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9 Tips for Getting the Best Performances in Micro-Budget Features

9 Tips for Getting the Best Performances in Micro-Budget Features

I’ve been on both sides of the casting process, and I regretfully report that most auditions I’ve experienced are not staged in a way that benefits either filmmakers or actors.

Many filmmakers are taught casting techniques which don’t effectively measure acting skill, and instead, gauge how good an actor is at auditioning. While auditioning is part of the job of the actor, it’s your job to get the best performance possible out of each role in your film, so it’s worth re-thinking the process.

Throughout the process of making my debut feature, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” set to premiere in competition at Cinequest this month, I discovered a number of techniques which can help filmmakers tap undiscovered talent and maximize performances:

1. Provide more pages, not fewer.

I’ve heard acting teachers say that “the audition starts when you walk into the casting room,” but as a director, I want to see that it started even earlier than that. I want to know how well an actor connects with the text, and so I’m going to give them as many tools as possible to do so — sides before the first round of auditions, and the full, most current draft of the screenplay for callbacks.

I’m not going to be showing actors pages of text for the first time when we’re shooting, so I’m not that interested in “cold reading” during casting. I’m not necessarily looking for finished work, but I would rather see a prepared actor than not. And it can’t be understated (especially if you’re offering little, no, or deferred compensation): it’s never too early to start gauging work ethic.

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Think Outside the Box When it Comes to Casting

2. Have your actors read with other actors.

This can sometimes be difficult to pull off logistically, but since the best actors are those who really listen to and work off their scene partners, it’s going to be difficult to tell much from watching them interact with a reader. Some readers are incredibly generous, but many aren’t. While inconsistency does exist between auditioning actors, it’s more effectively neutralized when everyone reading the sides has something tangible at stake. I scheduled my audition appointments this way starting with the first round.

In fairness to the actors auditioning, err on the side of offering a callback if someone seems to have suffered from a clearly mismatched scene partner.

3. No cameras for the first round of auditions.

Is it any wonder how self-conscious most actors can be about auditions when so many require them to make their first impression by showing up and reading unfamiliar text on camera to an often disengaged reader? And is there any point in advancing an actor to the callback round if they look great on camera but can’t work off a scene partner or take direction?

I held my first round of auditions with no cameras whatsoever – just me, working with two or three actors at a time, on the (pre-provided) text in a room. Sometimes my producers were present as observers, sometimes not, but this environment – more of a rehearsal than an audition – meant everyone involved got a feel for how working together on the project would be, and I got a better chance to determine how well actors fit into my working environment, rather than an audition scenario that would never replay itself on set.

Since it is important to make sure performances show up on camera before making final casting decisions, I’m all for bringing in cameras starting with the callback rounds.

4. Replace “cold reads” with improvisation.

The point of the “cold read” is, in no small part, to see how an actor can think on his/her feet, make strong choices and roll with the unexpected while still honoring the text. It’s a pressure test, and while that element definitely belongs in the casting process, I find pressure tests more effective later, when separating actors who’ve already proven that they can work off their scene partners, take adjustments, prepare from a text and communicate their inner life on camera.

The pressure test I used at the close of my callbacks for “The Happiest Place on Earth” was an on-camera, in-character interview. Since the actors had been offered an opportunity to prepare for callbacks from the full script, I took advantage of that preparation to ask them open-ended questions about their role in the film, as if a police interrogator or investigative journalist – their motivations behind their actions, their reactions to particular story events, their feelings regarding some of the themes relevant to the role.

It’s important in this scenario to impart that there are no wrong answers, as you’re not looking for finished work from an actor. Instead, you’re gauging flexibility, spontaneity and the ability to think on one’s feet. It offers them another chance to take ownership of the character and to participate in the storytelling process. It proved to be a telling exercise, mostly reinforcing what I’d already seen. But in some cases, it revealed collaborative potential. In others, it revealed resistances to exploring aspects of the character that must at be least considered to do justice to the particular role.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that 90 percent of directing actors is casting. There are several choices you can make as a director – some seemingly having nothing to do with acting – that can go a long way toward elevating the performances, in addition to serving your story and getting your movie made.

In my case, because “The Happiest Place on Earth” deals with contemporary, socially relevant material that examines the distance between cultural myth and reality, the self-consciously naturalistic styles of neorealism, and specifically Dogme 95, were already highly attractive but I could not have anticipated the extent to which exploring those styles would help the overall film.

