Wrapped on my first feature film

We wrapped a week ago. My first feature film as a writer/director/anything. The working title is Dinner Party Movie and that will definitely be changing.

It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, the most I’ve ever given myself over to a singular pursuit — six weeks of intense commitment, devoted almost entirely to the single endeavor of making the film. And of course there was much work before that.

 

We shot 71 pages in 10 days, doing 8-10 hour days. And yes, there were some actual 8-hour days in there, which is hard to believe. Most people assume that an indie production will be 12-hour days, which I don’t really believe is sustainable for more than two or three days. The work will start to suffer and attitudes will sour, and then the culture will start to break down. At least that was my fear — we never really pushed it except for a single 12-hour day in the 2nd week.

 

People have asked me if it was “fun” and I always laugh and say no, no it was not fun, at least that’s not the first word that I’d use. Yes, there were moments of fun and joy and laughter and all that, every day. Making it with friends meant it was an infinitely more rewarding and relaxing experience. But, it was intensely overwhelming, stressful, and mentally and physically exhausting. Joyful yes, fun no.

 

The biggest difference between directing a short and a feature: I felt my role was much less about directing each scene with precision, but rather about steering the whole project in the right direction, tone management, making sure that each piece would fit into the larger whole — about seeing and feeling how the whole film would cut together, constantly cutting and re-cutting it in my head.

 

I learned that we can question just about everything related to production and budget. The going rates for things are always negotiable. You don’t need x number of crew. Most crew positions can be done without. Everyone knows this and yet hardly anyone really believes it or is willing to follow the premise to its conclusions and make something this way.

 

People told me that I was very calm and relaxed on set. Outwardly, I suppose I was. I’m not frantic and I didn’t yell or snipe at people. Inwardly, my God, a different story. I was waking up in the middle of the night panicked, waking up with crushing doubts about myself and the material, and often feeling like a complete failure.

Then there were the highest of highs, times when I felt like the work was very good and that the final product would be very good, and then I’d wade back into another eddy of anxiety and depression and back and forth for two weeks.

 

There were many moments of fun, joy, happiness, and excitement. But I could always feel the bear behind me. And now, to be free from the bear, is a sweet sweet feeling.

 

Actor reels, web series, and casting

I started some preliminary casting this week for the feature I’m putting together.

Which has led me to watch a lot of actor reels.

My thought is that actors don’t put enough thought into how they are presenting themselves online.

A lot of the reels have some bad clips in them. By bad I mean that they don’t show the actor acting well. And/or they have clips with very low production design, audio hum, poor lighting, etc.

I know that actors usually don’t have control over the final product and the production value, so I don’t hold this against them. I know they have to build up their chops and get in reps and take student films and gigs for practice and experience.

But you do have a choice in what you put into your reel and what you post on your website. Quality is much more important than quantity.

A better option, if possible, would be to show a single short film that you made, which really shows off your ability. I know, that’s hard, and if you aren’t going to produce it yourself then you have to wait until you get cast in something like that.

I really like the Cinema Lab shorts by Stephen Cone. The actors are all from a class he taught. It helps that he’s a great director, but these shorts really show off the actors in the best possible way.

I think I’d rather see no reel than a poor reel. With just photos and a resume, I can imagine what might be. When I see a weak reel, I’m forced to consider that maybe this is as good as it gets.

I’ve also seen some bad web series this week. There are a lot of reasons to make a web series, but if you’re an actor and you are making one to show off your talent — then you should really make sure that it shows off your talent.

If you’re an actor and you wrote and starred in the series, I’m going to assume that you made it to show off your talent. And if it looks bad, the writing is bad, or the acting is bad — then…

We’re all trying to get better and of course the first things we make are rarely the best. That’s certainly the case for me. But you have a choice in what you put forward and what you leave out.

The Eternal Casting of the Director’s Mind: Fishing, Hunting, and Foraging

There are three ways I think about casting: fishing, hunting, and foraging.

Fishing

With fishing, you hold an audition, post an audition notice around town and online and see what comes back to you. You throw out some lures and see who comes in.

Hunting

With hunting, you look for someone specific. Maybe a big name talent or a specific actor that you’ve seen somewhere. You know you want to work with them or they would be perfect for a role so find a way to connect with them and try to get them interested in the project.

