I’ve been a bad blogger. I know it’s pretty common, but I’ve been active in other important arenas — like getting that actor reel in shape. As I mentioned in an earlier blog a number of months ago, it was my intention to produce some scenes that would showcase me. I also imagined it to be a great opportunity as an actor to get a more experiential understanding of what it means to make a film.
It was a successful project. I picked the scripts, worked with actors, scouted locations, collected wardrobe, decorated a few sets, hired a DP and gaffer, and leased out an HVX-200 HD camera and other equipment. Over the course of one weekend, we shot four scenes. The hardest task in all of this multitasking feat was the necessity for me to be able to switch the producer hat off and be Chris the Actor when the camera was rolling. I think I did a competent job overall — though I wouldn’t like to visit those kinds of acrobatics many more times in my life. I really value having the time and mental space to live in the character’s shoes on set between takes, rather than talking to the DP about alternate lighting schemes. It’s a different mode of thinking. But I’m glad I put myself through this, because having not paid my dues as a PA or other crew member, it does give me a better perspective on all of the work going on around me while I’m on a set. We are each contributing a component to the process. And while I am capable of many things, I am quite happy to be the actor.
After finishing my marathon weekend, I brought my raw footage into the editing bay of Julien Roussel, editor and filmmaker. My goal was to edit the raw footage first into short, polished scenes and then snag the best moments to combine with other film work I’ve done and create my demo reel. I really enjoyed being in the editing room. Julien told me that I was more organized (code: neurotic) than most actors — I had every clip mapped out and ratings for each. I came prepared to talk about what each scene should accomplish. I had ideas about scoring. Filmmakers know this adage well: “One film gets written, one film gets shot, and one film gets edited.” You hear that too often indie filmmakers shortchange themselves on the amount of editing time they think they’ll need. What a mistake– the cutting room is where the story gets shaped. Always be nice to your editor.
So, over the course of a few weeks, we created the individual scenes, and then finally put together a reel. The rough reel was way too long — it’s interesing how attached one can get to certain moments or a story arc. Of course, a demo reel is not about telling a full story; it’s about leaving the viewer wanting more. So that means coming in late to a scene and leaving early. Keep folks engaged. So, in waiting for a new cut of one of the films on my reel, we waited a few weeks to finalize the reel. When I came back, I had a new, more objective take on the material. We trimmed out more than one minute. It still clocks in around 2:30, but the pacing is good. I’m pretty happy with it.
Check out the final product, and feel free to comment. A reel is always a work in progress (one hopes), so I’m sure I’ll learn something on the next round of edits in the coming months. The short scenes should also be up on my site in the coming weeks.
My next steps? Showing this to colleagues and friends, sending out some postcards (maybe), and using this as it was intended: a marketing tool to attract interest from casting folks and theatrical agents. Nothing is ever ordained, especially in LA, but this’ll certainly help.
By the end of this week, I should finally have a copy each of the two student films I’ve acted in recently. Basically, I am seeking footage for that actor reel I’ve been talking about for a while. One film, called Cordless Mike, I’ve seen at a small screening and think that while the subject matter is totally off the wall (let’s just say I play a humanoid robot) that I’m confident I’ll be able to extract some pretty funny moments — because the production values are actually quite good. The other film was an adaptation of a scene from Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, the Act II opener where Vince and Shelly arrive. The writing is obviously wonderful and the scene has a great arc, but as these small productions sometimes go, we lost our site at the last minute and had to use one of USC’s studio sets. There was no makeup, I brought my own wardrobe, and we shall see what the lighting looks like when I get the DVD in my hands tomorrow. I don’t want to rag on the student director because this small project was not his thesis or anything; it was a final project in a directing class, so the purpose of his work was not a beautiful-looking product but an exercise in process. I knew that going in; I hoped for more. My reel needs some love.
