Actor and Parkinson’s activist Larry Strauss recently invited me to say a few words at the Historical Society of Laguna Woods, where he was being honored by friends family and distinguished guests.
Below are some excerpts from my speech.
“Larry Strauss is a true friend and fellow artist whom I first met Larry at an audition for a film I was directing called White Knuckles. The film has subsequently played here at Laguna for audiences twice, thanks to Larry’s efforts in getting it screened for you. Larry came into the audition to play William — a character who was at a bad place in his life and his marriage and who was desperately in need of a change. As Larry’s director, I needed him to play a beautiful and tragic self-loathing character — that behind a rough and abrasive exterior was a man full of warmth and wisdom….”
“…I also wanted the actors to draw from their own lives and experiences to tap into the character through a process of guided improvisation, so when it came time to shoot — it was easier for me to get Larry to play the warm and wise-cracking fun part of the character (as we all know and love Larry) but harder to play the part of the man that is at a time in his life where everything is stagnant and not moving forward. And perhaps that’s because its not who larry is naturally — he’s a man that despite the circumstances has always seen the silver lining and always has time for a joke or a wise-crack to put a smile on everyone’s face…
“…I remember at the end of one of the first few dramatic scenes we shot — Larry asked me if he could sweep Martie (Julie in the film) off her feet and and dance with her to cheer her up — to bring joy and happiness to their lives. Though it was a perfectly good idea and would be a great scene, I told him that the story was about her poisoning him, and his being ‘joyful’ or ‘loving’ early-on might make Julie second-guess what she’s doing (too early). I knew where it was coming from, though — and what Larry’s intentions were: It was coming from the light that is Larry — in real life he’s a beacon (rather than a black hole).
“… In a couple weeks White Knuckles will play at the Derby City Film Festival where both Larry and Martie Ashworth have been nominated for Best Actor & Best Actress — and a few weeks after that the film continues to the Buffalo-Niagra Film Festival. As the film continues to get out there, I am indebted to Larry for the performance he gave and the friendship that was forged. Larry, I want to close by saying you are an amazing actor, and a fantastic human being, and I’m grateful that we created something wonderful together that will outlive us both. Congratulations on being Historical Society’s honoree, you deserve it and many more good things are yet to come.”
Kevin K. Shah Director White Knuckles
BOSS OF ME – A WEB SERIES by SABI
Boss of Me tells the story of a new Creative Director and Producer of Marketing and Distribution that is sent down from “corporate” to manage the newly acquired independent feature film production company Sabi Pictures. What ensues is a systematic restructuring (“Side-Shifting” as the star calls it) by Bret Donovan to the chagrin of the employees. But Bret is also an idea-man, and he alone believes his ideas are the one thing that can keep morale up and save the company.
A WEB SERIES FOR OUR FANS
It was created to be distributed on the web for free for our fans, with a healthy amount of humor and poking at both ourselves and this business we’re in. With all the talk about how Independent Film is dead (which it is not by the way) we felt a show like this couldn’t come at a better time — and setting a show in a production company was ripe for funny material.
CREATING THE SERIES: Co-Creating the Boss of Me web series with John T. Woods was a convergence of several factors. First and foremost, we (at Sabi Pictures) were looking for a fun way to connect with fans, and specifically our films and our company and who we are — with those that watch and enjoy our content. Reach out to fans and learn who they are — and at the same time (hopefully) entertaining them. Thus, the series extends out into Facebook, where the star of the show (Bret Donovan) has a very active Facebook profile. Often ideas offered by fans are certainly food for thought for future seasons…
We are excited to get some recent press from PopCultureMonster — where the :90 spot is featured exclusively for it’s first week of release. Exclusive interviews, pictures of the Cobb-Boom Helmet in action (see below) — as well as a write-up about the series is featured in the article on their site.
Our hope with Boss of Me is simply to stimulate discussion, interaction and as Bret says ‘smiles.” The entire notion of our having intentionally crafted ‘branded content’ was just a bonus — not the intention or the goal. We certainly do want more attention on the work of Sabi, but practically speaking, we just wanted to create something that wasn’t expensive so that we could offer it for free to our amazing fans without having to justify a return.
THE PROCESS: We shot everything on a Canon 7D, and used the prototype for a Cobb-Boom Helmet (which is an audio booming aid that you wear on your head invented by Jamie Cobb) to record sound. We used Pluraleyes to sync sound & Final Cut Pro to do the rest. Of course, these minimal resources isn’t ideal but it well suited our needs for keeping this small and on its feet. Often the shooter was wearing the Cobb-Boom Helmet to get the sound while also getting the picture — which aside from getting the job done, was a funny sight to see.
Much of the dialogue is improvised, and was guided by myself and John T. Woods through several phone calls, text messages with jokes, emails and a rough outline before going in. But it’s all really Bret Donovan. Bret was a find for us like no other, and of course there would be no show without him. His sincerity on and off camera is what keeps me as a co-creator interested in exploring new ideas and avenues while the camera is already rolling. The real investment with this series was our time and energy — so it was important to keep it a fun (and very fast) working atmosphere. We hope this translated into the series.
Boss of Me is certainly not for everyone — and it’s not something we were intending on getting on something like HBO for wide release — but at the very most we hope that fans subscribe & interact and want to see more (and at the very least — we hope they find it funny. In parts, anyway.) We look forward to your feedback!
