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Short film Directing: An intervview with Jay Holben

YOU SPENT MANY YEARS AS A CINEMATOGRAPHER WORKING CLOSELY WITH DIRECTORS. HOW HAS THIS HELPED YOU MAKE THE TRANSITION INTO BEING A DIRECTOR YOURSELF?

JAY: One of my major philosophies of directing is that, as a director, I should understand and be somewhat competent in any aspect of filmmaking. To that end, I started in the business as an actor. I was a professional actor for a few years, got my union card, and moved to the behind-the-scenes side. Transitioning from live theater (in nearly ever technical aspect) to film, I started professionally as an electrician (as lighting was a major aspect of my theater experience) and moved up the ladder. I found a secondary passion for lighting and cinematography and stayed as a DP longer than I had anticipated before “retiring” officially in 2005.

In addition to acting and cinematography I have professionally produced, written and edited films. I think, in the end, knowing and being somewhat competent in all of these trades makes me a much better director. I’m not a real big Star Trek fan, but I’ve often used the analogy of Captain Kirk as the epitome of what a director should be. Someone who is clearly in command, who has the mission objectives firmly in mind, who has the respect of all of those under his command and who knows enough about everyone’s job to be able to troubleshoot any given problem. Sure, Scotty is a much better engineer than Kirk, but when those warp drives don’t work – it’s usually Kirk’s out-of-the-box suggestion that gets Scotty going in the right direction…

That’s what a director is supposed to go: keep everyone moving in the right direction. All of that is a very long-winded way of saying my photography helps my direction by having an intimate understanding of how to tell a story visually – and the skills to understand clearly how to technically accomplish what I’m asking for.

HOW DIFFICULT OR EASY IS IT TO STAND BACK FROM THE PHOTOGRAPHY SIDE OF THINGS?

Surprisingly, not that difficult at all. In 2002, I directed the short film The Night Before and it was the first time I ever worked with another cinematographer – a good friend of mine (and a brilliant DP) Chris Probst. I was taking on a short film with three lead child actors, and I knew I’d have my hands full taking care of the directing chores without worrying about the photography. Keep in mind, prior to this film, I had worked solely as a professional DP for about five or six years. Prior to that I was a gaffer for a few years, an electrician before that and going even further back I was a lighting designer and master electrician in theater – so it’s safe to say for a decade and a half, at that point, lighting had been nearly my whole life.
It was the second day of the shoot on The Night Before and as we were doing a turn-around, I was looking over my script and I heard Chris tell the gaffer to put the “baby” (a 1,000 watt Fresnel fixture) on the other side of the room. I stopped, looked up and realized that I didn’t have any clue there was even a baby in the room! Here we were – a day and a half into shooting and I had NO cognizant idea at all of the lighting that was going on around me. At that moment I looked up and saw his fixtures hanging in the ceiling and saw how he was approaching things…
But prior to that moment, I hadn’t paid any attention at all. It was an extremely liberating experience to totally surrender that aspect of production to someone I wholly trusted. Of course Chris and I discussed the look before hand and I would often make adjustments to the shot just before we rolled (IE: Can we get a little more or less fill here?) but they were minor differences.
I still love shooting, but directing has been my passion my whole life and it was really wonderful to just concentrate on that and do the best job I could.

FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN IT, CAN YOU TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR SHORT FILM “DESCENT”?

Descent is a short, fifteen minute, thriller about a woman trapped in an elevator with a killer. The official log line is something along the lines: Six weeks after secretly witnessing the brutal murder of her best friend, Andrea finds herself trapped in an elevator with the murderer.

YOU COLLABORATED CLOSELY WITH CHRISTOPHER PROBST, WHO WAS THE CINEMATOGRAPHER AND CO-WRITER ON “DESCENT”. HOW DID YOU END UP WORKING TOGETHER?

Chris and I met during my brief stint in junior college in Arizona. He was one of the filmmakers in the film program with me – and one of the few I saw passionate and dedicated enough to really have potential (IE he walked the walk).

