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!
I wrote this in response to a recent tweet from Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay, after our NEW BREED panel on ‘Creative Collaboration’ at DIY DAYS Philadelphia. He wrote re: our panel on creative collaboration: “I didn’t ask panelists to define it. Isn’t all filmmaking collab? What’s diff now?” The following is to continue the dialogue:
CHANGES IN THE NATURE OF COLLABORATION IN FILMMAKING
There are presently several ascending levels to degrees in which creative collaboration occurs in the making of a film. On one end of the spectrum, collaboration could mean a Director communicates his/her vision and the Cinematographer adjusts to make the visuals resonate. It could be a Director and Composer in a booth changing rhythms of music. It could mean an Actor suggesting a line on-set. These old-school forms of collaboration are obvious to all – and this is one level of collaboration. Great films, and incredible moments in cinema have been created this way, and until recently – it perhaps only this way.
Then there is, on the other end of the spectrum – something radically different and altogether new – what I would consider a higher level of collaboration in creating cinema. To understand this new form of interdependent collaboration, you have to step back a moment and look at how far we’ve come technologically, and more specifically, how technology has shaped and empowered the next generation of young creative collaborators.
A BREIF HISTORY OF KIDS WITH CAMERAS
Sabi Pictures co-founder Zak Forsman and started making films with the first generation VHS camcorders at 12. We worked together with kids in the neighborhood and our families – taking ideas from everyone and each other – and created the movies mostly as we went along ‘in-camera’. After us, came a micro-generation of self-taught filmmakers who had access to video cameras as a grade-school toy. Now, they’re cutting features on their laptops complete with graphics and special effects. Using the technology, they’ve learned from their mistakes and they’ve learned how to tell artistic stories. They make movies organically and without a lot of money. Their film school is watching independent and foreign films, hours of DVD bonus features, the occasional class – but primarily, the act of doing. They are of any age.
MULTI-HYPHENATES: THE NEW COLLABORATORS
This intelligent, empowered new generation of young artist/filmmakers are the new collaborators. They understand intrinsically how to tell stories, and make movies organically – and how to make them engaging and real despite their budget limitations. They collaborate interdependently rather than independently – they work with each other, not ‘for’. Their power relationships are shifted in a way that fosters a creative spirit among all. Any one member’s contribution to whole would be greatly affected if they were not a part of the project. They are all empowered by the directors/producers – and quite often, they are all friends (or become friends). This collaborative filmmaking team has learned together by doing – and doing everything together – and no one would dare suggest a particular task is ‘not my job.’
This generation of filmmakers (emerging everywhere) feels deeply entitled to more than whatever job they apply for. They quit jobs that do not engage them – or lose interest in films that they cannot be fully invested in. They are all, each and every one – a potential motion picture studio unto themselves – but they work together. For the greater picture of the Arts vs. Commerce – this is a great victory for the Arts, for these emerging artists are not hampered by anything or anyone. With the internet as an avenue for distribution, those with the clearest and most original voices – finally have a chance.
These serious writer/director/producer/editor/shooters understand that creative collaboration is actually working with other multi-hyphenate filmmakers to tell a story – and to share an ever-changing organic experience that is greater than any one person’s vision. Despite their smaller crews, homegrown style, and simplified locations – this next generation of creative collaborators work together in a radically new and exceptionally creative way. By listening to each other, and allowing the possibility of improvisation to occur on set (be it dramatic or comedic) – the new collaborators of today foster a spirit of creativity and free expression from all involved with the project, from the D.P. to sound mixer to the stars. There is a greater sense of shared pride on projects of this sort, and the results are often more engaging and honest.
The only way I can describe this method of collaboration is to call it Interdependent Filmmaking. The way in which interdependent filmmakers work is to tell their film with each other – despite antiquated models of hierarchy on-set. In fact the entire model of above the line and below the line breaks-down fundamentally when collaborating on this high level. Everyone’s contributions are equally important and under the guidance and vision of a director (whose mission is to explore character, and tell the best story possible with input from the cast and crew) and a producer (whose mission it is to be flexible to change and to create a safe atmosphere where creativity is fostered) and their interdependent team. Everyone has their roles, but everyone’s contributions are important and valued. The relationship between the director and the actors are emboldened by these new production practices, and there is a process of mutual discovery during the experience of making the film.
