conversation; say you just want raw footage (no music or effects), and ask when would be a good time to check in on the finished product. Then follow up at that time. If the clips aren’t forthcoming, keep emailing every few weeks until you get them. Persistence is usually successful.

With students, remind them that they can email the clips for free via WeTransfer (or other such sites) and provide the link. Be sure your deadline is before they graduate from film school, and start your time frame with the end of shooting. Don't say "three months from finishing the film."  I made that mistake with one student filmmaker and it's amazing how long it's taken him to "finish."

With student films and other low budget productions you can also do as one Los Angeles actor does: put it in your contract that you get useable HD clips within three (or six, you decide) months of shooting or the filmmaker agrees to pay an additional $400. This strategy reportedly has an amazing effect.

When you get into larger productions your agent may be able to help, although once you start appearing regularly at that level you won't need a reel because everyone will have seen you.

Actors live for that day.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Consider The Magic of Believing

An actor friend sent me an interview clip of comedienne Phyllis Diller recently where she mentions Claude Bristol's 1948 book The Magic of Believing. Miller said the book had completely changed her life by giving a suburban housewife and mother of five the courage and determination to try stand-up comedy, which is no easy road for anyone.

Here is an audio synopsis of the book from YouTube. It's a little "woo-woo" perhaps, like books on Nostrodamus, but I also found it interesting. I grew up hearing my father talk about the "power of positive thinking" and it also reminds me that those who succeed in this business aren't necessarily the ones who are most talented but those with the most desire. As author/screenwriter William Goldman put it, you have to want success more than anything in the world.

Here Bristol seems to be saying that wanting something, and having the confidence and unshakable belief that you will get it, makes it happen. Call it God, call it The Force or whatever, there is something that connects us all that we humans can tap into. Moreover if you can visualize what you want, what success looks like - and the greater detail in your vision the better - the more likely you are to achieve it.

He cautions, however, not to share your vision of success, because to do so opens you up to the naysayers who tell you it won't happen, it won't work, and you're silly to even want such a thing. Stay focused. Keep it in your heart.

As I said, it's a little "woo-woo," but I have also found that in times of crisis, when I am most focused on finding a solution, someone with the answer seems to appear out of nowhere. So maybe there is something to Mr. Bristol's book after all although, as a Catholic, when things work out I always remember to give a heartfelt "Thank God."

Monday, August 14, 2017

Called to Act Against Type

One of the things I’ve been bumping up against in the past year, with great frustration, is being called to audition for a role that seems the polar opposite of the roles I’m usually cast to play (i.e. senator, judge, executive, strong women). Blue-haired granny is the one I see most frequently – small, plump, caring, no strong identity, sometimes comical. It's like when you get older you become a ghost; just the faintest impression of a person.

The only apparent fit for these roles is the age range. I’m not plump. I don’t have gray hair. I'm 5 ft. 8 inches tall. Nothing in my posted head shots or reels gives me any clue as to what the casting director might have been thinking of in asking me to audition.

Blue-haired Granny? Nah.

I’ve discussed this with actor friends and the responses have ranged from the limited vision of American film and TV (if you’re a certain age, you’re a blue-haired granny) to the possibility that I’m “above market” in the southeast, where many of these roles are being offered (although I’ve heard the market there is changing) to the idea that I am a blue-haired granny, but don’t yet see myself that way (!!!!!!).

Another suggested that, while I wasn’t a strong fit for the role being cast, perhaps – because of my strong résumé – the casting director just wants to see me on tape.

I've thought about that, but trying to pretzel myself into something I’m not, and often for a minor role, doesn’t seem like a good long-term strategy. It goes back to advice for young actors that I read some years ago: don’t put yourself in front of casting until you’re sure you’re giving them your best or you’re going to leave them with the impression that you’re a lousy actor. When I try to play a sweet little blue-haired granny, I’m a lousy actor.

Frances Bavier
What I finally concluded is that if casting simply wants to connect with an actor, and to learn more about them and their ability beyond what they see on their reel and clips, then a better strategy perhaps is to toss out the role’s character description and to interpret the lines as you would in your strongest persona. Not Frances Bavier but Anne Bancroft, for example.

