This theme has been shoved in my face the last few days as the Arizona Film Community is all abuzz with festival season. Just this morning I read a post on Facebook about one of the huge issues within our local film industry is the fact that everyone is blowing smoke up each other’s butts and saying everything is great when it is really just okay. It’s like we are all willing to bow down to the Gods of mediocrity. Also directors or writers are calling their own films “inspiring” or “brilliant” Of course you think that, it’s like your baby. Every parent thinks their child is the most beautiful, intelligent, talented, earth-shattering thing that exists. Right?
Honestly I’m not sure. I tend to fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, which in all fairness isn’t quite healthy either. I’ll compliment the poop out of someone else and in addition to that, working in my particular field of business, you are trained to be extremely aware and apt at choosing your words carefully. Often you won’t hear me say general compliments like “You’re a great actor” or “that film was incredible” but instead I focus on the details.
I find what that person is actually proficient at i.e. “Wow, when you cried in that scene it was extremely touching. I truly felt for you.” – it’s a specific compliment. Oh drat, Now that I’ve given my method away I feel everyone is going to start asking me “Okay yea, awesome you found a good moment but what did you think of the film as a whole?” eeeep I don’t know if I’m ready for that. Oh well, I was told by a fellow forger of truth that once you take the first step of this journey, there is no return. I feel as if I’m about to embark on an epic Lord of the Rings Journey, but I swear my post won’t feel as long.
Anyway back to what I was saying, this concept of loving your own work is a little foreign to me. Normally I beat myself up. I can pick out every single little thing I did wrong, could have done better, why did I wear that, look there, say it that way, and on and on and on. I’ve actually believed on multiple occasions that I’ve ruined films. I rarely invite friends and family to see my work at screenings because of this reason and creating a demo reel was a brutal experience for me. So no, I personally am not the kind of person that says “I am the best actress in AZ and my performance will blow your freaking mind.” HA, I even giggled when I wrote that just now. Tehehe
But the more I look around the more I realize there do seem to be some super-inflated egos here. The only reason I feel justified in saying this is because of a conversation I had with someone I greatly respect just before the A3F screening and he said it in a way that I could not deny it. I asked him, “So what have you done here that you feel is good work.” To which he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Nothing.” but it was the following statement that turned on the light bulb for me. He said that when he compares anything he’s done or seen here to films in theater, there is nothing here locally that even comes close to being good enough to be shown alongside them and there is definitely not a local film or for heaven’s sake one he’s even been in himself that he’d ever choose to watch over one that he sees in a theater or on TV.
The reason this was an eye-opening moment for me is because I never even compare work out here to what is being produced on TV or in theaters. Without even knowing it, I was subconsciously lowering the standards of quality to justify the level of low-quality work that gets created in this market.
This is a very disturbing realization. How can we expect other markets to take us seriously when we don’t even take ourselves seriously? With the digital technology and tools we have today there is no reason a film can’t at least look pretty or sound audible and clear. Takes a bit of money and time invested into the proper equipment and software, but there is no excuse for it.
Also, the CORE of a good film starts with the writing. How dare you write something and not have it looked at by another set of eyes or two or three or four even, for editing purposes and for creative input. You limit yourself greatly if you think that just because you took one script writing class and made a 3 minute short that 200 people on YouTube watched that you can’t benefit from an outside perspective. There are teams of people that work on scripts or people who ONLY write scripts in Hollywood as a full time job and were trained to understand things like marketability and story structure and innovation. I realize there can be the rare burst of inspiration and genius, but if you whip up a feature script in 4 days and say you’re ready to shoot next week, that is not impressive to me. That is sloppy and that is someone who is willing to take something that should be a draft and make it a final product.
A weak excuse I often hear is that we don’t have any reputable resources out here capable of taking on such tasks, or if we do they are not willing. LIES I TELL YOU. Two people come to my mind immediately, Josh Mathieson and Steve Briscoe, but I know there are many more. It takes a bit of research, again, not something a lot of filmmakers are willing to do, but they are here and eager to offer you a higher level of expertise.
As an actor I’ve always been insulted when directors cast friends in their films or are more concerned about the “look” of a character than anything else. Why? Again I ask Why? Why? Why do you cast a girl in a drama who can’t cry so she has to hide her head in her hands during an emotional peak of a scene, why do you hire a man who isn’t a trained martial arts expert or not offer him training to be a lead in an action film, why do you cast a kid who looks 14 to be a CEO of a company…? Explain it to me? I’ve seen it happen where someone will book something, they post it on Facebook and then people start to see it everywhere, the name of the person, not even the project itself, just their name floating out there in virtual world, and all of the sudden this person is a booking machine. People are followers. If they see that “everyone else” is working with said person, clearly they have to as well! Yes, clearly.
Good god man, open your eyes. Just because they are in 4o student films and every film festival or student film showcase across the valley and willing to take on every free project listed does not mean they are good at what they do. It means that they do a lot of stuff. Numbers do not equal value. Quantity does not equal quality. Your actors are your tools for telling your story. They are what the audience relates to, lives the experience through, understands, feels, mourns for, roots for, loathes entirely or wants to see thrive or die. This should not be an after-thought to you.
