Friday, October 25, 2013

The Student Filmies

If you've been paying any attention to the breakdowns lately, you will have noticed that we are getting slammed with a bunch of student films. Makes sense, after all it is that time of year. It's deep enough into the fall semester that the classes have finished covering the basics: pick/write a script, scout a location, learn to draft a production schedule. Now that mid-October has arrived, it's on to step four... casting... and those eager-beaver undergrad USC students are out in full force. 

These student films are the perfect place to start practicing all that stuff you've been learning in class. You'll start finding your way around a film set and begin to get an understanding for what it means to work with a director, with other actors, with a crew. You'll learn the process, the lingo, how to deal with the pressure, and the waiting game. If you're lucky, you might even end up with that holy grail... decent footage for your reel. (Extra emphasis on lucky.) Be forewarned... 99.99999999% of the student shorts you'll work on will turn out to be absolute shit at 24 frames per second. The scripts are weird, the lighting will suck, your acting will probably stink. There's more fumbling on a student film set than in the back seat of a teenager's car on prom night. 

But we all go through it. If you're just starting out, get out there and do as many as you can.  I moved to LA with basically no credits, so I did my fair share of SAG student film contracts. (Let me warn you, lest your heart break like my clueless one did a couple weeks after moving to LA... unfortunately booking a role on SAG student film project does not get you eligibility to join the union. If you're hearing it here first, sorry to be the one to break the news to you.) Still, get in front of that camera and play.  Figure out exactly what makes you tick as an artist.

I don't do student films any more. Well, I should say I rarely do them. A certain set of perfect circumstances have to align for me to be interested in helping out on a student short.  First of all and the most important initial criteria: it has to be a graduate level project.  Though it's never a guarantee, it means the people working on it -- namely the director -- have at least filmed something before.  It's also a good indication that whomever is making the film is serious enough that he/she has decided to spend the extra precious time and money to attend graduate school.  I visit websites, watch director/cinematagrapher reels, read the full scripts. Before I will even submit to an audition, I have to be sure the team behind the film can produce a high-quality final product.

Once I feel the crew ability is there, my acceptance of any project (student or otherwise), is contingent upon the fulfillment of at least one of what I refer to as my big three:  

1) Creative Incentive
2) Career Incentive
3) Financial Incentive

Student films will obviously not provide financial incentive, so in order for me to be interested it must strongly fulfill either category 1 or 2.  It either must be one helluva story that I find incredibly interesting from a creative standpoint, or it must provide the potential to add value to my career.  Because no short film will really boost a career in credit alone, it has to contribute to the hustle in other ways.  Either it is a great script that is destined to compete at big-time festivals, or the footage it will provide is exactly something I could use to beef up my reel.  This potential has to be so strong that I'm willing to risk the (very likely) reality that the footage will be unusable.  So... to say the least, it is very rare that I will work on a student film.  (All this applies to new media contracts as well, which are essentially the same thing but without any affiliation to acadamia.)

Or sometimes I'm just HUNGRY for time in front of a camera.  I can always tell when I haven't shot in a while because I start glancing over student film breakdowns.  It's kind of like the acting equivalent to reminiscing about the good times you had with an ex... you start thinking, sure it wasn't perfect, but it was kinda nice to have someone to cuddle and it just seems like it's taking forever for the next one to come along. 

At some point though, they're just not worth it anymore.  I'm at that point.  I've probably done near 20 of them; I don't even put them on my resume anymore.   It's far more effective use of my time to write and create my own projects than to hope for a good student project to come along.  But I've been doing this for a while, so if you're still there, go get 'em.  It's almost a rite of passage in this town.  Who knows, maybe you'll end up in the first film of the next Spielberg-to-be. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Refuse to Fade Into the Background

Ignore. It's a pretty common word for the average American.  I think it would be fair to assume that most of us have used the word at least once this week.  Perhaps already today even.  We use it casually and apply it to a wide variety of subjects.  We might use it in reference to the car alarm on the street, perhaps a mildly aching knee, or even an email from an obscure acquaintance.  It's a benign word.  It doesn't inherently carry any particularly malicious emotions along with it's use like some words can.  And yet, it is one of the biggest demons an actor must battle.

