It Hasn’t Happened Yet: On Directing Amateur Actors
MUBI Garage (the online filmmaking and production school) asked me to write an article about my experiences on filmmaking in their Production Notes. It’s called IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET: Directing Amateur Actors. It’s also reposted here after the jump.
HOW IT HAPPENED
IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET was born out of a desire to make something again, after having made plans for films for a very long time. I had graduated in 2003 from the Arts Academy St. Joost in Breda, The Netherlands and had worked for nearly a year to produce a s16mm short. It was funded out of my own pocket and it left me broke and tired.
I had been writing and planning new films but kept pushing realizing it off because I was looking for that perfect film. Then, two years passed and I was at a party and someone I never met asked me, “what do you do?” and I said “I’m a filmmaker”. So when that person asked me, what films I made I realized, wait a second, I hadn’t done anything new in a long while. Now this was in my period when I was mainly focussing on short films. At the moment I am trying to get a feature film off the ground and I realize of course, those can take quite some time. But I was kind of ashamed at myself for having let so much time pass before making something again. Always giving myself excuses as to why it was not ‘ready’ yet. You know the ones: the script is not ready, I don’t have enough money, I want that specific camera (every year there is a new digital camera coming out that has to be the one you are gonna use on your film), I can’t find the proper means or budget to realize my vision.
Until finally I said to myself, fuck it, I’m gonna make something next week. Whatever it is and if it amounts to nothing, it’s nothing but at least I’d have made something and again, learned something. So, I wrote a short screenplay that could be realized very quickly and with hardly any money. Then, the night before shooting, one of the leads cancelled on me and I thought to myself, well, now we definitely can’t shoot. Then I got so pissed off at myself for again falling into the same trap and what about that promise I made myself?
I came to a conclusion then. I said to myself, you are given a chance here. The director who was gonna shoot this film, he got fired and you just got a camera, two friends who are helping you out and a lead actor who is still available. What can you do with those elements? I remembered that my sister was joining us on the shooting day to take pictures on the set and I thought: wait, what if, she and the lead actor were in a film together. But where would I shoot it? At the time I was working as a volunteer at a cult/arthouse videostore and I thought, that’s it, she works there and he visits and they spend an afternoon there. At the time I was listening a lot to William Shatner’s spoken word album HAS BEEN and it featured a track called “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” and I just loved that title and the mood it evoked. I even love the song. For all it’s “tongue in cheek”-ness, it’s still pretty damned honest.
So, that night, I wrote a screenplay and when I finished it, it was time to head out to the location. With no sleep we shot the film over a period of a few hours, I rushed back and started the edit. We had a deal with a local tv channel where we would give them broadcasting rights to our shorts, in return for use of their video camera. Which in this case we hadn’t even used, why that was, I can’t remember actually. Around midnight of the same day I finished my edit, slept for a few hours and did the final touches in the early morning and that cut is the one that’s been shown all around.
It has since then won a Jury Prize award on a national Dutch short film competition (which was a very nice way of saying it was a fourth place, but we were up against film fund financed shorts with professional actors and budgets, so I am still majorly honoured) and picked up for national broadcast on Dutch television for a period of two years. When it was aired on television, there was an introduction by Dutch director Nicole van Kilsdonk (who was one of the jury members), where she talked about how the acting was so natural, almost too natural. That there could even be something said for the thought of; what if this is real? Is it a documentary or fiction? She’s wondered if the dialogue was all written out or if I had winged it on the set and if it was written out, how did these amateurs give such good performances? The quality of the acting is still one of the main questions I get asked about when I talk to people who have seen the film and when I teach classes to young filmmakers.
We caught lightning in a bottle that day and I’ll hopefully try to explain a little bit how we managed that. Most of my contemporaries will know these things, but there’s still a lot of short films out there where the overall acting is… not that good. A lot of times, the look of the film will be good (so much emphasis on pristine visuals), but the acting is still a part that is painfully obvious when it fails.
Since Mubi Garage is for all of us to gain experience and knowledge from each other, I’ll give out some of my experiences concerning how the acting come to be in IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET. (I’m very aware that concerning lighting and sound, there’s a lot of things wrong in the film, but we can’t win ‘em all every time.)
DIRECTING AMATEUR ACTORS
Now when I say amateur actors, I mean that in the most positive way. Not in a degrading sense, but simply people acting in your films, who are not professionals. Most of us starting filmmakers don’t have that much access or experience with professional actors. I have only directed or had experience with professional actors a handful of times and I realize they are a whole different ballgame concerning the things I will discuss about amateurs. I believe I heard Gene Hackman once say that the only direction he needs from a director is “faster or slower”. You don’t need to tell a good actor specifically everything that is happening with his character. He or she gets that from the script or if needed, there are talks before shooting or if desired, there are rehearsals.
To most of what I say here, there will of course always be exceptions, there are no hard rules ever, but now that that I got my apologies out of the way, here’s how I approached directing the actors in IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET.
