Here we are in the final week of the three-part series on actors who produce their own work. Part one is here and part two is here. I hope you’re enjoying these stories from self-producing actors as much as I am! It’s inspiring to know that you — yes, you, ACTOR — control a whole lot more about your career and your profile among the buyers in this industry than you may have ever realized. No more excuses. Get to work!
From Sherry Locher
I needed reel footage and the projects that I’ve done for which I have footage are not ideal. I needed to start the process. I asked the director of a short I worked on if he knew a good demo reel editor, who turned out to be the editor of the short. Great, and he liked my work.
We met, discussed, and came up with an idea: He and I would together produce, direct, edit, and shoot one solo piece from a book called I-Land and one piece of original material. Both were fun to do and a good fit for what I wanted shown on my reel.
We shot in a day, edited that same evening, and this superstar editor/producer/director — David Schulder — put it on my casting sites and YouTube the same day.
Because he wants to sell this as a new business for himself, we bartered so that I am his “talent” and he is my “everything else” — a win-win for both of us, and we are both happy with the results! I can’t wait for our next collaboration!
From Kathi Carey
I actually started back before the Internet was king and when public access functioned in much the same way the Internet functions today. I was part of a very forward-thinking, cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind film and TV repertory company called Cine Paris. I joined as an actor, but early on the owner/mentor Stephen Mitchell must have seen something in me because he encouraged me to become a writer/director and producer. I was reticent. He was insistent. And a writer/director/producer was born.
The process took hundreds of hours as I worked with the other actors in the group. The actors would come to me either two-by-two or one at a time to a weekly meeting and I wrote (dictated their scripts and they took the dictation). We had several shows that we produced for public access in a small studio in North Hollywood (one required a three- to five-minute monologue, but the bulk of what I wrote were two-person, 20- to 30-minute scenes much like a one-act play for a show aptly called Discussions). I would write for these actors, on demand, and then direct them in the things I wrote. And it didn’t matter if I wasn’t feeling creative that day. The actors would show up, expecting me to be brilliant, and so I became (brilliant, that is) after writing over 1000 half-hours.
What did that do for me? Well, for starters, today I can write anything on demand. It may not be the best thing I’ve ever written, but it will be serviceable and honest — an authentic, interesting interaction between two characters. And, in the process, I also developed the skill of writing to each actor’s signature — to their strength as an actor, regardless of their skill or experience, as well as their look, age, general characteristics, etc. And, of course, I also got pretty good at directing those actors as well and getting the performance I wanted.
Then one day it all ended. Stephen moved on to other endeavors. The whole thing wound down and I realized that I was no longer doing much of anything for my career (at least in any kind of a structured way). There was a void. I saw that some of my friends who had pursued their acting careers in a much more traditional way were working, doing episodic TV, commercials, etc., and others weren’t. And I wondered where I fit in. I hadn’t necessarily devoted myself to this endeavor to the absolute exclusion of a traditional approach (I still went on some auditions from time to time), but I hadn’t relentlessly pursued my career in a traditional manner, either. And so, I did NOT have many of the relationships with CDs and other filmmakers/writer/producers I felt I needed to have in order to move forward in this business. I needed to reinvent myself and so I did.
I took what I had (the skills and abilities I had gained from my Cine Paris experience) and applied it to my own career. My first project would be a short film that would show the industry what I could do as a writer/director and actress. I went to all of my friends in the industry and asked them to participate with me and, lo and behold, they all said yes. So on my first project, most of the actors and lots of the crew and supervisory positions were taken by people I had developed relationships with during my time in the business. I also decided I was going to do this totally on my own. I wanted to be able to say, “I did it on my own.” My first project, Reflections of a Life, ended up being a 30-minute film that spent two and a half years on the festival circuit.
