Playground: A filmmaking journey - Part B

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Written by Luke Creely

 

 

Part B: Casting and rehearsals with actors


I don’t include written dialogue in my screenplays. Like Joe Swanberg and my Mumblecore heroes, I require all my actors to improvise their lines. This isn’t to say that I don’t like scripted dialogue or don’t appreciate a quality screenwriter with an aptitude for clever and thought-provoking dialogue. Some of my all-time favourite filmmakers are some of cinema’s great dialogue writers. Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) is the best of the best, as is Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, etc., you know them all already) or even modern-day superweight of comic-book and superhero filmmaking: Joss Whedon. I geek out over these guys big time. But at Primitive Films we are trying to cultivate something different. A new filmmaking style in Australia. Not only do we film in long takes with a Cinéma vérité type aesthetic, but our films are based primarily around performance, naturalism and the dynamism of character. Character is everything. The goal is to construct scenes with a documentary-like realism. With characters who react to situations and scenarios with raw spontaneity. I do not believe that this can be achieved (with accuracy) by asking actors to memorise lines from a page. I want my actors to own their characters and to own their dialogue. I am happy to give that creative freedom to my cast. I love actors and I love developing strong characters with enthusiastic actors. For me, this is the ultimate filmmaking thrill. A great acting performance is the subsequent result of a reciprocal 50/50 partnership between actor and director. If an actor and director are fully in tune and in sync, filmmaking magic can happen.


I have a very specific method and process when rehearsing and building characters with my actors. Firstly, they are provided with the screenplay which includes a complex story framework, detailed outlines for all scenes and sequences, and fleshed-out character descriptions. This is the structure. Secondly, and within the context of rehearsals and under my guidance, I ask my actors to write backstories for their character(s), to improvise, and to create, strictly within the bounds of the overriding structure. Essentially, I provide them with a point A and a point B, a starting point and an end game for each scene, and then encourage them to fill in the blanks: to immerse themselves in the world of the film, to embrace and completely embody their character(s). I don’t want my actors to act; I want them to become. Here’s the thing: as a writer/director, if you cast the right actors and allow them to create, uninhibited, they end up crawling over broken glass for you. Respect is a two-way street. Knowing that you have the complete confidence of your cast is a truly special thing. And you know it when you have it. One of the biggest challenges for me at this stage of my filmmaking career is finding actors who are willing to go that extra mile with me, and to take that extra step, without a monetary reward. It’s difficult asking for and expecting professionalism and dedication from your actors while operating with a micro-budget. The key is to sell your vision, be confident and bold in your direction and, of course, to find the right actors. It’s all about fostering positive relationships with actors and film people who share your passion. This is why I’m so grateful that I got the opportunity to work with Rob, Steph and Cris: they are real actors who bleed for their craft and who went those extra few steps with me. They had my trust and I know I had theirs. I am indebted to them for that.

 


Casting and rehearsing with Rob Jackson


Jack and I cast Rob Jackson in the lead role of Stewart (Stew) pretty much as soon as pre-production commenced in late 2014. I think this may have been one of our very first tasks. Because I had worked with Rob previously on another film, no audition was needed. He was the best man for the job. Period. I approached Rob, discussed the basic film concept, and asked him if he was interested. It was an immediate ‘yes’. There is a striking parallel between the character of Stew and Rob’s actual real-life persona. Rob (like Stew) has an incredible charisma which transfers beautifully to his acting. He is a naturally gifted actor who understands the importance of understated acting: he has an uncanny ability to convey subtext and base emotions through simple facial expressions and mannerisms. When performing (either during rehearsals, improvisations or on-set), he locks into the character and stays there. Everything he does is right on the money. He is a perfect fit for Primitive Films and for my directing style. Once he accepted the role, we got to work straight away. We met up several times and conferred via email, read through the screenplay, studied it, spoke about who Stew is, what motivates him, and why he reacts in particular ways or does the specific things he does within the story. Rob went away and wrote an intricate and comprehensive backstory for Stew. We read through it, settled on the details, and then together developed Stew’s idiosyncrasies and mannerisms: the way he walks, talks and carries himself. I threw a bunch of on-the-spot improvisational scenarios at Rob such as you are in a pub, as Stew, and a pretty girl gives you the eyes from across the other side of the room. But you are waiting for your fiancé Liz, who is meeting you here in 5 minutes. Go. I filmed him performing the scenarios and we watched them back together, tweaked particular things, and discussed his performances in-depth. These improvisations are where the character of Stew was born. Once we both had a firm grasp of the character, and once we were ready to proceed to the next phase of rehearsals and preparation, it was time to think about casting Stew’s mate in the film – Clint.

