Beware the Island

With apologies to John Donne, I chose a tip of the hat to his theory that No man is an Island, entire of itself as the title of this week’s column. Regular readers will recall that I’ve said before: “I used to say that I work with a lot of first-time filmmakers. But actually, that’s not true. I work with a lot of second-time filmmakers, because first-time filmmakers cast their films on their own and then realize they’d rather pay someone to cast for them, because the filtering process is so much work… and they need to focus on about a zillion other things in pre-production. They can come back to The Casting Issue well after submissions and prereads to make some decisions, saving themselves a load of stress.”

That said, I have met — and worked with — a few filmmakers who are, unfortunately, hyphenates. Wait. I am a hyphenate, so I can’t use such a sweeping generalization as a negative. It’s fine to do many, many things in this industry. In fact, Hollywood thrives on those who live the hyphenate lifestyle. So, let’s say it’s the über-hyphenate who becomes an island that I’m talking about, in this article. You’ve met the type: “I am the writer, director, producer, star, camera operator, makeup artist, composer, singer of the soundtrack, caterer of this project and my name will be on every frame!” It’s the Barbra Streisand-The Prince of Tides type of thing I’m talking about here.

Now, I adore Babs, and I think her work is amazing in about half of the jobs she’s taken on, in Hollywood. But there’s something that happens when someone assumes all roles in his or her project. It’s a form of Tunnel Vision, and it’s ugly.

One of the above-mentioned first-time filmmakers was, in fact, a first-time filmmaker with a lot of TV experience. We’ll call him Thompson Thompson, for argument’s sake. After many months of eager anticipation over what the film even LOOKED like, the cast and crew were gathered together for a private screening. At the big screening of his film (which I had cast), the credits began… “Thompson Thompson presents… A Thompson Thompson Production… Written and directed by Thompson Thompson… Based on a concept by Thompson Thompson,” and so on. While I’m all about giving credit where credit is due, this was a bit over the top. And it showed not only in the credits, but in the film itself.

Because Thompson Thompson was writer, director, and producer of this project, his fingerprints were on every frame. “Rightfully so,” you may suggest, but I’d argue that a producer’s fingerprints are already all over the finished product. That a director has made his or her stamp of approval (or taken a stand against a certain producer’s choice) on each shot. And that the script already exists in Thompson Thompson’s voice. Every character is living his POV. So, when the finished product is all about this ONE person, there is often very little that is relatable to those in the audience who do not share that particular person’s POV (and that’s most members of the audience).

This came up recently because a filmmaker suggested that the credits read, “Casting by Bonnie Gillespie AND Thompson Thompson.” I asked, “Will you also be listing a credit of ‘Makeup by Jon Jon and Thompson Thompson’ or ‘Location Scouting by Sarah Sarah and Thompson Thompson’?” Because the filmmaker or producer okays EVERY decision, the very idea that that makes each decision a shared credit is ludicrous. However, some filmmakers want that sense of ownership.

I bring this up here because I want to warn actors who get very excited about auditioning for indie films, spec pilots, or world premiere plays to always take a good look at the project’s pedigree. Sure, we’re all going to say yes to a project by “the right person” when it comes along. But when you see a breakdown in which the producer, director, writer, composer, casting director, DP, makeup artist, and caterer are all the same person; I advise you to take an extra moment to be certain this is a project you’d want to be a part of.

It’s not that there is something wrong with projects with only one person at the steering wheel. It’s that — in the finished product — every voice tends to sound like that one person. And in that case, who is your target audience? The project will probably ROCK for those who see the world exactly like your hyphenate does… but that’s probably a very small number of consumers. And you’re looking to be a part of projects that speak to a broad audience, I assume. Otherwise, you’d be content with doing community theatre in a small town (not that there’s anything wrong with that… it’s just a different world).

Part of what is beautiful about creative endeavors (including filmmaking) is the collaborative process. There’s something gorgeous about the participants’ willingness to check in with one another, learn from one another, build on one another’s suggestions, and nurture a more amazing finished product through this process. A person who works as an island isn’t going to have any of that beauty, in his or her finished product.

This warning extends to actors looking at acting coaches who only acknowledge that one type of training exists, at theatre companies with only one goal (their singular vision) in selecting the material for a season, and at breakdowns that appear a little too good to be true. Sure, it’s the best-looking breakdown you’ve ever seen and you can’t wait to get your actor-teeth into such a character… but if it’s a Thompson Thompson production of a Thompson Thompson film based on a concept by Thompson Thompson written by Thompson Thompson… you may wish to spend a little time being absolutely certain you are crazy about the Thompson Thompson vision before investing in an audition, much less a role.

Have you been on a Thompson Thompson set? Have you been a Thompson Thompson, yourself? How do you balance hyphenate status with grace? How do you deal with someone who doesn’t do it so well? Let’s chat about this, below, shall we?


