Six Angry Women: Casting and Trust

Sorry for the long delay in posting, it’s been a long nine days of casting and rehearsals. After an exhaustive search, I’ve found my six angry women, all local Chicago actors with a ton of talent.

Being that I’m going at this with a micro budget of less than $40k, it’s pretty much been a three man show so far. My production manager, Anthony Del Percio, who is a brilliant filmmaker based here in Chicago, has been handling logistics and has been working with my DP Faroukh Mistry on putting together a camera package and all the requisite gear for a full feature shoot. Despite our budget, we’re not going DSLRs and consumer light kits on this - it’s a full-blown production and we have no intention of skimping on production values. We’re striking mutually beneficial deals and making friends along the way. It’s been remarkable what we’ve been able to pull together so far.

I’m acting as my own casting director and have been criss-crossing across town to meet with actors. As I’ve written on this blog before, I don’t believe in doing cold readings with actors - I think it’s unfair and puts unproductive pressure on both of us. I’ve seen all of these actors perform on stage so I’ve got a pretty good idea about their presence, the timbre of their voices and what they’re capable of. I try to sit down for one to two hours with each actor and just talk to them. I want to find out what makes them tick and see how open they are to the concept, to their craft and to me as a director. This is business about trust, and if an actor and I have difficulty communicating then it will not be a fruitful collaboration.

Some of the actresses I met were fairly closed because of the nature of the part and the film. Many were afraid of playing a racist woman on film. I had to remind them that I truly felt the members of this jury weren’t racist, that none of them walked into that jury room with the mindset of “I’m going to fuck that black kid over.” It’s likely that the pressures of the trial and the jury deliberations brought out their inherent fears, fears which are most likely rooted in a prejudice that comes from misinformation or personal traumas.

I wanted to see how each actress would respond to that, given the part would require them to really dig deep and ask tough questions. It’s too easy to play a racist. It’s too easy to play a fearmonger or scaredy-cat. It’s tough to play a real woman with real feelings and secrets. By means of questions you can tell if an actor is intrigued and excited by the idea or apprehensive about it. As a director you have to read your actors and trust your gut. Given that I don’t have a script for this film, I’m counting on my instincts with this casting process, and I feel confident I’ve got the right bunch.

I also had to have actresses who were great writers themselves, and part of my line of questioning was to determine their process. Again, it’s too easy to just ask if they write, because everyone says yes. But it’s more about the process of writing, of their approach to creating a character, of where they find the soul of the character and how it matches up to plot and environment. I propose different scenarios to each actor - “We’ve determined that regret is a big part of this character, how do you demonstrate regret in a crowded room?” My actors are not “writing” a response on paper, but we’ll go through the creation of a scene using that seed. It’s a fun and fascinating process, and as aforementioned it requires openness and communication. If your actors trust you, then they’re more willing to take risks.

It begs the question: how does one go about building trust, especially in such a short time? The answer is simple: empathy and sincerity. As a director you have to be sincere with your actors. I follow a protocol when I meet a new actor, and when I say protocol it’s not a cold list of rules to go through one-by-one. I do these things because I sincerely mean it.

The first is to always, always thank your actor for coming out to meet and audition. It takes a lot of preparation and travel for actors to audition, and they’re putting themselves up on a plate for you to dissect them. That’s asking a lot of someone and is daunting, so be genuinely thankful for their participation in such a grueling process. The next part of the protocol is to just talk to your actors. Chit-chat. Talk about the weather, the commute, something that’s happening around you, whatever. This will put both of you at ease and let some of the tension out of the room. It’s also establishing your communication with them. In order to get to the root of any character you have to be able to talk freely.

Which makes the next part of the protocol very important - you must show empathy. This means you must share a bit of yourself with your actors in the process of discussing the part. You don’t have to reveal all your dark and personal secrets, but you should share your feelings and thoughts with them. An actor - or any collaborator for that matter - will be more willing to dig deeper and share ideas / thoughts / emotions when you demonstrate that you’re willing to do the same. I talk freely about experiences that have shaped my desire to make this film, my fears and doubts, my admission that I’m just as curious as anyone else to know what this film is going to end up looking like. And it’s not lip service - I honestly feel these things and want to share them, because it helps me process all that’s around me as well.

In this sense, my auditions are really just two sounding boards listening to one another. My actors are all figuring me out just as I’m trying to figure them out. There is no power struggle here, we both need each other to make this thing work. The audition is a level playing ground, which is why I hate traditional casting with a table separating me from the actors in a cold room. That’s an awful way to get to know someone.

But sometimes a cold reading of lines in a room with a table is necessary when casting supporting roles and smaller parts. I reserve my custom casting process for my lead actors, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less personable with my supporting actors. Even from behind a table I thank them for coming, I shake their hands, I chit-chat with them to put them and myself at ease. I don’t have the time to go through a full process with each actor, but at minimum I devote 30-40m per actor. It’s exhausting work for me, but if it means getting the perfect cast, then it’s well worth it.

