Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Casting Vampires & Other Film School Cliches

It's awards season.  Festivals, viewer and professional award nominations are flooding the industry news, getting everyone excited and anxious to do new business.  For those in the rapids, congratulations and hang on tight!  For those on the shore, use the lull to gear up for next time.  And for those in between, do your best to stay afloat.  When it comes to scripted entertainment, sometimes just not going under deserves recognition and applause.

This season is always bitter sweet for me.  It brings to mind past projects:  the surprise when something you didn't realize was kinda good got some recognition, the suffocating silence when something you thought would do better isn't noticed at all.  It's a funny business.  

I had the great privilege of screening short films I worked on at festivals, at school, and at the DGA.  Like with writing anything, when you're involved in the making of a film, it's difficult to get the perspective and distance you need to actually see the film.  It's tough to see the edit for what it is when you're bogged down by memories of the making of the thing.  Maybe you can't see past the actor who seemed fine until he got drunk on set and felt-up half of your some-still-slightly-under-age, all-volunteer crew.  Or maybe you're stuck staring at the actress who swore she'd cut her hair to get the part but then refused half-way through production so the final third of the film doesn't make any sense.  Or the scene that should have had the hunky guy you already filmed for the plant scene but who didn't show up to shoot the pay-off, and you couldn't afford re-shoots so you never re-cast and what should have been a comedy isn't funny or even all that dramatic, so you're generally screwed.  Yeah, sometimes it's like that.

Like every department or component in any scripted entertainment, casting is crucial.  I won't say "casting is king" because we've all seen counter-examples and scripted entertainment, whether for the stage or the screen (of any size), is a team sport.  Quarterbacks and pitchers can't win by themselves, and a cast is nothing without a crew is nothing without a writer is nothing without a financier is nothing without...  Well, if financiers find themselves without, at least they have the means to buy it.  But I stand by the rest.  Back to casting.

It's a strange thing to be on the choosing side of casting.  I feel a little unambitious admitting I never used the "casting couch" as an opportunity to fleece someone for money or favors or to solicit border-line illegal "personal contact."  Talk about lost opportunities, right?  I found it challenge enough to just be at that table because I know what it's like to be on the other side.

There are many, many, many reasons I'm not an actor.  One biggie, I took theater in high school, where I learned that the anxieties typically associated with the audition side of a casting session pretty far exceed my anxiety threshold.  I'm always impressed when I meet (I'll add sane or happy) actors because what they do is really, really hard, and I don't mean performing.  Performing is an entirely different brand of difficult.  I mean auditioning, walking in cold, doing your thing (or their thing if there are sides), and walking out with no expectation of hearing from anyone, ever, about how you did or why you didn't get the job when you later see the film or show or program or commercial or print-ad or whatever.  That's really tough, and I find the people who can embrace that life and stress and remain whole with family and sanity intact are beyond remarkable.  Kudos. 

Though it is really important in film school to work on as many of your classmates projects as you can (every project is a massive learning experience and every crew position, no matter how unglamorous or seemingly unimportant, will teach you buckets about producing and getting the most from yourself and your work), one of the best things about film school was the push to make us cast real actors.  "Don't rely just on your classmates," soon became, "you will post ads, you will audition, you will cast real actors, or you will fail this class," and thank goodness it did, because nothing less would have gotten me to do it. 

There are several things you can expect to see in indie- and student films that scream cheap and cliche but which can be great if done with some exceptional flare or skill:  major scenes shot entirely on a couch, games of chess or prominently featured chess boards and pieces (often to indicate intelligence otherwise lacking in the character, writing, and film), protagonists running alone in metaphoric pursuit or metaphoric flight, over-use of close-ups, flat space, ridiculously severe stripy lighting justified by window blinds, no apparent ceilings coupled with obvious set-seams, twinkle-lights and generic neon signs...  Actually, it's a pretty long list and probably deserves a post unto itself.  Anyway, one of my shorts (prominently featuring too much flat-space, too many close-ups, and no ceilings whatsoever) embraced the reformed vampire cliche.  It's one of my favorites.  I don't like bullies or human predators, but I love a good redemption tale, and vamps typically have a lot to answer for.  

My film was about a latch-key kid who finds a vampire, knows what it is, and adopts him.  It doesn't end well.  Subtle, right?  Since vampires are heart-and-hand with sex and violence, I wanted to cast a very attractive grown man as my predator and a bright-eyed, prepubescent girl for my latch-key kid for added yet subtle tension.  Sh'yeah.  Okay, not subtle at all, but that's what I was looking for, and I tried to keep an open mind, and I found it!  The girl was terrific, inside and out, with a wonderful "stage mom" whose first and only priority was her daughter (not always the case with child performers and their moms).  For the vampire, I was torn between two actors.  One was fair, the other dark, one lanky the other beefy.  How to decide? 

When you're casting, you try to keep an open mind, partly because what you think you're looking for might not exist, and partly because preconceived tunnel-vision can blind you to discovering something great yet unexpected that an actor might bring to the role.  Every project lives for those moments, those hidden and inspired opportunities, and as a filmmaker and story-teller you struggle to keep yourself open enough to recognize them.  Both actors were easy on the eyes and willing to commit the significant time for rehearsals, shooting, sitting for mouth-molds so I could get prosthetic fangs made.  But one just had more of a "killer" vibe.  The other was a good actor, very personable, kind, smart, funny, with a terrific, easy-going smile that just lit up the room and made me (and by extension, would make my audience) want to know him more--a very charming guy.  I knew at once he'd be easy to work with even on long, long shooting days.  But the other guy--and it's magical when this happens in casting, when you stumble on that "it" factor, that "wow" moment where an actor just becomes or is exactly what you're looking for even though you didn't know until that very moment that's what you needed and wanted and can't do without--he just had this perfect and ominous je ne sais quoi that screamed "I'm a predator."  He was perfect. 