Chris and I moved to Los Angeles together in 1995 and continued to work with one another and help build each other’s careers. Chris took the path to DP as a camera assistant and I took the path as an electrician. Whenever I shot something, Chris would be my 1st AC and I would be his gaffer when he was shooting. We taught each other and pushed each other. I had always shot my own projects until The Night Before, as I said above, when I asked Chris to be my DP. Chris is, in all sincerity, 100 times the DP I ever was – in addition to being a very good friend. It was easy to totally turn the job over to him and never give it a second thought.

When Descent came around, it was actually intended to be a test of the new Sony F950 HD camera for American Cinematographer Magazine, and he originally had another project he was going to shoot to do that test, but it fell through. I shared the idea for Descent with him and we inadvertently started writing it together. He was a bit skeptical about the idea at first, but when I sent him the first partial draft he got into it – did some re-witting and sent it right back to me. We did this ping-pong process through e-mail for six full drafts to come up with the final product; again – always pushing each other not to compromise and make the best product we possibly can. I had co-produced with Chris a couple times on spec commercials, but this was our first longer project together. All-in-all he was a key component to the whole project.

DO YOU ENJOY WORKING WITH PEOPLE YOU’VE WORKED WITH BEFORE? DOES THIS MAKE FOR A MORE SATISFYING, EFFICIENT PRODUCTION EXPERIENCE?

Absolutely. For years I’ve been building a certain collection of people that I love to work with. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to discard great people and start anew on each project – I’d rather go back to people with whom I have had excellent collaborations in the past and build on that experience. Chris is one of those people, so is Dan O’Brien, my editor, and Buck Sanders my composer. All of these guys make major contributions to the work and they are always the first call I make whenever there’s a new project.

It does, indeed, make for a more efficient production experience. For instance, with Chris and I, we’ve been working together for so many years now – we’ve reached that cliche “ESP” kind of communication level. He can look at me and say “For this shot, we’ll do a little dot-dot-dot…” and I’ll know exactly what he’s talking about and nothing more needs to be said. That kind of shorthand only comes from years of working with someone. If I had a totally new DP on a film, someone I had never worked with before, I’d have to be much more involved, communicate much more clearly and keep a tighter eye to see if/how he/she was interpreting my needs. With people like Chris and Buck and Dan – I don’t have to do that at all.
Generally I get along with people very well and, mostly, I’m happy to work with them again – but I am very critical and I’m mostly looking for the best people I can find who also work well with my style of filmmaking. There’s a short list of people I’ll never work with again – but it takes a lot to make that list. :)

HOW DID YOU FIND APRIL ADAMSON AND ROB MCLAUGHLIN, YOUR MAIN ACTORS FOR “DESCENT”? DID YOU HAVE A LENGTHY AUDITION PROCESS?

There was absolutely no audition process for Descent at all. Just prior to Descent I was working as a producer on two feature films and a short film. In a six month period I, literally, saw over 2,000 actors in auditions and I was DONE with the audition process for quite a while. I had originally worked with April on The Night Before and then a good friend of mine, Jamie Neese, cast April as the lead in his short thriller, which I co-produced and photographed for him. Having worked with April on both those projects, seen her incredible range and what a joy she is to work with – there was no question who I went to first for Descent. It was purely a situation where I sent April the script and said “Do you want to do this?” and she said “Yes” that was the whole casting process with her.

Rob was a friend who I had known for a few years. I knew he was getting more and more roles and he had the perfect look I wanted – so I asked him to read the script and meet with me on it. We sat down for an hour or so one afternoon, talked about it and I cast him there. Anthony Backman and I were actors together back in the day. In high school we competed against each other in Speech and were both on a TV show called T.V. or Not T.V. together. I re-connected with him and cast him in two shorts I was doing for Group 101 (a collective of filmmakers in Los Angeles who each make one film a month for six months) and cast him the same way I did April. Finally, Renee, who played the unfortunate victim, had foolishly offered her apartment to us for a location. I was originally considering another actress I had worked with before, but when Chris and I talked to Renee about her apartment we both looked at each other and said “Vanessa?” – Renee was game – and casting was done.