Plato once said that we must “be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle.” Actors are not there to take our frustrations and insecurities out upon. I’ve seen this too many times and it disgusts me. It all stems from the opinion that many directors have of actors, which is that they are property, they are just tools, pieces of meat to manipulate to make a picture. Where the director is the seat of power that all actors and crew must bow down to. This is nonsense. Your actors are the directors of performance, you have to entrust them with your vision, and when you do that they will listen to your direction with utmost care and respect. You are equally important to each other, and that mindset has to be upfront and clear from the second they walk through that audition room door. Doesn’t matter what style you have as a director, an actor will only give you respect when you respect them. This applies not only to film, but to life as well. If you show an actor respect and they turn around and disrespect you, then there’s no place for them in your collaboration. Talk to them, find the root of the problem, and if a solution is not there, then fire them. But that’s a tough and expensive process, so it’s best to get it right at the audition level. Cast with your heart, not your eyes.

Now begins my one-on-one rehearsals with my actresses, where we focus only on character. We’re not even discussing the film. Just character. I’ll get more into to this process in my next post.


Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels

Played 89 times

Music for the Weekend: DDFH by Run the Jewels.

Life’s moving at a million miles an hours and I seem to be getting further and further in a hole in terms of my sleep deficit. But that said, I’m thankful to be busy.

Finished my rough cut on my edit for the TV pilot, and it’s looking great. I think I’ve made some breakthroughs on my directing process, and I really need to thank my actors for that. It was a great collaboration, and their trust made it all possible because as all of my actors on any project will attest, I tend to put them in some very interesting and compromising situations.

Screengrab from the pilot; Elizabeth Riegert and Jacob Moore getting hot n’heavy on a very public elevator.

Took a few days away from the edit and this weekend I’m going to take the razorblade to it, trimming and seeing what is absolutely necessary and what needs to go. It’s the most brutal part of filmmaking, which is letting go of something that is beautiful and perfect, but all for the benefit of the story. Egos and sentimentality not allowed, which is why I need albums like Run the Jewels to keep things real and in perspective. EL-P and Killer Mike are absolutely murdering it right now.

Have a great weekend!

Purrple Splazsh



Played 80 times

Music for the Weekend: Purrple Splazsh by ACTRESS.

It’s been a very long week of auditions and callbacks for the television pilot I’m directing, and I’m happy to say that we’ve found our three main leading ladies. They’re an amazing, kick-ass group - in our callbacks I pushed them very hard and they came back with emotion, creativity and unique voices. I’m super excited to be working with them and to be able to go on this journey with them. After going through almost 60 auditions, each of them 30-60 minutes apiece, my brain is exhausted.

It’s a lot of fucking work to find the right actors, but this is the most important decision you will ever make as a filmmaker, which is to find the absolute best cast. 90% of making a film is finding the right actors, and when you do find them, you’ll know. Early in our careers we tend to cast with our eyes - people more that often will look the part, and we’re often put under the spell of beautiful women and men. But I’ve come to learn that I’d much rather have someone who can play the part convincingly and powerfully than someone who just looks the part. Sometimes you get lucky, like I did on Lilith with Julia Voth, Lili Reinhart, Bianca Christians and Nancy Telzerow who basically have the entire package going for them. That doesn’t happen too often.

My pilot required a part for a woman in her late 30s/ early 40s, and we were really struggling to find the complete package. We had an actress come in and read - she was 24, but she was mature beyond her age, and she just had that presence that put her into her late20s/ early 30s. She was incredible in her audition, nailing every beat and in our callback she showed so much range and ability to take direction. She was a dream, we all loved her, but she was still too young. We put her aside and kept searching.

I kept thinking of her throughout the auditions, and kept brainstorming on how we could possibly “age her up” for the role. It would be difficult, but I told myself I’d rather have someone who could own the part, play it beautifully and convincingly, than someone who simply fit a category. Choosing the 24-year old would require a change in the script and many of the directions we were originally planning to go in, but as we talked it through, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. She could sell her character and make us totally forget about her age, and we would only need to make small shifts to accommodate that. We made the call and cast her.

This is why it is so important to spend time with your actors. So much is lost when we limit ourselves to headshots and cold reads. Spend some time with your actors, talk to them, get to know what makes them tick. If we’d stuck to what was on paper, we would have never cast this young actress, and we would have lost out on someone whom I feel has what it takes to be a star. She just needed an opportunity, and I’m more than happy to give it to her because she earned it. She did the work, she took those risks in her audition, and she understood her own voice and body. I think she’s got that “it” factor and I want her to succeed, and I’ll do everything I can as a director and collaborator to get her there. I’m kind of old-school loyal in that way. You work with me and we become collaborators for life. If not now, then somewhere down the line. Ya can’t get rid of me.

I absolutely love actors. They’re bold when I can’t be, they voluntarily cry my tears when I cannot, they give their mind, body and soul to absorb my story and make it theirs. They are brave when I’m too scared to be. When we agree to work with each other, it’s my utmost responsibility to take care of them, to make them feel safe, to let them know that irrespective of what choices they make, my crew is behind them. That is the core of my effort with them, and it is the part of my job that I enjoy the most.

Have a wonderful weekend.

The Actor Thing.

A few posts ago I’d mentioned that what I’d gleaned from the Producers Guild conference is that for a film to get properly financed with a proper, non-DIY budget, is that you need to have an equitable actor attached to it.

I’ve received some letters from readers of how this revelation seemed antithetical to my longtime professing that I wanted to remain independent, that I wished to be a champion of new talent. Here I now am, talking about getting a bigger named star to help my film get financed, which to some readers comes off as my selling out to the system, of my caving into the ways of “The Man” and engaging the bullshit Hollywood machine. I can understand that, because I go through the same dialogue with my own conscience all the time.