During the tenure of Cine Paris, when the Internet was relatively new, we launched an Internet soap entitled Confessions that became quite popular for a while. We hired a PR firm to publicize the launch and the show and I saw firsthand how the PR firm put together the press kits and EPKs. I never thought it would be information I would need down the road, but I certainly put that information to good use when promoting my film and I got an unusual amount of media coverage as a result. So, Reflections of a Life wound up screening at over 25 festivals worldwide (two Academy-qualifying festivals), received 16 nominations (one of those from an Academy-qualifying festival) and eight awards. I also had press in nearly every city where it screened: television appearances, the trailer played twice on ABC in San Francisco, newspaper articles, Internet articles, and radio interviews. And, keep in mind, I didn’t hire a publicist. I did all my own publicity from what I had learned previously.
Now, I hadn’t really intended to turn that short film into a feature, but the response I received on the festival circuit convinced me that the public wanted a film that dealt with that topic, so while I was out of town on the circuit, I started writing the feature. And I’m talking to a couple of funding sources for that now. In the meantime, during the strike last year, I got bored and decided to do another short film (one that I could shoot in a day). And so, Worth, my current film, was made. Worth has already traveled further than my last film in the first four months of its festival run (it’s screening in Australia next month), has won awards at the first three festivals where it has screened, and has already received an early acceptance to an Academy-qualifying festival that doesn’t happen until August. To put this in perspective, most festival notifications are sent out about one month prior to the festival and it’s not uncommon that it be as short as two weeks prior. So, when I received notification on New Year’s Eve from the festival director of the Rhode Island International Film Festival that they were accepting my film waaaaay early because of its high marks across the board from their jurors (and was asked to keep mum about it until now) I was, to put it lightly, thrilled.
This little film was also chosen to be one of three films at the Sedona International Film Festival that was pre-screened at a special dinner for their backers and donors last month. I was also approached by the Ventura County Music Festival and asked to be a featured guest at their primary fundraising event this March. I will be screening the film and the violinist who appears in the film has been invited to be a featured guest artist. Last, but certainly not least, I was called by the director of a local festival several months before their official notification date and was told that my film was the first film in the history of their festival that scored perfect marks from all of the judges. She called me early hoping that I would attend. The film has also created opportunities for me to be a guest speaker to youth groups to talk about the filmmaking process and discuss the many layers of meaning in my seven-minute film.
Who would’ve thought that all this would come from a little film that I almost didn’t make? And, by the way, a working director who is familiar with my work and has been following the progress of this second project (and been excited by its reception) recently asked to review any other projects that I might have in development. I sent one script, one treatment, and a list of 15 other projects. Maybe planning, preparation, and perseverance is finally meeting up with distant cousin: opportunity.
What was the most valuable lesson I’ve learned along the way? Wow. I’m still learning. And that, perhaps, is the most valuable lesson. I feel that I am a student of this business. It is totally fascinating to me. I love going to the movies and watching television. I love seeing good stories, well-acted, well-written, well-produced. It inspires me. When I see something that is done well I learn sooooo many things from how they used the camera to create an emotional impact to where they snuck in the music to the color tones used to what the characters said or didn’t say. Even films that aren’t A+ are a learning experience for me as I can take them apart and see what didn’t work. And I don’t just go to the movies. I rent and see the old movies, too. And then I see some cable shows that are just so well-written and well-acted (like Damages and Breaking Bad) and I learn from that. So perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I have so much to learn. I think I will always be a student of this business. And that keeps it fresh for me. And fun! And challenging. And new.
What has been the most painful lesson? Oooooo. If I’m going to be really, brutally honest here I think I’d have to say to not take myself so seriously. I grew up with a lot (I mean a lot) of expectations placed upon me and I think I have come a long, long way towards learning the lesson of “art is messy” and “art isn’t perfect.” I’m not sure I’m completely there yet, and it stings sometimes when I read a really scathing review of my work. But where it used to devastate me and put me in a funk that would last for several weeks, now I can usually shake it off in a matter of minutes or hours (depending upon how scathing it is) and even laugh about it. Let me tell you, that’s progress. Huge progress. But it was a lot of inner work and that work was often painful. I know now that I’m not perfect (I am really close, though. Hee hee!) and it’s the imperfections that make people actually like me more, relate to me more, and relate to my work. It’s in the imperfections and “human-ness” where they can see themselves and find their own stories, so to speak.