There are a few things about this process that I am seeking to circumvent: First, I am impatient — I hate waiting for copies of projects. By some accounts, I am lucky that I am even getting these copies at all. Second, I hate that after all of said waiting that the footage may not, in the end, be usable for my purposes.
Okay, simmer down there, Veruca. But there is a practical argument to be made here. Why am I waiting? Why don’t I just produce some of my own clips? They don’t even need to be long scenes. It’s called “shoot to suit.” This is an opportunity for me to really tailor the content of my reel footage to the character types that casting directors would easily see me play. And, in choosing the content I get to sink my teeth into writing that speaks to me.
So, I’ve contacted a young director of photography whose work I respect and he’s agreed to work with me on shooting coverage for a few more scenes that will help me offer a well-rounded final reel. He’s got the camera and some lighting equipment. I’ll secure a few locations, bribe some actors I trust, and gather together wardrobe. I’m going to keep it very simple. The emphasis will be on performance and the few elements we use will be quality. That’s the goal. I may enlist the help of an editor afterwards. And I’m on the fence about having a director there. I may instead just coach the scenes in advance with my teacher and direct the scenes myself while on set.
It’s a lot to do, don’t get me wrong. But it’s something that puts me in the driver’s seat. I don’t have to wait on someone else’s process. I get more creative control over the impression that I make with industry folks. And it’s just a start– a reel changes over time considerably and I do intend to add in professional credits as they come. But how powerful to have a marketing tool that also feels personal and well-representative of your talent and instrument.
Okay, time to give another look at those scripts. And we’re off!
Okay. I don’t even eat fast food (maybe In-N-Out twice per year). But whatever that fast food “look” is, I apparently have it…Taco Bell has called me in three times in the past two months. So when I went to a recent audition for a McDonald’s coffee commercial and saw that the callback date was the last day of my short trip home to NY, I thought to myself: Oh, they’ll call me back. If I’m going to leave the state, then the cosmos will ask me to change my schedule. And thus spake the Big Mac in the sky yesterday.
I grappled with this conflict: Do I leave my Mom, brother, his wife, and my beautiful new niece early on Mother’s Day to make it to my Monday morning callback in the chance that they might actually cast me? Or do I invest in the quality time I really want to spend with family and let the opportunity go, potentially irking my currently enthusiastic agent? Grrrr. Granted, I felt lucky to be getting a callback, but I also wondered if this would become one of those actor moments where you move mountains to please your agent and casting director and in the end, you get the shaft because the client wanted the guy with blue eyes after all. Just like that, after battling holiday traffic to JFK, potentially not even making it off the standby list, and if lucky enough to arrive at LAX at midnight — then crashing on my friend’s couch in Venice because the callback is in Santa Monica the next morning.
Well, such is this industry I’ve chosen. My family was in agreement that I should make the callback because it’s what I do. And I concurred, though I am still pained at the thought of leaving my six-week-old niece so soon after meeting her for the first time today. We make these personal sacrifices every day in order to make a living — and often we end up with nothing more than the experience of having auditioned. It’s like I want to walk into the callback and tell them: “If you cast someone else, I expect to at least get six more hours with Scarlett Marie, and dinner with my mom.”
Yeah, I know– funny. Where’s my rewind button, just in case?
I occasionally get the opportunity to write for the blog at my marketing job, xiik Interactive Marketing. I’ll be posting my next article in the next day or so, but wanted to throw in a link to my first article titled Online Advertising: Metrics vs. the Big Idea? If you’re an advertising geek, enjoy!
