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In On the Action

The old adage tells us that what most actors want to do is direct. This has worked out well for Oscar-winners such as Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner, but for every success story there's a handful of misfires such as Eddie Murphy (Harlem Nights) or Kevin Spacey (Beyond the Sea). But as long as creative types seek more control, there will be actors eager to get behind the camera. This was certainly evidenced at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, where some of the edgiest and most distinctive independent films screened over 10 days. The centerpiece of the opening night festivities was The Wendell Baker Story, a quirky comedy that actor Luke Wilson not only starred in but also wrote and co-directed (with brother Andrew). Keeping it in the family, brother Owen steals scenes as a corrupt nursing home manager who finds himself at odds with Luke's sweet ex-convict. Speaking after the premiere, Luke acknowledges there are many actors who feel the call to direct, and he had to wait for a project that was right. Or, in his case, write one.

But there was a more unique trend at the 2005 Austin, Texas-based festival, in which several directors, for various reasons, found themselves starring in their own films. Directors' decisions to act can veer from intriguing to disastrous. Anyone remember Quentin Tarantino's attempts to strut his thespian skills in films such as Destiny Turns on the Radio or TV's Alias? Then again, some directors have given riveting performances: Sydney Pollack springs to mind as a auteur who shines whether acting in his own film (Tootsie) or someone else's (Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives). Martin Scorsese has ably taken on dramatic roles in films such as Taxi Driver and Guilty by Suspicion, but he also has a blast poking fun at his perfectionism and rat-a-tat speech patterns playing himself in American Express commercials and on TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it's not unusual that experienced directors who have guided countless great actors to award-winning performances would be adept in supporting roles from time to time. What is interesting is when new directors just starting out, without any professional acting training, cast themselves in lead roles in their movies.

Kiss and Tell

One of the most talked-about films of the festival was Kissing on the Mouth, a documentary-style drama about four individuals navigating ordinary lives after college. The film received a love-it-or-hate-it response for its frank depiction of sexuality and its largely improvised script. Director Joe Swanberg and his longtime girlfriend, Kris Williams, had been discussing ideas for a film for a while and decided it was time to move forward. Recent graduates of Southern Illinois University Carbondale film school, they approached fellow student Kate Winterich about making a sexually explicit movie concerning people in their 20s. "The three of us talked about what we were comfortable with," says Swanberg. "We all agreed we wanted to portray sex realistically; we wanted to portray characters our age realistically. We weren't really seeing it in the media, and we sort of had an obligation to make a film we thought accurately represented us." He recruited a friend from high school, Kevin Pittman, a graduate of Columbia College Film School in Chicago, to round out the cast.

None of the four leads had any acting experience, except for Winterich, whose resume was fairly limited. "I took one acting class; it was my last elective," she recalls. "And I acted in a student film, but I was so nervous. There was a scene where I had to dance in front of a jukebox, and I was so scared, and it looked awful." Yet the idea of being naked on camera for Kissing on the Mouth didn't seem to faze her. "It was totally easy," she says with a laugh. "Yet I couldn't dance in front of a jukebox in college." According to Williams, the rawness of the performances was intentional. "We wanted it to be nonprofessional actors," she says. "None of us have any real experience, and that's what we wanted." Indeed, as the film strives for gritty reality, the performances are very natural and even awkward, giving the film a Dogme feel that lends itself to the documentary style.

Where the four were experienced was behind the camera. Armed with a PD-150 camera and using mostly natural lighting, the actors shot the film over a five-month period whenever they could find time. Swanberg estimates the shoot probably took a total of only 15 days. "We all have day jobs," he says. "I think that's true of a lot of filmmakers showing here; they aren't making films as their source of income. So we all had to work, which meant shooting nights, weekends, and anytime we were free." Although Swanberg has the sole directing and editing credit, the four all receive credit for the writing and photography. "You're looking at the whole crew, more or less, right here," the director says of his cast. "What's interesting is that we were all way more comfortable as technicians behind the camera than we were in front of the camera. I think when some people hear about the film they might think, 'Oh, the actors also did the camera work, it might look bad or be unprofessional.' We're really comfortable technically; we're first-timers in front of the camera. It's more the directors acted than the actors did behind-the-scenes work."

Although pleased with their work, the cast members hesitate when asked if they would like to continue acting. "If someone offered me a role and I liked it, I would consider it," says Swanberg, sounding unsure. Williams adds, "But I could only do it this way again. I know I could never do a script and have to say a certain line; I'm just not an actress. I can only act as myself. So if somebody wanted me to do me again, I could." The foursome hopes to continue collaborating for years to come. "We'll probably keep working together the rest of our lives," says Swanberg. "Even if it's just calling each other one day and asking them to run over with some props."

Monster Mash Notes

Four-Eyed Monsters, a film from Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, shares several similarities with Kissing on the Mouth. The film, which was named Runner-Up for the Emerging Visions award, also deals with twentysomethings grappling with issues of sex and love, and was directed by the two leads from a loose outline. But Four-Eyed Monsters, although autobiographical, presents itself as fiction. It is also a surprisingly sleek and stylized film for having virtually no budget; hardly surprising, considering Crumley has been doing freelance videos since he was 17.

The film follows two New York City singles-named after and played by Buice and Crumley--who meet through an Internet dating service. They both have been unlucky in love in the past--as the audience sees in testimonials from exes--and they decide to explore a relationship with a new method. They don't speak to each other. They write notes, they send each other videos, and they can talk to other people in the room, but they never directly address each other. According to the filmmakers, the movie is an accurate representation of when they first started dating two years ago. "It's pretty much verbatim," Buice says. "Nothing in the movie is untrue, but there are some exaggerations." Crumley adds that they took some artistic license when needed, while staying true to the spirit of the story. "There will be experiences that we had later, but they fit in the beginning of the story better so we moved it," he says. "Real life is not a good story structurally. You have to do a few things to get it across."

