Greg Pak: FilmHelp: Actors

FilmHelp interview: Betty Gilpin talks “Mister Green”

Betty Gilpin as Dr. Gloria Holtzer in “Mister Green”
A FilmHelp interview by Greg Pak
As we draw nearer to the premiere of my latest short film “Mister Green” at South By Southwest and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I’ll be interviewing a few of the key players for First on the spot is the brilliant Betty Gilpin, who plays Dr. Gloria Holtzer, a scientist with special plans for a jaded government undersecretary for global warming (Tim Kang). Betty was born and raised in New York City and graduated with a theatre degree from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2008.
Greg Pak: You came into the audition and just nailed every little nuance in the script. Tell us a bit about the audition process. How did you prepare? And what makes for a good audition process from your point of view?
Betty Gilpin:
I had never auditioned for a short before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I guess something as simple as just knowing the lines really well helps me. An acting teacher of mine taught me a trick — when you’re memorizing lines to be careful to recite them monotonously, so you’re not married to a specific way to play the line. Then you won’t feel thrown if the director wants to change it up, and the lines will feel more natural. A bad habit of mine is to over-plan what I’m going to do in a scene, so that trick helps me. Is that what you mean by good audition process? Or do you mean the actual audition? A good audition to me is when everyone in the room — actor, director, casting director, etc. — are all in a good mood and an open, creative place. That’s when everyone does their best work.

Continue reading FilmHelp interview: Betty Gilpin talks “Mister Green”

Marlon Brando, In Memoriam

By Greg Pak
Marlon Brando died yesterday at the age of eighty.
There’s a scene in “Streetcar Named Desire” in which a feather from Vivian Leigh’s boa floats past Brando’s line of vision in the middle of one of his lines. He keeps talking, but he bats at the feather it as it passes. It’s a beautiful little moment. Incredibly simple. But I can’t forget it. In that instant, Brando incorporates the world into his character. Nothing could happen — no, anything could happen, and it would fit, because Brando is letting everything in the world be part of his character’s world.
A similar moment comes in “The Godfather,” when Brando’s holding that now legendary little gray kitten. There’s one instant in particular which stands out for me, when the kitten bats at Brando’s hand. And again, he acknowledges it, accepts it, incorporates it seamlessly.
It occurs to me that both of these moments are somehow connected with play. Brando plays with the feather; the kitten plays with Brando. Even more specifically, the moments are about the instinct behind play — the primal impulse we all have to follow moving objects. That’s significant. Because while the profession of acting requires us to suppress a subset of our instincts as we hit our marks and remember our lines and screen out distractions, the scene only comes to life if we follow our instincts within the reality of the scene. So Brando, and all good actors, regularly performs tiny miracles. They screen out the boom overhead, the light in their eyes, the huddled crew, the weird fakeness of the set, the strangeness of their makeup — and they allow in the feather and the kitten.
For anyone interested in learning more about Marlon Brando, I recommend first, seeing his movies, and second, reading Patricia Bosworth’s excellent little biography entitled, shockingly enough, Marlon Brando.

Working with Actors: Action Verbs

By Greg Pak

The most important job of a director is to get good performances. To put it another way:

Nothing matters but your actors.

Audiences will forgive almost any technical inadequacies as long as the performances are strong and true (just one example: “The Celebration”). Yes, great directors have a total command over the language of film and labor long and hard to nail the perfect camera angles, camera movement, mise en scene, and lighting. But great directors also understand that the most glorious beauty shots mean nothing if the performances suck.

My methods of working with actors come from years of doing improv comedy, from hands on experience working with actors for film projects, and from excellent Directing Actors classes I took at NYU from people like Sam Schacht and Ted Hannen.

Here’s the chief principle I’ve learned:

Direct with action verbs rather than adjectives.

The same broad concept drives dramatic writing — the goal is to tell a story dramatically rather than didactically, which means characters do things rather than explain things.

Bad directors tell actors: “Be more happy” or “Be more sad.” This kind of direction encourages actors to make faces, demonstrating rather than experiencing the emotions at hand. It looks false because it is false, and audiences sneer when they see it.

The challenge for directors is to stop talking about results and start talking about process.

Directors who talk about results speak in adjectives — “Now be real angry at Bob.” When you direct like this, you make your actors think about trying to achieve these results, which means that instead of inhabiting their characters, they’re forced to remain in their own heads, fretting about whether they’re achieving the results you’re expecting.

In contrast, directors who talk about process use action verbs and direct objects — “Make Bob stop laughing at you.” With direction like this, the actor no longer has to think, “Now I’m supposed to be getting mad.” Instead, she can concentrate completely on her life as her character, pursue her objective, and actually get mad.
Adjectives lead to general, false behavior — making faces.
Action verbs lead to specific action through which actors discover and experience emotions — resulting in dramatically compelling performances.

