Monday, 29 November 2010

Tip #55: Prepare for the prima donna actor

By Dan Parkes (Director)

If you are a filmmaker chances are, at some point, you will come across a "prima donna" actor. Although a small minority of the acting community, due to their personality the probability of encountering them is in fact higher. For a low budget filmmaker it can be severely detrimental. All three of the Ambleton Delight production team shed literal tears during its production due to the behaviour of prima donnas in various forms (not any of the main cast I hasten to add!) and in the last three years I have personally had to handle three such actors.

Originally an operatic term, prima donna literally means "first lady" in Italian and designates the leading female singer. In modern times it has also become widely used to describe a vain or "temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience." (Random House Dictionary, 2010)

Several actors have openly said they perform because they 'crave attention' which in itself is not an issue (a camera shy camera actor is a different problem!), unless it leads to egotistical behaviour. In the case of the three prima donna actors I had to deal with they were, somewhat surprisingly, all male; two were in their seventies and the other middle-aged. The causes for their behaviour, although quite different, have one common thread: money and unjustified allegations of ill-treatment. Two were aging actors who to be honest had not "made it" but relied on unknown bit-parts in TV shows or films to boost their egos; the middle-aged actor on a similar path (an unknown actor yet complaining for receiving 'only' £250 an hour).
So how to handle such an actor? You might think the answer is not to cast them in the first place. However, while warnings and references may help, any actor has the potential for this behaviour (the two aging actors mentioned previously were incredibly 'nice' to us and then seemingly 'snapped' over perceived ill-treatment). And unlike the workplace environment where a prima donna can be reassigned, you will most likely not have that option, especially if footage has already been shot. This 'cannot be done without' factor can also be one of the principle causes for their behaviour; they think they can get away with it.

So here are 10 factors to think about:
  1. Treat all actors as special, have faith in them, make them feel wanted and secure, allow them creative space and value their hard work and input.
  2. Pay your cast as well as you possibly can.
  3. Make sure you are not the prima donna! If you are a dictatorial director who lacks respect for cast and crew then you will only make matters worse.
  4. Prepare for it. It does happen and it could potentially ruin your film. Have contingency plans. It is always dangerous to be relying on one actor alone.
  5. Make sure actor's contracts and agent negotiations are comprehensive and signed, so there is no potential for confusion that can lead to unnecessary issues.
  6. Have a balanced approach. Make sure you are not being walked over or conversely making unreasonably demands. If required, be assertive and stick up for yourself and the team.
  7. Try to understand their point-of-view or motives. They may well have a good reason for complaint that should be addressed.
  8. Make room for it -the moment may pass. It could be just a phase and everything may be fine the next day. The actor could possibly be suffering from mental health issues.
  9. Find compromises. If you can calm them down by finding some middle ground then do it rather than needlessly fanning the flames if you also feel wronged.
  10. If the behaviour has got to the point of being detrimental to the project, make a final decision that is best for the film. That could simply mean recasting.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Tip #54 Becoming a successful actor

(An interview with actor Jos Lawton)

In part two of an interview with Jos Lawton, who won a Best Actor award (International Filmmaker Festival, 2009) for his role as John Miller in Ambleton Delight, we explore reasons for becoming an actor and some general acting tips.

What advice would you offer those thinking about becoming an actor?
First of all, decide if you want to do it just as a hobby, or professionally. Think about why you want to be an actor. What motivates you and excites you about acting? If you want to do it professionally, you have to really, REALLY want it more than anything else. Consider how much of a priority it is in your life – if you think it might get in the way of your social life, other work commitments, drinking habits etc, then I advise you to pursue another career, and enjoy acting as a hobby.

What if you want it to be more than just a hobby?
If you think that acting could very possibly be the most exciting, challenging and rewarding job you could ever have, then throw yourself in with total conviction. Invest in yourself and get training at a drama school. Here in Brighton we are lucky to have an excellent school called the Academy of Creative Training where I trained for 2 years (as did several other Ambleton Delight cast members). In addition to drama school, immerse yourself in movies and theatre, plays and scripts, and books about actors and acting.

What about those interested in screen work?
It’s essential to familiarise yourself with film and screen techniques, as drama school training will usually only provide an introduction to this, rather than go into serious detail. After completing my training, I was aware that I needed more experience in this area, and there were several resources that I found particularly helpful: First was Patrick Tucker’s book ‘The Secrets of Screen Acting’ which is a veritable goldmine of practical advice and techniques, as is Michael Caine’s book ‘Acting in Film’. Also, the workshop run by the director Andrew Higgs, called ‘The Alchemy of Screen Acting’ – again, this comprises really useful and practical advice, and you will get great quality showreel footage from it too. I landed the role in Ambleton Delight just over a year after finishing drama school, and I feel strongly that I would have been much less prepared for the demands of a lead role in a feature film without those resources.

Any general acting tips?
  • Be spontaneous, open and flexible.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Be fearless.
  • React truthfully.
What should actors not do?
  • Waste time or drop your concentration on set or in rehearsals.
  • Dwell on negativity, whether due to lack of work, or dissatisfaction with the acting work you are doing.
  • Be late for work. Ever!
  • And don't forget to remember why you love being an actor and above all ENJOY IT!

