CASTING: A NEW WAY TO AUDITION

Traditionally, when casting a movie, there are a few standard approaches to how to do it.  One is to have a cattle call, where actors come in, perform a monologue, give you their headshot and resume, and leave.  Another is a process where actors come in and read pages of the script (called “sides”), by themselves, or maybe with a second actor also reading sides.

For me, the traditional casting process is useless.

I don’t have actors audition in the traditional sense.  When I do a cattle call, I simply visit with people and take a look at their reels, or resumes, and that’s about it.  If I decide to have them audition, I will have them put themselves on tape later on.  But there is no reason to make actors do random monologues that have nothing to do with your movie.  Unless your character is exactly like Hamlet, do you really care if Actor Carl the best Hamlet in the world?

Doing cold readings from “sides” are totally unfair to the actor and also to the director.  I can’t expect an actor to walk in off the street without any previous discussion with me and nail it.  Sure, sometimes magic happens.  But, it’s unfair to ask the actor to do that.  It would be most beneficial to everyone involved if the actor and the director could speak about the character in question.  Actors act.  That’s what they do.  Most of the good ones can play any part you throw at them.

If an actor does a reading that isn’t a match with the director’s idea of the role, it is totally unfair for the director to judge that actor.  How could that actor know what the director is thinking unless the director says so?  Actors can be talented, but most are not psychic.  They need some “direction” which—oh wait—that’s why they call it a Director.

Yet, most often, bad directors hold cold reads and casting calls and will judge an actor based on their ability to perform without any direction.  Those are the directors who want actors who can direct themselves so he/she doesn’t have to do any work.

When I’m casting a movie, I like to meet performers and match their personalities with their co-stars.  If I think someone has the right energy for the part, I ask them to do a private video audition.  We visit a bit about the character, and then they record a short video in character introducing themselves to me.

They don’t work off the script, they just work off the energy inside the character and it’s totally improvisational.  I explain to each performer that there is no right or wrong way to interpret the character.  Part of the exercise is just so I can see how they look and move on screen.  Videos also convey if the actor has a deeper understanding of the character in question, or if they’ll need some additional guidance.

Sometimes I’ll ask an actor to do two videos, each with a different character.  This is a great idea if you’ve never worked with the individual before.  Because, they will show you what kind of an actor they are and you won’t have to guess.  If the actor shows you two totally different performances, it is clear they have a range and can do a variety of roles.  But, sometimes, if they perform both parts with pretty much the same style, it sends the signal they deliver one type of performance.  Which isn’t bad.

One time I had a gal do two video auditions for two roles, and she was pretty much the same in both.  Even though they were vastly different characters.  But, she was great at doing the thing she did.  So I cast her in a part totally suited for that kind of performance.  And, she nailed it.

Doing video auditions is also very valuable when you’re shooting a film across the globe.  When I shot my film CULTURE SHOCK in London and Paris, the only way for me to audition people was via Skype and video.  There was no money to fly me overseas to do the traditional casting process.

Traditionalists scoff at my concepts, but I think they work wonders and save lots of time and money.  So next time you prepare a casting or audition, think about what it is you want to achieve from it.  And do whatever you can to reach the goal.

MAKE IT REWARDING

There are only two reasons an actor will want to work for deferred pay.  One is about whom they’re working with—who are their co-stars, who is directing, or maybe who is creating the costumes or effects make-up.  The second reason is the type of role—is it a character that would showcase their talent or range, or is it a challenging type of role they’ve never tried before.

When I’m asking someone to work for deferred, I know what I’m asking.  I put myself in their shoes and ask, “Would I want to do this project under these circumstances?”  I have to be able to answer YES to that question, and if I can’t, I won’t ask it of someone else.

For $1,000 a day I can tolerate crappy food, miserable conditions, so I know most everyone else can, too.  But, what if there isn’t any money?  If we can’t afford to pay people, how else can we shape the experience to be worth it?  What kinds of things would I need in exchange for money?  How can I make it enjoyable, with good food, and a good working environment?  These are the kinds of special cares I think about when putting a movie together.