A RELAXED SET
One, get people who are comfortable in front of a camera. This is painfully obvious when you have friends, family members or acquaintances who want to act in one of your films and express a desire to help you, but as soon as the camera is on, they kind of shut down. All the naturalism they evoke in normal life is gone out of the window. I myself have acted in several short films of friends and for me, I am always so aware of the whole filmmaking process, that I become extremely self aware of every move I make that it kills my performance. Züleyha and Michiel, the two leads in IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET are people that are close to me in real life. One is my sister, the other one of my best friends. They’ve known me pretty much their whole lives and they’ve been around my filmmaking experiences. Be it on the set or in front of the camera. So they’re aware of the façade nature of filmmaking. Amateur actors have to realize that you’re cutting a performance sometimes, that they have to trust you to make their performance good.
I also told them, you know, were shooting this film, but forget about the pressure. This is not a graduation film, this is not meant to showcase us to the whole world. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, no harm done. This takes the pressure off and lets amateurs relax. They’re allowed to make mistakes and it’s in those mistakes that wonderful bits and pieces, or whole performances happen. I took a chance on my sister, because I had never seen her act, but I could make her comfortable enough to let go of her fears. I kept reminding her, it’s okay if it sucks, we’re here to have fun. Of course, I was worried that if it did suck, we’d have nothing, but that, is my problem… not hers! I can’t allow my stress to trickle down to her and make her stressed out while she’s trying to give a relaxed performance. (You can always try and shoot a rehearsal beforehand when you’re casting and see if the persons’ performance changes from a wide shot to a close up. Most people tend to get real nervous when there’s a camera that close to their face. Bad sign.) Michiel on the other hand, I had shot my first short ever with and he’s just a terrific natural, he just doesn’t care if there’s a camera on, he’s just always himself.
LET PEOPLE PLAY THEMSELVES
That brings me to the second point. The thing that bothers me a lot when I see films by young filmmakers is, that there are young kids or adults playing something they are clearly not. I did this myself when I was just starting out, I guess a lot of us did. But having your friend play a world weary hitman who’s seen it all and is doing ‘one last job’ is a terrible idea. I am not saying those films shouldn’t be made by young filmmakers. I am not an advocate of ‘write or film’ what you know. I am of the opinion that you should be able to make a film about whatever you want, not just the life you live on your street (this falls into another category of course: screenwriting, which maybe I will write about more on another occasion, so let’s get back to the acting/casting part.) But… it is painfully fake when you have an eighteen year old who’s playing a world weary hitman. It just doesn’t feel right. At least cast someone that has that world weariness in his face, movements. Now if the eighteen year old is a genius professional actor, that’s something else. But we’re not talking about that now, we’re talking about amateur actors.
What I propose is, if you’re casting friends and family in your film, let them play an extension of themselves! Züleyha and Michiel are basically playing themselves. This is a situation that they have both probably been in, or can very easily relate to. This extension of themselves relates to the next part.
LET THEM SAY IT IN THEIR OWN WORDS
I had written the screenplay for the film in a normal fashion. See below.
But I knew that most of the dialogue in the film, I simply could not ask of my actors to recite my dialogue in the most natural way possible. The problem with most acting in young filmmaker’s films, is, that the amateurs in them are thinking of the lines they should say, instead of living in the moment. They are saying a line and trying to keep the rest of the dialogue in their head at the same time. This gives it that wooden performance. There were certain moments of course where the dialogue was short and succint enough for them to say “you want me to put on some coffee” in a natural way. But the banter quality of the dialogue, that’s something else. Every little “uh..” or sentences that are cut off, or changing a thought midway through. I can write them out and a professional actor can make those lines look natural, but amateurs have trouble with them.
So, what I did, in the example above (the red text part), I told them, okay last scene Michiel was browsing around for a film and we cut to the next scene and he’s behind the counter with you. You guys already kind of know each other. I told Züleyha: much like Michiel is a friend of your brother and I told Michiel: much like Züleyha is your friends’ sister. Then I told them, okay, Züleyha, you’re gonna ask Michiel “what’s the last film you saw” and Michiel, I want you to answer honestly.. don’t say it now though! When we’re rolling. Tell honestly, I don’t care how lame the title is or whatever, the last film you saw and you two, just talk about that film. And once again, if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. Also, if Züleyha asks more about it, answer all those things truthfully. We’ll see where it takes us. If you have to think about an answer… think about it. We don’t have to rush anything. Those little moments in between answering, that’s where the good stuff is. And for the love of God, don’t stare at each other while you’re talking.
By giving them the subject to talk about and having a road map, we built a convincing scene. I personally like longer takes, where we can just see what is happening in a moment, or at least, it was fitting for this film, it gave their performances room to breathe. Instead of cutting their performance up into pieces and have them re-say a naturalistic line in close-up, which would prove difficult (you can always opt to shoot with two or three cameras of course, the main thing is to let the amateur actor not work for you – but you for them. That is not their problem, it’s your problem, so you find a way to fix it. Or else the performance will suffer).
