Setting up a shot. Tedious.
I just finished doing some of the exterior shots for a new film called "Solution." Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to say more about it because of a paper I signed saying I couldn't. And they take that very seriously, I'm told. It's fairly SOP. Which is fine. This weekend we start on some of the interior shots, most of the dialogue stuff I have, etc. Also knocked out a couple of close-up shots. And when I say 'close up,' I mean close up. Wide lens, about five inches from my face, REALLY close up. But having done that much on it, I have some thoughts.
I'm doing a large supporting role, a bad guy (which is always more fun), and, everything being equal, I'm always shocked at what film and television pays as opposed to live theatre. I guess I shouldn't be by now but for some reason it always catches me off guard. "You wanna pay me HOW MUCH to do WHAT?"
As most actors know, the ones that have done both film and TV, that is, camera work is just tedious, for the most part. The greatest asset a film actor can have is the ability to muster his concentration very quickly when it's needed. One sits around waiting for the light to be right, or the cameras to be moved, or the APM to move the extras around and give them their marks, or continuity to remind one of what just happened, or the director to see the shots he just did, or the wardrobe and make-up people to get an actor physically exactly right after the last take, or any number of things and then all of a sudden one is back to 'one,' that is to say, the first position of the shot, and then, very quickly, one is in the middle of the scene again. The trick, I'm discovering, is not to waste concentration on the shots that don't require it. The old adage, "Save it for the close-up," is very true, indeed.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine, someone you'd recognize instantly from television if you saw his face, about camera versus stage work a little while back. Like most people who do almost excusively camera work, he insisted it was 'the hardest kind of acting.' And for a certain type of actor, I suppose that could be true. I'm treading on a delicate subject matter here for some actors, so I'm choosing my words carefully, but I think if an actor has the ability to immediately immerse himself in his imagination, it's not so demanding. If the actor, on the other hand, has to work himself up to a fevered pitch before the word, 'action,' I suppose it could be really difficult. A buddy of mine did a film with the late Jason Robards, an actors' actor if ever there was one, and he said Mr. Robards was once listening to the director go on and on about a scene he was about to start when Robards cut him off and just said, "Oh, for Christ sake, just tell me what you want, the happy face or the sad face."
So yesterday I had about five hours of filming right smack dab in the middle of downtown Los Angeles in front of a seedy hotel. We were really only trying to nail one shot, that of me rounding a corner with a large group of pedestrians (the film is set in NYC), breaking off from the crowd, walking to a newstand, telling the old guy in the kiosk to give me a newpaper, being a bit snotty to him, glancing at the paper, seeing something I don't like, and then moving on. For something like that, which will take about 15 to 20 seconds, probably less, in the film, we did 'coverage' shots, 'medium' shots, 'two angle' shots, two 'over the shoulder' shots and finally several close-ups. The camera was following me closely, but there were still somewhere between 50 or 60 extras in the shot, too. The streets were closed off and the LAPD was redircting traffic. Once, right in the middle of a long 'tracking' shot, that is to say, the camera on a dolly and moving backwards while I walked down the sidewalk with about thirty extras carefully choreographed to pop in and out of the scene all around me, a car about a block way crossed the intersection, slowed down a bit, and the driver stared curiously at what was going on. Cut. Do it again. The PD talked to the cops a block away, instructions were re-given, the extras all had to do it again and again to make sure they had their exact marks, I stepped back inside the seedy hotel to have a bottle of water (remember it was about 105 yesterday in LA), and after an eternity, was called back out to do it again. And again. And again. And again.
There was a crane there, too, so the director could get one quick shot from above me. So every time they did the 'from above' shot or whatever it's called, the crane had to be carefully choreographed.