These new highly collaborative artist/filmmakers are too smart for one role, and one role is far beneath them – they need to be a part of the crafting experience of the film, they have a tremendous amount to offer it tapped as a resource rather than just a helping hand. These creative collaborators are empowered by their prior experience and knowledge (regardless of age), and by creating with/for each other. They seek surprises on-set, they strive for honesty and deep emotion on screen, and ‘real’ performances. In fact, the new stories we see emerging were always written with the intention of being made (and revised to make things possible) . The characters are conceived with—and fleshed out by—the actors that were always intended to play them. Creativity is happening on-set while the production is on its feet – not just in the darkness of the writer’s room or editing bay.
EMPOWERED BY SCARCITY
Using social networks and the internet as an inexpensive testing and meeting ground for ideas and publicity, this New Sustainable Cinema trend of smaller, more collaborative films is fully empowered by scarcity in funding rather than hampered by it. This is an amazing thing and different than experiences of the past. Our limitations are forcing us to tell better, more inventive, more impactful stories. Producers arrange to shoot guerilla, with DSLR cameras. Directors and Composers that have never met in person, score an entire film online. Actors that really care about their craft, seek out collaborative directors that could push their creative boundaries based on seeing their work online. These nano-budget films are not only being created collaboratively, they are marketed to communities online, with the cast and crew interacting with fans to get the film out there. It’s from start to finish and entirely interdependent effort.
And what has been the result of this changing nature of collaboration? Nothing short of a resurgence of beautifully executed, meaningful cinematic stories. These films are emerging everywhere – and without any debate or controversy over who gets the ‘film by’ credit.
END RESULT: FILMS OF VALUE AND MEANING (PAST & FUTURE)
In a way, it’s a throwback to films that were made in an earlier time in the history of cinema where the filmmakers themselves determined which films were made (though present interdependent cinema is comprised of films radically smaller in budget, size and scope). At the time, most everyone understood that a good film was good because it was at once entertaining, artistic and meaningful. People went to the movies for different reasons entirely, and as an art form – it was still discovering its voice. The films that are being polished in the editing bays of many young filmmakers all over the country continue that search. These are filmmakers making projects that couldn’t have been possible without the help of everyone involved. The motivating factor is to create a good story and tell it well – and by any means necessary. And their ideal – is to put the final work in front of audiences and fans in the hopes they someday make another.
Directing Improvisation in Interdependent Films.
With excerpts from: “Interdependent Filmmaking: Dramatic Improvisation in White Knuckles – a film by sabi”
“In a lot of ways the director and the actor when working with improvisation have to form a relationship like a family. This is why there is such a stress on the word “Interdependent” in our filmmaking process. There has to be a mutual respect, and a whole-hearted trust that the director in fact truly knows (or is exploring to discover) what needs to take place (and along with the producer, will keep everyone safe while doing so).”
In a thread in the Sabi Forum, Larry Strauss (star of White Knuckles) talks a little about what it’s like working on a film that is improvisation-heavy, and specifically, what it’s like collaborating with a director on a dramatic improvisation. His experience with Sabi Pictures is noted in the video called “A Conversation with Larry Strauss.”
Directing improvisation is different for every interdependent director, and different still on every picture – but what Larry describes quite simply here is very true.
Originally Posted by larry
“NOT ALL [IMPROV] IMPROVES THE WORK. [THE SCRIPT] IS SOMEWHAT LIKE A BACKSTORY IN THAT YOU HAVE THE IMPORTANT STORY PARTS IN THE BACK OF YOUR MIND BUT THEN WHEN THE CAMERA ROLLS, YOU LET IT GO. HOPEFULLY, IT WILL BE THERE FOR YOU.”
This is really the most important ingredient in my opinion: It’s preparing, mentally, reading the script a few times, learning some of the lines, studying motivations and intentions, asking questions… and then ultimately, when the camera rolls TRULY letting go.*
ACTOR – DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP
Everyone has their own way of achieving this. But I think a relationship between the Actor and Director should be established where the Actor can feel he or she can in fact fully, and comfortably let go. This means that a director and his/her team should be aware of every concern the actor has. It doesn’t mean necessarily solving every single item of concern – but just being aware of it, listening to the actor, and being a true friend. The greatest collaborations are born of friendships, not ‘for-hire.’