Like a decent chunk of my performer friends, I have another job that (theoretically) provides better financial stability than the unpredictable life of the actor. I work as an account manager for a small interactive marketing firm. I have always grappled with this idea that unless one’s actor life is totally self-sustaining, we should be able to balance an interesting, creative, and lucrative existence off camera or the stage. It keeps you in touch with how most folks live, and provides stable resources to experience a real life — something that no doubt provides further fodder for your artistic endeavors. I was certainly miserable working the front desk at a small hotel a number of years back, and not because I’m a snob about service jobs — I’ve held many of them and genuinely enjoy helping people. But it was not logistically a good fit for growing my career in the arts and while I have some source writing materials from the characters I encountered, the front desk did not appease my intellect. I was not making enough money, I couldn’t go out on auditions, and I started to become one of those jaded customer service people who feign enthusiasm, badly. Ugh.
I knew I needed something different. I tried to quit, I really did. And instead of letting me leave, they promoted me to a position in sales & marketing. Here, I wasn’t chained to the desk, I was salaried, and I had the opportunity to gather some new skills. I was also blessed with an incredibly forgiving boss. She knew I’d work hard, so she let me run to auditions as needed — even leave early to teach weekly acting classes or take an intensive Suzuki/Viewpoints workshop. This was an improvement, as much as I bitched about it over the three years I worked in that position. In hindsight, learning how sales & marketing works has also proven to be an invaluable tool for me both in my business as an actor and obviously with my current dayjob.
I eventually got burned out with the hotel. I loved many of the people I worked with, but I was tired of the company itself and some of its bureaucratic shortcomings. I also wanted an industry that I would find more creative and compelling for my own interests. The irony of having such an evolved boss was that her willingness to let me grow eventually led me right out the door. During my tenure, I took the initiative to improve our marketing materials, which were pretty terrible. We were a small operation with a limited budget and I offered to learn Illustrator and redesign our materials if they’d subsidize a software purchase. My boss was luckily enthusiastic and over the next two years, I got my hands on nearly every printed piece in the place. I taught myself, amassed a small (somewhat amateur) portfolio, and came to realize that I enjoyed the “design” aspect of the job more than the “hotel” aspect of the job.
When I left about a year ago, I began an MFA in graphic design, with the idea that I would enable myself to create more of a freelance existence. The goal was to continue working as an actor, and supplement my time and income with interesting design projects. So far, so good, right? Of course, I created this plan believing that I would remain in San Francisco for a few more years. So, when my partner was offered a great position with NBC last fall, I was faced with a huge question: do I leave the design degree behind and pursue those latent fantasies of a “go” at LA, or do I stay in San Francisco and stay committed to the design path?
As you may already know, I chose to buck my learned nerd behavior and become a drop out. How exhilarating! I’d barely earned a grade lower than a B in my life, let alone just leave school. But the decision ended up being not as hard as I would’ve thought. At 29, I have a much better idea of who I am and what my values are. And it was immediately clear how excited I was about this opportunity in LA. I was comfortable letting that plan go in the interest of my professional acting dreams. But I also told myself that I would find a way to work design into my life in LA.
My current dayjob in interactive marketing involves understanding design, business development, and client account management. My new boss knows about my goals as a performer and is supportive. I make my own schedule, so attending an audition or booking a gig is never really an issue. Having this kind of job is allowing me to learn the city pretty fast, meet all sorts of people, build my knowledge of web design, and keep my networking skills sharp. Heck, it inspired me to start this blog.
Was leaving San Francisco the right thing to do? Sometimes, I don’t know for sure. I miss friends, I could be in the middle of my thesis now, it seems like I became more important to local theaters once I left, and two television pilots were recently shot in the Bay Area for the first time in years. But I also knew I’d have hated myself for not taking this gamble. The last big risk I took was leaving Chicago for San Francisco — that was the best decision of my life.
I guess it boils down to the question: is your “other life” aiding your artistic goals or is it an obstacle? I once had an actor friend say, “If you spend your time working on a backup plan, you’ll simply end up with a backup plan.” Of course, she’s in school now. Building a career does not happen overnight, so you might as well enjoy the ride! For some, it’s working a relatively brainless job that preserves creative energy for focused artistic work; for others, having a parallel career creates synergy, perspective, and inspiration.