Monday, 15 November 2010

Tip #53 Creating a character -an actor's perspective

An interview with Jos Lawton (actor)

In a two part special we interview lead actor Jos Lawton, who won a Best Actor award (International Filmmaker Festival, 2009) for his role as John Miller in Ambleton Delight. In part one we focus on creating characters and using production difficulties to your advantage.

As an actor, how do you go about creating a particular character?
I read the script again and again - the text can give you so much information about your character. Also, I like to create a back story and some history for the character, thinking about the life they have experienced before we see them in the film.

How did you go about creating the character of John Miller in the film?
With Ambleton Delight, I was already provided with some back story for John Miller and I just expanded on that. I also listened carefully to Dan’s direction regarding John in order to make him outwardly calmer and less demonstrative than I had originally done so in the first audition, and to focus more on his internal state.

Did Ambleton Delight present any particular challenges as an actor?
One personal challenge I faced was injuring my leg a week before the start of the shoot. It was very painful and I found it difficult to walk or even stand without the use of a crutch. The team was very understanding, and luckily, the first scenes I shot involved being seated (the council scenes), but there was a shot of me walking outside the council building. Obviously I couldn’t use the walking stick I had been using and tried to walk as normally as possible. If you look carefully, you can see I’ve got a slight limp in that scene...

And how about the weekend night shoots? Those must have been difficult....
Using the ‘down-time’ in the restaurant and kitchen meant we would work from approx 10pm-6am at the weekends. I’d often find it hard to get much sleep after the first night’s filming, so by the second night it could be quite gruelling! In fact, this was in some ways a blessing for me as my character John Miller becomes more unravelled as the story develops. Michael Caine is fond of advocating the idea ‘always use the difficulty’, meaning any situation in life that's negative, there is something positive you can do with it. So having no sleep for a couple of days and being frazzled when trying to deliver my lines for take after take at 4am was actually really useful in portraying an edgy and paranoid John Miller!

Look out for part two with some general acting tips coming soon...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Tip #52 Directing basics - Blocking, eye-lines and takes

By Dan Parkes (Director)

We have previously mentioned the importance of the director having a vision and being able to communicate this effectively (depending on his style of directing). But we must also not overlook some basic tools that all directors should use:

1. Blocking and shot selection
While 'blocking' is originally a theatre term this is equally important for film, as it involves not only the positioning of the actors within the frame but also the movement of the camera. This often first occurs during rehearsals when the director works with the actors to establish how they might stand or interact with each other. However this becomes far more critical on set, as the contraints of the location and props etc may dramatically affect the feasible logistics of the blocking. Not only that, but it will also be necessary for camera positions, lighting and focusing to know where each actor will stand, and in some cases these positions may be marked on the floor (hence the need for actors to 'hit their marks').

Along with blocking is shot selection using different lenses (wide, medium and close up). A 'master shot' will often include all of the blocking as decided from one camera position, then allowing for filming of medium and close-ups later. Once the master has been shot the blocking cannot substantially change -otherwise it will affect the conintuity.

2. Eye-lines /180 degree rule.
Once the blocking has been decided and a master shot is about to filmed it is important to consider the actor's eyelines and future camera positions so as to not "cross the line". This is also known as the 180 degree rule. It can sound more complex than it really is, but is all about spacial relationships and continuity, so as not to confuse the viewer. Ulimately it means that the camera positions consistantly remain on one-side of the action (similar to a theatre audience). It is as if the scene has an imaginery axis, and if the camera was to suddenly pass over that axis it would disorientate the viewer. The end result should be that the actors have the same left/right relationship to each other.

Take a look at this practical example from a scene in the 'Ambleton Delight' and notice how the camera stays on only one side of the invisible line between the two characters:

A master shot of both John and Chris (28mm wide lens)

A medium shot of John (50mm lens)

A reverse medium shot of Chris (50mm lens)

Of course these above 'rules' are made to be broken if a conscious decision to do so, but if done accidentally will cause confusion and look amatuerish. In the case of crossing the line there are ways and means of getting the camera over the line if required, such as cutting to an image that is not spacially related to the action.

3. Takes
Stanley Kubrick apparantly holds the record for the most takes of a scene with 125 for the scene were Shelley Duvall climbs the stairs in The Shining.

But while it can the mark of a perfectionist, a common trap any director can fall into is filming several takes out of 'habit'. In reality it is important to reflect on the purpose of another take, which should ultimately be due to improve on the previous one (or filming one for 'safety' if there was a possible issue). Before filming another a take a director can ask himself: What can I do to improve? What isn't working? Should we change the dialogue, the blocking? How about trying it faster or slower to provide pacing options in the edit? How about changing camera positions or framing?

Note: It is also good for the director to reassure the actors the reason for another take -especially if it not due to an issue with their performance which they may assume if no reason is given and thus be waiting for direction. Too many takes without clear differences will only exasperate the cast and crew and waste valuable production time.