You get an IMDbPro account and try to track down the contact info of an actor that you don’t have a relationship with and try to get them to read your script.

Foraging

With foraging, casting becomes an always process.

Every time you go to a play, you make a note of any actors you liked and jot their name down with some notes (“perfect for lead in ${filmName}” or “would make a great weird neighbor”).

This can happen when you see actors in shows, in local or even major films and TV, in classes, at meetups, through friends, whatever. I make a note of it in my phone or notebook and then when I get home I add it to a big Word doc I have with lists of actors that I liked or thought might be interesting to work with.

On The Deadline, we used a mix of foraging and hunting. There were a couple roles where I knew exactly who I wanted and made sure that they could come to the audition. Then we did a big audition and ended up with a mix of people that I had met before and those that were new to me, along with some real surprises.

For foraging to work, you have to get out a lot and see shows or watch a lot of short films.

But the truly awesome advantage of this is that you get to see actors working under good conditions — a role that that they’ve prepared for with a director.

To me, that’s much more informative than an audition — in an audition, there are nerves, they don’t know the material well, etc. Some actors are terrible at auditioning and some are great (and that doesn’t necessarily map to their actual acting ability).

 

So.

I like using a mix of all three.

When I started casting my last film, WHAM, I went through my lists of actors that I wanted to work with, cultivated over the past four years, and picked out names and put them in a spreadsheet next to the role. I made a column for first choice and backups.

Then I start reaching out to those actors and cross them off if they aren’t available, moving on to next choices.

My goal was to avoid holding an audition because auditions are a lot of work we and I only had about three weeks to cast it and I was working alone. Also, it was a 3-minute short — for a feature I would want to see them do a reading and meet them in person first.

That work got me about halfway there — out of six roles, one I knew professionally, one was a close personal friend, one I had seen at The Annoyance, and one I had seen in a Second City e.t.c. show.

 

Foraging online

For the last three roles, I did two things.

First, I contacted the agent of one of the actors that I knew I wanted to work with. Her agent asked me what else I was looking for and I sent her a breakdown of the available roles and she sent me about six headshots and resumes for the open roles.

I watched the reels of some of those actors and tried to find any short films that they had online.

I don’t really like reels because I’d rather see more than a clip. I’m usually looking for one solid performance where I can see that they can act well under good conditions.

If I don’t know them personally, I check Facebook to see if we have a mutual friend that could make an introduction. Or if they have an agent, I call the agent.

Pros, cons, etc

Sometimes an audition is necessary, but with foraging you get more control over who attends the audition and you get to write with certain people in mind.

If you don’t hold an audition, you cut yourself off to the upside of being truly surprised by someone.

An audition is also a great way to meet and see actors that might not work out for the current project but that would be great for something in the future.

If you want a ‘name’ actor, then you’re going to have to hunt.

 

 

 

 

How to create your own work (as an actor)

Last month I was on a panel about Off Book with the co-star, Mindy Fay Parks, at the Chicago Acting in Film Meetup (CAFM) to talk about Off Book.

The main thrust of the conversation was about actors producing their own work. The conventional wisdom right now is that if actors aren’t getting the kind of work that they want to be getting, they should produce make a web series or a short film to highlight themselves.

This is a great idea.

As an actor, I was always hoping that someone else would see potential in me, cast me, etc. There’s a lot more responsibility as a writer/director/producer, but at least you’re in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to wait for other people to choose you, you can choose yourself.

Caveats, or why I think this advice should be qualified with additional, more nuanced advice

“Create your own work!” usually implies that actors should go out and start writing scripts, which I think should be qualified a bit. Sometimes actors sit down and write something great (like Eric & Mindy with Off Book), but most actors are not (good) writers.

I don’t mean that they lack the ability to become good writers, I mean that they have spent many years honing their craft as actors and much less time or no time at all honing their craft as writers.1

I think it’s unreasonable to expect all great actors to also be great writers. I mean, they’re completely different skills. Some people can do both but most people do one better than the other. I think it’s ridiculous to allow your acting potential to be limited by your writing talent and skill. Is Meryl Streep a great writer? I don’t know and it shouldn’t matter.

