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
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.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that the process of making a worthwhile interdependent art film begins in the audition. When it comes to the actors that will ultimately play the part for a film by Sabi – we hope that not a moment is wasted for either the filmmaker or the cast, and we hope that the casting process is creative and insightful, and useful to all parties involved.
Christopher: “I found the audition process at Sabi very intriguing. Auditions can be very uncomfortable experiences but that wasn’t the case here. It was a very warm and welcoming environment. There was no vicious casting assistant staring at me with daggers and I got the sense that I was more than valid as a human being. Ahhhhh…. back to the real world.”
Chris, thanks for posting. It’s nice hearing about what an actor feels and thinks during our auditions at sabi. We try to keep them warm and inviting (and creative) as often as possible – and also we try to keep them useful to both the filmmakers as well as the actors that graciously share their time with us. There are times that this process doesn’t go as planned, and there have been people we have collaborated with that initially didn’t fully understand why auditions at sabi pictures are handled so delicately and carefully.
Often it is our duty to inform them immediately, that quite simply, the Actor is to be regarded as the star from the moment they walk through the door and should be treated with kindness. We let them know that the actor that is ultimately cast — is the guide that holds the key to unlocking the deeper, inner workings of the character.
When Sabi sets out to make a film (and begins the casting process) we’re ultimately not looking for a pre-conceived notion of the character that already resides in our head (if we were satisfied with the depiction in our head, why make a movie?) Rather, I believe at this stage, sabi’s casting process tries to find the actor that can teach us more about the character we’re creating… real, human details and insights into fears, emotions, and hidden qualities that we couldn’t have otherwise known.
These details, and what happens in the casting process (which is really the first rehearsal) often find their way into the film – and every moment during auditions and rehearsals help develop the chemistry of emotions that we will circle around for the duration of production. Most importantly, the audition begins the actor-director relationship.
It was amazing watching how Zak integrated things he saw, tried and learned from the audition process of “Heart of Now” right into the production phase of the film. I too changed scenes to better fit who Julie and William were becoming when I had finally found Martie Ashworth and Larry Strauss for “White Knuckles”. The insights that Kelly and Marion brought to Zak and vice versa during the auditions created a bridge. And to see J. Erik Reese and gang do it once again in Moments with you, Aqua, Mark and Malcolm, was once more – a truly remarkable process to watch*.
All three films were ultimately enhanced because of this attention to an otherwise mundane, and often cold, calculating experience (as you described).
We learned a great deal from the process of a film called “Blue in Green”, which was a feature that Zak and I produced along with 5 others in a collaborative called Unica, and under the auspices of producer Ron Austin and Poet/Journalist Gabriel Meyer. In “Blue in Green”, we didn’t even have auditions – we just staged group meetings where everyone discussed issues personal, social and spiritual – and then six weeks of rehearsals. Both the group sessions and the rehearsals were critical to the telling of the deeply improvised film.
In the cast of “Blue in Green”, Unica had found the story of the film with the actors that stayed – and Unica developed these unique characters in complete collaboration with the actors that would play them. In my opinion, it was a completely successful experiment.
*I want to reiterate that the processes described above may be unique, but are by no means new or original or exclusive to Sabi Pictures or Unica or otherwise.
Really, whenever a filmmaker casts for a project they are deeply passionate about, they intuitively settle on the final actors for the same reasons, using the same techniques involuntarily.
The real fundamental difference lies in the amount of exploration that happens after the casting decisions are made. And the extent to which Sabi intends to explore in our films sets us apart (in my humble opinion) from most projects that are made more ‘conventionally’.
The exploration – going deeper – is something that we try to do from the very beginning. The peeling away at the character, at their emotions, at their deepest source of suffering – is pretty much continuous (and necessary to the success of the experiment) from initial casting to the final edit.
When casting for our films, Sabi filmmakers are often looking for an actor that brings to life the heart and soul of the character by giving us insight (or creating the right questions) which we then filter and translate into the story/characters/dialogue. It’s an organic (or ‘natural’) process in our estimation – and there is never a script that doesn’t change because of auditions and rehearsals. Simply put, it’s about respect.
Respect for one’s fellow artist. Respect for what the actor brings to an art film, and lastly, respect for a process that seeks to uncover fundamental and transcendent truths about the character through a collaboration between the director, all of the rest of the crew, and most importantly – the heart, soul and mind of the artist/actor.
Of course, we sincerely hope that you (the actor/artist) can let us know what we can do better, as all of the above is a constantly evolving, refining process.
And we’re always learning…