The benefits versus costs? Well, the costs have been what they’ve been. And I tell anyone who wants to self-produce, if you want to do it right and certainly if you’re going to do a film under a SAG contract (because they require Workmen’s Comp insurance, which is the most expensive of the short-term insurances), it’s going to cost. And I won’t produce a project that doesn’t pay the actors. Probably because I’m an actor and I appreciate a producer who makes an effort to pay the artists involved (especially when they are paying the crew). But the benefit of having done it? Immeasurable!
I have great footage on myself. In fact, I can control and create the footage I want for myself. I can write it. I can produce it and I can film it. And, of course, there’s nothing greater than the satisfaction of giving other people a job, too! When you produce a project, you’re not just creating work for yourself, but a whole host of other people as well. And it’s a lot of fun! If someone thinks it’s creative to be an actor, just think how creative it is to direct all the actors? As well as deciding how the whole show is going to look, feel and sound. It’s the most creative job on the planet. Also the most demanding. People ask me which I like more: acting or directing. And my answer is always the same: I really can’t choose because they are quite different and I really love them both. Often, when I’m on a particularly long, stressful day right before a big shoot (or on a shoot) where I am wearing the multiple hats of directing, producing, writing and acting, I find myself looking longingly at the actors and thinking, “It would be soooo nice right about now to just be an actor and only have to think about my character and what scene is next for me.” But then, when I am just an actor on the set, I am often looking at the director and thinking, “What fun he/she must be having right about now. All those decisions, so much more to think about and do!”
And there are intangible benefits as well. Now that I’ve completed two award-winning films, it gives me something to talk about when I’m meeting a CD or a producer or director for the first time (or even for the fifteenth time). I’m doing something, not just waiting for something to happen. I don’t have to talk about some audition I went on last week, I can talk about how I was just up in Park City screening my film! Yea! And I’m sure that it just gives the decision-makers that much more confidence in me knowing that I’ve been “through the trenches” so to speak, and know exactly what they need and want when it comes time to roll film. And, of course, at those great networking events (read: parties) it also is a great conversation starter. People in this town are far more interested in what you’ve actually done than what you might do. They want to know what you’re doing right now, ’cause everyone has projects in the works or potential projects. So, a project that is done and out on the circuit has far more credibility than, “I’ve got this idea.”
And last, but not least, the more projects you complete the more confidence you gain. And, of course, the more confidence you gain the more confidence others will have in you so that they will be willing to invest in your next project. And the ball keeps rolling. I do believe that you have to start that ball — you have to believe in yourself and invest in yourself — but it will start a chain reaction from there. And that thing — confidence — it seems like an intangible thing and perhaps it is. But I really believe that you do gain confidence and start to carry yourself in a little different way as you take on more responsibility for your career by creating and producing projects. Is this the way to go for everyone? Not necessarily. It certainly was for me. And I think it is becoming more and more the “model” for the future. With the advent of the laptop computer with editing software and digital hi-def cameras that are truly affordable, everyone and anyone can be a filmmaker. Does that mean everyone should be a filmmaker? No. But the cream rises to the top just as it always has and it always will.
From Delno Ebie
As a long time reader of The Actors Voice I want to thank you for all of your wonderful advice. It the only thing that keeps me going sometimes. I thought I would share with you my experience in self-producing some of my own work. Up until five years ago I was splitting my time between Kansas and LA. I had an agent and a manager. In October of 2003 I came home to visit my wife and to make a long story shorter, we got pregnant. I had only planned on staying through the holidays, but that of course changed.