The filmmakers, who had little to no prior acting experience, cast themselves in the lead roles for several reasons. One was financial: Their budget, says Crumley, consisted of credit cards, and most of the roles were filled by friends or actors they located through a casting notice in Back Stage. Another was to give the film, specifically the dialogue, a natural feel. "I hate watching movies where people are talking, and they sound nothing like people in real life," he says. "I can just hear Courier font being snapped onto a page. I think directors and actors should agree to let things happen naturally and be more organic." But the main reason was simply that the filmmakers were the best people to tell the story. "I don't like sitting around saying, 'The only reason we acted in this film is because it was low-budget, and if I had my way I would have gotten a bigger star,'" he says, echoing a common reason low-budget filmmakers give. "I like to think we did it because it tells the story best." Agrees Buice, "It seemed like, in this case, using ourselves as the actors was the best way to get across what we wanted to express. And it turns out I really enjoyed it."

Buice and Crumley give very natural yet polished performances, and it turns out they sought professional help during the making of the movie. "There was a certain point where we decided it would benefit us as directors, as well as performers, to take some classes," reveals Buice. Based on a recommendation from Mark Scrivo, who plays Arin's roommate in the film, they ended up studying with Brad Calcaterra of the Sally Johnson Studio. "Being involved with an acting studio is an awesome thing for directors, because you meet tons of really good actors. We ended up using some for the film," says Crumley. "And you see a lot of things in class where either an actor's not taking direction and something is said and they take it--you see all these ways to take direction and learn to take it yourself." Adds Buice, "Just the whole concept of trust, how you get actors to trust you and let themselves be directed, is important. It's hard as an actor, when someone tells you to do something that doesn't feel right. And when it's your boyfriend directing you, it's a whole other thing."

Sometimes it was only Buice and Crumley on-set shooting. The largest crew they had at any point in the film was 14 people. "We had some interns over the summer and extras from Back Stage who played bigger parts," Crumley recalls. "We didn't have quite enough; we had to recycle our extras and put wigs on them." The film was shot guerrilla style on 24p on a DVX-100 camera using a shotgun mike and, occasionally, lavaliere microphones. "We didn't get permits or insurance or anything like that," he says. "The biggest thing we did was rent a studio to shoot a restaurant scene, which cost a couple of grand for two days."

Four-Eyed Monsters is currently making the festival rounds, and the two are at work on several other projects-documentary and narrative. One advantage of having the film finished is that their friends now understand their relationship better. "Now that people have seen it they're, like, 'Oh, I understand why you two didn't want to talk.' When we were actually having the experience, I told my friends, and they thought we were so weird," Buice recalls. "Honestly," says Crumley, "that might have been why we made the movie."

Stranger in a Strange Land

One of the most fascinating films at the festival was Cavite, a gritty tale from filmmakers Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, which won a Special Jury Award in the Narrative Competition. Shot entirely with a handheld camera and filmed mostly in the Philippines, Cavite stars Gamazon as a helpless young man forced to follow the instructions of a kidnapper who is watching his every move. The kidnapper claims to be holding his sister and mother hostage and sends Gamazon on a labyrinthine mission through the slums of the Philippines, barking orders over a cell phone. The locations the filmmakers use--a squatter's village, an actual cockfight--are as fascinating as the story. "I think the Philippines is the main character of the movie," says Gamazon. "The story of the film really became just an excuse to explore the city." Even more interesting is that the filmmakers walked right into some little-seen areas with a camera without even asking for permission. "No one stopped us," Llana says. "In fact, people were curious and ultimately very friendly." The pair even ended up casting a lot of minor roles on the spot from interested bystanders.

But the majority of the movie rests on Gamazon's shoulders, as he is in virtually every frame of the film. And, as it turns out, it's not by his choice. "Originally, it was supposed to be an Asian actress playing the lead," he says. "We auditioned for almost a year, but either they weren't right for the role, or they just flat-out turned it down." Two weeks before shooting began, Llana suggested Gamazon take the lead. At this point, Gamazon was on board as sole director. "At first I thought he had lost it," Gamazon admits. "But looking over the script we both realized that it was possible to make the transition. We both knew that this was going to be a two-man crew all the way, and we should be co-directors as well."

The pair spent 14 days in the Philippines--"Two days to scout for locations, 10 days to shoot, two days to shop," says Llana--shooting the film on a Panasonic DVX-100 in 24p advanced mode that looks remarkably like 16mm film. Llana and Gamazon have known each other for years and say they were on the same page from day one. "Everything was collaborative, from the writing to the directing to the editing," says Llana. "No major decisions were made unless the other director approved. As far as the actual production, we left it up to each other as to the directing process; I left Ian alone as to the choices he'd make as an actor, and he left me alone as to the choices I'd make as the cinematographer."

Gamazon has acted in past films the pair have done together, but he doesn't consider himself an actor. "I hope to never act again," he says. "But in the indie world, you just never know. Sometimes you act out of necessity. You just have no choice in the matter." Being so close to the production had its advantages, however. "I knew the script, and I knew what I wanted as a director," says Gamazon. "I was basically rewriting some of the lines in my head while I was acting. I think a 'regular' actor would have improvised, but not to the extent that I did." If there was one major disadvantage to starring, Gamazon cites missing the collaborative process. "I really want to direct actors, not myself," he says. "To be able to create the character with another person--I love that collaboration with the actors." He also can't help but occasionally ask: What if? Says Gamazon, "I'm kind of curious about how the film would be if it had been a female actor." BSW

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