What’s your point?

My point is that if you’re an actor and you want to produce your own work, you don’t have to write it. If you think like a producer, you’ll see that there are a lot of options for bringing together a project that will highlight your talents:

  1. Write a script yourself or with a partner.
  2. Find a short play that you love and option the rights to it or buy it outright and adapt it to the screen.
  3. Find a writer to write a script for you.
  4. Acquire rights to an existing screenplay.
  5. Find a writer/director and offer to produce their next film if they cast you in it.
  6. Probably other options that I haven’t thought of.

I already covered #1 so I’ll go through the other options. I’m assuming that we’re talking about a short film here, but this also applies to features or web series.

Acquiring rights to a short play

If I were going this route, I would go to all of the short play festivals and readings in my city until I found one that I really loved and had a role that fit me. Then I would approach the writer and ask if they’ve ever thought about adapting it for the screen (with a lead role for myself).

In exchange, I would produce it (more on producing below). Most unknown playwrights would be interested in this proposition. Even somewhat well-known playwrights would be interested in this if they haven’t done a lot of screen work.

You could also inquire at local playwright incubators in your city, or even online, and ask to read the scripts of playwrights. In Chicago, I would look at Chicago Dramatists as a starting place.

Finding a writer

Similar to the option above, I would go to a lot of stage shows with original work and find a writer whose work I loved. The only difference is that I would approach them about writing something original for me, instead of adapting an existing property.

In exchange, I would offer to produce the film.

Acquire the rights to an existing screenplay

In this case, you’re finding a script somewhere from a screenwriter and either paying them for the script or offering to collaborate with them. I would go to local screenwriting meetups or find local films that had been written by someone other than the director. I have a producer friend who found a script this way on Reddit.

A tangent about actors interacting with directors in public

Before I get to item #5, I’m about to go on a tangent about actors interacting with directors. Skip it if you want.

The way actors (often) try to ‘network’ with directors is by meeting them at meetups and trying to cozy up to them in hopes of getting cast in something. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, although it can make directors uncomfortable if you’re too pushy about it. And sometimes it works — if I meet an actor while I’m in the middle of casting and they’re in the range of what I’m looking for, I will invite them to audition.

Personally, I love meeting actors and will check out their work and jot their name down after meeting them if I think they might be a good fit for a future project.

So while I wouldn’t discourage actors from being friendly with directors, I would say it’s much better to: a) invite them to your shows and comp them so they can see, for free, your talent, or b) become friends with them first in an organic way by inviting them to parties or whatever on a friend level without any hint of expectations or desperation, or c) buy them coffee and ask for their advice because everyone loves to be asked for their advice and sometimes when they go too long without being asked for their advice, they do things like write really long blog posts about it, but I digress.

So why is the normal approach not very good?

First of all, if I meet an actor, I have no idea if they’re any good. That’s why I recommend inviting them to see a show you’re in.

Second, if you’re too aggressive, it feels fake.

And third — you want to make a film RIGHT NOW, not in a year when maybe the director will remember you when he or she is working on their next project. Create your future, etc.

OK, tangent over.

Approaching a writer/director

Here’s what I would do. I would go online and find any local film writer/directors and watch their films. If I couldn’t find their films online, I would try to email or tweet them and ask them where I can find it online. I would go to all the film screenings and festivals and meet directors there.

Then, instead of saying “hi! I’m an actor!” and handing them a headshot or a business card or refrigerator magnet with my face on it, I would tell them that I really enjoyed their film and ask them for their card so I can check out their other work online.

And I would ask all my actor friends to tell me about indie directors that they liked working with or who are doing great stuff.

Then, when I found someone that I was interested in working with, I would approach them with a real proposition. I would say something like “I’m an actor and producer and I’m looking for a collaborator for my next project. I really liked [movie that they made] and I think we have a similar sensibility. To be more specific, I don’t have a script in place yet, but I would be interesting in developing a project with you (I would produce and raise the money). Would you be interested in getting coffee to see if we would be a good match?”

