80% of Directing Is Casting

That’s a saying I’ve read that’s been attributed to a number of directors.  It makes sense.  If the actor is right for the part, contributes creatively and can take direction, your job as a director will be much easier.  That’s the latest chore on my directorial to-do list.  We are now actively casting.

Our two leads have been set from day one.  The male lead, is me.  We’ve covered that.  The female lead, my co-producer, co-writer and a terrific friend.  She’s an excellent actor and I wrote the part for her.  We work well together so that gives us a nice solid foundation.   We are now working on the other three speaking roles.

We have a supporting role that is important to the success of the film.  The character is a handsome, playboy movie star.  His looks are a result of capped teeth and plastic surgery, so we need an actor who can play the role with the nebbish still inside.  My co-star had a friend in mind who was a good fit, but he’s not available, so we’re looking.

The other two are bit parts, or under 5’s as they are known.  Two women in the brief, but important opening scene.  It’s strictly expository but it sets the tone for entire story.  I don’t view them as throwaway parts.  I want good actors.

We’ve set a date for auditions and I’ve got a notice up on a casting web site.  I’m really getting into this.  I feel like a director.  We’ve gotten a number of submissions and several that look promising.  I’m amazed at the training and experience some of them have.  Why are they interested in my little film?  Just goes to show you how tough show business is!

The auditions are not for a couple of weeks, but I’ve already started my research.  Using modern technology, I’ve been checking resumes and locating some of the shorts the actors have been in online.  That way, I can get a look at their work and get a jump on the casting process.  I’m also finding contact information for the directors of the films so I can inquire about what the actors are like to work with.  Great idea, right?  I’m a genius.  (Not really.  I got the idea from a book on casting.  But kudos to me for making the effort to learn how to cast correctly.)

The other 20% of the job is going pretty well.  If I can nail the 80%, I just may pull this off!

Can’t I Wear My Sneakers?

Tonight was another step in the preproduction process.  It was out of my comfort zone.  It also brought back childhood memories.  I found it amusing, but I have to admit, it was kind of fun.

One of my co-producers took me clothes shopping.  Wardrobe is an essential ingredient in a film.  Not only does the clothing a character wears visually reveal clues about that character, but the colors, textures and style are all a part of the overall look of the movie.  They help set the tone and underscore the genre.  It was an unusual evening for me, because I am not a fashionista.

I live in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers for the most part.  I hate shoes, they hurt my feet.  I wear polo shirts sometimes, and I really like sweaters in the winter.  I have no idea what colors look good on me, although people have told me that blue is nice on me.  I like black and darker colors in general.

I don’t buy clothes often and when I do, I attempt to get it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.  I don’t even try things on.  If it turns out something doesn’t fit, well, that’s what closets are for.  So where do I put the clothes that do fit?  That’s what couches, beds and occasionally lamps are for.  (Only a slight exaggeration).

Tonight was different.  I am 100% committed to this film and will do whatever it takes to make it great.  As my co-producer pointed out to me, I have to dress the way my character Danny would, not the way I would.  So I was a paragon of cooperation, trying on different combinations.  The gray pants with the blue shirt.  the brown pants with the gold shirt.  This belt, that tie.  I even put on a pair of shoes.  Ouch!

Honestly, it was fun.  I am a very patient person and I trust the judgement of my team.  It reminded me of school shopping with my mother when I was in elementary school.  Back then, we were expected to wear dress pants and shirts as well as shoes to class.  My mother would drag us to the store.  In and out of the dressing room.  “Mom!  Why do I have to try it on?  It’s my size.  Can’t I wear my jeans, PF Flyers and Property of the New York Rangers T-shirt?  The collar’s too tight.  These shoes hurt.”  My mother put up with a lot.

Tonight had that kind of feel.  But it worked out.  We walked into a big sale.  (God, I can’t believe I just wrote that!)  We found some good stuff and now I can look like a successful writer/director instead of the “I’ve accomplished nothing” writer/director I actually am.  The magic of the movies.

Production meeting Tuesday night.  Promotional video and pictures for our crowd funding campaign.  So foreign to me.  Maybe next time, I’ll stay behind the camera.  Nah.  My ego is way too big.  Can’t deprive my audience of my incredible personality.