I like the idea of a side career. Of course, if a television show or touring production came into my life, I think we know my decision on that. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…
Today I attended the first of what will be I believe three or four peer group sessions with the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance (my alma mater). The sessions are being moderated by Dr. Mary Anne McGarry, a lovely actress/educator/director/producer/writer. This peer group is centered around navigating the differences between stage and film — based on what I read about her and the topic, I knew I wanted in. It was a good choice.
We talked about tactics and the business and such, but she also handed out some cold reads and put us to work. There were about five of us participating. She sized me up pretty accurately, assigning me a character named Adam: twenty-something, attractive, a bit quirky in an artist intellectual way. That seems to be a common character type for me here in LA. It was a driving scene, with some witty banter, a car crash in the middle of it, and then of course an immediate shift in tone. Not the simplest sides, but good material nonetheless. One of the technical hurdles in auditioning with material like that is in deciding just how much you’re going to create the environment. Some people use the sides as a mock steering wheel. You can also angle your chair in relationship to your reader so as to approximate the driver/passenger spatial relationship (keeping the camera position in mind, too). And then there’s the matter of “keeping your eyes on the road while driving.” I have been advised to treat this kind of scenario in different ways by different educators in the last five months since moving to LA.
I auditioned the sides the first time trying to accomplish all of the environmental bells and whistles I could. And it proved to be a distraction for me from connecting with the reader. We tried it again, this time with me letting the environment go and simply letting character and relationship take focus. It was a much better read. Now, had I been given more than 15 minutes to prepare, I might have been able to accomplish the best of both iterations. But it brings me to the point of this post: process.
Finding process. Not just any process, but you’re own. When we were reviewing the class and Dr. McGarry asked us what we had gleaned from the evening, I told her that it was an exercise in how “impressionable” I am. Growing up, if you were my teacher, then you loved me in class: I followed the rules, I took lessons seriously, I wanted to “get it right.” And that level of diligence allows for a commitment to preparation and willingness to be directed. Those are undoubtedly good things to get right, but what’s missing is trust and intuition. Tonight was one of those lovely conscious moments for me where I saw my lack of trust for my own process in action. Not that what I did was not competent. But in my approach to the sides, I was essentially following a technical formula that was handed to me with regard to setting up that auto environment. I have an innate sense for comedic writing, and in forcing myself to “follow the rules” I shortchanged my sense of play with the life of the characters’ interaction.
I know there’s a balance to be found here. I used to think to myself, “Be a perfectionist in your preparation, but a human in your performance.” And that idea can be carried to a point, so long as we can define what “perfect preparation” is. And what I have been learning experientially over the years is that it really varies from person to person. There is no right or wrong, just a bunch of tools in your toolbox — what’s going to work today? That’s where, after a certain level of mastery, one needs to let intuition take the reins entirely. Sometimes I really need to not worry about respecting a specific technique. It’s okay to splice and dice different approaches and glue them back together into an assemblage that is your process. It’s really no one’s business but your own (I mean, no one’s gonna do the work but you, so you might as well own it, right?)
And yeah, many actors believe this — I’ve known it intellectually for a long time, having never been a guru for any one school of acting. I’ve loved my intense encounters with Meisner, Suzuki/Viewpoints, Linklater, Stanislavsky, etc but I guess I consider myself interdenominational. And I’m a moody little bugger, so I need to remind myself to keep diversifying my knowledge base and to draw upon those pieces whenever and however I need.
If your general disposition is to respect and obey, then you’ll probably need a healthy dose of defiance in your process. And when you tap into it with enthusiasm, it is quite liberating. I’m probably wired to go for the A+ Gold Star without consciously trying, so I might as well bring some irreverence into the game. This reminds me of the motto I decided I’d adopt upon arriving in here in Hollywood: Are We Having Fun?
Here’s to the process. That’s part of what this blog is about: Finding Process. I’ll keep looking…