Anyway, none of this is new stuff to anyone who's ever been on a film set. Personally, I haven't been on a lot of film sets, a few but none as large-scale as this one, and I was reminded all over of how easily it would be to simply stop caring. I've heard stories of early DeNiro never breaking character over a two month shoot, of other actors sitting off camera and working themselves into a silent, angst-ridden frenzy for the next shot, of all sorts of tricks to get 'into the moment' before the camera rolls. I'm a little in awe of that sort of behavior. One, because unless the scene is really, really emotionally demanding, I don't see the point, and two, because they rarely are. Yes, of course, if you're Meryl Streep and you're filming the 'choice' scene in Sophie's Choice, by all means, yes, do what needs to be done.
In any event, after getting the coverage shots that were needed, there was a close-up that had to be shot. In this particular case, it was a non-speaking close-up, just a reaction shot, really, and the director simply put the camera, quite literally, in my face and said things like, "Look slightly to your left. Now right." And that was that. Then he would go inside and watch those shots, come back out and do it again. As I said, tedious. Very tedious. Mostly, in cases like this, I am concerned with making the extras do it again, knowing how tired they must be. A friend of mine called me yesterday and said, "to hell with the extras, they're getting good money to stand there." Perhaps so, but not if it's 105 in the shade. That's not good money, regardless of what you're doing.
So this weekend we move to a studio in the Glendale/Burbank area for a scene in an office. I have to get a bit angry and contemptuous in the scene and, most likely, will be told to shout. Fine. I like to think I'm fairly adjustable as an actor, generally speaking, and won't have a problem finding the why's and wherefor's of the directed anger in the scene. Motivation, most of the time, is another word for, 'Í'm not very good at this'.'
In any event, the upshot of all this is to simply say, I disagree with my friend. Cordially so. I admit, I'm not a camera actor by training. It's not what I've spent a lifetime learning to do. But what I HAVE spent a lifetime learning to do is quickly and totally envelop myself in my imagination. Regardless what acting teachers may say, the primary difference between doing it for film and doing it for stage is the amount of time involved. There is no such thing as 'over acting' and 'under acting,' there is only honesty and dishonesty. For the camera it takes total concentration and focus for seconds, sometimes minutes at a time. For stage it takes two hours plus, with no break. For the camera, one has only to ignore that it's even there while at the same time remembering that it IS there and for the stage the same is true of the audience (unless one is doing a comedy and then all rules are off, but that's another story). The trick, for either venue, is the ability to immediately grasp the inner life of the character instantly and not just 'pretend' something is happening. Rather employ the mind-set that it IS actually happening at that very second, that very instant.
This probably sounds like a lot of gobbledy-gook to the non-actor. And I'm sure it sounds like that to some actors, too. And maybe, just maybe, some day I'll be on set and discover that I'm completely and absolutely wrong in everything I've just written. If and when that day comes, I promise to admit it immediately. But here's the thing, I think a lot of actors that make their living exclusively from camera work actually feel bad that they're making so damn much money doing it. So they invent scenarios about how difficult it is to 'get inside the character,' or to 'emotionally' rake themselves over the coals to find a moment. All of that is fine and honestly, I do respect it. And I also have to admit to times when that would be true. For example, watching Brando in Last Tango in Paris, where so much of the dialogue was deeply personal and improvised, THEN I can imagine the work being almost impossibly emotional. But 99 percent of the time, Spencer Tracy was dead on target when he said, "Just remember your lines and try not to bump into the furniture."
In the final analysis, there's a reason, aside from the astronomical amount of money involved, that most camera actors don't do stage work. And it's not popular to utter it. The reason is this: it's too hard.
On a personal note, Angie and I are getting married on October 10. 2010, in a little chapel in Sherman Oaks. A private ceremoney with a few very close friends. After that a catered dinner at the old homestead for a lot of people we both know out here in LA. Since I'm so busy these days, our honeymoon will most likely be a night at the bowling alley down the street. That's a joke. Yes, it is. It's a joke.
When things slow down a bit, maybe we'll take Franny and Zooey and just head out in an RV and see some sights. Who knows. Life, unlike film and stage acting, has no rules. We can do anything we want. Just don't take it so seriously. That's a pretty good thing to adhere to whether it's acting OR living, I think.
See you tomorrow.