Anxiety, Insomnia and Depression: The Neurotic’s Toolbox

The dates are set.  We got a sound man today and the crew is just about complete.  We have a casting notice out for the roles we need to fill.   Production is a mere eight weeks away.  I’m excited.  This is a long time dream.  I’m working everyday to prepare.  And my anxiety levels are rising.

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know about my dysthymia, aka neurotic depression.  It’s something I’ve had all my life, but only became aware of about five years ago.  I can feel when it’s kicking in and deal with it.  But it’s always present and I have to be vigilant.  Does it hamper my day to day activities?  Absolutely.  My phone call phobia alone has cost me numerous opportunities.  But, there are ways to make it work for me.

Anxiety produces energy.  When I’m feeling anxious, I can’t sit still.  I pace.  My always fast mind works even faster, achieving incredible speed.  Physically, it’s healthy.  Panic attacks burn calories.  Hyperventilation is great for cardio.  The key is to channel it correctly.  Anxiety often causes people to overeat, smoke, drink and use drugs.  I put the excess energy into my work.

Screenwriting and filmmaking require creative problem solving.  With my mind in hyperdrive, ideas fly out of me.  I throw them out twenty at a time.  Most of them are no good, but that’s okay.  Eventually, the solution comes, and it comes quickly.  Plus, mental anguish and personality disorders are funny!  They are a great boon to any comedy writer.

Another issue I deal with is insomnia.  I haven’t slept through an entire night in months.  I was taking Benedryl.  Two of them generally knock me out within an hour.  But, I didn’t want to get addicted to them and they sometimes aren’t that effective.  I just can’t shut my mind off at night.  So, I don’t.  I just take a series of cat naps throughout the night.  Less sleep time means more work time.  I study films, I write, I make lists of things I need to do the next day.  The feature script I’ve been rewriting, FACADES will be shot in Singapore. The production team is in Asia.  There’s a twelve hour time difference. Perfect!  They email me in the middle of the night, I get the notes, make the revision and it’s done before morning.  Sleep is for suckers.

Tied into my dysthymia is excessive worry.  It makes me cautious.  That can be a very positive attribute.  I check, double check and triple check everything.  I obsess over details.  Exactly what a director needs to do in preparing a film.  There is much less chance of me missing something small when I can’t stop thinking about the little things.

Today’s world can be a very difficult place in which to live.  There are very few of us that don’t have some kind of issues.  They can cripple you if you let them.  But if you can embrace them, realize they are part of what makes you unique and special and turn them to your advantage, you can achieve greatness.   (This post is only slightly tongue in cheek.)

My Sense of Humor, My Love of Movies and My Father

As I continue the numerous tasks necessary to get ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? into production, I can’t help but think often of my father.  The one year anniversary of his death is near.  He passed away last September 3.  His health had been in decline for a number of years.  He had poor circulation and had experienced several mini-strokes.  His mind and his personality were radically different.

He was in and out of the hospital and nursing homes and as his condition worsened, required more and more care.  We couldn’t afford to put him in a nursing home, so my mother, brother and myself took care of him.  It was difficult and very unpleasant, but he was family.  How could we not do it?

I was never close to my father growing up.  I was in fact, the reason he married my mother and I think on a subconscious level, he resented me for it.  My father was a charming man and a womanizer.  The fact that he had a wife never slowed him down.  He cheated on my mother constantly.  I resented him for that.

We didn’t have a great relationship when I was growing up.  When he wasn’t working, he spent most of his time in bars.  I feared him when I was young, was angry at him when I got older.  It wasn’t all bad.  There were two things that brought us together.  Like the characters portrayed by Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern in CITY SLICKERS my father and I could always talk about sports.  We also connected on movies.

Perhaps my greatest trait is my sense of humor.  It is one of the main things that has kept me sane and helped me cope with my numerous issues.  All I need is some time and distance and I can laugh at almost any pain that I experience.  I inherited my humor from my father.   I used to love watching him break up a group of people and he was a major influence in me becoming a stand up comic.

He also loved movies.  Like I do now, he spent many hours watching films.  He would always point out great classics to me.  In his last years, he couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast, but his long term memory was sharp.  My brother and I would quote movies to him and he always responded.  We continued to watch movies with him and I think he appreciated it.