WHEN AN ACTOR COMES TO YOU TO AUDITION, WHAT DO YOU HAVE THEM DO?

That depends greatly on the project and the role. Generally the actor will read with a casting director or assistant from the script for that project. We videotape the actor for reference. I like to talk to them just a little bit before and after their reading, maybe give a little direction and have them read again – but it’s often very clear who is right for the role. For one of the features I was casting in the big six-month span, we did all improve auditions; nothing prepared, nothing scripted. That was a fascinating process.

For The Night Before we didn’t really have an “audition-able” scene in the script, so I decided to give the kids scenes from Stand By Me for their first audition. In the end, that wasn’t the best idea as it showed us who really had acting chops – but not necessarily in good context to the piece we were doing. For callback auditions we switched to the actual script. For more established actors, they rarely audition. We’ll generally sit down with them and have a meeting, discuss the project and character and make a decision from there.

When actors do audition, I’m looking for someone who embodies the role and transcends expectations. It’s amazing when it does happen. You can be sitting through reading after reading after reading, day after day and suddenly someone comes in – and your jaw drops to the floor. When that happens – there’s usually very little discussion – it is simply that person IS the role and they get the gig. It isn’t always that clear cut – but when that happens it can be pretty magical.

Actor’s reputations really make a difference, too. How they are to work with is a big factor in my considerations – do they make for a good set environment, or will they be difficult and put everyone on edge. I prefer to have a comfortable set. Work is fun – we should all enjoy the day (even though it’s hard work) and one main sour apple can ruin the barrel quickly.

WITH A FILM LIKE “DESCENT” WHICH FOCUSES ON THE MAIN CHARACTER’S INTERNAL FEELINGS AND FEARS, HOW IMPORTANT IS A GOOD AMOUNT OF REHEARSAL TIME FOR DEVELOPING THE PERFROMANCES YOU WANT?

We didn’t do any rehearsal for Descent, and I wish I had. What wound up happening is that we did quite a bit of rehearsal and discovery on-camera the first day of shooting. It was a little challenging to “dial-in” Rob and April’s performances to what I was looking for while “on the clock” that first day, but we got through it. Rehearsal is often a luxury that you don’t get. Schedules get in the way and so many factors can’t really be rehearsed – especially for something like Descent where most of the film has no dialogue at all. I would have liked to work with both of them a little bit more in prep, however, but in the end it turned out great.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO CHANGE THINGS WHEN YOU’RE NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT FROM AN ACTOR’S PERFORMANCE?

That varies considerably depending on the actor. A director once told me, many years ago: ‘There are three types of actors: the kind you need to baby, the kind you need to kick in the ass and the kind you need to leave alone. A good director knows the difference and works with them accordingly…’ That’s an over simplification, but it’s very true. Generally when something isn’t working right I’ll usually ask the actor what their intention is – where they’re going with the performance. We discuss it and I’ll offer adjustments to their line of thinking that gets it back on track – sometimes that can just be a verb (no, you don’t want to punish him here, sooth him…) sometimes it’s about motivation (this is NOT when she reveals her secret… She’s still scared and it’s haunting her here…) sometimes it’s merely a fact of breaking through the barriers keeping the actor from the good performance. Breaking through the barriers can be tough – and it all depends on the situation.

SOME DIRECTORS ARE MORE COMFORTABLE FOCUSING ON THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF A FILM THAN ON THEIR ACTOR’S PERFORMANCES. WHAT’S YOUR VIEW?