Great actors though cannot save a poor script and a great script cannot save terrible actors. It is a beautiful co-dependent relationship. Regard them with equal respect and importance and be deliberate, almost to a fault and proceed with extreme caution when casting. I challenge you to be bold with your choices and TAKE TIME – watch demo reels, find their links to work, talk to folks who have worked with them and if you really want to hire someone solid, take a month, eat less fast food or stop paying money to see other peoples’ bad films out here and keep it in your own pocket so you can offer to pay the poor actor a few hundred dollars for their hundreds of hours they will pour their life into birthing your baby.
I was on set yesterday having a conversation with an actor and filmmaker that I most respect and he said something that I wish I had a trumpet nearby to pull out and blow a victory song. Getting paid does not make you a professional. I repeat, it is not about the money. It is about the mindset. It is when someone who is backed by a paycheck or not, stands up and says “I refuse to operate on an amateur level anymore. I will run this set as a professional and I will expect the same level of commitment from each and every cast and crew member that is on my set.” Some of the most professional sets I have ever had the honor and privilege of being on had no monetary compensation, but their sets are operated like well-oiled machines, everyone is treated with respect, the work is treated with respect, the art is treated with respect and in the end it produced a respectable film.
Everybody is afraid to say these things though. I’ve learned nobody wants to say they don’t like anything for fear of burning bridges, myself included. Well gosh, if I say I didn’t really like that film or that person’s work then clearly I’ll never get to work with that person and they are friends with this other director so I probably will never get cast in any of their films either, so I better just shut up, smile and join the choir of the masses with false praise and adulation. – insert Stepford wives smile here –
What purpose does that serve our community as a whole? When we do that, we allow filmmakers to keep functioning at a level that is unacceptable professionally because they are operating under false pretenses fed to them by us that their work is good. It is a catch 22.
Here is my big BUT moment though. I don’t condone angry rants or ripping others to shreds. Everything must be done and said and critiqued with a spirit of love and growth. You must come from the intention of improvement, not of making others feel inferior or incapable. Encourage new methods, give honest feedback on films, talk to the directors about their visions to try to understand what they want to communicate, look to the elders of the community who should in my humble opinion offer guidance and mentorship to those just starting out. Work as a community to help one another. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told directors about other females because I felt they would be great for a role. Gasp, yes I know, but this is a competition. That’s all fine and dandy, but if I can help make this film better by not being in it and passing the torch to someone else then cheers! All the better if they remember it and return the favor one day, but if not then at least we in AZ made something GOOD!
The other thing I would encourage is take the time to develop and devote yourself to a craft fully. Yes Barbara Streisand, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood were able to write, direct, produce and act in their own films but my God, they are legends. It’s not always better to be doing a million different things and I implore you to ask yourself why you feel compelled to do it? If you are honest, I have a funny little feeling in the bottom of my tum-tum that it comes down to ego.
When it is really about the art you will be desperate to do whatever it takes, to work with those better and more skilled than you, to bring in any resources you can to make it the best that it can be. Stepping aside to welcome a brilliant force to propel the film forward would be an ultimate honor for you, not a threat. I think about Walt Disney who was extremely candid about the fact that he didn’t have the strongest abilities for animation or drawing or business, but he was phenomenal at finding and surrounding himself with people who could bring his visions out of his brain and onto a piece of paper, or film reel or even into an entire world-wide industry. He wasn’t afraid to dream, he wasn’t afraid to let people into his world to make it bigger and he wasn’t afraid to face challenges head on with resourcefulness, resilience and persistence.
Don’t expect the idea of a big Hollywood studio coming in to AZ to save our industry here either. Yes it will provide more grand exposure and it will supply people with employment opportunities, but it will not do what people think. They will still bring in LA actors to play the major roles and people from LA to fill all crucial crew positions. Us lowly AZ filmmakers will be featured extras or extra helping hands. It is the reality. It would be silly for you to assume otherwise. I would welcome a studio here with open arms because I know that it would provide regular work for some people, more opportunities to audition, network and expand your contacts. But never forget this is a business. They are in the business of making movies that will sell and they have a formula to do just that. They will most likely partner with local universities and schools to create some sort of educational program or internship. This will be absolutely ideal for film students here as it will give them the opportunity to learn practical experience on a set and have some major titles under the belt on a resume. It will also be ideal for the studio because it is cheap-to-free labor. They will most likely work with Good FaithTime or some of the other casting agents her locally to facilitate casting needs for extras, featured extras, maybe even a minor role here or there, but the beef of the burrito will still be gobbled up by their own talent.
They have no reason to come here and expect to be able to pull from our pool of talent because we haven’t shown them that we can swim in the adult pool yet. Let’s take off our floaties AZ Film Community! Stop just dipping your toe in the water or playing around in the shallow end; let’s all dive in head first. Besides, everything is more fun, when you’re wet…
Let’s give them something to Bite into!