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Getting Great Performances…

by DW Brown

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I'm shooting a scene in my dentist's building in which the mother of my protagonist, having just heard her daughter's diagnosis, collapses in tears by the elevator; and we've been told that one of the other tenants has called the cops. We don't have permits. As the camera starts rolling and I'm waiting for my actress to go to the ground, the AD whispers: "The police are here, we've got to stop." If I cut now I won't have what I need. The AD is clearly in a state of high emotion, near panic, actually. "We've got to stop." she says again. I hold a hand up indicating my resolve that the scene will be allowed to run its course. A moment goes by and the A.D. now clutches my arm with both hands, desperate, but ingrained nevertheless with the ethic that only a director may utter the sacred word "cut;" she whispers yet again: "We have to stop!" I wait… wait… the actress goes to the ground, the guy playing her husband kneels by her, starts to console her, and... "Cut." We're packing up as the cops talk to the aggrieved tenant. 

Dash Mihok on the set of On The Inside.

I relate this story to assure you I know very well the constraints of low budget filmmaking, and how crucial it can be to have talent that gets in there and gets it done without a lot of folderol. In this case, the actor playing the mother happened to be my wife, Joanne Baron, and if you take out the complications of directing one's spouse (the subject for a whole different article) it proves that in such situations you're well served if you have a performer with a lot of emotional access and a killer instinct for when it's crunch time. Of course, that's the best advice I can give you for getting a good performance quickly: cast well. 
"Great," you're saying. "I didn't need this ding-dong to tell me that;" but give me a second here, there are a few specifics I'd like to point out; because, in contradiction to the movie making adage that says of fast, cheap and good, you will only ever get two of those, when it comes to performances, you can sometimes hit the trifecta. 
While you might think it a big plus to have someone with a nice, meaty resume, that's not necessarily the case when it comes to work on a low budget film. There's experience and then there's experience. Some experience may be a hindrance if it's made your performer prideful about how they think they should be treated, or precious about their process. A lot of theater experience or cozy television work might not have prepared a performer for the rigors of production on the road. Maggie Gyllenhaal speaks with fondness about how when making "SherryBaby" she was changing costumes in a restaurant bathroom with civilians coming in and out, but it's possible a diva of the theater might have instead gotten rattled and out of sorts about losing her comfortable, backstage ritual. 

Nick Stahl, Tariq Trotter, and me.

The most outrageous film festival Q&A I've ever seen was when the actor William Devane, discussing his experience on the movie, POOR WHITE TRASH, began lambasting the filmmakers who were sitting next to him about how "rinky-dink" their production was in comparison to a "real" movie (re: a studio picture). This is the kind of guy who can torpedo your film if he decides to walk off in a huff; never mind how demoralizing he'll be on a day-to-day basis. 

When casting you've got to have your antennae out for potential prima donnas who might be given to resistance (sometimes taking the form of confusion) or prone to brittleness, where they're quick to sharpness and leveraging the possibility that they'll become overwhelmed. In my experience, the most problematic performers tend to be women over forty. I'm sorry if that sounds sexist or ageist or whatever, but it just seems there's often a combination of entitlement and fragility there that can make for trouble. 

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