As an adult, I made my peace with him, thankfully long before his mind went.  I forgave him.  He lost both his parents at a young age and I think he feared showing his love for others lest he get hurt.  He didn’t do it often, but there were times he told me loved me and was proud of me.  His friends later told me that when I was doing stand up, he used to brag about how smart and talented I was.  I cherish that to this day.

When he finally passed, I was prepared for it.  At the end, he couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t stand up, could barely sit up, so it wasn’t unexpected.  I got to say goodbye to him.  My brother and I went to visit him in hospice.  He was laying in a fetal position connected to a breathing machine only able to blink his eyes.  I leaned close and spoke to him.  I told him I forgave him and that I was proud to be his son.  I meant it.  He was Paul Sr and I am Paul Jr.  I told him I would do something with our name.

I really regret that he will never see me succeed.  He thought it was great that I was a comedian and he would have loved to see me make a movie.  I am going to dedicate ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?  to him.  He loved comedies and I hope we make a movie he would have enjoyed.  Thanks, Dad.  It was a rough ride but you are a big part of who I am today.

Setting Dates and My Color Palette

We had a production meeting tonight and made solid progress.  I was able to report good news to my team.  I found a car for a key scene in the film.  Our filmmaker protagonist and his wife drive to a country inn.  We need shots of them on the road and then exiting the car in front of the inn.  As a successful filmmaker, he needs to have an expensive car.  I placed an ad and a very nice gentlemen who is in the business is allowing us to us his Chevy Corvette at a very reasonable rate.  We’ve been very lucky so far.  There seems to be great support for the independent film community here in Connecticut.

Another piece of good news is that I was contacted by a very experienced camera operator who is volunteering his time and skills to us as an assistant camera person/lighting person.  We now have two people in that position, which will greatly facilitate the shoot.  Our new AC also has connections and is working on finding us a sound mixer, boom operator and perhaps an art director.  I am really sweating my lack of a sound crew.  Good sound is essential to a quality movie.

We also set a number of dates starting with our shooting dates.  We are shooting on consecutive weekends in October, 13 and 14, then 20 and 21.  This will give us enough time to prepare, the weather should be cool, but not cold and the falls colors on the trees will enhance the visual quality of the film.  At least I hope so.  Weather can be quite uncooperative.

As we still have three speaking roles to fill, we set a date for casting.  We’re going to use a casting site and put out an ad for actors to submit their headshots and resumes to the site.  Then we choose the ones who look promising to come in and read.  This will be an interesting experience for me.  I have auditioned many times.  This time, I will be the auditioner rather than the auditionee.  Fun!

A rehearsal date was also set.  I’m not going into detail there.  You all know what rehearsal is and this post is rather dull at this point.  So, let’s move on to something more fun and interesting.  And personal.  Everyone seems to like when I reveal personal stuff.

We were discussing things like set design and wardrobe and how coordinating colors makes for better shots and a more visually pleasing film.  The topic of color palettes for different skin, hair and eye colors came up.  You know how some people are winter, summer etc.  Now, I have never thought about any of this in relation to myself.  I dress primarily for comfort.  My clothes are always clean and not torn or anything, but certainly not fashionable.  I wear a lot of blue, solely because all of my favorite sports teams have blue as their main color.

Since I am playing one of the leads, people asked me what colors I wear and what my palette was.  I have no idea.  Well, that is going to change.  One of our co-producers is an experienced make up artist.  She is going to take me clothes shopping and work out what my palette is.  This is very funny to me.  It’s not something I ever thought I would do.  It’s not a macho thing, I find nothing wrong with a man choosing his fashions to look his best.  It’s just not something that I do.  My looks are not my strong suit, so I really don’t worry about them.

I am going along with this because it will help the production value of our film.  I will do anything that will make this movie better.  I also trust my team.   It’s part of the game plan: surround myself with people who know what they’re doing and let them do it.  It’s going to be funny.  I will probably laugh the whole time.  The whole concept of me looking at wardrobe and enhancing my appearance is so foreign to me.  But if I’m going to act in a film, I guess that’s part of the deal.

I will definitely post about the experience.  I’m sure you’re all dying to know what season I am.  My favorite season is summer, I was born in June.  But I don’t think it works that way.  I really am a dedicated artist.