My previous films all featured newcomers and up-and-comers who’d I’d chosen because of their appropriateness to the part. Many of these actors are going on to bigger things, and when we talk they are always so forthcoming in telling me how Lilith and my other films gave them the experience they needed to get to the next step, that they became better actors after their experience of working with me. It makes me feel happy and proud, and it’s a tradition that I want to continue.

But how can I possibly continue that tradition if I am seeking a name actor for The One Trick Rip-Off, an actor who can aid in my independent financing and packaging? There isn’t much career development when you attach a star, right?

Not always. Movie actors come in all shades and varieties. A lot of actors get tracked in their career paths, they are only offered parts that are appropriate to them on the surface. A comedian is typically cast only for comedic roles, but what few people know is that comedians are extremely well-trained to do dramatic roles, and most of them are pretty dark, introspective and have razor-sharp focus. Will Smith, after being typecast as a television comedian on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, had to do an excellent indie ensemble film Where the Day Takes You and later play a gay man in the brilliant Six Degrees of Separation for people to really take notice of his acting skills. He needed smaller, indie films to give him the chance to show his range.

And there isn’t an actor on earth that wouldn’t want the opportunity to show their range, because they are passionate about their craft. But wanting and doing are two totally different things, and an actor generally must not only find a script that resonates with them, but also have faith and confidence in a director to go on that journey with them. Showing range inherently carries the risk of a stable image blowing up in an actor’s face (think of Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder going ‘full retard’) and it is a highly-gauged career decision.

This is an opportunity for a young director, who must present their vision so compellingly, confidently and humbly that an equitable actor looking to break out of a typecasting rut feels safe and encouraged, and will join your cause. There is risk on both sides, but when that risk is equally shared and given the attention it is due, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I think of Adam Sandler doing Punch-Drunk Love, which at the time was a massive departure from his tried-and-true successes as a low-brow comedian. Sandler delivered, and both he and P.T. Anderson were the better for it, although unfortunately Sandler has now regressed to an embarrassing level. He’s so much better than what he’s doing right now.

This just saddens me.

But we’re facing a problem. With Hollywood’s A-List getting older, there is a very weak crop of marketable stars/ potential stars to fill those shoes because of the mulitplatform transformation of the industry. Twentysomething talents are spread out to television, music, stage and features. You have supporting cast members of Gossip Girl, Skins and Friday Night Lights getting lead roles, and then disappearing when executives shockingly learn that they don’t have enough box-office equity to carry an over-inflated $100m budget. Actors are getting turned over at an alarming rate, and no one is being given the chance to establish themselves as a bona-fide star that can carry a film at the box-office. In large part this also has to do with over-inflated salaries, because most producers simply can’t afford established talent.

The other problem with stars today is that so much of their marketability is being placed upon their public persona, where total fuckups like Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen are deemed valuable because of their over-saturated presence in mainstream media. Most executives are taking the adage of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ to a hazardous extreme. Talent is taking a back seat to perceived market value. Casting Rihanna as a supporting actor is a shitty decision for the filmmakers, but in the executive mind it’s just one more thing that can hedge their risk.

Which is why I stand firm on my commitment to stay independent, which will give me the freedom to promote new talent. Getting an equitable lead actor will allow me to hire young fresh new talent in supporting roles, which can be that very valuable stepping stone to success. I may not be able to cast unknowns as lead actors, because if I do then I severely restrict my budget - a budget dictated by my script, and not my cast.

The business is tough. One of the other things that really dawned on my at the PGA conference is that I’m not the only one trying to make a movie - there are thousands upon thousands of people trying to make that one great film, and they’ve all been told the same thing as me - in this market, at this time, you need an equitable actor. But there are only so many equitable actors, and so so very many of these film projects. Not everyone, myself included, can be so lucky to have a name actor attached. It’s sobering, but it also makes you think of different ways to get your film done. Alternative financing, cutting your budgets, finding foreign talent, thinking globally and online, reconfiguring the very way you think a movie should be made. I am doing this as I pursue my actors - The One Trick Rip-Off will be made, with or without a star. One path means instantaneous results, the other will take time, patience and ingenuity. Sometimes limitations can be blessings in disguise.

attitudeandsyndicate-deactivate ASKED:

I'm thinking about getting into Directing, do you have any tips for first-timers?

Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been getting around to answering my backlog of messages. Feels good to get back in the game!

First and foremost, the most basic tip I can give you is to prepare, prepare, prepare. You can never, in my opinion, prepare too much. Break down your script, create shot lists, create acting objectives for each scene, storyboard complex sequences in advance, and rehearse if you can. Some argue that preparation kills creative spontaneity, but I’m in the camp that it actually promotes spontaneity because you’ve covered the basics before you’ve even stepped in front of the camera. You are free to make adjustments based upon the moment, of what your actors and environment are giving you, of what your instinct is telling you (more on that later). But to go into a shoot unprepared means you’ll be spending valuable time figuring things out logistically rather than spending time with your actors and key crew. Prepare, prepare, prepare and you’ll be freeing yourself to really be in the moment.

Next tip. I think back to my first film and I think the best thing I learned was to get as much coverage as I could. For the uninitiated, “coverage” is collecting as much footage as possible of each scene, and this includes wides, angles, perspectives, close-ups and inserts. A good wide master-shot will ensure that you’ve filmed the scene in its entirety, and that in a worst-case scenario you’ll have the scene in its full for your edit.

