17 September 2008

Wills On Film


Ha-ha; that's Duran Duran stuck in your head all day, sucker!

What? I'm old? Yeah, well . . .

. . . sh'up.

Actually: I've not been recorded on film recently. ("No, no...what you've been is not on boats.") What I've been, is a guest in another of Denny Lawrence's film classes at NYU. This time, it was a sort of introductory directing class for freshmen who had not been there yet three weeks. I and Colleague Christa Kimlicko Jones served as actors at a first read, as Denny demonstrated his communication techniques, and encouraged class discussions. In addition -- the very next day, in fact -- I was cast in an industrial that is filming next week, the details of which are available over at Loki's Apiary. (Loki's motto: Idle hands are the Devil's playground...and besides: busy bees make more money, honey.)

The class was outstanding, and afterward was even better, as Denny, Christa and I lingered to discuss the same topics we were outlining for young minds in the hour before. What's very interesting and necessary about the work Denny does for these students is that he includes a priority for the process involved in creating not only a good film, but a film that is recording good acting work. It may seem basic, this priority for good acting, but it's not at all. Many filmmakers, be they young or old, come close to disregarding any kind of process related to the actors at all. Hitchcock is famously quoted as comparing actors to cattle, and this sentiment is a tempting one for someone with all the power and responsibilities of a film director. After all, unlike theatre, a film never leaves their control (barring editorial exceptions, of course). They get the final say in the editing room, and I suppose it can be tempting in these circumstances to regard the actor's work as simple raw material that is spun out, manufactured. But it's not, and Denny appreciates this, and encourages his students to be intimate with an actor's process in order to better communicate with one. So this class was, for many there, the introduction of that idea.

The next morning, in the audition for the industrial, I was reminded of the class over and over again. Like the class, the audition was held at a table and with scripts in hand. I read my side of a scene with the casting director, and for the first time had that connection while reading it. Though quite straight-forward, it was not a simple scene. My character had to relate details of his life that created strong, involuntary emotional responses in him, yet he wanted above all to remain strong in the face of the challenge. In other words, as an actor I needed to make clear and believable my emotional reactions without baring them, or making the scene all about them. (It's kind of the secret game of acting, this pretense on both the actors' and the audience's parts that what they're there for is the plot or themes . . . we all know what we're really there for.) Anyway, typically the way I approach this kind of challenge is to play the intention of the character, what he wants, and listen. Just listen. When I really hear the words being said, the emotion comes of itself, and I can play the intention of continuing with strength through the challenge of those emotions.

"Intention" is just one of many terms we bandied about in class on Tuesday while trying to explain an actor's process and priorities to so many neophytes. It's difficult to say how much of our acting vocabulary actually made sense to the students, being as most of it is conceptual in nature. Words with simpler meanings in the rest of the world -- intention, obstacle, process, action -- are used as signifiers of things otherwise unnamed and intangible in an actor's world. Aptly enough, whether or not our words made sense to them, I could see our demonstrations, our "actions," getting through. Before one run, a student would look confused about, say, why it was important not to lead an actor into a certain goal. Then we would run a page, with Denny's coaching, and the same student would ask a very insightful (not to mention interested) question about how to direct an actor without determining the specific outcome. At the same time I was working to put years of practice into comprehensible words, the students were working at discovering the value in what they were witnessing. In this way, it was very similar to the feeling one gets from a good and productive rehearsal: a mutual and inclusive process of exploration and discovery. And we talked about that feeling in class, at that.

Another good feeling is when you get to the end of an audition and the casting director says to you, "Great work. Thank you. You've got the job." The occasions for this feeling are extremely rare, if for no other reason than that normally the casting director wants to get to the end of his or her day before making any decisions. I had occasion for this feeling at the end of my audition yesterday, and I'm probably still glowing just a bit. I mean, really, it's just an industrial -- less than a day's work, and for corporate purposes. But I can't fight this feeling (anymore). It's not at all a humble emotion. Uh-uh. No. I, plainly, rule. For now. What's curious for me to consider is that I think I did so well in the audition at least in part because of the activities of the day before. Having that time with colleagues, to consider and talk about how we work when we're working well, probably had a lot to do with the calm and clarity with which I approached the challenges of my audition. I could use more of that.

In the conversation amongst us all after class, we got to talking about the actor's process more, and specifically how it relates to a film set. It's encouraging to know that there are people like Denny out there making films with care about the acting aspect of them, and spreading that priority to future film makers. I really love film (et al), as a medium. I'm a big fan of theatre, and a big fan of photography, so the merging of the two is and always has been a very worthwhile prospect to me. I'd really like to act in a film -- anything with a narrative, in which I play a character with significant dialogue -- and do it soon. I've stayed away for a variety of (mostly lame) reasons, and one of those is a misconception of the film set being a place where the actor doesn't actually have a lot to contribute, or a process to be nurtured. The emphasis is on crank it out, get it right, edit and print it, or so it's always seemed.

Now? Now I'm rethinking that.

4 comments:

Kara Tyler said...

while you're right, I think there's a little voice in every director/editor/producers head that sounds a lot like Gordon Craig wishing for an Uber-Marionette.

Often I think film actors get the short end of the stick. They are so easily criticized for their work but very rarely recognized for the difficult work when it's good. Its easy to miss good acting on film, we take it for granted. Unless, you know they play a gay cowboy or insane clown (lust for Heath Ledger back in the closet...wait, go get my copy of 10 things I hate about you I think we need a viewing)

dave said...

I wonder what it'd be like to not be, in a film.

What's that you say? You've often not been in films? No. What you've been is not in films.

Congrats on your overwhelming audition!

Jeff Wills said...

Oh Heath: Such a good actor that we hardly knew ye. You're right, Kara. It's a tricky balance of power, which makes actor-loving film directors all the more important to me.

But I still hate Cassavetes(Sr.)'s films.

"There we were – demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance -– and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. Don't you see?! We're actors –- we're the opposite of people!"

walkinhomefromthethriftstore said...

Hey, quoting Duran Duran doesn't make you old... it just makes you AWESOME.