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000418.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Judy Thrush September 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I’m in that situation now. Thank goodness the filming is almost finished. I’ll never work with this producer/writer/director again unless the situation is changed. I thought there would be professionalism attitude and environment since he’s was a professional actor and have done some producing of his own work. I’ve had to work with people who couldn’t act, when my scenes were being shot they were always in a rush, Director didn’t know the script, lines not memorize, and not everyone were present so, changes had to be made and this was done when ready to shoot. Many times he would make changes when we’re shooting. I found it difficult to know what we’re doing. I just hope he gives us actors writer credit because he had a script but a lot of improvisation was done. I love to improvise and I like to think I’m good at it but it makes it hard sometimes. Many of the actors had no experience or very little and didn’t have a professional mindset. I don’t mind if someone is new but they must have the ability and have a professional mindset. My biggest scene was a mess and now can’t re-shoot it. It was disaster. No one new their lines, not everyone showed up, the Director didn’t know the scene so, I got confusion from him, and they were in a great rush because of little time. His wife told me they can make the scene good by editing but I said no matter how good the editing bad acting won’t make it good. I only get paid if it sells and at this point I don’t think it will. I hope not. Forced to do my work at a fast pace with a few takes, working with people unprepare, and unprofessionalism have not allowed me to do my best work. I hope it’s not shown. When it’s over I hope I have a chance to talk to him. I felt used, taken advantage of, and not respected. I told him I have a reputation to keep and build on. I hope this production doesn’t tarnish it. Heck, I found University students can do better.

    Reply
    1. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie September 18, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      The big question I have for you, Judy, is this: You say, “When it’s over, I hope I have a chance to talk to him,” and I wonder why. If you’re sure it’s over, if you’re sure this whole thing is a write-off, if you’re sure you won’t be working with this person again, why do you need to talk with him? For me, talking is what you do when you hope to grow toward one another and make things better for the future. Since you see no future with this guy, I’d say this is all just good info to log away in Your Show Bible, so if you’re given the chance to work together again, you can reference those notes and say, “Um… no. I don’t think so.” I have producers with whom I’ve worked who I never bothered to “talk it out” with, after the project was over, since I knew we’d not be working together again. But I logged it in My Show Bible, and I know, when/if they come back around, they pay extra (because “drama costs extra,” in my world). 😉

      Glad you’re almost on the other side of this experience! ’til then, just be excited for the lesson, because hopefully you won’t have to learn this one twice. You’ll know for sure who to look for, should someone like this enter your orbit again. 😀 And you can run (or raise your prices). Hee! Take care.

      Reply
  2. Avatar Jolyn Janis September 20, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Love this article! I have found myself working on films with the writer-director often. So much that I am consciously seeking otherwise nowadays (though its not a dealbreaker, but I now know what to look for). In my experience, Ive found that the Writer-Director is either A) More passionately a writer who wants to see their ideas come alive so they Direct or B) More passionately a Director who needed content but didnt know good writers so they wrote it themselves. Either way is commendable, as filmmaking at any level is an arduous endeavor, though I have found there to be a strong passion swing in either direction as far as what one REALLY wants to do and doing both or all positions is due to not having the resources or not wanting to ask for help, etc.

    I did work with a Writer-Director recently who understood that his writing was not very solid and was totally open to all actor feedback on the lines, scene etc. This provided a unique opportunity to completely play on camera and work in a way I hadnt had the chance to before. I didnt realize this was the way of this Director until i was on set, so I was not happy at first, though then i made a decision, be a disgruntled actor (and who does THAT help) or roll with it and look for the positivity. My positivity: I am closer prepared for television – Im comfortable with playing an 8 page scene I just got that morning 🙂

    The concept I love most that you’ve put into words so eloquently is that “every voice tends to sound like that one person”. Yes, and it denies one of the beauties of the nature of film, which is creative collaboration.

    Reply
    1. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie September 21, 2012 at 1:16 am

      I love that it’s never a deal-breaker for you. Totally agree. It’s something to LOOK AT, but not an immediate NO. Absolutely, that anything *ever* gets produced is a huge victory, so we have to celebrate the hyphenates who make that happen. No doubt! It’s those who *say* they’re gonna make it happen — but who don’t — that are worth raising an eyebrow at, at least.

      Keith actually worked with a writer who said, “I know I’m not a writer. I’m an idea guy. Help me.” Being able to know where you could use bolstering is huge. This is such a collaborative industry. Very important to know where there are strengths and weaknesses!

      Thank you for jamming with me on this article. 🙂 It’s so much more fun to have many voices harmonizing than one, singing solo but doing so on every vocal part.

      Yes, yes, YES!

      Reply

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