People like to make fun of actors for asking “What’s my motivation?” But that’s the essential question and directors must help actors find answers or risk having lame, one-dimensional performances sink the project.

A Director Prepares

As should become apparent, directing with action verbs requires much more thought and preparation from the director, which is perfectly appropriate.

The simple truth is that most problems between actors and directors are caused by directors who simply don’t know what they want.

As the director, you must know what the point of the scene is. You must know the essential moment this scene describes in the emotional lives of your characters; you must know what your characters want, what they get, and how these experiences set them up for the next scene.

I’ve seen directors who have no idea of the point of the scene working with excellent actors who grew more and more agitated as the rehearsals wore on. Good actors are hungry to be directed; they long for action verbs and direct objects they can sink their teeth into — and nothing is more frustrating to them than treading water doing meandering, pointless improvisations and exercises for directors who simply haven’t figured out the point of the scene.

In short, in order to direct your actors, you must be clear in your own head about what your story is and what this scene is doing in the telling of your story.

Uta Hagen has a list of questions actors must ask in order to prepare for a scene. Here’s my spin:

Six questions a director must be able to answer for each actor in a scene:

Who am I?
Where am I coming from?
Where am I?
Whom am I with and how do I feel about him/her?
What do I want from this person?
What am I doing to get what I want?

If you can give your actor answers to the first four questions, you’ve provided her with the necessary background to the scene. If you can answer the last two questions, you’ve found the point of the scene and the key action verb and direct object.

A little advice on dealing with character background (the first four questions): You can go into as much detail as you want with these questions — some actors will want a great deal of information about their characters’ histories. And some directors love to talk for hours about characters’ pasts.

But remember that everything you discuss should be geared toward giving the actor the necessary information to tackle the scenes at hand. Choose the material you discuss accordingly — you usually have a limited amout of time and thus should concentrate on what information is essential for the actor to experience the emotional moment of the scene you’re rehearsing.

The above just scratches the surface of working with actors.

Casting Techniques

By Greg Pak
When casting my short films, I usually bring in actors two at a time and have them read opposite each other. I try to match people up in ways I think might work — an admittedly hit-or-miss process when you’re just looking at the headshots and resumes. When the actors actually show up, sometimes they seem mismatched, but I can still get a good impression of each individual actor, even if I know I’d never cast them together.
By the time callbacks come around, I usually have definite couples I want to see together. Sometimes I’ll be pretty sure that I want to cast, say, a woman in a given role. Then I might have her come in for an hour and have three different guys work opposite her, one after the other. Or I might have a group of actors come at the same time but see them only two at time, in different groupings. These are just different strategies to be able to see people I like working with as many other people I like as possible.
In the end, I need to have seen the people I want to cast work together — I don’t cast actors separately — I need to see how they work together, act around and react to each other. Chemistry, ya know?
A few general casting tips:
I usually do a brief warm up with the actors — a stretch, a voice thing, something silly and relaxing to loosen them up. Most directors don’t do this, but I want the actors to be relaxed; I want to get their best work.
I actually try to direct a little during the audition. When I give the actors their sides, I’ll tell them a little about the characters and what they’re trying to achieve during the scene. Then, after they do the scene once, I’ll usually give them a few notes and have them do it again. Actors love this — they want to do better. And it’s good for me to see how well they react to direction.
I usually never stick solely to the screenplay. I’ll have the actors read a scene or two, but I’ll also give them an improvised scene to work. Why? Because I might want to see the actors deal with certain emotions or situations, and the actual scene from the screenplay may not be written in a way that makes it useful in an audition.
����Also, some actors show things in improvisation they don’t show in cold readings — and I want to see what they’re capable of. The setups for these improvisations have to be thought through, though. You have to know what you want to see and set up the improvisation accordingly.
����For example, for “Mouse” I needed to see if the actors had the capacity to relate to each other well as lovers. The screenplay deals with their characters’ failure as a couple — there’s not much in there that shows them working together. But in order for that failure to have any importance, I knew that the audience had to feel the intimacy that’s being lost. Now there was no scene in the screenplay that would let this intimacy come out very well… So I had the actors improvise their characters’ first date. It helped me see what kind of depth the actors had, to see how they were conceiving and breathing life into the characters.
I try to have the auditions taped — by someone competent with a video camera who’s able to follow the action and zoom in for closeups from time to time. A static wide shot of the whole room won’t tell me what I need to know — I need to see the actors’ faces — their eyes, really — to know if they’ll work on screen.