Monday, December 28, 2009

aspiring filmmakers take note

Hat tip to Zoo O for sending me this LA Times article. It's about Scott Cooper, the first-time director of the new film Crazy Heart The critics can't stop effusing about the performances of Jeff Bridges and others in the film.

And who is this first-time director who has gotten these great performances from his actors, and where did he come from? Turns out, he's an actor.

From the LA Times article:

Scott Cooper, who after working in TV and film for more than a decade as an actor has suddenly made a splash as the rookie writer-director of "Crazy Heart."

And, it turns out there is plenty of good precedent for actors turning into great directors:

For years, thousands of young Hollywood wannabes have been paying top dollar to get a film school education, figuring that it is the best way to break into the movie business. But it turns out that if you want a career as an admired filmmaker, one of the shortest lines to success is to put in some time working as an actor. If you study the Oscar history books, it is nothing short of remarkable how many great films over the last few decades have been made by directors who began their careers as actors.

The article presents an impressive list of luminary directors that started out as actors, such as Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn. It mentions some less famous ones as well, such as Tom McCarthy, who made The Station Agent, and who was two years ahead of me at the Drama School, in the acting program.

The article suggests that the experience of acting is invaluable for putting a film together:

Having often spent years working out scenes in acting classes and observing great filmmakers on movie sets, actors have a keen eye and ear for the right rhythm and tone that help form the creative architecture of a good movie.

Scott Cooper himself concurs:

"I think actors make good directors because they understand behavior," says Cooper, 39...

More than once I have been approached by a filmmaker about taking my classes. They say something like "I learned a lot in film school about blocking a scene and placing the camera, but I didn't really learn very much about acting." And these are the more conscious ones. I have also encountered filmmakers who are completely ignorant about acting, and don't even know they're in the dark.

The article talks a bit about how Cooper went about making the movie, and apparently, he kept his mind very open:

During filming, Cooper was a sponge, listening to anyone with a good idea, especially one that lent more grit to the story. In the opening of the movie, we see Bridges pull into town in his woebegone '78 Chevy Suburban, emptying a Sparkletts bottle full of urine in a parking lot. "That came from Stephen Bruton," says Cooper, referring to the recently deceased country singer -- a mainstay in Kristofferson's band -- who worked on much of the film's music with Burnett. "He said he'd often drive 300 miles between gigs and he needed to find a way so he never had to stop to take a [leak]. So, man, that felt so perfect. It went right into the movie."

I have written previously about the director/actor relationship, and I would wager that Cooper's open mind comes from his life experience as an actor. He undoubtedly worked for many directors who thought they knew best and didn't need input from anyone else. In the post I wrote, I invoke William Ball, the founder of ACT, to show just how wrong-headed this attitude was. Unfortunately, it is about as pervasive as it is misguided. So pervasive is it that Ball dedicated his book, in which he argues for the urgency of directors behaving respectfully and with deference towards actors, "to the well-being of actors everywhere."

You just don't get a steady stream (no pun intended) of great ideas like the urine bottle above unless you give heed to the ideas of other people, as well as your own. So aspiring directors out there: take some time to find out how the other half lives. No question you will be the better for it.

Guest Post: Tension—not too much, not too little

I am a proud evangelizer of the Alexander Technique as a way for actors to develop greater body-mind integration. I asked Bay Area Alexander teacher Constance Clare to write a piece on how she uses the Alexander technique to work with actors. Here it is!--Andrew

When I teach the Alexander Technique to an actor, the student and I choose which aspect of the work to focus on.

The most common starting point is teaching the student how to come to a balanced neutral. Not too much tension, and not too little. Just the right amount of tension creates a lively, dynamic state of being.

Cultivating this dynamic neutral usually means that the student needs to “relax” some parts of herself and enliven other parts. Most people have habits and patterns of posture, movement, gesture, breath and voice that are out of balance.

As the student and I explore the student’s “postural set” we find out where the bones are mis-aligned and where the muscles, tendons and ligaments can release out of either tightening or collapsing. We look in the mirror to see the postural set and how it changes with my hands-on guidance. As muscles release into length and lively tone, the bones find a more efficient balance. It’s typical for students to feel “weird” or like they are almost falling forward when they come out of their habitual postural pattern. Often when I ask about that feeling, it’s a “good weird” or a “floaty falling” sensation.

The use of hands is one way that an Alexander lesson is different from other methods or techniques in actor training. As the student learns to refine her kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, she is able to work with the principles on her own. But at first the teacher’s hands help the student understand the teacher’s verbal guidance, and help her actually experience her own proprioceptive sensations.