For those unfamiliar, the Dogme 95 movement was started in Denmark in the late 1990s by a group of directors led by Lars von Trier (“Antichrist,” “Nymphomaniac”) and Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt,” “The Celebration”) as a filmmaking purification ritual with an eye toward forcing “the truth from … characters and settings” over “elevating cosmetics to God.” The founding four filmmakers each made one film this way before resuming their careers, but more than 50 Dogme features worldwide were certified by the collective before the they stopped keeping count.

5. Root your story in physical actions.

Among the rules of the Dogme 95 “vow of chastity” are prohibitions against genre exercises, “superficial action” and importing props. For example, near the beginning of my film, Maggie (Jennifer Faith Ward) and Jonah (Tom Kemnitz, Jr.) move into the new home they’ve just bought. In this sequence, Jennifer and Tom actually unloaded a moving truck and carried the furniture we would use for the film into our house set, all on camera. Not only does this allow for efficiency in terms of production tasks (we would have had to move everything in whether or not we shot it), it also helps anchor the performances in what Sanford Meisner calls, “the reality of doing.” If you’re actually moving furniture, you will always be more convincing than if you were simply pretending to do so.

6. Repurpose “found time.”

By restricting camera movement and stabilization, as well as lighting, the Dogme 95 style drastically reduces setup time, thus increasing the potential pace of shooting and transforming the limitations of low-, micro- and no-budget productions from liability to liberation. Essentially, you are finding hidden time in your schedule, which is at least as important as finding hidden money in your budget. And this means your shooting schedule can become another creative tool.

Traditionally, films are scheduled according to location availability, actor availability and lighting setups to maximize efficiency. But what’s taken for granted in these schedules is that the actors will be able to effortlessly shift from one emotional moment to the next. Again, while this is part of the job of an actor, often it’s possible to manipulate the schedule to shoot portions of the film in sequence, which both provides your actors context for their performances and can cut down on continuity errors.

If shooting in sequence for longer stretches isn’t possible, you can use this “found time” to shoot longer takes, a downscaled alternative to shooting in sequence, or shoot more takes, to allow actors time to explore their characters and offer you more options in the edit suite, or experiment with improvisation to find new life in a scene or moment.

7. Get out of the actors’ way.

The Dogme 95 restrictions on locations, props and settings also mean that both the crew size and budget can be streamlined. Particularly when using DSLR cameras and existing lighting fixtures, most grips and electricians become superfluous. A crew with a smaller footprint facilitates access to more locations, ensures less interference from outsiders and reduces the barriers between the actor and the authentic life they are bringing to the work.

One of the more unnatural aspects of movie acting in the industrial model is that the most private emotional moments are often explored on a cutaway set in front of a crew of dozens, if not hundreds. That’s one reason actors that can convincingly connect with authentic emotion in such settings are paid so handsomely.

But if you’re already shooting on a real, lived-in location, in light completely natural to that setting, with a camera and lenses that allow them unimpeded freedom of movement, you reduce obstacles like hitting marks and finding light, enabling the actors to focus on what they are doing in the scene instead of technical minutiae, meaning that whatever talent you have attracted to your project can be convincing in their roles.

8. If necessary, scrap the rules.

While I aspired to total Dogme 95 purity, I ultimately decided simply to embrace the spirit of the movement, including the idea the rules can and should be broken when necessary. Our soundtrack features expressionistic elements, realistic sounds that could not be captured simultaneously with the image, and an original score, all prohibited by the “Vow of Chastity.” Some interior night scenes are lit with daylight-balanced bulbs in practical fixtures, and the principal location was altered, although much of the set dressing occurs or is suggested via on-camera action. As the founding brethren of the movement acknowledged via their “confession” clause, sometimes to make a film watchable, you can’t adhere to any singular set of rules.

9. Think of yourself as a chisel, not a paintbrush.

Ultimately, this shooting style is not about following rules. It’s about getting away from “filling a canvas” with a paintbrush, and instead, using a chisel to sculpt the reality of human experience into something meaningful.

John Goshorn was born and raised in a rural Virginia town an hour from the nearest movie theater. “The Happiest Place on Earth,” which will premiere in competition at the 25th Annual Cinequest Film Festival this month, is his debut feature film as writer, director and producer. Goshorn holds a Bachelor of Science in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University, a Master of Fine Arts in Film from the University of Central Florida and a professional acting certificate in the Sanford Meisner technique from Truthful Acting Studios. He currently teaches Storytelling: Script into Image at Full Sail University. Follow him on Twitter.

READ MORE: 5 Reasons You Need to Hire a Casting Director and Not Do It Yourself

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