In June of 2004 my son was born seven weeks premature, had stopped growing at 29 weeks, weighed 2 lbs., was 15 inches long and had Downs Syndrome and congestive heart failure. He spent 44 days in the NICU and almost died four times. We face open-heart surgery this June. I had started a production company not long after he was born and named it Little Warrior Films after my little warrior.
As an actor, writing, directing, and producing my own work was more out of necessity than anything else. Kansas is not the most happening place when it comes to showbiz, but I decided to try and make it so. I hooked up with a number of novice filmmakers and that is where I met my business partner, Ginger Bynorth. She was working on a no-budget indie feature and had a really nice camera she had bought to film. I asked her if we could shoot something that I had written, a little six-minute short that I wanted to test to see if I could do more than just acting.
Well, we’ve been business partners for four years now. We’ve done a few shorts and a webseries that’s in postproduction right now. It’s been challenging — costing us out of pocket on everything — but it’s been worth it. Most everything we’ve earned on other projects we put back into our own, including investments in all of the equipment, lights, sound, etc.
There is nothing like seeing something you’ve created come to life. Of course, we’ve made connections through the film commission as well. It’s all about paying attention as an actor when you’re on set. Because I had been on a number of sets I had a pretty good idea of how things run. I always watched what everyone was doing from grips to wardrobe. We’ve had to be casting directors, which gives you a better understanding of the process in which you real casting directors go through. Not an easy job. In Kansas, the challenge has been to find good actors and crew who know a little something about filmmaking. And of course what is readily available to people in LA or NY is not so available here. The closest place for certain equipment is three hours away, six hours round trip.
We’ve ended up bringing a lot of people in from surrounding states, which adds to the budget. It’s also hard to get the industry to take you seriously when you’re based in the Midwest. That’s been the most frustrating part. The most painful lesson learned is realizing that as a producer, director, writer, and everything else in between, the buck literally stops with you. Your project will succeed or fail based solely on the decisions you make. As an actor I come in, do my job, and go home. Self-producing, you live it 24/7. Through pre-production, production, and postproduction. I also taught myself how to design websites in order to have sites for our company and work because it wasn’t in the budget to hire someone.
From Robert Keniston
The decision to begin self-producing was inspired by the fact that I didn’t want to wait on getting a copy of my work to develop my reel. It was also inspired by the fact that I always want to be able to answer the question, “What are you doing?” So I started thinking about how I could build a reel on my own and the answer was to produce my own projects. I began to produce two short scenes. My goal was to show a range of characters and have a final product to post on the online casting sites, helping me rise to the top of the submission pile.
The first was A Killer Confession. In it I play a serial killer who confesses to Det. West why he likes to kill and points out the fact that he and Det. West are not that dissimilar. The second was A Global Warning. This scene was inspired by two things: an oceanography class I took in college and an opportunity to promote myself as “the tech guy” similar to the mathematician on the television show Numb3rs. In it I play a meteorologist trying to convince the press secretary to announce the threat of a large storm at his next press conference. I’ve recently begun developing a story for my next project because I’ve gotten to the place where I’m inspired to keep producing projects for myself.
I learned that self-producing really helps to understand the entire process of creating a project. The more you know about the steps, the better off you’re going to be. Every decision you make affects the next step and that was something that I learned the hard way. I let my excitement of creating work get the best of me and in the process overlooked details that could have prevented future headaches. Also, I learned to be patient. It really is a virtue. For example, had I not been patient when looking for a location to shoot A Global Warning, I would not have found this spectacular building in Sherman Oaks to set the right atmosphere for my story. It had been six months since the final draft and I found the perfect place while driving home from an audition.
Planning, listening, communicating, and compromising are very important. These projects have shown me the importance of a solid pre-production phase. Looking back I could have done better planning for post. It’s important to keep post in mind at all times because that’s where you learn all your mistakes. That is the one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned: you can’t always fix it in post. Do your best to capture the best footage possible on the day you are shooting your project.