It could be that casting isn't yet seeing other possibilities and that you'll be so different you'll stand out and get the role anyway. (Remember, when they were casting The Graduate they originally thought of Ben as a young Robert Redford type, not dark and Jewish Dustin Hoffman.)

So for me, if plump with blue hair really is what they have in mind, I won't get the role but casting may remember me in a better light for next time when the role may play closer to my strengths. That's a better strategy perhaps than just groaning and taking a pass on the audition.

Anne Bancroft

Monday, August 7, 2017

Whatever Happened to Darlene Parks?

I love watching old movies and television shows and every now and then I see an actor or actress that is such a standout I wonder what other roles they did and where their career went.

Actress Darlene Parks
This happened last night as I was watching a two-part episode of the old Barney Miller series titled "Wojo's Girl," with Darlene Parks in the title role. Parks was a willowy blonde who was pretty bordering on gorgeous. She had great comic timing (you can see a touch of Judy Holliday) and her chemistry with Max Gail (who is still acting at 74) was perfect. (Watch her face in Part 2 when Gail asks her why she "started hooking.") Most important, she had a face that had that special something that makes a star; she was not interchangeable, she was memorable.

But Darlene Parks, after this wonderful episode, had just one more role, and then she disappeared. What happened? Did she die tragically? Did she get discouraged and quit? Did she change her name and continue acting as someone else? Did she opt for marriage to some wealthy producer and live the good life, if only for a time?

Searching the Internet, I found I'm not the only one to have asked.

Fate takes odd turns in this business. Some have long careers but never get a single iconic role. Virginia Gregg, a phenomenal voice actress on radio, went on to appear in more than 200 character roles on television (virtually every narrative series from the late 1950s through the early 1970s), but said, "I work steadily, but I have no identity." And she was right. Although people recognize her when they see her in a role, they don't know her name. (But think of her residuals!)

Some actors seem to get one iconic role after another: Humphrey Bogart as Richard Blaine in Casablanca, Charlie Allnutt in The African Queen; Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. (I'd add Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not, but that was really Bacall's picture.)

Other actors get an iconic role - Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, for example - but then their career doesn't seem to take off as you would expect. Little had finally landed a role in the 1990-1991 series Baghdad Cafe and had appeared in 12 episodes when he passed away.

Bogart in Doctor X
Whatever fate throws at you, the important thing as an actor is not to quit. Remember that just two years before High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, and three years before Casablanca, Bogart's big film was The Return of Doctor X. You never know what's just around the corner.

So Darlene Parks, wherever you are, God bless you. I'm sorry you didn't have a bigger career, but you had one role that was wonderful. And when you think about it, that's a kind of immortality.

See Darlene Parks on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1tQ0bA7hL8&t=11s

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Off the Radar

Packing and preparing to change residences. Much to do. Will resurface in a couple of weeks when I can finally take a deep breath and focus on auditions again.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Kedi" is the "Citizen Kane" of Cat Documentaries

Taking a quick break from doing my taxes (ugh) to give a hearty thumbs up to Ceyda Torun's charming and heartwarming documentary Kedi, which is now making the rounds of art house theaters nationwide.

For centuries Istanbul has harbored thousands of street cats. They are fed and cared for by the people of the city - and look remarkably healthy! - and yet they belong to no one. The film profiles the cats of Istanbul and the people whose lives are touched and sometimes changed by them. It is a magical film. Well worth seeing. You can read a review here and an article on how the film was made here.

Really, I loved it. Go see this film!


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Getting to Los Angeles, Part 1

I’ve been off the grid for the past couple of months trying to figure out how to move to Los Angeles in 2018 without breaking the bank. For two years my husband and I have been making periodic trips out to LA to check out neighborhoods, apartments, acting classes, travel distances to the studios, and the feasibility of getting to auditions by driving the grid and staying off the freeways. (As Bette Davis famously said, “Take Fountain.”) We really thought we could make it work, but the more research we did the less it seemed feasible.

Paramount Pictures where Gloria Swanson makes her entrance in Sunset Boulevard.