Themes and Titles

Theme is a component of my work that is very important to me.  A movie should, above all else, be entertaining.  As a comedy writer, providing laughs is a priority.  But I also strive to explore a theme, generally related to one of my obsessions.  I don’t have many answers, but I know all the questions and that is what a good film should do.  Propose questions about life and humanity, explore them, and allow the viewers to come away with their own conclusions.  There is nothing wrong with not having answers to the larger questions that plague humankind.  There are things we will never completely understand.  It’s one of the things that makes life an adventure.

I spend much time contemplating the nature of existence.  I love philosophy.  I tend to see the universe this way: a very cold and heartless place that is governed by the laws of physics, over which we have no, or at best, very little control.  If a disaster of nature strikes, say a hurricane or tornado, it doesn’t care who you are, what you’ve accomplished or how good a life you lead.  It will destroy everything in its path indiscriminately.  That sounds very bleak, but there is a positive in my outlook.

As human beings in this system, the only thing we have is each other.  It is true that people can be irrational, selfish and sadly, even downright evil.  However, humankind is also capable of great compassion and reaching out to aid those in need.  When disaster does strike, we come together, dig through the rubble, bury the dead, heal the injured and rebuild.  Very often, the best of humanity is on display in the aftermath of a tragedy.   We advance science and medicine to make life better and longer.  We create works of art and philosophy to enable us to better handle the difficulties of our universe, to make life more pleasant and make some sense of it all.

That is why the themes that fascinate me are those related to interpersonal relationships.  Romantic ones to be sure, but every other type as well.  Parent-child, siblings, friends, co-workers, even enemies.  I really like to dig into how we live together, work together, play together, like, love and even hate each other.  My protagonists’ character flaws are usually connected to a problem relating to others.  This all comes from my own sometimes awkward social skills and neuroses.  Working through them in my screenplays helps me to deal with them in my life.

Tied into theme is the title.  I personally feel that a film’s title is primarily a marketing tool.  Nevertheless, it is extremely important.  A good title not only draws people to want to see your film, but it gives a clue of what the movie is really about.  The best ones are clever, memorable and related to more than one theme.

I was blessed with a hyperactive imagination.  Since childhood, I have always daydreamed and created little stories and scenarios.  I used to have little fantasies about things I wished I could experience.  I would see them as mini-movies in my mind complete with camera angles, editing and music.  I suppose it was natural I would end up in filmmaking.

I am constantly coming up with ideas for movies.  I have a notebook where I write them down and I have many more than I can ever get to.  It’s nice to be able to pick and choose from the ones that excite me the most.  I never experience writer’s block either.  Twenty or thirty  minutes is the longest I ever go before I am able to get something down on paper.  Except for my Achilles heel.  Titles.

Titles are the bane of my existence as a screenwriter.  I do eventually come up with a good one, but it is a long and painful process and often, I don’t have a title until I’ve written several drafts.  I don’t use working titles.  I just number them sequentially, using the prefix “F” for a feature or “S” for a short.

Many writers need a title before they start working on a project.  It helps to keep them focused on what the story is about and acts as a backbone to hold the structure together.  I am in the other category of writers who don’t need a title.  I always have a theme or themes in mind when I start a project, but very often they change and evolve through the writing process.  Sometimes secondary themes appear and disappear and the main theme may be altered in presentation.

It is not until I fully have the theme articulated that I can come up with a title.  They tend to pop into my head at that point.  My current project, the short film, ISNT’ IT ROMANTIC?, is a great example.  I had already written three drafts before I had a title.  At first, the theme I was concentrating on was the difference between real life and the movies and how things never neatly come together for us like they do onscreen for fictional characters.  I could not think of a single title.

As I received feedback from my fellow writers and refined and polished the script, the secondary theme grew stronger and became the primary theme: what constitutes romance and how it differs in the point of view of men and women.  This worked much better as it is a relatable theme that most couples have to deal with as their relationship grows.  Once I made this shift and became aware of it, the title just popped into my head.  I love jazz and have a penchant for old standards, so the song title became our title.