But when I prompted him later to improvise a scene where he's "cheering up a sad child" at, say, an airport or doctor's office, his same je ne sais quoi also whispered, "I might gut you between takes just to see the color of your insides."  And that was for "cheering up a child."

I cast the smiling Mr. Personable.  I was instantly rewarded by my instincts being confirmed.  He took the job seriously, was prompt and punctual and we got the prosthetic teeth molds and he was really supportive and friendly in the best possible way with the ten-year-old on set.  The prosthetic fangs were perfect and very believable in proportion, color and size.  Mr. Personable was so great, I was able to focus exclusively on the billion other problems that is shooting a student film, including re-writing the script almost from scratch mid-way through shooting because between lost locations and time there was no way what I wrote could be shot.  

Through it all, Mr. Personable smiled beautifully.  Because he couldn't not smile.  

Not even when he wanted to. 

This discovery was not made until dailies, which for this project meant half-way through production.  We'd shot the "temptation" scene, a dirty close-up of our killer face-to-face with the vampire-buffet that is a healthy little girl's pulsing throat.  He played it well, all in the eyes, and we could even see the flutter of her artery -- the shot really worked -- as his lips part and we fangs.  Couldn't see the teeth.  Over and over, close-up after close-up, all burned film, all losses from budget and time, weeks of time and money in the one and only custom-prop, but not one shot, not once were the fangs visible.  Something I hadn't noticed about Mr. Personable until dailies was his mouth had a naturally smiling shape to it, lifting quite pleasantly at the corners, but also dipping slightly more than I anticipated from the corner to the mid-quarter of the lip, a dip perfectly suited not only to completely cover his incisors, but the extended fake fangs as well.

Back to set we went knowing what we had to do--maximize exposure of those fangs.  Without fangs, the character just looked like some creepy, pale guy following a ten year old girl home.  Without fangs, the tension was less predator vs. meal and more imminent child-rape, which is still evil vs. good in theme, but a noir of an entirely different shade and one I had no intention of re-writing to accommodate.  So, I laid it out, and he agreed -- we had to see the fangs!  

That's when we discovered he couldn't grimace.  The particular shape of his mouth and the development of his facial muscles which made him look so pleasant meant he could not sneer or snarl or bare his teeth in any menacing way to save his life.  And he tried.  He really worked at it.  Dude was totally committed to the role (and only working for copy and credit!  God, I love actors!), but he couldn't not smile, and teeth-gnashing of any kind was impossible.

Back went the fangs, priority rush, for modification.  Back to the edit bay, emergency panic, to figure out what was usable and what wasn't.  Back to the computer, frantic revision, because the film we started shooting wasn't possible, even with the changes we made to deal with the lost locations and time remaining.  Duly regrouped, we completed embracing additional student-film cliches:  ridiculous make-up, over-use of music for lacking transitions, reveal-it-was-all-a-dream plot re-shuffle, and the classic we-can't-resolve-this-story-in-a-satisfying-way suicide ending.  

Obvious block-buster material.  It's how I made my first million.  [insert laughter here]

We finished it, the culmination of half a semester of overwhelming amounts of work and a life-threatening lack of sleep.  I think it's six minutes long.  Including the credits.   

Two years later, having finally saved up enough money to have my "negative cut" (this sucker was shot on real, physical film, mixed and screened off a telecined work-print), I enjoyed one final surprise student-film cliche:  lost negative.  Somewhere between the school and the film development house, exactly one reel of my film negative was misplaced, making it impossible to cut the negative and produce a finished film complete with (drum roll, please) optical mono-track sound transferred from hand-cut magnetic film!  Yeah!  

Personable as ever, Mr. Personable would've done re-shoots in a heartbeat -- a consummate worker and just that kind of guy.  But my latch-key kid went from ten to twelve, and in girl terms that's something like six inches taller, plus braces on her teeth--no way new footage would cut.  There ended any possibility of a formal screening, of festival submission, of cutting DVDs.  Not my favorite take-away from the student film-making experience, but a valuable lesson in blind trust, film storage and archiving.    
Aside from some seriously bitter disappointment at not being able to "time" and complete a finished print, I've never once looked back on this project and been sorry, especially about my cast and crew.  I got to shoot some stuff I'm really, really proud of, even if almost no-one will ever see it.  When I say I learned, I say it with major italics.  Ultimately filmmakers are just viewers who also happen to make films, so it's no surprise that what makes for a great movie or show viewing experience also makes for a terrific production experience.  Writers sometimes like to say, "it's an important story," or a "valuable tale," but good stories really boil down to the people in 'em, whether they're part of the action or the telling.  It's the people involved that make a story meaningful and the time communicating it well spent.  

I've gotten to work with some supremely kind and diligent people who gave their absolute all.  In this case, it was just to help tell a six-minute story pre-loaded with problems and cliches.  And it's still one of my favorites. 

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