In a conversation with a non-actor friend recently, I mentioned that this hustle is so agonizing sometimes because despite all your effort, your belief in your talent, and your passion, most of the time you're just... ignored.  I didn't make the statement in an effort to gain pity, it was more just a matter-of-fact commentary on the challenges that arise in pursuit of this dream.  This career is tough because, for the greater portion of your career (particularly early on), you and you're fabulous self are just straight-up ignored.  Not hated or despised or ridiculed.  Just ignored.  As if you were irrelevent.  

That concept stayed with me long after the conversation had moved on to the next topic.  I often become fascinated with words that we so often take for granted and end up launching full-on investigations into their meaning. According to Le Google, ignore is the verb -- the action -- of refusing to take notice or acknowledge; to intentionally disregard.  Actively choosing to not pay attention.

That is why the hustle is so emotionally draining.  You come to this city with more dreams in your pockets than cash, and with little more to sustain you than the gut feeling that you truly have something special to share with the world.  You descend up the City of Angels absolutely certain that you will stand out.  That you are unique, hugely talented and destined for greatness.  

...and then no one notices...

The city and the industry continue to bustle around you as if you weren't even there.  While you've certainly had some success, you've been passed over for more roles than you can count.  You try to increase your odds by postcarding/workshopping/interning/self-producing and yet, in the face of all your determination, you're barely even a blip on anyone's radar.  It's as if you were singing an aria in the middle of Grand Central Station during rush hour but no one is making eye contact.  Perhaps one or two people smile and throw a dollar in your ragged cap and say, "You're great.  Be sure to call me when you pick up a few more credits,"  as if that were some sort of encouragement.

As you watch the years click by, you start to do let that dark shadow called doubt through your door.  Perhaps it's you?  Perhaps you're not as unique and wonderful and earth-shattering as you had originally thought.  Perhaps chasing this dream was a mistake... 

Stop.  It's not.  You've got it.  Don't let them beat you.  You just have to demand to be seen.  Do what you have to do... stand on a box in that station, get a microphone, shoot fireworks... whatever you gotta do to grab some attention. (Short of violence, of course.)  Most importantly... Work your knuckles to the bone so that you can hit every note of that aria in perfect key. Work so hard that you stand out. Believe in yourself and don't let them ignore you.

Trust me.  Eventually they will stop and listen... if you make them.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Love And Marriage

Well, I'm back in town.  Yahoo!!

After I lost out on the last film I was hustling last month, I impulsively jumped on an early flight back home to spend much needed extra face-time with the family I rarely get to see because I spend my life in toiling away at this Hollywood grind.  I went back this time for the longest stretch ever since moving to the City of Angels: nearly three weeks.  The sometimes-aggravating-but-ultimately-wonderful thing about going back to my old stomping grounds is that it's a bit off the grid... cell and wifi service can be quite spotty, especially up at "the cabin", my parents' second home in the sticks.  It can be a bit frightening being out of touch for days at a time, but in the end it is so refreshing to disconnect and just be.  No phone calls. No emails.  No texts. No breakdowns.  No auditions.  No Facebook. No blogging. (Sorry about that last one.) After the first few days, it is so incredibly freeing.

I spent a glorious amount of time off the grid this trip.  Not only were we at the family cabin for a long weekend, but my big sister married the love of her life at a mountain lodge in an equally disconnected locale.  The ceremony was beautiful, despite a little rain and a few hiccups, and I couldn't be happier to welcome my new brother-in-law to the family.  I stood next to my sister as her Maid of Honor and have to say, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.  I love her more than words, though at times it can seem like we are polar opposites. (Example? If given the choice I'm pretty sure she would choose to lose a finger over public speaking... and yet, like the actor-nerd that I am, I was looking forward to getting up in front of all the guests to give my speech.  Guess I got that gene.)

As only true opposites do, while my sister was joining together with her man, I and mine parted.  Great mutual respect and deep affection for each other unfortunately could not overcome what we both knew would be fundamental differences in how we each defined our priorities in our foreseeable futures.  We are both sad to let go of the romance between us, but take comfort in the wonderful new friendship that will remain in it's place.

Above all, I am back in town again and you know what that means...  It is time to shake off the dust and oil the creaky wheels because this Hollywood train has got to keep moving.  Let's get after it. 

Giddy up.