*Note that the relationship goes both ways – in dramatic improvisation films such as those that Sabi Pictures creates, the director is also memorizing lines, studying motivations and intentions, asking questions — and ultimately, letting go when the cameras roll.
In a lot of ways the director and the actor when working with improvisation have to form a relationship like a family. This is why there is such a stress on the word “Interdependent”
in our filmmaking process. There has to be a mutual respect, and a whole-hearted trust that the director in fact truly knows (or is exploring to discover) what needs to take place (and along with the producer, will keep everyone safe while doing so).
The actor and the director thus have to meet on a common ground of understanding for the character as quickly as possible from the first audition, through production – and the interdependent director can’t get lazy once cameras are rolling. The burden of digging at the mystery of the character is always to be shared between the director and the actor. Each will contribute a piece, give direction, try something new, and reset without judgement (ideally).
Probably the healthiest sign the improvisation is going well is when the director and the actor continue to ask each other questions – particularly as the film is coming to a close. It’s important also, for the actor and the director to not be settled with the answers – so as to leave room for exploration. And if everything seems perfectly clear, that’s ok too – something will come up that changes everything – and the director, actor and the rest of the cast and crew have to be ready for this point of divergence, they have to embrace it, work with it – and explore its possibilities both on set and in the edit.
This is a nutshell of how directing improvisation in interdependent films like those of Sabi Pictures works. The entire point is to plan for the unplanned surprise – an honest moment, a truthful beautiful shot, gesture, glance – whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be pretty or poetic, just in the context of the film and the world created – truthful. Dramatic Improvisation strives for that truth.
Practically speaking, often this means for the director to keep his mouth closed for the beginning phases of the experience of rehearsal and shooting. The director still has to guide, but gently & simply. The complexities of the character should begin to emerge naturally (and problems should iron themselves out with collaborative listening). A lot is revealed in the first week of shooting, and it is probably the most intense week of production (besides the last week) for a director, producer and their actors (not to mention the tireless crew).
The idea during the beginning of a production that employs heavy dramatic improvisation is that the actor needs to (as fast and as naturally as possible) get into the skin of the character on their own – so that then the director and actor can guide the character through their journey without too much internal resistance. This means what Larry mentioned about casting is absolutely critical. The casting sessions and the callbacks exist to ultimately ensure that the right person that’s sitting in the casting chair will be the right person in front of the cameras.
Thus, an interdependent director should discuss the character at length with each of their prospective actors, and together they should rehearse and camera test to make sure the actor is comfortable with the process of improvisation. Note I didn’t say make sure the actor is “good” at improv. There is no standard for good or bad improv, just honest and not quite honest. And it may take careful study to find the right actors sometimes – and often a “polished” actor performs dishonestly when asked to improvise. 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. Freeing oneself from the confines of the words on the page sometimes makes for a more authentic route. Often actors feel this process is more artistic, more “experiential”, and ultimately, more fulfilling. 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 script, end up on screen anyway – but filtered through the heart and soul of the actor/artist.
Directing for improvisation also means that we regularly have call-backs and more call-backs at the outset of a production, with the director working intimately with the actor in meetings and rehearsals –
and the most important component of our call backs is incorporating improvisation in the auditions.
A lot was revealed about Larry Strauss who went on to play William in White Knuckles, through his improvisation in the call-back. Sure, it’s may be the hardest thing to do in a casting session – but we are often looking just as closely as the awkward gestures, the uncomfortable silences – as we are the content of the scene.
Here are some questions for a Improvisational Director to ideally ask themselves (and seek the answers to) before a production begins (and just after the actors have met in the call-backs):
Was there chemistry?
Could I watch them for 2 hours?
Can they talk to each other? Can they have a conversation?
Can they have a clear objective and go after it?
What are their fears?
Are they willing to explore? Are they comfortable in silence?
Do they make eye contact?
It often helps to get the feedback of a locked actor who might be working with the prospective candidate. The actor has an incredible amount of insight into whether or not improvisation will work. Most of the time, it is intuition – an actor’s feeling that the can simply get along with their co-star. Again, friendships forged on sets are critical to the success of creating an atmosphere on set that is conducive to successful improvisation.**
Hope this sheds more light on Directing Improvisation, and the process for a Director and an Actor in collaboration. This has only been my experience, I’m completely open to hearing other experiences with directing improvisation.