But there’s a downside to master shots, which is that they tend to be flat, long and boring. Unless you incorporate interesting movement, layers of production design or choreographed action into your masters, they will tend to read almost flat. You’ll need to have close-ups and inserts to build narrative and interest. But as a fail safe, a master shot is a great insurance policy for a first time filmmaker.

My next tip is to manage your energy on set. Think of production as a battery. Each day you start at 100% and as the day presses on, people’s energy will drain. As a director you’re going to have to be at 100% all the time, but you have to be mindful that your crew and actors will be fading as the hours pass. Manage their energy wisely through scheduling and pragmatism. Rehearsals are great but avoid doing too many - actors will tend to put their energies into their first few rounds and you’ll want to preserve that raw power. Do a walkthrough at half-speed and if you’re shooting digital, you may even want to film your rehearsals. If it’s a complex sequence, then you’ll want to schedule a rehearsal before the camera shoots so that when you’re on set, you’ll be able to fine tune without expending too much time and energy. Avoid numerous takes on things like inserts - shoot them as a series instead.

The two things you’ll never have enough of are time and money. When you shoot, try to consolidate wherever you can without losing your inherent style or objective. If you can say two things in one shot and still keep it visually interesting (think of using a camera move or having your actors move in the frame as opposed to two shots), then you’re saving both time and money. Each setup costs you precious time, so be judicious with what you can do. Early in the shoot take note of your setup times and keep a mental log of what your shots will demand in terms of time and manpower. That long, single take with a steadicam will take time to light, choreograph and execute, so if you’ve allocated the same amount of time to it as you did for an insert of a man picking up a gun, then you’ll be in trouble, and you’ll fall behind. So either incorporate the man picking up the gun in your steadicam shot, or ditch the steadicam shot and do it as a series of shots under a similar lighting scheme. Know what is important and what can be sacrificed. Be precise but avoid being a perfectionist. As Michael Mann once put it, “a perfectionist is someone who cannot distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant.” Directors should be exacting in their overall vision, but they should have the wherewithal to know what is worth investing in and what can be consolidated or even excised. Those decisions will usually have to be made in the moment as you’re running out of time, you’re losing light, your talent is going into overtime, and a rainstorm is on the horizon. Believe me, it always happens, so be prepared for it.

Of course the very best tip I can give you is to listen to your instinct. Your collaborators will be bringing you thousands of decisions to be made each day, and you really have to go with what feels absolutely right to you. Being decisive is very different from being stubborn. You have a vision for your film, and every decision you make should be in service of that vision. If it doesn’t feel right - and you will know when it doesn’t feel right - then you have to act on it and devise an immediate solution to correct it. And if you don’t have an immediate solution, have the humility to ask your crew for their input. Your cast and crew are there to facilitate your vision - they are working with you, not against you - but it is your responsibility to steer them in the right direction to achieve the results you want. Hence the title of the job - director. Create a situation and environment where your collaborators are able to exercise their talents to the fullest as they bring your vision to life. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that is dependent upon your ability to stick to your convictions and provide directions to making those a reality.

These are just a few tips that I think can help out. There’s tons more tips but I really think these are the utmost important ones.

Screenwriting: How to Get an A-list Actor

Another friendly reminder that ‘Lilith’ is now available for download and DVD pre-order. You can order both the download and DVD (which has tons of cool stuff the download doesn’t have) directly from the distributor by clicking here, or by using the following link:

Back to business of the blog - it’s a good one, very important for screenwriters! :)


Waitaminute. What does getting an a-list actor have to do with screenwriting? Technically, it doesn’t. But we have to look at our greater goals. The entire purpose of going on the endeavor of writing a screenplay is to eventually get it made into a film. A screenplay is essentially a proposal for a completed film, it’s a blueprint to a vision that needs a lot of people to come together on and make happen. And in order to get a lot of people, we need to have money. And in today’s financing environment, we need a marketable actor to champion our script.

This was an actual movie. That had a screenplay. And got financed.

Of course this is not gospel. We can make movies on shoestring budgets with unknown actors, and what is marketable is our high concept. We can find really talented young actors and help make them into the superstars of the future. This is my personal belief, and I’ve done it so far. But I’ve also found that my budgets under this model have been extremely limited, and it takes a long, long LONG fucking time to raise those funds. The fastest and quickest way to get a healthy budget - and by healthy I mean a budget that affords you the time to exercise your craft - you’re going to need to get a marketable actor attached to your screenplay. That will get you through the door faster than anything, and it will get you money faster than you can imagine. It’s not a foriegn concept - I just finished reading Christine Vachon’s brilliant memoir A Killer Life and the key to the success of her production company Killer Films was to uphold the director’s vision and get the right people attached to the project to get financiers to pony up cash. It’s because financiers are wanting to hedge their bets - a high concept is not a sure thing, but a high concept with a marketable actor (see movies like Source Code, Moon or Looper) - then we have a fighting chance to recoup that money. It’s worth a shot, and if that doesn’t work, just journey on and raise that money.

The main key in getting an A-list actor is to write a powerful, impressionistic opening sequence that introduces the lead character in an unforgettable manner. You want to imagine an actor reading your script and within the first five minutes saying “I need to play this part.” It’s because actors are also artists, and they have a desire to do meaningful work. Likewise, we have to imagine if we present our script to a producer, they can immediately in their mind cast for that part and help you pursue that actor.