This is so much better than handing out your headshots because you’re coming from a place of agency. You’re not begging them to cast you in something, you’re approaching them as a collaborator who will, most importantly, bring something very valuable to the table. This also works when you already have a script and you need to hire a director to realize it.

What value are you bringing to the table? You’re going to produce.

Producing

I recently read a post by the marketing teacher/blogger Seth Godin, called The bingo method:

You might need help to turn an idea into a project.

Most of the time, though, project developers walk up to those that might help and say, “I have a glimmer of an idea, will you help me?”

The challenge: It’s too challenging. Open-ended. To offer to help means to take on too much. And of course people are hesitant to sign on for an unlimited obligation to help with something that’s important to you, not to them.

If we apply Seth’s metaphor to filmmaking, there are four basic squares on the bingo card that need to be filled in:

  • A script
  • Money
  • Personnel
  • Locations

In reality, there might be 200 squares to be filled in, but these are the four key ones.

If you’re just an actor, then you’ve got a lot of competition. There are a lot of actors in any big city. And if you’re reading this, then you’re probably not at a point in your career where you’ve distinguished yourself enough to be in high demand. Or you’re in high demand but not for the kind of roles you want to play, however financially rewarding a national Budweiser spot or guest victim on Chicago PD might be.

So, if you were to approach me as just an actor and say “hey, I’m a good actor, can I be in your next film?” the chances are that I’m not going to put all of my current projects aside to produce, raise money, and write a script that will make you look great. I’m going to keep working on my own stuff.

However, the conversation changes if you bring more than yourself to the table. Because the hardest things about indie filmmaking are a) raising money and b) producing.

By producing, I mean handing the hiring of personnel, scouting locations, filing SAG paperwork, preparing releases, arranging for meal delivery, etc.

I fucking hate doing that work.

I do it for my own projects because the pain of working 8 hours at my day job and then coming home to fill out SAG paperwork and correspond with agents and location owners and insurance brokers and rental houses and create schedules and update spreadsheets with too many rows for 5 hours is less than the pain of not making films.

It’s not a labor of love, it’s a pain in the ass that is necessary to get to rehearsal and set and do the creative stuff that I love.

So. If you approached me (or another writer/director) with either the willingness to produce or with money (or the necessary work to raise money via crowdfunding), then I would really really want to talk to you and hear what you have to say.

In the case of Off Book, I was very busy at the time with The Deadline and was up front with Mindy and Eric. I told them that I wouldn’t have time to be a producer on the project or to help raise money and they were OK with that. They also had a script in place. The script needed some rewriting but the concept was great and most of the structure was in place. We just had to polish it a bit and work on the ending. While I did take a short break from my existing projects, I didn’t have to put them on hold for a whole year.

And if any one of the bingo squares is particularly strong, then you need fewer squares or the other squares can be weaker. For example, if you said “I have $50k to shoot a feature film starring myself, but I have no script” then I would say “DON’T WORRY, I WILL WRITE ONE.”

And I know you probably don’t have $50k lying around but you might have $2k lying around or a credit card with a $3k limit or a lot of friends and family that would donate to a crowdfunding campaign. Raising money for a web series or short film isn’t easy but I have plenty of friends that have raised $5k via crowdfunding without being famous or having huge networks or going viral. It’s a lot of work but it’s in the realm of possibility.2

And you don’t have to do all the producing on your own. You can find someone to help you. The important part is that you’re going to lead the project to completion, whether by doing to work yourself or finding friends or experienced people to help you. You are the project manager. You are the person who wakes up every morning with the job of making sure that the film gets made.

In my opinion, raising money and producing are a lot easier than writing a great script. In Chicago, you can take a class on producing that will teach you all the basics. And you can learn a lot by bringing someone with experience onto the project as an AD or an associate producer or just and adviser.

I realize that I haven’t said anything about how to actually produce a film, so I’m going to write another blog post soon that gets into the nuts and bolts of that process.

I hope this helps. If you want to hear from me when the aforementioned films get released, you can subscribe to my newsletter.

 


  1. This tends to be less the case with actors that come from the sketch and improv world because, at least in Chicago, almost all the comedy people also write and produce their own sketch shows. 

  2. Check out Seed&Spark’s free Crowdfunding for Independence tutorials for guidance. 





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