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Physical comedy is hard

I was going through my Evernote to catch up on stuff I’ve saved but haven’t had time to digest and this Tony Zhou video came up. I realized that I already posted it but it’s worth posting (and watching) again, as are all of his video essays.

Having just directed a short film that relies mostly on physical comedy, and certainly using (or trying to use) it in The Deadline, I’ve really developed a profound appreciation for Keaton and the filmmakers he collaborated with. It’s insanely hard to pull of physical gags and requires a lot of good camera technique as well as performer technique. And rehearsal. And props. And special stages in Keaton’s case.

For the last short, I have people bumping heads on the sidewalk to pass out. Choreographing that was not easy, although it wasn’t impossible either. I’m still not 100% sure how it will turn out, but it looks good so far, at least in the long takes. I really didn’t want to use cheap tricks to get people to fall on the ground (hard pavement in this case), like cutting from the head bumps to the bodies on the ground. So we had to devise special padding that blends in with the sidewalk for the actors to fall on, which required the ingenuity of Jim Jarosz of Channel Awesome.

This was the third short I’ve directed and I would say 70% of my stress was around the physical humor — would it play well, would it look silly (in a not funny way), would anyone get hurt. 15% of my stress was the weather because we were outside and at the mercy of the rain, which fortunately the film Gods smiled upon us. The other 15% was the usual ever-present suspicion that everything would fall apart at any moment.

 

How to create your own work (as an actor)

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

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

This is a great idea.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your point?

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

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

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

Acquiring rights to a short play

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

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

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

Finding a writer

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

In exchange, I would offer to produce the film.

Acquire the rights to an existing screenplay

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

A tangent about actors interacting with directors in public

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

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

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

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

So why is the normal approach not very good?

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

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

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

OK, tangent over.

Approaching a writer/director

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

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

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

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

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

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

Producing

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

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

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

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

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

  • A script
  • Money
  • Personnel
  • Locations

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

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

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

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

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

I fucking hate doing that work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Dissatisfaction

For the creator who seeks to make something new, something better, something important, everywhere you look is something unsatisfying.

The dissatisfaction is fuel. Knowing you can improve it, realizing that you can and will make things better—the side effect is that today isn’t what it could be.

You can’t ignore the dissatisfaction, can’t pretend the situation doesn’t exist, not if you want to improve things.

Living in dissatisfaction today is the price we pay for the obligation to improve things tomorrow.

From the always thoughtful and insightful Seth Godin.

The Ballboy

Here’s another short film from Portland Comedy Film Fest that I really liked and meant to post earlier and then remembered while watching Wimbledon highlights at my hotel in Baltimore on Sunday:

The Deadline will premiere at the Middle Coast Film Festival!

I’m belated in reporting this with being so busy lately, but I’m really excited that The Deadline has found a home for its world premiere at the Middle Coast Film Festival.

It’s a really wonderful and up-and-coming festival in Bloomington, IN. The dates are August 10-12 and I’m planning to drive down with some of the cast & crew, plus some filmmaking friends that are also screening that weekend at Middle Coast. And Off Book also got in! I love festivals that are driving distance because my recent life has been sadly bereft of road trips.

 

Off Book has a trailer

Our talented editor, Paul Myzia, put together a really sharp trailer for Off Book, which has been rolling along nicely on the festival circuit (playing Middle Coast in August and Austin Revolution in September).

Here’s the trailer:

Some shorts that I loved from Portland Comedy Film Festival

Two weekends ago I attended the Portland Comedy Film Festival. I only saw shorts there, although there were a couple features that played before I arrived. Here are a few that I both enjoyed and are currently available online.

Cauliflower, directed by Natasha Straley


Groundhog Day for a Black Man
, directed by Cynthia Kao

Jihadi Street, directed by Yulia Fomenko

I still don’t know how I feel about this one but it’s so rare to see a comedy this risky and I really want to see what Yulia does next.

Pre-production stress

Last month I met with a DP to set a date for shooting a short film on June 10th. I wrote it and I’m going to direct it. And I’m producing it as I don’t have a go-to producer yet, a real partner to handle the big picture stuff of securing locations and finding talent and all that.

It’s not fun. I don’t hate it but it is not fun. What I don’t like about casting and hiring and finding locations and arranging all the resources to be on a certain day is this: it’s asynchronous. It’s a big spreadsheet with a lot of pending items. You can’t brute force it. You can’t spend 12 hours straight just knocking it out.

