NEED STARS?

A question a lot of aspiring filmmakers face is whether or not to cast movie stars.  Do movie stars help your film get funding?  Do stars mean you’ll get a solid distribution deal?  Does it mean your film will be successful?  I’m here today to tell you that it’s all a myth, and it doesn’t matter a bit.  Nope.  Not at all.

Certain people in the Industry will tell you that it’s totally necessary to have a movie star in your movie.  If it’s a distributor telling you, chances are their motivation truly stems from laziness.  If there’s a star in your movie, they don’t have to work hard to sell your movie.  In fact, it won’t matter what your movie is about, because they’ll just pitch it to buyers as a “so-and-so” picture.

If it’s an Industry executive looking to produce your movie, they’ll say it’s important because it looks good on their resume if they worked with “so-and-so” instead of someone they’ve never heard of.  Aspiring actors will do the same.  Some actors will even showcase that famous person in their reels in hopes to appear more qualified than they actually are.  Tricking directors into thinking “Wow, she starred with Julia Roberts, she MUST be important.”

Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether there are stars in your film or not.

My first film PEP SQUAD has no stars in it.  Yet, it was acclaimed, and then sold and released in nearly every country on Planet Earth.  In fact, there was a 10-year anniversary re-release on Blu-ray in 2011.

When searching for investors on my second film, one of the actors cast was Dennis Hopper.  Surprisingly, even with Dennis Hopper attached, we couldn’t find funding in order to make it.  I ended up replacing him with the musician Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), and suddenly we had funding.

My film WATCH OUT had a few people in it that were in recognizable projects (Peter Stickles from Shortbus, for example), but none of them were “stars” per se, and when that film came out, it debuted at number 27 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

And then there’s Mink Stole, Karen Black, Pleasant Gehman and Jane Wiedlin in a women in prison movie—together!  (My film STUCK!)  I mean, one would think that would be an easy sell, right?  Well, it didn’t sell as well as PEP SQUAD or WATCH OUT.  But it was a B&W film with homage to 1950s style filmmaking, and some people didn’t get it on a commercial level.

So, you see, it doesn’t matter who’s in your movie.  What matters is that your movie is well made with a captivating story and solid performers.  We’ve all seen movies we love with a cast of no one we recognize.

Remember that when casting your next film.  Stars don’t always bring in money.  But they can sometimes cost a lot of it.

HOLLYWOOD AGENTS

Although I can see no reason to call them, don’t be afraid of calling actor’s agents and managers.  It’s true, most of them are nasty people who do nothing to help their clients, and in some cases make their clients look bad.  But if you know they’re going to be rude before you call them, it’ll make your experience at least entertaining.  And then calls with professional, polite people will come as a relief.

I’d avoid calling the likes of Anjelina Jolie or Tom Cruise.  My advice is to pick actors who are kinda famous, but aren’t the super elite movie stars.  Say, Mary McDonnell.

Earlier, I asked someone if the actress Mary McDonnell sounded familiar.  “Remember the woman who was in Dances with Wolves?”  Nothing.  “She was nominated for an Oscar.”  Nope, not a clue.  “She was also in Independence Day.”  Nope, nothing.

So we’re talking about actors that have strong talent, but that aren’t selling movie tickets based on their name alone.

Recently, an associate of mine made a list of some actors to approach for a project.  Some of them are better-known, and others are strong actors who are well-known in certain groups but whose names are totally unknown by most of the movie-watching populace.

My friend shared with me his experiences talking to agents.  One agent hung up on him in the middle of explaining there would be deferred payment.  Now, I understand that some actors have gambling addiction, child payments, and whatnot, and they simply cannot afford to work for deferred pay.  I understand that.  But, what I don’t understand is the impulse that makes it okay for an agent to hang up in the middle of a sentence.  That’s just rude, and totally unprofessional.  Somehow it would kill them to say “No, thank you.”

Another thing that was curious about the calls to agents—it didn’t matter how famous their clients were.  And in some cases, the lesser known the actor, the ruder the agent.  Which sparks questions in my mind.

Is that why we haven’t seen that actor in so long?  Is the agent being rude to everyone who calls?  My hunch is that most actors have no idea how awful their agents treat people.  But, they should know, because it makes them look bad, too.