I think they’re both equally important. For the moment, for the scene, the actor’s performance is everything. The nuance of their performance drives the film and engages the audience. People go to see people. BUT the technical aspects are what sets the tone and arch for the bigger picture – the whole film. Visual story telling is a major part of the audience’s journey and not focusing on that aspect is missing a big piece of the pie.
I’m very comfortable working with actors, primarily because I understand where they’re coming from. Having been an actor, I can speak their language fairly well. It’s a relationship built on trust – they have to trust me completely to really let go in their performance and trust that I will guide them in the right direction. At the same time, I can speak the technical language. I understand very well the differences between a close up and a medium shot – when to move the camera, when to block actors to camera and vise versa. Both aspects are equally important, in my view.

THERE IS ALWAYS THE UNEXPECTED ON SHOOTS, EQUIPMENT FAILS, ACTORS FREEZE, LIGHT FADES. WHAT PROBLEMS HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED AS A DIRECTOR THAT YOU’VE MANAGED TO OVERCOME?

Oh, there are problems every day. There are major obstacles every scene, every setup – that’s all part of the job. Overcoming those obstacles is what directing is all about.

I have a personal obstacle that happens once every production. There comes a time, usually a couple days in, when things go wrong – things have to change and my entire plan goes out the window. Suddenly I’m at a loss. What do we shoot? where do we start? what’s the point of view for this scene? How do we overcome this blocking problem? I get overwhelmed, my mind feels like a stripped gear – spinning and getting nowhere. I used to kind of sulk off and try to desperately work out the problem, but I’ve found a better solution. I just dive in and start shooting. I’ll pick a camera position – almost totally randomly – get the actors in and start shooting the scene.

As soon as I do that – it all becomes clear and I can make the necessary adjustments to the current setup to get us back on track. I’ve run into this “moment of doom” once on every project – but now that I know how to deal with it, I’m much less overwhelmed by it. Just dive in and start rolling and figure it out as you go.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED AS A DIRECTOR SINCE YOU SHIFTED YOUR FOCUS FROM CINEMATOGRAPHY?

There’s a lot more responsibility riding on my shoulders for each project. In addition – there is a LOT less work for me, overall. As a DP, I could easily do 5-10 projects a year – if it got slow, I could find a commercial or music video or short film…As a director, I’m LUCKY to do one project a year. It means I have to really focus on trying to develop as much material as I possibly can in the hopes that one will succeed and lead to the next. It’s a much different business and lifestyle paradigm that I’m still getting used to. I also have a much more direct line to the equity investors and their demands – and that puts a much different perspective on your work, not always a good one. You have to balance all that as a director and I have to balance out a LOT more “down” time than I did when I was a DP – that can be very hard on the spirit, for sure.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE FUTURE FOR FILM? IS IT “DEAD” AND IF SO DOES IT’S DEMISE MAKE YOU SAD OR HAVE YOU EMBRACED THE HD REVOLUTION?

Well – I don’t see the demise of film anytime soon. I, honestly, don’t feel that film will “die” in my lifetime. By “die” I mean will be primarily replaced by digital technology. Film will never completely “die” as we have a 100+ year heritage with film and no one is ever going to digitize Citizen Kane and destroy the film prints.

At the same time, digital technology is in its infancy and it’s fantastic. I tell filmmakers all the time, if your feature budget is under $5,000,000 – $10,000,000 there is no reason to consider film. Digital technology is the way to go for those kinds of budgets. If you’re above that, then film is more the way to go.

Without getting into a HUGE diatribe, there are four aspects of digital technology – digital origination, digital postproduction, digital exhibition and digital archiving – that need to be firmly in place before the “death” of film. Right now we have digital postproduction firmly in place and a vast majority of projects do not touch film in postproduction at all. Digital exhibition is coming into it’s own – but it still accounts for less than 5% of all theatrical exhibition around the world (in the US we’re seeing just under 2,000 screens digital compared to 37,000 screens film). Digital origination is starting to catch on a little more – but its’ still minor. In 2006 9% of all films released theatrically in the US were originated digitally (excluding animation and documentary) – so we’re still a ways off from digital replacing film in that category.