 

 

 

Casting Cris Cochrane and rehearsing with Rob and Cris


We cast Cris Cochrane as Clint in early 2015. There were several auditionees and candidates for Clint – a country larrikin who thinks he’s Mick Dundee – but nobody came close to Cris. It was chalk and cheese. Before the audition I had watched Cris’ showreel material and some of his short films. What struck me initially about him was his on-screen presence: when he’s on-screen, you can’t help but stop and take notice. He draws you in. I remember his audition clearly. Rob was there to lend a hand and to participate in the improv portion of the audition, mainly to test chemistry. It probably took me a second-and-a-half of him entering the room to realise that he was our Clint. He had this big smile and this bouncy sort of energy. Enthusiasm to burn. Once we began the audition and he started talking about his acting and his life experiences, I was impressed by his honesty and his obvious appetite for acting. He seemed genuinely intrigued and excited about the project and about the character. We then ran through an improvisational scenario: Rob as Stew, and Cris as Clint. Honestly, I could have stopped the improv after a few seconds. Right there, in front of my eyes, were Stew and Clint. I saw the history between the characters. I saw their friendship. The chemistry was incredible and the dynamic was there. Cris understood the character and nailed the improv. Within hours of Cris leaving, I phoned him and offered him the role, which he accepted immediately.


I went through the same process with Cris as I did Rob: we studied the screenplay, he wrote Clint’s backstory, and we quickly developed and settled on Clint’s unique set of characteristics and personality quirks. Rob, Cris and I then spent many hours, over many meetings and over many rehearsals, sculpting the characters and adding complex and interesting layers to their relationship. I filmed them performing various improvisational scenarios – such as them having a fight, being drunk together, having a general conversation about the local footy team, smoking weed together – and we then watched the footage back. Again, like I did with Rob, I provided feedback and tweaked their performances. These improv sessions helped us consolidate the characters and allowed Rob and Cris to explore the complicated history and relationship between Stew and Clint. We learnt about each other’s creative process and developed a fantastic three-way bond. I have never had more fun in filmmaking than I did while rehearsing with these two. Rob and Cris also did a lot of improv and development work aside from our allocated rehearsals: including an infamous trip to Chadstone, as their characters. Picture Cris as foul-mouthed Clint, barefoot and wearing a singlet, while walking across the shopping grounds of Chadstone. No more needs to be said. Stories like that are a testament to how hard-working both actors are and how much they gave to me and to this project. It stills blows me away. Our bond became stronger as we creeped closer to principal photography. We began blocking, piece by piece, bit by bit, and scene by scene. By the time we got to that stage, the back-work had been done: both actors had effectively become their characters, understood them inside out, and were ready to tackle the bush terrain at Cricket Willow and the challenge of principal photography.

 

 

 

Casting Steph Evison Williams and rehearsing with Steph and Rob


We didn’t cast Steph until a couple of months out from our intended release date. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, budgetary restrictions meant that Jack and I were often having to perform tasks that a Director and Producer wouldn’t normally perform in a higher-budget project that can afford to pay for extra production crew members. This was part of the challenge and something that both Jack and I fully embraced and overcame. We had difficulty finding the right actress to play Liz and therefore, due to Jack and I being tied up working on other tasks, we had to keep pushing the casting of Liz back. Secondly, because the role of Liz is a cameo role that required only one afternoon of filming in a solitary location, we wanted to push through the main block of principal photography first. We are damn lucky that Steph applied when she did. I was immediately impressed by her showreel: what struck me was her ability to underact and her uniquely natural acting style. It was apparent to me that she understood how to use non-verbal cues (mannerisms, facial and body expressions) to communicate emotion. Pretty much the pre-requisite skill set required for the role of Liz. Jack and I decided not to audition her as I was already sold on her acting ability. We met her for a drink, and within 15 minutes, I offered her the role on the spot to which she gleefully accepted. She presented herself as a deep-thinker and a passionate actress who cares about the Australian Film Industry. I sent her the screenplay, she wrote a backstory for Liz, and then we got to work.


This was a different challenge for me (and I’m assuming a big challenge for Steph too) because, at this point, Rob, Cris and the entire production crew had already been through the main block of principal photography. Steph had to catch up and I had to help get her there. And we did so with ease. The character of Liz is Stew’s fiancée, and her single scene (which occurs halfway through the film) simply involves her, in the bathroom of her city apartment, on the phone to a stoned and half-drunk Stew. The camera doesn’t cut away and we remain with her during a single uninterrupted take as we hear Stew’s voice through the speaker phone. Their relationship is strained and there’s an awkwardness about the way they converse. Steph, Rob and I rehearsed several times over a number of hours and over a number of weeks. We discussed the screenplay, Liz’s backstory, and the three of us then built a backstory for both Liz and Stew: how they met, when they got together and engaged, and how they interrelate to one another. This was all worked out during improv. I asked them to perform different improv situations such as the very first time they met, their first date, when they got engaged, and a scene in which a fight ensues between them. Again, I filmed the improvs, we watched them back, I tweaked their performances, and we discussed them in-depth. Steph was a pro. She took copious notes, took my direction well, and seemed to enjoy delving into her character. She and Rob had an instant chemistry which made working with the two of them an absolute breeze. We kept at it, kept building, kept improvising and rehearsing, and then began breaking down her scene and the very particular and specific beats that she had to hit. And hit them she did.


Read Part A of Luke’s Playground filmmaking journey here

 


Click here to continue reading Part C of Luke’s Playground filmmaking journey – Principal photography, post production and the premiere.

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