Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 5: Directing Yourself

I often act in my own movies. This choice was not born purely out of necessity. When I first started making movies as a kid back in the mid-90s, I harbored a desire to act as well as writing and directing. Looking back on it, it's a good thing that I was drawn to acting as well, because for the types of movies I wanted to make, I needed actors, and among my friends, there really wasn't anyone else I could call in to help out (other than my siblings). So, I took on roles in my own little movies just so I could get them made.

Someone once asked me whether it was difficult to direct myself. At the time, I had just completed an independent, zero-budget feature-length comedy, The Professional, in which I starred. His question took me aback somewhat, because I'd never really given it any thought.

But, it's something I've become increasingly aware of as I've pushed myself to do better work each time with my new films. And Unknown Number really brought that home to me. Case in point: in the film, I wear a gray suit. When I arrived on set, I had to begin setting up equipment, moving stuff around, etc. And it occurred to me that I had to be extra careful not to get anything on the suit. Now obviously, if I weren't also acting in the film, this would not have been a consideration, as the actor could have just waited on set for everything to be ready, or held off on arriving at all until it was time to shoot.

As the director, however, I have to be the first one there, and I'm a firm believer that, even when -- especially when? -- working with your family and friends, you must never ask anyone to do anything that you aren't doing yourself. So if we have to move shelves or boxes around, or assemble tripods or lights, I am the first to do that. All of these tasks, which would normally be handled by a crew on a bigger-budget production, fall on me, and present additional tasks that I have to deal with above and beyond acting.

There's another, purely practical matter, about directing yourself. When you're in front of the camera, you really have to rely on your cinematographer to make sure everything still looks good in the frame. Sure, you can take a look at it before getting in to the shot. And if you're using a camcorder like mine, you can even ask the cameraman to flip the little LCD screen around so you can see what it looks like (although this is not the most reliable choice, since it's a small screen and you're likely already positioned at a bit of a distance from it).

You really can't be 100% sure until you play the footage back, and even then, the small viewing screen can be deceptive. There might be minor details that aren't easily visible at that size which only be apparent when you look at the footage in the editing room.

Obviously, some of these issues are larger than the question of acting in your own film, but they become amplified when you are worried about giving a performance in front of the camera as well as handling all of the behind-the-camera considerations.

And then there's the elephant in the room:

If you're going to act in your own micro-budget DIY movie, you have to actually be able to act. I will leave it to others to decide how successful I am in that area, but I will say that I am satisfied -- as the director -- with my own performance in front of the camera, and ultimately, that's all you have to go on. I can say, with almost full certainty, that if I were just beginning to make films now, it's doubtful whether I would think about acting (or at least, starring) in them myself. But it's a role I've sort of "grown up" with, concurrent with my own directing efforts, and so I've grown accustomed to taking on the acting duties when the situation calls for it.

Back when I was making The Professional, and was asked about whether it was difficult taking direction from myself, I had made a conscious choice to star in my films, as I was primarily making comedies at that time. Comedy is, by far, the hardest type of role to take on. If an actor does not have a knack for timing, or verbal delivery, or performing bits of comic business, the entire thing falls apart. I make no claims for myself as a comic performer, but I will say that in terms of directing myself, I found that I was able to perform the kind of comedy that I envisioned for these films, so at least in that sense, my acting in them was not a detriment.

I think I have less of an affinity for dramatic roles, but I still love getting in front of the camera and acting. I'd love to act in other peoples' films, and have enjoyed that experience on more than one occasion.

I do not especially recommend acting in your own DIY movies unless you really enjoy it and find that you are able to deliver performances that you, as a director, are happy with. As I mentioned, I started doing so from the very beginning partly out of necessity but just as much because I had a desire to act, and in that sense, DIY filmmaking provided me with a way of doing that.

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