So what goes into a powerful introduction? There are four elements, listed here in the order of importance:

The Situation.

The Initial Action.

The Initial Dialogue.

The Description.

The Situation. The key to a strong situation is to challenge the character. Challenging a character allows us to be emotionally engaged with them. We have to put our characters in a specific circumstance, and challenge them with it. The most basic challenge is to have the character be in a predicament where they either lose or maintain their values.

In There Will Be Blood the opening situation - Daniel Plainview mining for gold on his own in a desolate location - is extremely challenging. He is charged with the immense task of doing the work of ten men on his own. Plainview injures his leg, and he’s faced with something that will challenge his core values - stay for the money (someone else will take his gold), or tend to his well being. He chooses the former, and it says a lot about him as a man. If we study how P.T. Anderson built this opening, we see that he is engaging us by throwing us into the pit with Plainview, and he keeps making it interesting by throwing in suspense (the burning fuse of dynamite) and twists (literally - the injury of Plainview) that give us opportunities to field the choices that Plainview makes. One of the overriding feelings when watching that sequence is that most men would have died in that situation, either by pain or simply giving up, but Plainview is not an ordinary man. His tenacity in the face of his situation is what makes him unforgettable.

There Will be Blood Opening from Media Clips on Vimeo.

The Initial Action.

There are essentially two types of action: meaningful and meaningless. Meaningful action is something that delivers the essence of the scene. It explains it through action, and not dialogue. Meaningless action is simply an action, and we have to always ask ourselves if it is not contributing to the meaning of a scene, then is it at least visually compelling. The ideal, of course, is to have meaningful action that is also visually compelling.

When creating a powerful opening scene, we ask ourselves first what the meaning of the scene is, and then we have to devise a way to deliver that meaning through action. The exercise for this is to write a scene completely devoid of dialogue. We do this because dialogue, as much as it is a vital part of a modern screenplay, exists not to tell a story, but rather to entertain, deliver character, point to subtext, and create anticipation. It should never, ever deliver the meaning of a scene.

This can be seen in the introduction of one of the truly great iconic characters of recent film - Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men played by Javier Bardem. Our introduction of Chigurh by the Coen Brothers is absolutely unforgettable - he is apprehended by the police and he proceeds to murder a police officer by strangulation, and then continues on by calmly killing an innocent bystander by means of a cattle gun. The situation is odd - we don’t know who, when or why this is all happening, but it is arcane and gruesome, and it’s entirely delivered through action. The dialogue in the scenes - the officer talking on the radio and the banter between Chigurh and the innocent passerby - never deliver the scene’s meaning, which is essentially to define Chigurh as a complete and utter homicidal sociopath. We understand this through Chigurh’s actions - the look on his face as he strangles, the fact that he injures himself as much as his victim in killing them - than his dialogue, which is simple, stripped and bare. It is Chigurh’s actions that make him unforgettable, not his haircut, his dressing, or the way he speaks.

The Initial Dialogue. I know, I just poo-pooed dialogue and now I’m telling you that a character must have great dialogue to be memorable. But there’s a difference - it’s initial dialogue, something that reveals something of the character for the future and creates anticipation. This can be a clever one-liner or a deadpan delivery of something spectacular. Take a look at AFI’s ‘Top 100 Movie Quotes’ and you’ll see that many of them, on their own, are pretty unspectacular. But when placed in context of the situation, action and character, they become cultural milestones.

Returning to Anton Chigurh, his spare dialogue in his intro speaks to his cool, demented demeanor. He places the cattle gun to the stranger’s head and utters a single line: 'Would you hold still, please.. It’s a rare admission - a sociopath saying the word ‘please’ but in the context of ‘please stay still so I can kill you.’ It lends meaning to the scene and to the character, and it’s a brilliant and unforgettable line.

It’s not a steadfast rule that the character intro have a great line, but it helps. And it should not be forced, it should organically stem from all that has transpired. But give a great line and it becomes a great sell of that character to an actor - there is no actor on the planet who wouldn’t want that “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” moment. If not in the intro, your script should have a line that rings out, found in the emotional peaks of the screenplay.

The Description. No A-list actor ever took a role because of the type of pants they were wearing, unless, of course those pants were on fire and they were running through a paint factory. So many screenplays get bogged down in describing how a character looks - some going to the point of describing a specific actor in want of wooing them - and this is time and space wasted. If we are going to describe a character, pick the elements of them that make them distinguishing and speaks to their motives and meaning. Anton Chigurh’s haircut is interesting, but in the reading of a screenplay it has nothing to do with his character, and the Coens make no mention at all to Chigurh’s physical traits other than “his dark hair disappearing into the seat of the squad car.”

P.T. Anderson’s script for There Will Be Blood doesn’t contain any description of Plainview either. Reading the script we don’t really have an idea of what this man looks like, but by the end of the opening we know who he is and the type of man he might be. That’s far more powerful. There are no physical descriptions of him that would help me understand that better - does mentioning that he wears Jodhpur boots say anything about him? Probably not. But imagine if P.T. Anderson, in an alternate universe, described Plainview as wearing beaten denim overalls, with a peek of women’s underwear showing above Plainview’s beltline. Now we’re getting into memorable and meaningful description. That detail says something about the character, about something to expect in the future. Use these descriptive elements wisely and sparingly, and in doing so they become incredibly powerful.