Single actors may join forces with a roommate or two and romanticize the Bohemian life, but husbands frown on additional bodies in the home and I’ve reached a point in life where dirt and junkies are just…well…dirt and junkies. Last August we flew out to LA to check out apartments in a few neighborhoods we’d identified as pleasant, reasonably safe, and within easy commute to the studios. The results weren’t encouraging.

First, whatever neighborhood we lived in, we'd have to consider state taxes. This is something actors often think of after the fact, but that’s a mistake. In California taxes are sky high, and although you’ll be taxed on any income earned in the state anyway, living there means getting taxed on any work you do anywhere. Overlook this at your peril!  Also consider fees and taxes on vehicles and the golden state loses some of its glitter.

Then there are the sky-high apartment rents (the purchase of a house being completely out of the question.) Outside of the areas dominated by inner city gangs (and you'd better know where they are), an 800-1200 square foot, two-bedroom apartment is going to run you $2,600-$3,600 a month and up, plus another $1,000 a month in utilities and fees, which can include add-ons for a parking space, a refrigerator, and pets.

Pets can cost you a fortune. After apartment managers dictate size, breed, kind, and number of pets, those pets they DO let in the door will cost you $300-$500 each in pet fees up front, plus $25-$50 a month tacked on to your already exorbitant rent.

Finally, even if we met all the requirements and covered all the costs, the grim reality, according to apartment reviews online, is that we could still end up with hallways that smelled of urine, homeless individuals sleeping in our doorway, the usual hazards (because of paper-thin walls) of noisy teenagers and loud domestic disputes, and a one-year lease that we couldn’t get out of should an acting gig take me away from California for an extended period of time.

(Sigh.) We were so discouraged. After two years of planning, we just didn’t see how we could make it work. Besides the cost, the lack of control over our lifestyle just rubbed us the wrong way. We didn’t want to feel “stuck” if the area or neighbors turned out to be problematic, didn’t want to pay a luxury price for a less-than-luxury place to live, and we certainly weren’t about to give away one of our three pets (two cats, one dog) in order to meet some apartment manager’s two-pet limit.

Was Los Angeles slipping away?

Game night at Dodger Stadium
On the last night of our August LA trip, my husband and I went to a Dodger baseball game. We had $60 tickets; not super expensive, but not nosebleed either. We were vacationing after all. Just to my right in the stands were three older couples wearing fashionable, expensive clothing and shoes, and flashing jewelry. Every time a food vendor came by one of the husbands would open a wallet stuffed with $50 bills and buy a round of whatever anyone wanted. Were these retired people from the film/TV industry, I wondered?  They certainly seemed to be well off.

We chatted. "Do you live here in LA?" I asked the man sitting nearest to me.  "No," he said.  "We all have apartments In Las Vegas. We just come to Los Angeles for the summer to beat the heat."

(What!!!) And an idea was born.  Read on....

Getting to Los Angeles, Part 2

We’d never thought of creating a base in southern Nevada, or of splitting the year between two (or more) locations, but the minute we got home I was online and looking into it. The distance (about 300 miles depending on the route) was about the same as from my current location to New York, so even when I wasn’t physically in Los Angeles I could still make it to scheduled call times and classes, and there was still the option of uploading audition tapes.

Taxes? Nevada has no state income tax, check.

Apartment costs? A two-bedroom in Las Vegas can be had for around $1,000 a month. In some of the small towns to the south, like Laughlin, it drops to $550. So rent for a whole year in Nevada is roughly equal to the cost of one or two months in Los Angeles, which eases the pain of paying rent for a year when we may be away for long periods of time.

Pets? We didn’t see any massive up-front pet fees, but breed and number limits are in place in some places, but not all.

Location? The desert is beautiful in winter and the temperatures are sublime. You have the whole Lake Mead Recreation Area, including Lake Mohave, which is mentioned in several episodes of my favorite old radio show, “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” Mountains and snow are as close as an hour away in Arizona, or two hours away in California at Big Bear Lake or Lake Arrowhead. Lots of beautiful country in the southwest, once you get away from large urban areas.

