This began with some sleepless nights of excitement. No, not what you think. Rather, the film geek in me thinking about what makes a movie a great movie? And how do you make a great movie with a micro-budget? This led to the following beliefs or pseudo manifesto that gave rise to the method of making this film.
First, we (the creative team) believe that a good story has great characters. Really interesting, original, three-dimensional characters. We know audiences love great characters. We also know those characters must feel authentic.
Second, we know that good stories play out interesting and entertaining relationships between those characters.
If audiences don’t believe the characters and the relationships they are in, it fails.
Third, once you have great characters and interesting relationships, you have a fertile garden out of which a story can grow. It’s not the only way to create a good story, but it’s certainly a proven way to do so.
Fourth, you need the right actors to play those characters. Someone who can play the part so convincingly that you actually believe they are that person.
Fifth, you need a creative process to unearth the most compelling and interesting relationships which then, together with some more process, become the building blocks of story.
Ok, that sounds rational enough. Next question: What’s the process to get that on the screen with a micro-budget?
The traditional route is to write the script and then cast the best actors you can afford. Right there, you’re often having to compromise when you have a micro-budget. Directors often say casting the right actors is 80% of their work “done.” It speaks to how important it is. Actors who can transform themselves into your authentic characters are, most often, expensive.
How do you get around this problem? Answer: don’t go the traditional route of scripting then casting.
Instead, cast your movie first, before anything. Before scripting. Before even know what that actor will play. But, how can you cast the movie before you know the story? Well, we don’t have a mission to tell a particular story. Our mission is to tell a good one, meaning, an entertaining one. This allows us to choose a non-traditional route and cast first.
By starting with casting, we’ve knocked away a whole ton of challenges and saved massive amounts of time. Think about how long a screenwriter might work on creating original characters. Weeks, months, years? And then how long does it take to raise the funds to hire the right actors and produce the vision of the script? It typically takes roughly anywhere from five to ten years to develop and produce a feature-length movie. And the majority of them are scuttled along the way.
Of course, there are the “bread and butter” productions. The genre retreads to fill up movie channels. But that’s not what we’re making here. We want something fresh, authentic, and highly engaging. We want to give the audiences the best of everything we can muster to entertain them on a number of levels.
Here’s the advantage of casting first. Guided by the director, the actor is a driving force when creating the character. They must choose someone they can play authentically which is to say it must be a character they know and understand in terms of how this character thinks and feels about things. They must understand the character’s backstory on an emotional level and how that impacts the now of the character’s world and how that will affect their relationship with others. To make easy, the actor chooses something they already know. Aspects of themselves and people they know.
I began by putting up a website (torontomovieproject.com) that explained the process we’d use to create the script and make the movie. I then posted casting calls online. There was no casting call sent to agents. So the only eyeballs that ever saw the casting call were actors who were actively looking to work, rather than those waiting for their agents to call. They came to the website and if their process excited them, they signed up for an audition.
Naturally, only actors enthusiastic about the project process signed up for auditions. I then chose the best eight actors. The age range was 14 to 42 with 5 of them in the 17 to 24-year range.
Within one month (three group sessions of improvisation and many emails), we created eight clearly defined characters and relationships between them. And also many strong story ideas which come easy when you have strong characters and clearly defined relationships. While I had faith in this process it moved much faster and better than I had expected.
For our first Session, I invited them all to my home for a social evening. I told them to come in character. Nothing written in stone, but come with some choices and interact with the other characters. I mean, why waste time having eight actors come over and talk shop? Who’s your agent? Who freaking cares! They all came, all had different names and mingled and got to know each other a bit. I told them email me their reflections, from their character’s point of view, on meeting each other. Right away clear characters were forming and relationships budding as, naturally, they found things in common or not.
These reflections enabled me to figure out improvisations for Session 2. Basic scenarios for them to interact… like, Kate – you have had a bad day and James, you notice this and are trying to cheer her up. Again, they emailed me their reflections on what happened from the point of view of their character and how it made them feel and what they thought about it. Again, I was blown away by how quickly interesting and original characters and relationships had emerged. By Session 3 we had established that Diane (40s) is stepmom to Kate (24) and James (19). We also knew that Max (24) was a bouncer at club, Jamal (18) was James’ best friend, Josep (30) is a one-time successful artist now struggling financially and facing a custody battle for his 3 yr-old daughter. Before Session 4 we decided Josep would be Diane’s brother and that Sam (17) would be Diane’s real daughter. Adrienne (14, but can play 16) would be Sam’s friend as well as Josep’s part-time assistant. And, to be clear, I have just written the broad strokes here – – each actor came up with the many details of their past and the state of their life and struggle in the present. Nothing short of amazing and I shudder to think how much time it would have taken for one brain to come up with all of those well-defined characters and relationships. And of course, then, find the right actors which we already had! In one month, we did years of work with no money. That’s the power of this process!
Of course, you may recognize that this is akin to Mike Leigh’s process: cast first, then improvise and rehearse, then script and finally shoot. Thank you Mr. Leigh, you are our inspiration!
That’s how we’re doing this and, if you’re interested, you can read on.
Close one can of worms, open another. That is to say, successfully avoiding one set of problems could just lead to other types of challenges. In other words, how do you collaborate with eight people? Who decides on what ideas for character are included and others left in the dust?
I gave them specific directions on how we would work together and used the following analogy.
I told them it was as if we are going to have a baby, which will grow up to be an entertaining movie. This is where my real-life parenting experience can help. When a baby is born, it’s who it is in many ways that you cannot control or change. You can nurture it but you can’t make it something that it is not. Nurturing means paying attention to it, keeping it safe, giving it health, and showing it lots of love. It will grow healthy and become what it is, much of which began when the genetic programming was set. All nine of us are parents to the “movie baby.” It’s not about what we as individuals want for it – we’re simply there to help the baby grow healthy and strong. That set the right attitude in the actor’s minds so they could set aside their egos and relieve themselves of any need to control things. I also told them that all of us would have hundreds of ideas but only a few of those ideas would ever be used and that the creative process required a lot of courage (as does parenting) and energy (as does parenting) and you’d need to be prepared to have your heart broken more than once when idea you loved had to be discarded because either it didn’t fit the situation, the budget, or was just voted out by the group. But you shouldn’t and couldn’t give up (like parenting) because your child, the movie, was depending on your commitment. Hearing this, it seemed to inspire them all the more because I believe they could see how that was a supportive and smart way to achieve the end results.