In researching this post I did read the screenplays for There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, and if I were an actor I’d be beating down the filmmaker’s doors to play these characters. They are interesting, powerful, and they command our attention from the very first frame they are there. They challenge us and themselves.

Also apparent is that neither Anderson or the Coens held anything back in introducing their characters. They went all out and gave us their very best upfront, and sustained it throughout. Your character introduction is not the place to show restraint - it’s said that an audience decides whether or not to emotionally invest into a film within the first ten minutes, so make those ten minutes count and give them a character / situation that will punch them in the gut. A character looking out the window and contemplating life in the opening scene is boring and unengaging. A character looking out the window and contemplating life - sitting naked, covered in blood and listening to Phil Collins is something I won’t forget.

And equally important is how your main characters end. The ending of each character should express exactly who they are, and it should take them to the next level. Again with Plainview - he clubs Eli to death with a bowling pin, throws his hands in the air, and utters “I’m finished” with sardonic satisfaction. He is his own worst enemy, but always in control. He’s taken himself to the next level of depravity. Anton Chigurh walks away from a heinous car accident - bone protruding from his arm - still ready to carry on with his business. It takes Chigurh from being a mortal killer to an immortal killing god. He’s almost indestructible, and he might not be of this planet.

In doing these exercises you not only put the best possible advertisement for an A-list actor to love your script, but you also make your script so much better overall. Screenplays are extremely complex mechanisms that have correlating parts that feed into one another, and a script is only as strong as its weakest element. Improve one element and it will expose the weakness in another. Correct that element and an imbalance is revealed elsewhere. Keep doing this until your screenplay achieves harmony, and when it reaches harmony, it will simply sing off the page. It will read briskly. And that’s exactly what we want - not only for a great screenplay, but for an amazing film!

Work ramble.

Been working a lot. Between finishing all the legal paperwork and deliverables for the distribution of Lilith, I’m also doing fundraising and my rewrites on my Paul Pope script. As it turns out, Paul and I have another venture on the near horizon, a short film based off one of his amazing sci-fi short stories. It would be my first legitimate crack at science fiction, and I’m really excited about it. We’re in our final polishes of the script and our funding is promising - we have some amazing partners contributing and it’s a huge step not only for us personally, but also in terms of building blocks for future projects. If all goes to plan, we’ll tentatively start shooting in September / October. More on that as events warrant.

Spirit animals are the subject of the day. Image by Paul Pope.

We’re now deciding on the dates for Lilith's release and we'll start platforming in various formats soon. We're experimenting with some newer forms of theatrical release - I'm all in for supporting these upstart companies who are trying to change the fossil that is studio theatrical distribution, whose costs of marketing and exhibition are exorbitant and unsustainable. The idea is to get as many people to see the film - in both small and large markets - without killing the margins for both the exhibitor, the distributor, and for me. It's always a bit scary trying out new strategies, but it's become more of a necessity that an option - we simply don't have that kind of capitol to roll the film out traditionally. The film is nontraditional in every aspect - from its conception to its execution, so I figure why stop there? Let's give it a rip - embrace new technologies and strategies, and let's see where it takes us. My next step is that I'm going to be doing my DVD commentary track with Julia soon and then do the final assembly of the DVD product. Things are moving slowly but we're always moving forward, never back. I know that's something most indie filmmakers don't have the luxury to say, so I'm counting my blessings.

In addition to all that, I’m editing my culinary documentary which I did a few months ago. It’s had to take a back seat to my other work and there’s been a few changes at the restaurant, so we had to adjust a few things on the fly. I did my interviews with the chefs last week and now I can begin the assembly in earnest. Editing a doc is so much more challenging than a narrative feature - I’ll write about it soon. But for now I’m combing through shots of delicious food into the wee hours of the night, taking a break by writing, and then starting the day anew with emails and legal documents about money, formats and regions. Then a few hours for fundraising meetings, a few hours for domestic responsibilities, and then the cycle starts all over again. Somewhere in there I’m doing my weekly sharpie portrait and trying to write on this blog consistently. Been spotty as of recent, so my sincerest apologies for that. As I mentioned in previous posts I don’t have the luxury of a staff, so I’m pretty much doing all of this by myself. Who knows down the line I might hire a few interns, but I need more organization and clarity to get to that point. I try to give my interns interesting and meaningful work, not crap like dropping off my mail. It’s an internship, not indentured slavery.

But as much as this all sounds like a grind, I enjoy every minute of it. I’m working on something I love and am getting paid for it, so I’ve no reason to complain. Sure it’s frustrating, but I remind myself that I volunteered to put myself in this position - nobody forced me to write a script or go out and raise money. Or do this blog, or shoot a culinary doc. It’s all choices I made, and it’s part and parcel of creating something from scratch. It’s the business of being an artist, and while sorting through legal documents and rights agreements may not be an artistic endeavor, it’s what brings art to the world, it legitimizes and protects your work. It’s as vital to the artistic process as picking up a pen and writing ‘fade in’ on a blank piece of paper. And it’s where you ensure that you can make a living being an artist. A career artist, and not a hobbyist who posts cat videos on YouTube.