**Side note: Successful Improvisation on set is truly an out of body experience for both parties involved. When it’s working, from what I understand – actors seldom remember the moments depicted (because they were “in the moment” and the performance was honest). A director has this same experience when moving into the edit – and while finding these moments again on set for shaping into the final film.
White Knuckles was born out of a deep desire to explore a story with a group of artists through the collaborative medium of film – and to explore it as much as possible while the story is happening – while it’s on its feet in production – while the characters fully inhabit the actors.
The means of accomplishing this would be a team of artists that could invest themselves personally in the shared vision of the project, and could work as a unified whole that could shift, adapt and adjust whenever the story changed based on the flexible nature of capturing dramatic improvisation. This could only be accomplished by maintaining a collective atmosphere of safety and trust with the crew, filmmakers and the cast. An atmosphere where the actors could feel like they can fully explore their characters without any judgments or self-direction. A creative space where the actors can go deeper in the improvisational present moment, and the filmmakers and the crew can support and guide them along. A truly interdependent process where there are no idle hands on set – a place where everyone is involved, and each member on the production is truly critical.
With White Knuckles, we wanted to see what would happen if we wrote a script and then took it away at some point during production – when the film begins to breathe on its own. We wanted to see “what happens with the characters” and we wanted to see “where will the story go?” It was in a large part about curiousity. Though we had a screenplay that would be great to shoot – we thought that perhaps guiding the improvisation initially, we could fully let go later and produce real surprises and true-to-life dialogue and moments that could not have otherwise been planned.
To do this in a drama that goes to the places White Knuckles does – it took the safety net of the rest of the cast and crew to make this work. Really, it took each other – and every individual working together as a unified whole to make this real “Interdependent” film happen.
There is a point in every soulful, artful film production where the actors seem to fully inhabit the characters, sooner or later. On set, sometimes this happens early – other times certain key aspects of the character emerge later depending on the circumstance. But ultimately – there is a collaborative search for truth that makes ‘a film by Sabi Pictures’ – and if the film is honest (as I believe White Knuckles is) than perhaps it will be blessed to find its audience.
It is a rare group of talented filmmakers that converged to create White Knuckles. And what we have in this film, is in my humble opinion, a true example of interdependent filmmaking. As filmmakers – we all simply wanted to be able to let go of pages and pre-conceived notions and rather listen very closely to what comes out of (and what comes from within the soul) of the character. We wanted to hear an authentic voice, and wanted to see the story that was the deeper, more meaningful, more real version (than the duplication of the intentions on the page). We want to see the sum that is greater than it’s parts – a piece of real art emerging from our collective creative contributions together.
This is ultimately the collective desire of a collaborative group of artists working on an Interdependent Film. Interdependent Filmmaking is the kind of filmmaking where one uses “us” and “we” and “our” more often than they use “I” when describing the process of making that film. We think that White Knuckles is unique because of the interdependent nature of the shoot. The WK website’s “Creative” section details examples of how many of us together collaborated on this film, and there will also be some behind the scenes posted to get a look at the faces that made it happen.
As with every interdependent film, there are so many hands on the work that it is hard to summarize or describe the process of each member that took part – but each person’s contribution made the film possible. And though the credits on the film will generally reveal every person’s name that contributed – there are so many more roles that were filled by each member than can possibly be listed.
Calling White Knuckles and interdependent film is a way to say Thank You – to acknowledge that the film could not be possible without the entire interwoven web of creative contributions, a network of interdependent people, that all get behind one idea. It’s a beautiful thing when it works, and it is the most fulfilling kind of filmmaking. And Interdependent Filmmaking is the evolution of the art form, in my humble opinion.
I’m honored to have been a part of this process at Sabi Pictures. Sure it is an ever-changing and an ever-evolving process with each new story – but the unique way of making each film bears one thing in common between everything we’ve made: there is simply no room and no time for inflated egos when a group of artists want to venture into the great unknown of making a film together. There is only room to learn from one another, for true collaboration, for support of each other under any circumstance, and for the collective desire to see the story through to the end no matter what.
We had a very talented group of individuals that came together to bring you the interdependent film White Knuckles – as well as Heart of Now. We guided the stories to the end rather than pushed them, and what resulted from the process thus far may move you, and perhaps even surprise you.
Kevin K. Shah Interdependent Filmmaker from White Knuckles