As students progress, we work on releasing excess tension in action. Here’s a typical example:

Mark is learning a role that requires anger and upset. As Mark goes over his lines for the first time in his Alexander lesson, he pushes his face forward and contracts his jaw and neck muscles. He is over-acting because he is over-efforting. His lines are strong enough; he doesn’t need the extra tension. The tension causes his voice to rise. The tension in his face and jaw make his expression look forced.

I suggest that he try the lines while staying in a more neutral state, as I use my hands to help him notice what he is doing muscularly with his neck and jaw. I suggest that he let the lines evoke some of that anger in him, but not force it.

This time, Mark’s voice is fuller, he becomes more intimidating as he retains his stature and his strength without contracting. Dynamic tension is there, but it is there in the right amount.

Another common Alexander lesson is in the realm of excess preparation before an activity. Before speaking or moving, actors will often “prepare” themselves by contracting and “getting ready”—thereby coming out of their neutral state.

Marla is working on a new monologue. Marla begins from a dynamic neutral state of being ready for action, but whenever Marla starts to speak, the area just under her skull at the top of her neck contracts. As I work with Marla, I put my hands gently on the back of her neck, where most people have excess tension. My hands helps her to notice when the muscles contract. Marla practices not tensing as she begins to speak. She continues to notice the area under her skull and can begin feel it tense even when my hands are not there.

I have her practice speaking without any concern for what her words mean. She counts to ten. Marla needs to soften and slow down so much that she feels like she is slurring, but we get her to make sounds without activating those necks muscles. I then have her practice normal conversation. She slows down to about 70% of her normal speaking pace, and I encourage her to allow her skull to be mobile as her neck remains free of extra tension as she speaks. When her neck muscles are too tense, her skull won’t move. When she has released some of the tension, she lets her head move freely.

When we progress to speaking her lines, Marla once again goes back to tensing her neck. And now she adds a new habit—she takes a short, quick breath each time she begins.

We go back to not-tensing, and not-preparing, and this time we bring in not-gasping before the speaking. Because we’ve now been working on releasing tension while speaking, working with the breath is easier. As Marla practices not adding the extra effort of the quick intake, she continues to allow her head to float easily, her neck muscles to be long and lively, her jaw to be easy and mobile. It is a lot to think about! Changing ingrained habits takes time, but more than that, it takes awareness and clarity of intention.

Marla now can speak her lines without excess tension, and her whole state of being shows the change. Her voice is clear and not rushed or raised. The lack of excess tension and effort shows in her spontaneous choice to move with her lines, which excites her. With more openness, she feels a fuller expression and more freedom as she explores her role.

best comment of 2009

Jenny Bennett, daughter of the magnificent Robin Bennett, made this comment on Facebook in response to my post the actors in the hallway

Amen, brother. Hallway actors at auditions drive me nuts. They're also the ones who'll pepper everyone with questions about 'How'd it go', 'Did you (= 'Should I') use an accent?' ( or do people talk just like I normally do in a hallway in 21st c NYC, in a play set in 18th century Georgia? But they didn't read the play, so how would they know?), 'I'm just gonna do it funny, you know?', 'Were they nice?', etc. before going in and shouting their way through, mistaking volume for intention and insouciant disregard of craft for presence, operating as if they can find some loophole in the process that will compensate for their lack of preparation so as to hold the process accountable when they inevitably don't book it.

As righteous a rant as I've seen in many a year. And concise to boot! Not to mention funny! Props to Jenny. Would LOVE to see her play Beatrice!

teaching empathy: THEY'RE DOIN IT WRONG

This piece is a good kick in the stomach.

The parents described in that piece are not teaching anyone empathy. It doesn't sound like they even know what it is themselves.

Come spend ten weeks with me. I'll teach you empathy.

how to detect a lie

Although a person lying to someone else in real life is not exactly the same as an actor not fully entering into the situation of the scene, there are a lot of affinities. Many of the tells outlined in this video also show up in scene work. Notice particularly what he says about the liar placing something between himself and his listener, touching his nose or hair (a big one!), engaging in erratic eye behavior (I wrote about the importance of eye contact here) and producing unnatural speech.

Chicago is a theater town, and how, part II

Francis Sadac, a Chicago theater and culture blogger, has published his top ten theatrical happenings for 2009. Wow. I could never handle the cold, but it does sound like an INCREDIBLE array of yummy stuff. Looking forward to reading more from Francis.

Read the prequel to this post here.

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