But how to be available in Los Angeles for in-person auditions during the prime months of the year? (Actor friends in LA have told me that it's slow during August and from about mid-November through mid-January.) The couples we’d met at the ball game had found short-term rentals, but that option was still costly and might actually involve moving stuff.
Didn’t want to do that.
Matthew McConaughey in front of his Airstream in 2009

Then I thought, what about a travel trailer or other recreational vehicle (RV)? Musicians often travel in RVs, those huge, bus-like things. Still, when I think of RVs I usually think of old folks touring in their Winnebago. Do actors live and travel in RVs too?

As it turns out, yes, they do. Actors like Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, who lived in a customized van before taking to an Airstream travel trailer at Malibu (the RV park is right on the beach). You can read about it here.

Actor Jeff Daniels both vacations with his family and tours with a band in a Class A bus.  He posted a funny song on YouTube about driving away from a truck stop minus his wife, as well as a series of videos on taking to the road on a band tour to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in winter. His series about the band tour begins here. His comedy song video is below.

Now to choose the magic vehicle that will get us to LA for part of the year on a budget. We were pretty sure right off that it would NOT be a 42 foot bus. That's in Part 3.






Getting to Los Angeles, Part 3

The more we thought about getting an apartment in Nevada, and taking our own mobile accommodations to Los Angeles for that prime part of the year for auditions, the more it seemed like a good idea. My husband will be polishing his three draft novels - and developing new ones - so he can work anywhere. We would be out of the desert during that part of the year when it's ridiculously hot. We could park ourselves in different locations, from beach to mountains. If neighbors nearby got noisy or unpleasant, we could move. Plus we could stay mobile for location filming and take our pets with us. We're Westerners by birth. No limits, Baby!

But what kind of mobile accommodations were going to feel most comfortable and at the same time be the most mobile? We found out that with more and more employment being do-able online a lot of working-age people are ditching the 9-5 routine and opting for a place-to-place life on the road, so researching RVs and what is involved was easy (search RV Living). Pippi Peterson, who has a HUGE following online, explains some of the pros and cons below. Her YouTube Channel has scores of videos on how she renovated her used Class A and now maintains it. Note that in 2014 when the video below was made she reported living in Southern California in her RV for just $800 a month, not the $4600 (rent plus utilities plus fees) that we saw with a two-bedroom apartment (and getting a one-bedroom would have taken only about $1500 off of that.)
We looked at Class C motorhomes because they seemed more drivable for us novices, but since we knew the rig would sit idle for weeks and months at a time, and we'd end up having to tow a car as well, we had our doubts. They didn't quite look like a "home" on the road, so we started looking at travel trailers. Well-loved (i.e. used) travel trailers and RVs can be had for less than $20,000 dollars, especially if you're handy, as Ms. Peterson is, but taking our cue from Matthew McConaughey, and knowing that we'd be living this mobile life for about five years, a trailer for us (used or new) meant an Airstream.

Airstream started building travel trailers back in the 1930s, and almost 70 percent of them are still on the road. The reason is that they're extremely well-built, they're aerodynamic (they tow really well!), and the silver-bullet design means they hold their value. When they start to look shabby owners simply polish them on the outside and renovate them on the inside.

I will say too that when we drove 75 miles to the nearest dealer and actually saw the models, we fell in love with the light-filled interior and the fact that, even on rainy days (sunny days you have the whole outdoors) the 25 ft. model had enough floor space for two adults, two cats, and a dog without us stumbling over each other. New they're pricey, but less than the cost of a small condo in major cities. Take a look at the International Serenity model below. It's beautiful.





So in a few months we'll be in the market for an Airstream and a Dodge Ram 2500 to tow it, and then we'll be off for Nevada to find a home base and settle in before heading over to LA. This is going to be quite an extreme lifestyle in many ways, including the fact that we'll spend part of the year among 10 million people and part of the year among 12 thousand people (or even fewer!)

But I'm so glad we found what seems to be a solution. There is only so much film work you can get outside of New York and Los Angeles. Even Atlanta, a hot spot for film, really tops out at day player roles, so if you want a chance at roles with a bit more meat on them, you have to go to where they are.

So, who knows? Maybe next year, this will be us.  If not at Malibu, somewhere in LA for sure.