Secrets of Indie Filmmaking

Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: Love the One You’re With

Actors are collaborators. Love the one you’re with.

Indie filmmaking is a struggle, and hopefully a joyful one. Whether it is or it isn’t depends entirely on your attitude. Whether it is an endless series of frustrations, of never getting what you want out of a moment or a scene or a day or an entire shoot, or whether it is a thrilling journey of discovery is up to you to decide, moment by moment, challenge by challenge.

There are hurdles inherent in every art and craft that are determined by the materials you are working with. A watercolorist cannot simply paint over a brushstroke he doesn’t like, but must find a way to accommodate it with subsequent layers. It has become part of the painting. A sculptor must always work with the “flaws” running through the grain of whatever piece of marble she is shaping.

A director’s materials are many and complex. Technicians, locations, sets, props, lights, sounds, music, cameras and lenses, costumes, makeup, hair, dialogue, blocking, shadows, and of course, actors. Technicians and actors are collaborators, certainly, but in a reductive sense they are part of the director’s enormous kit of tools and materials.

As human beings, there are things they are things they are great at, and other things they simply cannot do.

It is up to the director to find ways to utilize their strengths while adapting their weaknesses to the needs of the story.

For instance, I directed a play with an absolutely wonderful female actor who excelled at comic performances. A very warm person, she radiated kindness and empathy. However, she was playing multiple roles, and one of them was as a domineering mother who is extremely cruel to her daughter. Her attempts at emotionally eviscerating her daughter were actually laughable to watch, as she seemed to be frantically apologizing for the words coming out of her mouth. So, that wasn’t going to work as the emotional turning point of the play.

I had two obvious choices in how to handle this, since re-casting was not an option. I could have asked her to perform the actions of nurturing and protection that came so naturally to her, while still saying those terrible things, which probably would have been very interesting and chilling to watch. But in the end I felt the piece required a more clear and dramatic staging for this particular moment. The solution lay in very deliberate blocking. Whereas an actor more comfortable with cruelty might have destroyed the daughter almost casually from across the room with her tone and intent, we had to take advantage of every possible aspect of physical blocking to put the point across. In the end, the daughter was positioned on her knees downstage, the mother stood towering above her from behind (she was already much taller than the other actor), her hands carefully positioned like claws in her daughter’s shoulders, like a hawk carrying off a mouse. The mother’s face in shadow, to hide how much she hated talking to the other actress this way, her voice as flat and expressionless as we could make it. I was happy with the result, and felt it was a successful adaptation to the natural qualities of the actors.

This is just one example of the many ways you can approach a performance problem from a different angle. And again, not getting the thing you want at first can either ruin your day, or it can lead to the energizing process of finding workable alternatives.

What was at first was a limitation forced me to come up with a more effective stage picture, which I would not have bothered to do otherwise, and I think it made the piece stronger.

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