So, in addition to making sure my cast connects, and giving each juicy roles to showcase their talent, I make the entire experience a cross between a vacation and summer camp.  If you can make it so they never want to leave, it’s possible that when the opportunity comes up again, they’d pay you for the privilege to experience it all over again.

It doesn’t have to be the ideal vacation spot like Hawaii.  It could be an adventure in other ways.  My film CULTURE SHOCK, which was shot in London, had a day-trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.  Filming a movie in London was more than enough, but that added day trip to Paris for a scene that only took an hour to film, was the cherry on top.

You don’t have to take your cast and crew to Hong Kong (like I did), or Italy (I’m working on that one), or Hawaii (wouldn’t that be lovely?), but please take the time to think about what kinds of things can be added to boost the whole experience during working hours—and after.

Even if I’m shooting in my backyard in Kansas (which is exotic for people on the coasts who don’t know what it’s like being in full-on, down-home “Americana”), the experience must be rewarding.  I must create something special.

The days must be light and enjoyable.  People must be allowed to get plenty of sleep.  There cannot be anyone negative on the set.  All actors and crew people are carefully hand picked based on more than their abilities (their personality and behavior is also considered).  The meals must be delicious, activities enjoyable and camaraderie wonderful.

If you can deliver these kinds of things, and make your film shoots a totally rewarding experience for everyone involved, you’ll have no problems finding people to work for next to nothing.  And you’ll probably have them coming back for more.

FINDING YOUR PERCEPTION

No two people see the same thing the same way. It’s a fact.  No two sets of eyes share the exact same perspective – even when we’re looking at the exact same thing.  Everyone on earth has an individual overall perception of everything that resides past the tips of his nose.  Many people dislike looking past the tips of their noses – in either direction – but that doesn’t change the fact that no two people see the same thing the same way.  There is no singular perspective.  No overall point of view.  Even when thousands of people are gathered in a convention center looking at the man at a podium – no two people in the room will have the same point of view.  One man watches from this angle – another man watches from millimeters away.  No matter how hard you try – it will be impossible to see out another person’s eyes.  It’s just not going to happen while you’re alive.

The first thing I learned attending film school at CalArts was… and they actually said this… “You don’t need a degree to be a filmmaker – you just need to be a filmmaker.”  The second thing I learned was the concept of individual perception.  Upon hearing the word, the first thing I wondered was, “What is perception? Is it something to be found in a textbook?  Certainly, I’ll have to buy all the books and required reading.  I mustn’t miss a single class – just in case they pass out samples.  Maybe after next year’s tuition payment they’ll tell me what it is.  Must be exciting, this ‘perception’ business, because it’s certainly costly.  I mean, one could purchase a Mercedes for the same price. It must be something rather extraordinary.”

Well, it was.  When I understood the notion of individual ‘perception,’ it was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me.  It was, in fact, better than a Mercedes.  It’s one of the most exciting, most rewarding ideas I have ever pursued.  Having a core – a self – wherein *I* am in charge of what I see – changed my life.

There was a class at CalArts called Scene Analysis (or something of the sort).  We watched films and took them apart shot by shot, scene by scene – inspected, from an overview floor plan (like an architectural blue print), where the camera was positioned for each shot.  We also studied where the actors were standing and where the lights were positioned.

Here’s what I learned.

Hitchcock, Lynch, Fellini, Huston, Kubrick, and the other so-called masters, weren’t putting the camera in the *best* place.  They weren’t putting the lighting in the *best* place.  They weren’t using the world’s *best* stories.  So I began to wonder: “Why on earth are they so admired?  What’s all the fuss about?  I’ve seen their work.  I’ve inspected each frame down to the millisecond.  What’s so special about them and not other filmmakers?  What do they have that others don’t?  Most everyone has seen a Lynch film.  Nine out of ten people think they make no sense, have no purpose, and look at the story and don’t ‘get it,’ so what’s the big deal?”