I get a lot of cynical responses from people with 9 to 5 jobs when I say I’m busy with work. They tend to think that being a filmmaker is a flight of fancy, something akin to the folks on Entourage. I try not to get upset but I remind people that I’m an independent contractor, an entrepreneur, and my work day doesn’t end at 5pm. I start at 7am and end at around 2am. Every day. Even Sundays. And it’s work. It’s not kids playing with toys and playing pretend. It’s making something from scratch that involves coordinating a lot of people from every corner of the planet, and trying to find the money to pay them. All the while you’re taking criticism from people who might like you, but who don’t believe in your ability, and who would rather bet their house on the guy who directed Wild Hogs, because Wild Hogs made good money. And during that time you’re constantly questing your own choices, because hey - Wild Hogs did make a lot of money and Lilith is just too weird and dark.

'Wild Hogs' vs. 'Lilith.' I think I made the right choice.

It was exhausting just to write that last paragraph. This is a tough job, a career choice that makes you face uncertainty every day. If you’re an actor you walk into an audition not knowing if you’ll get the part. You have to prepare yourself for rejection, because that’s what will happen to you 95% of the time. If you are a producer you have to put everything you have into a pitch, travel on your own dime, and say the things people want to hear without compromising the very reason why you became a filmmaker - to tell the stories that mean something to you. And like an actor, you will get rejected 99% of the time. But you pick yourself up and start again, because you have belief - faith - that someone out there will see the world the same way you do. You adapt and adjust, never losing sight of who you are and what you want to accomplish. I feel like this is where a lot of artists struggle - they lose themselves in the journey. They may get a paycheck but it’s a brimming unhappiness inside, because we’re not immediately doing the work that we set out to do in the first place. Becoming a professional artist is taking a huge risk, and we don’t take such huge risks to muck around in the middle for the rest of our lives.

So insist on quality. Use the lesser projects to get you to that place you set your goal to reach. Never be satisfied. Do that local used car dealer ad and put everything you have into it, make it the best it can be, and make your client impressed with your skill and professionalism. Be proud of your work. If your name is on something, it should be associated with excellence. Hold yourself to that absolute highest standard, and do everything to raise your own bar. Study, rehearse, research, and just keep working, working working. It’s taken me ten years to get to the point where I could buy the rights to a book I loved and not have people question whether or not I’m qualified to make that film. Ten years of doing small jobs, seemingly unrelated work, banal shit. Somewhere in there I accrued enough experience to where I felt I could make Lilith, and that’s what I did. I made a lot of mistakes but Lilith is a high quality film. It speaks of our meticulous craft, it shows we cared and believed in what we were doing, and I’m proud to have my name on it. It’s not the film I always dreamed of making, but it was absolutely required as a step to get me there. Nothing is a loss, there was no time wasted, no dollar spent unwisely. It’s a great, ballsy indie film.

I’ve rambled in this post but I wanted to take a different approach to describing work. A lot of filmmakers have a bad habit of embellishing / lying about how busy they are - one of my favorites in LA is when people tell me they’re “in development’, which can be anything from scribbling an idea on a napkin to getting a promise from an actor they’re sleeping with to star in their film. They talk about how they’ve got a bazillion projects lined up, making it sound like they’re producing all of them at the same time, when in reality they’re a 2nd AD or an art dresser. Which is fine to be a 2nd AD or art dresser, because that’s what we all have to do, myself included. Unless we’re Steven Spielberg, we’re all struggling to make it. So I don’t believe in talking a big game, I believe in my work talking for me. Bullshitting doesn’t impress me, good work impresses me. A love for making film impresses me. People who hustle to make films a reality impresses me. Those are the type of people I want to be around, whom I want to help, and who I’d be honored to have help me. Genuine relationships formed on a common bond, which is to just do good work, and make an honest living doing it.

Hope this post makes some sense. Wrote it from the hip, so it’s more how I’m feeling than any kind of cohesive subject. Back to work!

Process of an Improvised Short Film.

So last week there was a moment of inspiration. Before Ebertfest, Prashant Barghava (friend and director of Patang) and I talked about how his father, Vijay, had been taking acting classes for two years and how cool it would be to make a short film with his dad. We had an opportunity present itself - for Ebertfest, two of Patang's actors, Seema Biswas and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, came into town and were staying with the Bhargavas. Additionally, another fine actor and good friend, Samrat Chakrabarti, was in town from New York. It was a confluence of talent that rarely happens - Seema Biswas is considered by many to be India's finest actress and she and Samrat had worked together on Deepa Mehta's upcoming adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children. Nawaz is one of the hottest young actors in international cinema, with two films premiering at Cannes and a half dozen more releasing in India. So we had to jump on it, and we decided to co-direct a short film in 36 hours.

Problem was, we didn’t have a script. We had tossed around a few ideas but they were pretty large in scale and required multiple locations. By Sunday night we had some vague concepts manifesting, but nothing close to a fully realized film. Plus we had four characters to manage. Things were not looking good, but Prashant and I decided to press on.

I showed up at the Bhargava household on Monday morning. It was a cold and rainy day, which further put a damper on shooting outside or in other locations. I had rented a 5-light ARRI kit and wireless mics from Zacuto Films here in Chi, and we had two Canon DSLRs shooting primes simultaneously, a 24mm prime and the other a 50mm. I mixed the audio on the fly on a Zoom HD recorder.