Where digital is at a COMPLETE loss is in archiving. No one has devised a fool-proof digital archival system that is guaranteed to last 100+ years. Some media can claim to last that long – but no one can know for sure if we’ll have the hardware/software necessary to read that media in 100 years. Film requires only the light and the human eye to see – digital requires much more and the technology evolves so quickly, it is often obsolete before it is even close to seeing full adoption as a standard medium.
So… No. I’m not sad – and yes, I have embraced digital technology. :)

JAY, CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR DOCUMENTARY “CAM GIRLS”

CamGirls is an introduction to the cultural phenomenon of web cams and, specifically, women running amateur web cam sites from their own homes. I was fascinated by this expanding culture and started looking into why anyone would do this – especially those who are not necessarily porn sites and those who do not necessarily cam for profit. What I discovered is quite surprising – the reasons are just as diverse as the women themselves. CamGirls introduces the audience to the real women behind the cams, what their lives are like, who they are, and tries to get behind why they do what they do.
I’ve been working on this for nearly four years now – much longer than I ever thought I would – but we’re seeing a potential light at the end of the proverbial tunnel – so I’m happy about that.

WHEN AND WHERE WILL WE BE ABLE TO SEE IT?

Damn good question. Hopefully we’ll be completed with it by fall 2007, so we could potentially have a release in place by early 2008.

IS THE BEST PART OF BEING A DIRECTOR HAVING YOUR OWN CHAIR?

LOL… I actually rarely ever sit down. I’m not a big fan of director’s chairs – although the older I get the more that will probably change – I’m more comfortable sitting on an apple box or camera case close to the action than kicking back in a director’s chair out away from where the magic is happening. The best part of directing, for me, is when I get to see the final work with an audience and they ride on the emotional journey (whatever that may be) with all the right turns – just as I intended. THAT’s what makes it all worth it. :)

OK, WHAT’S THE BEST PEICE OF FILMMAKING ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?

Steven Spielberg said it – and it’s VERY true: “Wear comfortable shoes.”

THANKS JAY!

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Acting auditions: How to run an audition, part 3

The casting call day is progressing and now you’re ready to meet you actors in your fist acting auditions!

The audition itself:

When you’re assistant brings in the auditioning actor for the first time, introduce yourself. Don’t hide behind a table all aloof, get up and shake hands, bow, curtsey, whatever is your thing, but interact. You are the charismatic director after all and you want to create the right impression.

Introduce your own assistant actor, if you have one. Run through the process or you’re assistant might have already done it.

What is the process? It’s this:

The actor, having read the script pages, will have begun the process of interpretation of the material. They can now begin to audition for you. You can explain that you want to see what their initial impression is and what they bring to it. Explain also that you will run through the material at least three times so you are not going to kick them out after the first attempt. This will help Bob or Meryl to relax and steady themselves. Bob will need to hold the pages in his hand too as no-one can memorise that quick.

Watch the first attempt.

It will probably be disjointed, rushed, out of rhythm. It’s hard to remember that no-one else is as familiar with these words as you and how the characters sound and act in your mind’s eye. You will have to let go somewhat, of any pre-conceived ideas about how someone should sound or look like as this just limits you and could cut you off from finding someone who is really good but doesn’t “look right”. Of course there are certain parameters for how a character should look but try not to be too stubborn about it. Be open to whatever comes up.

Give some feedback

You’re going to be a director, you’ll have to get used to giving feedback all the time. Be as positive as you can without bull-shitting.Now you will have to come up with a suggestion about how to play the scene. Depending upon your script analysis that you have already spent time doing (right?), you will have an idea on how the scene should go. This idea should now inform your directorial choice. Is the scene tense, violent, romantic? There will be layers of subtlety within the writing, subtext and mood changes that you won’t be able to do justice to in this short period of time but you will need to find a way to bring the essence of the scene to light and communicate this to the actor.

Give ‘playable‘ directions

Depending on your material, give them a playable direction. For instance, the scene is tense with two men who don’t trust each other. The direction is “You’re impatient to leave. You have to get out of this room.”

