Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Do

(picture: Orlando Gonzalez, Joyce Scott, and Cheryl Scungio share an unscripted laugh during our grueling week of rehearsals. See #7 below.)

Tom Boynton of The Remnants came over last night and watched the movie straight through with me. We are talking about him possibly scoring some of the scenes that have no music or would do better with non-lyrical music. The sound still needs a lot of work, and it is driving me crazy. At least it is leveled off now so that I don't have to watch it with remote control in hand to turn it up or down, but in many scenes I seem to have overcompensated and now the music is too low. It is different watching it on a television from the other side of the room than on a computer in front of my face. The sound is perfect there!

Dinner with Phil Calvert tonight, yay! Now I have to remember the things that I did right that I wanted to tell him about. I had a few more things for the list of what NOT to do, but I didn't write them down and now I don't remember. They will probably come to me as I write this. Oh, there's one!

1. Carefully plan your shoot according to the seasons. Since "Smalltimore" is a romantic comedy, I wanted bright, colorful outdoor scenes. We shot for 2 weeks in August, and the weather was amazingly cooperative. However, there were some scenes we didn't get to, and as I mentioned, it took me 4 months to get those actors I needed all together for those scenes - several of which were outdoors. So for the day scenes we had to make sure we didn't shoot any trees, because now they were bare, and for the night scenes my poor actors were freezing because they had to be in summer clothes with no coats. And one of the scenes was driving around with the convertible top down! So if I were shooting a comedy, in Baltimore, I would try to start production in April or May. For something that needed to be more bleak, maybe end of October.

I'm sure more things will come to me, but let's move on to what I did that I WOULD do again:

1. Join the Creative Alliance and take every film-related class you can. I'll remind you that I had NO formal training in filmmaking. Before January 2008 I had never taken a single class on the subject. I took as many classes at the Creative Alliance as I could before going into production, and I still continue to take them, they can only make me a better writer, director, and producer. Especially if you see any class taught by Michelle Farrell, Rob Pawlosky, or Steve Yeager, TAKE IT. Also Aaron Gentzler or Stacie Jones-Gentzler. I haven't had the opportunity to take their classes, but I know them and they do a great job.

2. Make contacts and keep them up constantly. The film community in Baltimore is very small, so this isn't that hard to do. Actors, producers, crew... you never know when you are going to need someone. Be respectful and even when you really want to and you know you are right, NEVER talk badly about anyone in the industry. Everyone knows everyone, you will probably have to work with them sooner or later, and it will come back to bite you in the ass. Last summer, I think before we even started production, something bad (and COMPLETELY untrue) got back to me that someone said about me, and I was barely in these circles for a minute! Luckily the person who heard this misinformation knew the truth about the situation first-hand and straightened out the third party - who I had never even met, but I had heard of him because he has produced several movies.

3. Treat actors with the same respect you treat the film crew. As a general rule, in life, I try to treat everyone the same anyway. A lot of people on the production side of things tried to convince me that actors are a dime a dozen and should be glad to take any part I threw their way, do it for free and like it. I thought this was a terrible approach, and I would never even think about an actor that way, let alone treat them like that. What good would that do anyone? That kind of attitude just breeds discontent, poison on a set. On the flip side, I have been on a set where the Director actually said to the production crew that the actor, "is God." That attitude is equally disastrous.

4. If possible, hold your auditions someplace that has a professional feel about it. I was lucky enough to be able to hold mine at Baltimore Theater Project. This, I feel, gave the project some "cred," and got the actors more excited about trying to do their best and land a role.

5. The audition process should be pretty grueling. This is not to intentionally torture anyone, this is to weed out those who aren't serious about it. Tape all auditions. Review them several times (it should be grueling for the director also, not just the actors!). Call more than one person back for each role, even if you THINK you know who you want. The second round of auditions should be extensive and tough. See who's left standing, those are the people you want.

6. Have a table read, and allow the actors some input. This is something that only made sense to me, but I found out that very few writer/directors do this. Of course I had the final say, and there were some suggestions I turned down. But for example, this process is what led to Joyce Scott completely turning the character of Mrs. Talford around. As it was originally written, she was pretty crude. Joyce helped me to find a way, simply through vocabulary, really, to make her much more endearing, intelligent, and quirky. Having this sort of input also allows the actors to really OWN their characters. It means a lot to them to be a part of the process, because they are very rarely asked their opinions. Honestly this is one of the best things I did in the whole process, and I will do it every time. The other thing that I would not skip, that many do is:

7. Have rehearsals. Since actors in low-budget indies are often doing it for cheap or free, this may seem like a lot to ask. But I believe it is exactly why the chemistry between the characters in "Smalltimore," truly comes across on screen. Because we had this time together to become at ease with each other, and work out the kinks of what I was looking for from each of them in every scene, in every page. Especially with an ensemble cast, there was so much going on. I think the whole thing would have been a holy mess if we had not put the time in together in the trenches (40 hours total) before stepping on the set.

8. Be up-front with actors from the moment you place the casting call. If you can't pay them, say so. There are still loads of actors out there who will do it, and the ones who won't will just be pissed off that you wasted their time, and they will spread the word. Have a questionnaire at the auditions, and make sure everything is clear between you and that actor before the audition is over. Will they work for what you said you can (or can't) pay them? Will they do nudity? Have a problem with playing a gay character? Have reliable transportation? Even simple questions can help you suss out the divas who are going to be a problem on the set. If they answer every question with two or three sentences instead of checking the "yes" or "no" box, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

There's loads more, but I have to get some other work done today, so time to wrap this up. If you want to know more about my personal do's and don't's... take my pre-production class at the Creative Alliance on June 6th!

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