Understandably, many actors are simply uncomfortable with the idea of using your own words for the character, but what should be happening is that the director and the actor are together finding the character’s voice.
The Screenplay: Discarding the Words for Dramatic Improvisation in Interdependent Films.
Freeing oneself from the confines of the words on the page sometimes makes for a more authentic route for the actor that seeks to explore and refine his/her craft. Often actors feel this process is more artistic, more “experiential”, and ultimately, more fulfilling when executed well, with a director that nurtures the kind of atmosphere necessary for good dramatic improvisation to occur. What’s fascinating, is that often when it’s all said and done (and the film is put together) most of the beats and the words that were true in the original locked script, end up on screen anyway – but filtered through the heart and soul of the actor/artist. And most of the scenes that never rang completely true – now do. I wonder what it would be like to reverse-write White Knuckles or Heart of Now (which was a terrific script written by Zak Forsman all on it’s own) – just to see how the words have changed and/or stayed the same. I’ve never gotten around to doing something like this, but someday maybe a huge Sabi fan will transcribe our films. It would be interesting at the most – the final film is the ultimate tale: what happens on set, and what is carved in the edit – is the truest story.
However, back to writing a screenplay to discard it: in discussing problems that might happen during Directing Improvisation by asking your actors to discard their words, there are instances in directing improvisation in interdependent films where an honest performance is given and the emotions and words shared are true — but the beat is not honest for the character at that particular point in the story.
With improvisation, actors tend to courageously dive into the conflict head on – floodgates tend to open early on for an actor once they get the hang of it (and a lot comes out in particular scenes at the top of the production schedule where critical emotions that are to be explored later are felt “too early”). That is ok. Everything is useful. Chemistry that will be explored later is sometimes put down here as a ground-work, or a foundation. And I believe this happens generally, if the scenes’ intentions & objectives are not structured properly. Again, that is ok. Every production is rusty at the start, particularly on feature films heavy with dramatic improvisation. There are ways to prepare for this. Rehearsals, meetings, and call back-auditions are a way to kick start everything (if each are done as if we were shooting the scene).
With White Knuckles we had a full rehearsal with the actors doing character exercises – and it happened a) on set, b) in the scene, c) with lights, d) with camera and sound — i.e. full on. And still we called it a rehearsal (though we were prepared to use it somewhere if it was needed – it wasn’t). The idea was to get moving, slowly – pushing the train the first few inches…
With Heart of Now, we got things rolling with what we called “Pre-Shoots” – 5 days of shooting with a bare-bones crew – which I think helped us ease into production (Note: there was also a million other things the core team – Jamie, Zak, Kester & Sam did to help the actors transition into this feature that would last 30 amazing and memorable days of everyone’s life – like White Knuckles).
HONEST BUT NOT TRUE OVERALL
But when discarding the words (which takes some time at the start) there are times — fascinating moments where the actors have a legitimate feeling about something and go with it – but it is incongruent to the journey of the character in a way that would alter the story to its detriment. I.e. change the direction of the story too far in an unrecoverable direction. Sometimes it’s compelling, real, honest, and exciting – but just not right for the overall arc of the story (which the director and producer and editor carries). Sometimes it is right, even though it was totally unplanned – and we must adjust the story around the moment accordingly. But again – if it is not honest for the overall journey of the story – or if the new material doesn’t excite and challenge the director to explore a new direction with everyone & the entire production schedule – then it must be lost immediately. Cut, clear our minds, re-set, move on.*
WHEN TO CUT, KEEP ROLLING
*It is important for the director here to be as quick and decisive as possible about where to stop an actor during improv, i.e. when to re-set rather than give a note and keep rolling, trying something different. On one hand all the previous takes are explorations of the take/moments that will be used (and should be allowed to play out) – on the other hand, a director doesn’t want to exhaust an actor (and acting for dramatic improvisation for all actors involved is physically exhausting). Also, too many different options without clear direction leads to confusion (for the actor on set, and the editor in the bay).
Of course, this happens (exhaustion, confusion) – and there is no way of avoiding it. 8-10 hour days max for the actors I believe is a great help to heavily improvised shooting – to stave off the exhaustion factor. But I say this to say, it’s important for a director to be fully aware of what will and will not be used in the final edit – on set – as best as possible. And rather than cutting these moments off too soon – in directing improvisation, it helps to let them play out, let the emotions rise and fall again naturally. Especially when discarding the words of the screenplay. There are awkward silences in these moments that are real and could otherwise never have been staged. There are glances of a deeper understand, and the struggling to find the right words. All of this is real. And conversely, there are often beats that happen just after an intense improvisation scene where the actor may say the perfect line — out of real exhaustion — long after a conventional filmmaker would call ‘cut’. A glance often says everything without all the words before it, and to help ensure we get these kinds of looks when directing improv – we often do what we call a “silent take” after all the other takes are completed. We did this quite a bit with White Knuckles and it helped us tremendously in the edit (though it’s not necessary if you’re actors don’t rush through improv – as in comedic improv).
Often, that little tiny silent beat where the camera kept rolling might end up being the only part used in the final edit, if that is what is honest in that moment – and right for the overall story.