Obviously you don’t want them to physically leave the room and if the actor walks out the door, assume you haven’t explained yourself properly. So staying in the room, how does the actor communicate that feeling of frustration and of being trapped through his spoken words and his body language?

Don’t use directions such as “be afraid, be nervous.” This is ok if you’re making a cartoon but not if you’re dealing with real people, (check out Judith Weston’s book, “Directing actors”).

Watching the next attempt

Continue to work with the actor, giving feedback and more playable directions. If you are close to what you want, then carry on along that way. If not, try the complete opposite.

In the case of the above example you could say, “Intimidate this other guy, make him leave the room!” Again, don’t use something like “be angry, be aggressive”. These types of directions have no goal, they are just states. They can mean many different things and lead to questions such as “how angry, how aggressive?” Try to combine direction with goals, objectives, purpose. This gives an actor something to grasp.

Remember to have fun with it; this type of collaboration is a creative process and an exciting one.

At the end of each audition thank the person involved for their time and effort.

Summary of the process:

  1. First read through: actors interpretation
  2. Second read through: with basic playable direction from you.
  3. Third read through: observations from the previous two attempts, try opposite direction.
  4. Fourth read through: go crazy.

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Acting auditions: How to run an audition, part 2

How do you manage those acting auditions? Here’s part 2 of all the casting call process.

The day of the audition:

  1. Arrive early.
  2. Set-up the space
  3. Camera set-up.
  4. Brief your ‘assisting’ actor.
  5. Have your assistant prepare the ‘sides’.

Arrive before the actors!

Set-up

Get to your audition venue and set-up. Clear the space you’re using and make room for your candidates.

Do you have a camera?

It is a great idea to have a camera at the location to record the performances. This is necessary for reminding yourself later of each audition and watching for nuance and insight that you might have missed on the day. Ideally, have someone else operate.

The camera should be static and a wide enough angle to capture full body shots of all the actors involved plus all of their movement. You don’t want close-ups; you should be watching faces with your eyes, not hiding behind a lens. Later on you can review whether the actors are using their bodies well, whether they are stiff, uncomfortable with physical closeness, have ticks etc, all this will be on the camera footage.

Just to add, your location should be lit brightly enough for filming and you should state that the footage shot will not be used for anything other than private viewing, i.e. for purposes of reviewing these auditions.

Having another actor present

If possible get another person, preferably another actor or if not an actor somebody with some life about them, who can read well and put some emotion into it. Don’t get a friend who is afraid to read out loud. It is better not to read yourself as part of your awareness is taken up with conscious processing of the lines and you as the director need to focus on the subtlety of performance.

Having another actor there also helps you to direct the auditionees because you can prime your actor-assistant with instructions to make it different, change their lines, move differently and so on. This is all to see how your candidates adapt and react to new, surprise or subtle changes in direction.

Make notes

Make notes on each audition, marking down your instinctive impressions about the person performing, whether they followed your direction and so on. The most important quality for an actor is being able to “listen” not just to you and your instructions but to the other actor they are working with. Really good actors are always listening which is another way of saying they respond in the moment to what’s happening, they react to the people in their environment. So you could say that you want “reactors” not actors.

The material

Have your assistant hand out the “sides”, which are the one or two pages of material to perform. It would be good, ideal even, to have pages from your own script. The benefit of using your own script is it gives the actors a chance to assess your film for its content, don’t forget they might choose not to do it! Many actors will obviously be looking for good show-reel footage and even if desperate won’t do just anything for the sake of it. Often it is a good idea to use well written, established dialogue material that you’re familiar with. Not that your stuff isn’t well written, I’m sure it is.

(You could send the audition piece to people via email but this only works if everyone gets it. Those that do get it will have more time to work on the lines, if they choose to, whereas some who don’t get it are then put at a disadvantage come the audition. If everyone sees the material for the first time when they arrive then it is a level playing field and more accurate for you to judge.)

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