I feel that it works well in more than one way.  It does express the theme, it’s a fairly well known song, so it’s recognizable and therefore pretty catchy.  The other thing I love about  it is just one of my personality quirks.  I like that it uses punctuation.  The question mark is very important because the title is whimsical.  The question is, “isn’t it romantic?” the answer, “not even close”.  Punctuation marks are certainly not uncommon in titles, but other than the apostrophe, most titles don’t contain them.  I love looking for film titles with punctuation.  After the apostrophe, I feel the question mark and the colon are the next most common.  Perhaps the most rare is the asterisk.  I can think of only one example, Woody Allen’s EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX*  *BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK.  Strange thing to be fascinated by, I know, but then I never claimed to be normal.  It’s part of my overall charm.

Writing vs. Directing

Now that I’m going full steam in preproduction on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?, I’m getting a pretty good taste of what directing is like, at least in the early stages of making a film.  Unlike writing, which I both love and know I can do, directing is uncharted territory.  I’ve studied it, analyzed films for years and I suspect it’s something I will be able to do with at least some competence.  Of course, I won’t know that for sure until I get a number of movies under my belt.

I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of each job.  Both are vital to a successful film.  Although many filmmakers do both, they do require two different skill sets.  I’m hoping my directing chops will develop as my writing has.

For me, writing is almost all pros.  I absolutely love it, couldn’t imagine not doing it.  I’ve always said that I am first and foremost a writer.  Sitting down to begin work on a new screenplay is the start of a long, tricky but very enjoyable adventure.  The great thing about writing a script is that it’s just you, your laptop (or typewriter in Woody Allen’s case) and your imagination.  Anything you can conceive of is fair game.  Finish the script and let somebody else worry about getting it on the screen.

Problems certainly do occur while working on a script.  There are days when long hours of work produce nothing useful.  But, they are solvable using primarily the imagination and intellect.  Coming up with a solution for a scene that’s not working or a great bit of dialogue or a character is immensely rewarding.

The only downside I can see to writing is that it can be a lonely road.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many times I need to be alone with my thoughts, but truth be told, I really do spend too much time by myself.  Part of keeping my dysthymia in check is interacting with other people regularly.  Collaboration helps.  I have recently formed a writing partnership with my co-star and co-writer on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?.    She and I have great respect for each other and our personalities mesh well.  We also have talents that complement each other.  I focus better when working with her too.  It really negates the only con I can come up with.

As to directing, the only experience I have so far is in preparation, so my opinions are not fully formed.  To be fair, another factor is the fact that we are on such a low budget that I am doing things that on a big production would be somebody else’s job.  For example, location scouting, breaking down the script, acquiring props and doing all the hiring of crew and casting without help.

It is very hectic.  Often, I feel as if I’m forgetting something and much of the work doesn’t feel very creative, no matter how important it is.  There is a big upside to all this.  By necessity, I am in regular contact with a fairly large number of people on a daily basis.  I’m meeting new people all the time and having more contact than usual with people I already know.  It’s truly wonderful.  Great for my dysthymia and sometimes awkward social skills.  I’m actually making phone calls now and it is getting just a bit easier.

There is a big leadership component to directing too.  It is up to me to set the tone for the production.  I need to show my team confidence and that I can handle anything that may happen.  I’m really enjoying that and I feel as those I am rising to the occasion.  It’s providing me with moments of self revelation as I push myself to do things that previously made me very uncomfortable.

I’ve also experienced an interesting phenomenon.  In my reading, studying and discussions with experienced directors, I have learned that in analyzing a script to prepare it for production, a director will find many layers, themes and interpretations that the writer was not even aware of weaving into the script.  I was assured that this is always the case, even if the director himself or herself had written the script.  While I didn’t doubt this, I was a bit skeptical.  After all, when I write a script, I know every nuance.  Or do I?  Amazingly, as I read ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? repeatedly, looking at it with a critical eye and finding my characters’ true motivations and digging into subtext, I found things I didn’t realize were there.  Remarkable.  Taking off my writer’s hat and putting on my director’s hat changed my perspective.  It was almost as though I was reading someone else’s work.  Putting the story on paper and planning to shoot it in three dimensional space with real human beings are two very different processes.

Conclusion:  I will always be first and foremost a writer.  I am sure I will never direct somebody else’s script.  But so far, I am enjoying directing.  I’ll have to reassess after I’ve finished the film.  I don’t know if I will want to direct everything I write, but I feel it is something I will want to do from time to time.