With nowhere to go, we decided to have our four actors sit in the living room and engage in an activity - we had them play a game of Jenga, and just had them talk to one another about some real-life worries or troubles that had happened recently. Every once in a while, Samrat would interject one of the vague concepts we had into the conversation, and we’d see where it would go with improvisation. And we just recorded like that for a few hours.

Seema Biswas.

Something really magical happened in those two hours. A lot of real emotion and feeling came to the surface, and we captured some incredibly raw moments. But we still didn’t have a story. We took a break and started talking about some of the key moments in the conversation that rang true or created uncomfortable moments. Through that conversation we had some lynchpins to work on, specifically the relationship between the characters, and we investigated them in a new location - the backyard - and tried to test them out through improvisation. It started to ring true, but we still lacked a narrative. We called it a night and slept on what we recorded.

Tuesday morning we all convened and talked about ideas, and a plot emerged from the actors each talking about how they felt and where they wanted to go with their characters. We managed to construct the most important thing we needed to move on - an objective for each character. We constructed some new scenes and then improvised for the rest of the day, building on the individual objectives until we reached a conclusion.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui (foreground) and Vijay Bhargava.

As most of you know, I’m a highly precise filmmaker, and to go into a film project without a script or concept is a pure nightmare scenario for me. It’s like showing up for an exam without studying for a single minute, and you don’t even have a crib sheet. Prashant is a little more versed in this style of improvised shooting, but he too made Patang with a complete script and almost three years of research behind him. So we were pretty much flying blind on this, and we placed our trust in our extremely talented actors and let them write the story with us, crafting dialogues, movement and plot twists from a purely reactionary standpoint. It was tense but extremely fascinating, and to watch four actors riff off one another and build, to have digital cameras that can record for hours and allow us all to make mistakes and just keep mucking around until we hit a real nerve is an amazing experience.

We ended the film by filming the climax in a car along Lake Shore Drive on the south side of Chicago. I lit the car with a small battery powered LED light with blue gels and Prashant and I filmed from the back seat while Samrat and Nawaz drove, talking about the events that happened before. Both actors fed off one another, and let the conversation take them into some really weird and unexpected places, exploding into moments of violence and following it with a lot of eerie silences. It was really fucking weird, and somewhere in that exchange, we found our final frame, a natural and truthful conclusion that felt real and unforced.

Samrat Chakrabarti improvising on two cameras, 24mm(L) and 50mm(R).

What a weird fucking movie we’ve shot. We had no idea where it was going but it found its own rhythm, its own voice and its own path simply because we were all collectively open to the truth of the moment, and we followed it accordingly. The truth can be an amazing guide, and when you follow it, it can take you to some very unexpected places. In these cases sometimes the best direction is very little directing at all, and simply imparting trust in one another.

We shot hours of footage that will now have to be edited down to about seven or eight minutes, and we’ll go on another wild journey of discovery in the edit. Can’t wait to see where this goes!

Happy Birthday, Julia Voth!

Today is Julia Voth’s birthday! As we close shop on Lilith's post-production in the coming weeks, I'm as impressed as ever as to Julia's work on the film. But I have to be forthright in her contributions to the film offscreen, which was as important as anything that made it into the edit.

Julia on the set of ‘Lillith’ - in her words, “somebody got bitch slapped.”

From the day we first spoke to the very last shot of the film, Julia’s commitment to the part and the film was awesome. I remember when she first arrived in Cleveland and I went up to her hotel room to say hello, and I found on her desk a dog-eared copy of Dante’s Inferno along with a giant 3-ring binder that she had assembled, full of script notes. Needless to say I was impressed. I had already inundated her with a ton of my own notes, and I had asked her to take my notes, read them, and throw them away. I put the onus upon her to use the foundation I had provided and rebuild the character from the ground up. She did that, and then some.

It’s difficult in our modern society to get past people’s physical appearances. Someone as beautiful as Julia could never possibly be bookish or have a love for writing, right? But she is and she does, and the fact that she has both beauty and brains is a gift for any filmmaker. But Julia’s got something else which is so priceless, so absolutely precious that she’s earned my love and respect forever for it.

Julia’s quite possibly one of the most humble people I’ve ever met, and she always had her eyes open to learn, to improve her craft, and to simply not be satisfied with the status quo. Maybe it’s her small-town roots or the fact that she’s Canadian (what it with Canadians being nice?), but either way, for all her beauty and skill, Julia never let herself feel comfortable with what she had. She took my direction like a champ, never once getting defensive or insecure if I told her she needed to work on something, and fought her way through the many tough decisions we had to make with the dark and very real emotional trajectories of the character.

And perhaps the greatest gift of all is that Julia always did this with a smile on her face, and a laugh in her heart. This despite the fact that she basically had to carry the entire film on her shoulders - Julia is in every single shot of Lilith.

Serious research - Julia thumbing through some vintage porn on the set of ‘Lilith’.

And on this day, one year ago, I made Julia walk for hours down the dankest, darkest, smelliest most disgusting sewer underpass in the state of Ohio, and she took it with a smile and somehow managed to find the humor in it all. And seeing her megawatt smile in the cloud of frustration that comes with producing and directing a feature film, she always reminded me to have fun, that this is a fun line of work we engage in. I owe a large part of my sanity to her, and I’m forever thankful that we were able to work together.

So happy birthday to you, Julia Voth. You’re more special than you could ever know, and here’s to a joyful and prosperous year ahead for you, me, and the entire Lilith family!