Well – the biggest deal is: Perception.  That’s what they’ve got that no one else seems to understand.  They have an individual perception.  Special emphasis should be placed on the word INDIVIDUAL.  These artists don’t look at their families, friends and neighbors to answer how they ought to see something.  They don’t look to their schools, churches or governments for definitions on how to be or think.  They simply look inward and ask themselves, “How do *I* see this?”  And once they answer the question – on their own – they respond with, “If I see it like this, I shall put the camera here.”  They do not have other people telling them where to put the camera or how to light the scene.  They answer to no one but themselves.  Their eyes tell the tale – not the eyes of the D.P., Key Grip, Focus Puller, leading actor or Editor.

These filmmakers are masters because they are simply putting the image together as they see it.  Seems easy enough.  So why aren’t most people doing the same thing?  Why is our entire culture doing the total opposite?

I suspect that there is a reason why the notion of individual “perception” isn’t taught in schools.  Clearly there is a reason why the concept of individual viewpoint is not encouraged at church.  Why?  First and foremost, the concept of individual perception is very dangerous to those who maintain their power through prescribing what is accepted and what is not, and “persuading” the populace, whether it is the marketplace for movies or the voters of a nation, to a single, externally defined criteria for a group perception.  Never mind that the term “group perception” is an oxymoron.

If an instructor at a university actually understood the concept of individual perception, it would make grading the work of students much more difficult.  Beginning with an admission that the professor’s view was not the “right and only way,” it would force enormous change upon institutions of higher learning, not to mention calling their very existence into question.  If society actually embraced the idea that no two people see the same thing the same way, it would revolutionize interpersonal communication.  We can only imagine what would happen to movie reviews, at least as we know them.  Instead of Mr. Critic proclaiming for the world what a film is about or what it means, he would actually leave it to the viewer to derive his own perception from the work.  After all, it was the *viewer’s perception* not his.  They had it.  He didn’t.  Their eyes are their eyes.  His eyes are his.  Just a thought: this will never occur in our lifetimes.  The power structure will see to it that the concept of individual perception is squashed wherever it seems to blossom.  Governments, religious institutions, big business, education… you name it… have a vested interest in promulgating the notion that “one size fits all.”

On my street, one size does NOT fit all.  I’m a little over six-foot-four.  *Normal* chairs don’t have the right height.  I can’t sit at a *normal* desk without ramming my knees into the low desktop.  And it doesn’t end there…  *Normal* counter-tops are too low.  The *normal* clothing sizes located at the mall simply don’t fit me.  I wear size thirteen shoes.  No one carries them.  It was like pulling teeth to get the plumber to install a shower head at the correct height.  He said, “But this is where they put shower heads.  No one puts them that high.”

“I understand this, but I’d like the shower head to pour down on my face.  I really don’t want it to be at my chest-level.  I’m not five-foot-eight and I shouldn’t have to pretend I am just so you feel better about it.”

It then occurred to me that the plumber was, in fact, my size.  How could he live his life never questioning this.  Has he never noticed his own shower head?  Has he never noticed the height of his bathroom sink?  Probably not.  He probably has spent a lifetime defining his expectations and beliefs because *THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE*.

It amazes me that people seem to PREFER just going along and letting the world define who they are and what they ought to believe.  I recently got a call from a storyboard artist.  He offered to sketch my storyboards for my next movie.  I thought, how strange… Why would I want to shoot a film from his perspective?  Wouldn’t I rather use my own?  My eyes are not his eyes.  I mean, it’s an interesting concept, to photograph someone else’s vision.  For me, it goes against what I define for myself as a filmmaker.  If I’m not using my own perception of the material – what the hell am I doing?  Lounging by the fucking pool?

Beware the people who pay lip service to the notion that there are 6 billion viewpoints in the world.  Even as they say that, they attempt to categorize entire nations into a single descriptive group.  Muslim, Jew, Christian.  All Muslims are terrorists.  All Jews are rich.  All Christians are good.  Well, it just isn’t true.  In fact, we’ve got a few Christians in Kansas that…  Well, there’s no reason to mention their hateful Baptist church out loud.