When I finally had enough of a certain discussion (if it didn’t peter out on it’s own – creating comfortable silences, for me to be able to cut in), I told them, I’d let my friend playing a customer returning a film, interrupt the moment and when he leaves, that’ll be the cue for Michiel to ask “you mind me putting on some coffee”and that’ll be the last part of the scene.
The part where the coffee is brewing I just reminded Michiel of an anecdote he once told me and said, just recount that anecdote to Züleyha, while the camera is running. Her reaction there is genuine because she is hearing it for the first time. Much like the scene later on when Michiel is browsing around for a film to maybe rent. Both of them got their own directions. I told Züleyha, whatever he picks and asks you if it’s good, always tell him ‘no’. Also, here’s a book, actually read it so he has to pull you away from your reading. I told Michiel to browse around and actually pick films that he was interested in maybe renting. The point I’m trying to make here is, that the amateur actor is actually experiencing moments while we’re rolling camera. So it’s not all laid out and that they can be surprised at what’s going to happen. Their reactions will be genuine.
Digital video is cheap, you can try different things for every shot and see what works. On a side note, it is helpful to discern a certain style for your film of course. I chose an objective point of view and mostly single shots and stick with it. Don’t overshoot so much just because you can. It’s about making choices beforehand, so you don’t have a million options in the editing room. So many times I see young filmmakers just shooting tons of footage and capturing every angle of a given moment, when in the editing you still have to choose which angle and take you’re gonna use. Decide a large portion of that while you’re writing or planning your film. Don’t push the decision back until the very last part of the process. ( Of course it’s okay to shoot an extra angle every once in a while, or, at least, decide which angles you want. But be wary that you don’t overlap every moment in the film with tons of angles. I’m getting sidetracked into the directing process here, so let me get back to the acting.)
Another thing I told them from the start (and reminded them during the shoot), is that you never, never stop a scene, unless I yell ‘cut’. I made them aware, that sometimes, when a scene or shot is done, I’ll just keep shooting and we’ll see what happens. Even if it takes an insane amount of time, you stay in character. A lot of good moments came from those delayed endings of a shot. And never ever look into the camera. But.. if you do.. don’t worry about it.
I purposely took a crazy amount of time to yell cut at the final scene of the film (don’t actually yell, there’s no reason for it), almost silently begging or daring Michiel to look into the camera, because I wanted a look on his face that, in the context of the film, almost asks the audience “what should I do?”. When in reality he’s going to look at me and think “what do you want me to do now?” When he did, I almost lost it. Perfect.
To be totally honest, I only had half a screenplay when we started shooting. I simply could not guess how it would all turn out, if the performances would be good enough, if it would go anywhere, or even if it would amount to anything. Halfway through our, I think three or four hour shoot, we took a lunch break for about an hour or so and the cast and crew (Züleyha, Michiel, my two friends who did camera and sound) mostly talked with each other while I thought about what we had so far and what I could do to end the film. I figured out the ending of the film on our lunch break. It was only in the editing process that I came up with the final title sequence. I had shot close-ups of Züleyha and Michiel looking around, watching the computer screen, thinking I would insert them throughout the scenes, as sort of a subjective counterpart to the objective overall style of the film. But they simply didn’t work in the wide shots of them just sitting and talking. It broke the mood. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, so I kept pushing those shots to the end of the timeline in the edit window. Until I had accumulated so many (I knew I needed close-ups of random stuff in the videostore to button the scenes) and they all together almost amounted to a new mood piece. I also kept listening to William Shatner’s song during the edit and then it hit me. I could end the film with how they perceived the afternoon and I had a way to use the song that inspired the overall mood and storyline of the film!
I try to plan and think out all the things beforehand when making a film. Being prepared is half the battle, but I realized that sometimes, just going out and making something, even if you don’t have all the perfect tools at hand, is simply put, the best learning school ever. That’s one of the main things I always tell when young filmmakers ask for advice. Pick a date in the near future and shoot a short film with whatever you have available to you. Just make something. You will learn a lot more than reading about how to do it. Of course, reading about how to do it is also good. But then, go out and make something. Even if it’s not so good, you’d have at least learned a few skills about what not to do the next time. Or maybe it’ll be pretty okay or even good. But you won’t know until you actually do it.
I hope what I wrote here will help you in directing amateur actors. I don’t mean to say that this is how it’s done, but this is what worked for me.
If you liked IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET, check out Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 IL POSTO. My sister Züleyha saw it years after we made the film and told me how much she was reminded of IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET. When I saw it I fell in love with that film. Our film is a perfect companion piece to that film, which features a touching story about a young adult having a crush on a girl, with all the akwardness and sweetness that sometimes comes along with that.
Currently I am working on several other new projects. One is a feature film called THE MAN WHO GOT LOST, another is a feature film which is still in the writing stages and finally there’s another short film in development titled HARDWARE STORE. You can read more about my work and follow my progress as a budding filmmaker on my website: www.barisazman.com