I didn’t have mentors during these two projects and looking back it probably would have been a good idea to have someone helping me understand the process. There are a lot of things to consider when producing a project and I would not recommend splitting your focus too much on the day of the shoot. Focus on your performance. When producing, know what you’re getting into. This is a craft — just like acting — and there are a lot of details involved. Create a project that is easy to produce. Keep it simple and focus on leading with your strengths.
Create something that is in line with your overall career objective and have a definitive purpose as to why you’re working on this project. Have an endgame. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on it, so don’t waste time on a project that doesn’t have a specific purpose to it. Do you want to enter it into festivals? Are you creating work for your reel? Is it to learn the process of filmmaking? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you understand how much production value you need and how much the project will potentially cost.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be bold! Send out what you want and need into the universe and use your network of people who are just as enthusiastic about the industry as you are. It’s a collaborative business so reach out to other creative people who can help you and make you and your project look its best.
Finally and most importantly don’t be afraid to get started. It’s by far the most important step. Be willing to go places you haven’t been before creatively and have fun along the way. With the creation of new media, it’s so easy to create something. The power is being returned to the proactive actor and with proper planning and a project that supports your brand, you can start to build your own heat in Hollywood!
And always remember to enjoy the journey.
Back to Bon
I couldn’t agree more with that last statement. (Well, the whole dang series on Self-Producing has been inspiring for me.) If you’re not enjoying it, why do it? Life’s too short. Have fun!
Now, this series came about because of a discussion I was in with an actor who was convinced that her geographical location (a non-market outside of a minor market) prevented her from ever getting to follow her dreams as an actor. The times she had attempted to start up a play or a showcase or a script reading or a film production or a pilot presentation, she was always mired in the collective negativity and bitterness of her peers. She asked whether the problem just had everything to do with living where she lived. Could she “do better” if she lived in a place where art thrived?
Well, I realized that I have never lived in a place where art wasn’t thriving, despite having once lived in a minor market, or even a non-market outside a minor market. When I was in college at the University of Georgia, there were fine arts festivals, an active theatre community, and of course the most amazing indie music scene. I think wherever there are creative people, the desire to create eventually can and will outweigh the inertia of “doing nothing” or “having nowhere to do the creative thing.” I also recalled that when I was a child, I wrote several plays (as well as songs, short stories, poems, journal entries, etc.) and that didn’t require a venue or an audience, although I absolutely got those things because of the quality of my work and the uniqueness of what I was doing at such a young age.
The reason all of this seemed important in our dialogue was that I feel — just like many of the contributors to this series have mentioned they feel — doing it is what it takes to do it. Getting going on the production of your own work comes not from having the place to mount it or the community to consume it nearly as much as it comes from sheer will to do it, rather than talking about doing it. Certainly, there are people everywhere — even right here in Hollywood — NOT doing it. Just like in any market, there are plenty of bitter, stuck, frustrated artists here. But in Los Angeles, those folks have lots of distractions to keep them from grousing about it, so I suggested that perhaps that’s why the actor in the non-market outside of a minor market perceives that LA is a place that thrives, artistically. (Of course, it does. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of non-production and bitterness brewing here.)
Point is, no matter where an actor lives, if he or she wants to take the reins on a career, if he or she wants to create footage for a reel, if he or she wants to learn production and have a calling card larger and more informative than a headshot and resumé, the opportunity is there. The time is now. So, put pen to paper, open a Word doc and start typing, speak into a microphone and brainstorm some creative ideas, spend time with people — on a regular basis — who also seek a creative outlet and do not turn that regular get-together into a bitch session. It’s the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. And I’ve seen it work — with amazing results — in small communities and international cities. Creative people who will not be stopped from creating? Well, they create. No matter what. And no matter where.
So… what are you working on?
I can’t wait to hear your answers.
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000987.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.