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First Person

How Making a Movie Is Like Making Theater

How Making a Movie Is Like Making Theater

I started working on my first feature film, "Fully Loaded," in 2007. It was like climbing a mountain four times as high as it says in the guidebook. It was like changing churches. It was like having a relationship with a mad gorilla that keeps waking you from a dead sleep. I had been making theatre my whole life. I gave birth, virtually without drugs, to two kids. But making a movie terrified me. As it turns out, many fears (bears, poisonous snakes, feature films) are reasonable and even healthy fears.

Here is the briefest possible sketch of what happened while making the film: I asked for money from family and friends, several of who got mad. I had four different editors, and the second one not only held the film hostage when we parted ways, but shared lurid, inappropriate details of his personal life. I did every job from fundraising to post supervising with no idea what I was doing, inviting many moments of wrath by the film’s actual producers (including my husband) because of my missteps. I spent the weeks before the release in a music rights nightmare with distributors threatening to “kill this thing” seven times. It was far more twisted and tangled than directing a play, logistically and interpersonally, and it required a stamina that spanned years.

Artistically though, what is so different about directing a film and directing a play? I’m proposing the subversive idea that making a movie is simply a different form of theater. Like theater, filmmaking is an ensemble endeavor. My husband (filmmaker Adam McKay) says a movie set is like a mini city. Everything we know about stage acting applies. You want actors to get into that blessed, spontaneous groove.

In movies, you get to sneak and roll camera when they don’t realize they are being filmed. But you still must help the actors talk to each other, make each other laugh, and drop their shtick; and help them realize what is at stake each moment, just like in theater. Then in the edit room, you must put it together and transform it just as you work a play onstage. You must keep an eye on the whole and yet pay close attention to detail. When editing, a piece of footage does not resist or say, "Screw you," but neither does it surprise you like a live actor can. In the edit room, the surprise comes in how you put the pieces together. In making a play, the surprises come from letting go of what's in your head, and opening up to what the actor brought. It's the same on a film set.

Actors Paula Killen and Lisa Orkin carry "Fully Loaded" brilliantly on their shoulders. Their real life rapport is so funny and poignant I just wanted to make sure they were loose and playful. So, my main, highly sophisticated technique when filming – 60 percent of the movie takes place with the two of them in a car - was to sing in crazy voices to Paula and Lisa over the walkie-talkie while directing from the tow-van behind the car. And when directing Danny Pudi and his fellow stoner dudes in our car chase scene, I had to rehearse them like a play, get them loose, and then film it blind because I could not fit in on the floor of the car or even watch on the monitor.

I grew up with a collaborative theater tradition, and every ounce of those skills was called on in making a movie. Tim Robbins advised, “Don’t be afraid to say ‘What do you think?’ ” My husband said, “This is not your movie.” And yet as a woman, I sure as hell had to walk in and have enough confidence to gain the trust of everyone around me. (While working with a group of real bikers in one of the first scenes we shot, I had to curse to get them to trust me).

I remember once cutting down a tree in the woods of upstate New York for a theater set. We put it without roots, on a dirt floor and it bloomed under the lights. Which reminds me somehow of the creak and the cold sitting in the makeshift tow rig we created for the driving sequences in "Fully Loaded" and watching the dawn come up. Making this movie, like making my first play, fear gave way to love and exhilaration. Digital impressions of humans, or humans on stage in your face, it’s all just the joy of making some kind of poetic, sad, or funny event for people to watch in the dark.

"Fully Loaded" will be released through VOD on Nov. 13.

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