The next time that some politician tells you to vote for him because he shares your values, ask him how he knows what your values are and what is so special about him that he can see the world through your eyes.  The next time some “know-it-all” tells you that your script isn’t traditional enough, or your short story doesn’t follow the accepted structure, look deep inside and see if it fits your requirements and definitions.  If it does, tell them to mind their own business.

Everyone would benefit by having an individual perception.  Yet…  Most people fight it.  Most people do NOT want to have their own perceptions.  They avoid developing their own unique, individualized viewpoints.

Why would anyone NOT want to have his or her own perception?  Could it be…  Is it maybe…  Just maybe…  People want to avoid taking responsibility for themselves?  Consider this: It’s so much easier to blame someone else.  Somehow the world has defined responsibility as ‘fault’ – and fault as something demeaning or negative.  But the truth is – everything that happens in YOUR life is YOUR fault.  YOU are responsible for your actions and reactions.  YOU are responsible for YOU.  Not your neighbors, churches, schools or governments.

People who don’t like hearing things like that will always find an excuse to justify their behavior.  Commonly, people use money as their primary excuse: “Oh, I don’t have enough money to make a film…” or “Oh, I’d love to move away and be an actor but I don’t have the money…”  Another one is, “I’d love to work outside with my hands but I can’t afford to give up my present job.”  Well, then, why not figure out how to make it, be it or do it?  There are ways to find investors, or a job to pay your expenses or a different and affordable lifestyle.

The second set of excuses usually deals with blaming other people. “But I can’t leave my spouse and do what I want to do…” or “If I do what I want people will think I’m crazy!”  Okay.  Maybe so.  But who is driving your car?  Be aware there *are* choices.

Finally, people unwilling to take responsibility for their own behavior will use horror or abuse.  “9/11 wasn’t my fault!  So there!  You’re wrong!”  No, chances are, the horrific terrorist acts of 9/11 were not your fault.  But ask yourself: Who forced you to stop working until 9/15?  Who made you sit in front of the television?  Did the terrorists?  Or did you choose to do that all on your own?  “I’m abused on a daily basis.  It’s not my fault he beats me.”  You are correct, it isn’t your fault if you have been beaten.  At least not the actual hitting.  But do you make the choice to remain in that environment?  Do you seek help or escape?

Everything that happens in your life is your fault.  Another way of saying it is that you are responsible for determining what you do, how you do it and what your attitude toward life is.  Environmental things will occur.  Storms will come.  Accidents will happen.  Disasters will occur.  But what you do, how you respond, is up to you.  It’s one of the first hurdles to overcome in developing your own perception.  If you make the choice to not find investors, then you probably won’t have any.  If you make the choice to not create a business plan, you won’t have one.  If you make the choice to not find a job you enjoy, chances are, you will probably work at a job you hate.  If you make the choice to let society define who you are, you won’t be the one defining you.  Is this what you want?  Are these your choices?  If not, remember the old saying, “People who dislike having their feet sliced open should avoid walking on shards of glass.”

If you want to make films, or tell a story, or work in a forest, or sit on a mountain…  Well, get your shit together first.  Develop YOU and YOUR point of view.  Are you going to define your story by what it says in the “How to Write a Script” book?  Will you define your perspective by the rules in the “Filmmaking for Dummies” manual?

According to the 2001 CIA World Factbook, men in the USA, on average, live to 72, while women live to 79.  For the sake of making this less confusing, let’s say the average span of a human life is 75.  About 35% of it is lost in sleep.  And another 30% of that is lost to the vicissitudes of youth, while 10% is probably spent being old and/or ill.  That leaves about 25% of those 75 years to be all we can be, to do all we can do, and to live life as though it is as precious as it actually is.  We have 18 or 19 years during which we can make choices that enrich our lives, put meaning into our relationships and advance the causes we believe in.