I was reminded of an earlier experience I had calling agents.

Once I contacted a representative for Deborah Harry (“Blondie”).  Her representative told me off in a very condescending manner.  I shared the story with the actor James Russo, who laughed and promptly gave me Debbie’s number.  I called her up, told her what had happened, and she was furious.  She made that representative call me to apologize for his behavior.

Did she know he was doing that?  I don’t know.  She knows now.  I wonder how many actors and performers out there are missing great opportunities because their agents and managers are unprofessional.

There are thousands of famous actors who aren’t working a lot.  I can’t imagine that all of them are waking up in random bedrooms claiming aliens have abducted them.  No, my hunch is that part of the reason they’re off the radar is that they’re being represented by people who don’t understand how to communicate like grown-ups.

If you’re seeking representation, either as a director or actor, please have a discussion to define their job.  Do you want to build a barricade?  Is your agent a means to prevent people from communicating with you?  If so, that’s fine, just define it.  If you want your representative to act as a mediator or negotiator, my advice is to pick somebody who will behave as such.

If you’re seeking celebrities for your project, my advice is to avoid agents altogether and find a way to reach the actor directly.  Creative people are more interested in what you’re doing.  Agents and managers are only really interested in their commission.

STORYBOARDS

You don’t need to have elaborately sketched storyboards in full color with photo realistic details, but it is a good idea to have something planned and sketched.

I learned how to make storyboards before shooting something out of instinct, but there are a lot of filmmakers who have used the process in history.  Hitchcock is well-known for his storyboards—which were elaborately crafted and stunning in their own right.

Hitchcock storyboards for The Birds

When I made the storyboards for my film FIRECRACKER it took me weeks, and I did craft them with elaborately drawn details.  Partly because I wanted to communicate to the actors and crew exactly what each frame would look like.  When you are communicating something visually, it’s very important to show what it is you’re saying, in addition to saying it verbally.  Just saying we’ll shoot a “close up on that actress” can mean virtually endless options, taken from any angle, anywhere.  Do you mean profile, back of the head, face, three quarter turn?  Draw it.  Then we’ll know what you mean.

Again, your storyboards don’t have to be pretty.  It helps when they are, but the purpose of a storyboard isn’t much different than a screenplay.  They are merely means to communicate to whomever you are showing, what you’re about to do.  Sometimes, they aren’t meant to be shown to anyone.

When I draw storyboards, they’re for me to see and not really anyone else.  Of course, if someone wanted to see them, they can.  But the sole purpose is so that when I get to the set, I know exactly what I need to shoot, where, and how.

Storyboards from my film The Far Flung Star

They can be stick figures, crappy drawings, anything.  It doesn’t matter.  Are you making fancy cartoons and publishing high-quality graphic novels?  No, you’re making storyboards for your movie.  Keep in check.

When I’m sketching storyboards for a scene, I plan on sketches for an entire scene taking up only one sheet of paper.  I write the scene number on the top of each page, and once the Master Plan is complete, I can organize the pages of storyboard sheets behind each day of the schedule.  So all my shots are there for quick reference each day.

Dennis Hopper and I talked about this at length in his living room.  He felt that making storyboards was a great way to plan the vision of a scene, but that once you got on the set and the characters came to life, sometimes it could hurt to rely so coldly on the storyboards.  Especially if there was some kind of magic happening outside of the planning.  I agreed.

It’s a very good idea to do storyboards, even if you never refer to them.  I like doing them because I know that so long as I accomplish capturing those things, we’re golden.  Say you’re up until 3 AM dealing with a diva actor who needs babying, and you get little sleep, and the next day you show up on set feeling like a zombie and have no idea what to do.  This has never happened to me, but it has to a lot of filmmakers I know.  In that moment, so long as you’re prepared and organized, you’ll be able to make it through your day on auto-pilot.  So, plan something, even if it’s the bare minimum.

And be free.  Give yourself the freedom to capture something you hadn’t thought of before.  Actors will do certain things that inspire new shots, new angles.  If you get to the set and are inspired by the lighting, or architecture, or atmosphere, give yourself the freedom to scrap the planned storyboards and capture something new and in-the-moment.