You have to wait for people to get back to you with someone’s email and then they do and you email that person and then you have to wait to hear back from them and they say “no, sorry, we don’t want you to film in our bar” and then you have to find another one.

It’s loose ends all over the place. Interlocking pieces that depend on other pieces, and endless if/else’s branching out in the rows and columns. It makes me slightly insane.

But there’s a date set, an immovable date slowly creeping toward you. Having gone through it a few times now, I know that on that date, everything will be there. Maybe not the way I hoped, but everything we need will be there.

The only thing that keeps me up at night is rain.

The possibility that it will rain on June 10 and that not everyone will be available for the rain date of June 11. Or that the Gods just decide that it will rain all that weekend and I have to decide if we’re going to make a mess in the mud and put everyone through a rainy production (if that’s even possible?) and scramble for tents at the last minute, or if we have to call the whole thing off and re-schedule.

On the bright side, it gets better. Going through this with The Deadline was crushing. There wasn’t a day from January 1 to March 22, 2016 when I didn’t feel like it was all going to fall apart at any moment. Now, it’s not so bad. It’s stressful, but I know that it will work out. If an actor drops out at the last minute, I’ll find another one. If the DP falls ill the morning of, I’ll figure something out.

You plan as best you can and then when shit goes sideways, you just take a deep breath and say “ok, what are our options?” It’s a kind of zen-like clarity that I actually enjoy in way. Once you’ve decided completely that you will make this thing happen, the setbacks don’t seem to matter. There’s no time to care or be angry.

The ship is moving and there’s no stopping it. When the ship springs a leak, do you jump overboard? No, you get a bucket and start bailing out the water. When your first mate mutinies, do you curse his lack of loyalty? No, you push him overboard and promote someone else. OK maybe this analogy is getting out of hand.

Anyway, it’s not life or death. It’s just comedy or art or whatever you want to call it. Once I’m done with this fucking spreadsheet, it will all be fun again.

Film festivals, feedback, and re-cutting

If last year was about learning how to plan for and execute production, this year has been learning about festivals.

I’ve had mixed feelings as one short has been doing very well on the festival circuit and the other one, the one that I put all my money (and credit) into and basically poured months of my life into–that one, The Deadline, is 0 for 9 so far with festivals.

Some of the ones I applied to were long-shots, but some were not. Like the Portland Comedy Film Festival, where another film I directed, Off Book, got me a best director nomination but The Deadline wasn’t selected.

The frustrating thing about it is the lack of feedback. You just get a letter that invariably states that “there were so many great submissions this year but we had to make difficult decisions.” I guess there’s no real easy way to say no to people. And it would be a tremendous amount of work to write a personal note to everyone that submitted.

I’ve been showing The Deadline to some filmmaker friends, ones with more festival experience to get their feedback. Mostly I’ve gotten the response that at 13 minutes and change, it’s hard to program. The sweet spot for shorts is 3-7 minutes. So I cut a minute out of it and I may cut another minute and a half out of it in the next month to see if that improves things. It’s not ideal — I would rather show a truncated version than let the original version sit on my hard drive. But I’ve been able to find areas where the story slows down a bit, places where a cut doesn’t change the story, just changes how its told.

Unfortunately, it’s really hard to cut when the sound is already mixed and the score was written for a certain length. I can kind of cut around the score or use audio effects to hide the cuts in the soundtrack, but there’s not much leeway in certain areas.

Off Book is only seven minutes and it’s more of a typical comedic structure with a high concept that gets executed pretty efficiently. It’s definitely easier to program and more of an audience-pleaser, while the Deadline meanders a bit more and sits in some moments longer, which makes it less likely to get a shot.

Anyway, I don’t wallow in the defeat. I’m making another short next month and have plans for a feature, maybe even as soon as this year. Making The Deadline was like going to film school and in a way this is the final lesson. Regardless of how it does, it was worth it and I stand by the work.

More daring and more sincere

My taste, I mean if I had to pick one movie, which I would  never want to do, I keep thinking about “La Strada,” because there’s such a total commitment to those people and the movie never puts itself above any of the people in it. It’s a very Franciscan approach to the drama, and to me that’s very beautiful.

[Author] George Eliot said “the purpose of art is to extend our sympathies” which I think is very beautiful. Kubrick wished all movies were “more daring and more sincere.” A lot of directors today are focusing on what is daring, but are not really focused on what is sincere.

— James Gray via Heidi Saman

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