Just eighteen years.  That isn’t a very long time.  Every day we are given choices. Every time we look at something we are given the opportunity to either learn – or not; to do – or don’t.  What will YOU choose?

On my street we praise the individual for striving.  It isn’t about quantitative success.  After all, whose definition of success are we using?  We have some simple questions on my street.  “Are you happy?  Are you fulfilled?  Do you have a sense of reward at the end of the day?  Are you meeting YOUR expectations (as opposed to those of someone else)?”  And when the answers are “no” which they sometimes are, we ask these questions: “What could you do differently that would get you what you want?  Is there another path to pursue that might yield different results?  Are there people in the world that might help you?  Have you fully defined what you want?”  These questions keep me, and others on my street, focused on being responsible for our own results, not thinking wishfully about what could have been or how unfair life is.  Next time you start to blame somebody else for your less than desired situation, try a couple of those questions on for size.

(originally published in “Balderson Blvd” for Aftertaste Magazine, 2001)

EXPOSURE AND MONEY

They aren’t one and the same.  Sometimes they go together and sometimes they don’t.

Because of my interest in eating well, I’ve known many restaurant owners.  Once, I asked a maverick restaurateur why her bottles of wine were priced less than other fine dining establishments.  She confided in me that her main objective was to move more product.  Her goal was to sell twice as many bottles of wine than her competition.  So she priced them affordably.  Usually the markup is ridiculous.  A good $12 bottle of wine in a liquor store usually costs $24-36 at a restaurant.  But, at her establishment, it might only cost $22-26.

I used to struggle with this idea until I started realizing what my preferences were when it came to releasing movies.  Often times, people will ask me which of my films has been the most successful.  It’s a really hard question to answer.  First, I have to ask them what they define as success.  Everyone has an entirely different definition.  Some people define success as the amount of money a movie makes, while others might define success based on the critical acclaim, awards, exposure, or in what countries your movie is released.

My film FIRECRACKER was released in almost every country on the planet, won numerous awards, pre-eminent film critic Roger Ebert gave it a special Jury Prize on his list of that year’s best films, yet the investors never made a decent return on their investment and in the USA it was basically shelved by the stupid distributor and is currently only available for streaming at Vimeo On Demand HERE: www.Vimeo.com/ondemand/firecracker

WELLSPRING was a really cool distribution company who wanted to distribute FIRECRACKER.  The company is now long defunct, but at the time they were the coolest boutique place to be.  They were distributing Todd Solondz’ movies.  WELLSPRING offered a decent advance, but only wanted to print 10,000 dvds.  While another distributor, FIRST LOOK STUDIOS, was offering a little less money but planned to release 50,000+ dvds on the initial run.  We decided to go with the FIRST LOOK.

For me, at that time in my career, it was more important to have the volume and exposure, even if I was setting myself up for less financial reward.

When it comes time to release a film, I always ask myself, in the event I’m unable to strike a deal for global exposure AND financial reward, which is better: to release the film globally, in as many countries as possible, for potentially less return?  Or is it better to have a smaller release in a just a few countries and make more money?  Each movie has a different set of criteria and a different set of questions and answers.

Of course we all want as many people as possible to have the chance to see our work.  And we also hope for great financial return so we can continue to make more movies.  This is why it’s important for me to keep costs as low as possible.  That way, I have a greater chance of financial reward.

Some of you might not know that exhibitors take 50% of any ticket sales at the movie theatre.  So if a studio movie cost $50million to produce and market, they will need to have box office returns that exceed $100million before they’ll ever see a cent of profit.  If you’ve sold your movie to a distributor, the distribution company will take even more, so the likelihood is you’ll need a box office figure closer to $150million before you’re living the Sinatra “good life.”

If your independent movie has a chance to make about $250,000 worldwide over the course of a lifetime, it might behoove you to keep the budget for that particular project about a third of that or lower.  The Movie Business is a business, albeit an idiotic and incredibly limiting one, which I’ll explain more in another article.  But it can be incredibly rewarding and successful on many levels.  Just depends on what you define as success.  And how you’d like to share your work with the world.