Improvise

I worked on a film a while ago with a bunch of somewhat known actors — some of them were people whose names you’d recognize, some were people whose faces you’d recognize, and at least one was one of those hot up-and-coming types who’d recently been in a Woody Allen movie. The director had made a number of low-budget movies, one of which had garnered some attention and good press, but he was, overall, definitely lower in stature than his cast. Anyone can tell you that this is a bad position to be in, but he then made it worse by letting the actors improvise.

Now, I love watching actors work, and booming gives you an excellent vantage point from which to do that. You really come to appreciate the ones who can somehow make their performances original, fresh and powerful take after take after take, while still getting all of their lines right and hitting their marks — the ones who know their craft inside and out. David Strathairn, Catherine Keener, they are that kind of actor. Then there are the more methody actors, who can get there, and sometimes to more unexpected places, but they need to get “into character.” Everyone on the crew of The Sopranos loved Jim Gandolfini, but he was known to tear up his trailer getting ready for particularly angry scenes, of which there were many. But they are still amazing – even the actors who choose to stay in character all the time, like the ones who play a jerk by actually being a jerk, are still a sight to behold when they turn it on for the camera. Bearing your soul in that way is just not something I can ever imagine doing. I studied up on my Meisner and Strasberg back in film school to learn how to work with actors, but I never took the step of trying to learn it from the inside because acting so scares the crap out of me. I understand what they do intellectually, but the balls that it takes to really do it, 100%, are pretty fucking substantial – that’s why you see a lot of actors who regularly squeak by with a 20-30% performance, which they can get away with if they’re hot, which, let’s face it, most of them are.

However, actors are, without a doubt, the neediest people on the planet. If there is attention to be had, they want to be not just the center of it but the epicenter. That’s why they’re actors. Now, I’m not saying that they can’t be giving. A large part of acting is about reacting, which requires playing, nicely or not, with others, so most of them have to know how to give at least a little. But let them and they will just take take take like the handsome incubi they are.

This is where the director is supposed to come in. To use a nautical analogy (so many film terms are nautical), the director is supposed to be the captain of this ship that is the film we are all making. The cast and crew will, hopefully, all know their jobs very well — they might be really good at rowing, looking out from the crow’s nest, swabbing the poopdeck or whatever — but they tend to be narrowly focused on those jobs and not on the destination to which the ship is supposed to be sailing. It’s partly the fact that one person has to be in charge – unless they’re making a commercial, in which case the ship is being captained by committee, and you can imagine how well that works out – and partly because the film is supposed to be the director’s vision, and therefore he or she is going to be the only one who can fully see what it should be, and the only person whose entire agenda is bringing that vision to fruition. Everyone else sees the film through his or her own narrow set of priorities. Cinematographers will noodle around forever trying to get the lighting to look good if you let them, because that’s what they think is most important. Assistant directors will just want to keep moving and make the day even if what they’ve shot is shit. Sound people, given the option, will light everything from the side and film it all in close up so that it can be easily boomed. And actors will want to act until they’ve chewed up all of the scenery and possibly some of their co-stars, because that is their raison d’etre.

So, on this film, one of the actors managed to work his way into a good cry at some point in all of his scenes — none of which had originally involved crying, and many of which were supposed to be funny. The couple, who were supposed to be madly in love, would always end up in a fight. Scenes would lose their endings that were supposed to act as segueways to the next part of the plot, and just continue into uncharted waters, with discussions that perhaps these characters might have had in real life, if they’d decided to explore the deeper questions of their psyches, only they wouldn’t do that because for one, nobody does that, and for another, they’re characters in a movie. We’re not watching these people because they’re actual people, we’re watching them because some writer has carefully crafted a plot for them to move around in.  

Now of course, I was partly (or perhaps largely) resentful of this because the longer these people improvised, the longer I had to keep holding the pole with the mic on it over their heads. Plus, not knowing which actor is going to say what next is never a good situation to be in when you’re supposed to be pointing the mic at the person who is speaking. Now, I’m willing to suffer to a certain degree for somebody else’s art — that is, after all, my day job – but I’m not willing to suffer for self-indulgent dreck, or when a director is basically using actors to give a script a rewrite because he doesn’t know how to do it himself. Improvisation can be a great tool, allowing actors to find their way into the script by using their own words, or for finding a fix for some problematic dialogue. And some actors are good writers, and many are great directors. But the problem with improvisation is that, left purely to its own devices, it doesn’t know how to get there – and by “there” I mean anywhere. The idea of improv, going back to Meisner, is to keep playing off of each other, reacting and reacting and reacting in an endless pinballing of energy, keeping the balloon in the air for as long as you can. But if there’s no direction, no goal, no script to come back to, nobody to eventually drive the bus (ship, whatever), then it just adds up to a fun but ultimately pointless exercise. Sketch comedy: yes. Crime drama: not so much.

So the improvisation on this movie made me tired, and sore, and resentful, and despairing for the future of the film we were making, if not for film in general. But truth be told, there might have been more to it than that. I’ve finally realized, here, in middle age, that I am not a spontaneous person. Seriously, I’ve tried. I love the idea of spontaneity: let’s order a round of shots, crash a party, go dancing until the wee hours, jump in the car and drive to AC! But then at some point, you have to wake up hung over, exhausted, at noon, in South Jersey, with no clean underwear. I love the idea of living in the moment, but I’ve always been too practical to not think ahead to the not having of the clean underwear – to what’s going to happen next. There have been rare times when I’ve been able to somewhat shed the shackles of this boring foresightedness (traveling by yourself in a foreign country is actually great for forcing you to do this), but in general, I’m too reflective, too self-conscious, a compulsive futurist. I think I’ve always been like this, but the older I get, the more I like to have a plan. It’s so cool when someone asks me to do something right now, but the problem is that, at least in my mind, right now has usually been spoken for, as has the rest of the day and possibly the rest of the week too, if not with actual plans then with things I was supposed to do yesterday but didn’t because I was playing Carcassonne or taking one more lap around the park on my bike because it’s finally spring. Hmm, I guess the only thing I really do well spontaneously is procrastinate.

Only now I’m at this point where I’ve lost my Plan. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I started making stop-motion films with my stuffed animals and my super-8 camera and Ektachrome back in 1977, but it wasn’t like I knew that’s what I would do with my life — because it’s not the kind of practical thing that anybody who is a planner would actually plan to do. But when I went ahead and applied to film school, then got in, it seemed decided, that this was The Plan.  Little did I know that The Plan of age 21, which would have had me, by now, established in a career as a successful writer-director who got full creative control to make whatever movies she wanted, oh, and I was also supposed to have children, would really just be the beginning of a 25-odd-year existential struggle.  Nothing ever turns out the way you think, I know, but this really didn’t at all.

So what am I supposed to do now?  Improvise. Yeah, at 45, I have to learn how to do that. And as if I didn’t fight it enough before, when I was just talking about something fun and unimportant, like ordering pizza at 2 am, now it’s just about, you know, my future.

Last night I saw Particle Fever, the pretty awesome documentary about the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland, and the discovery of the Higgs boson. The Higgs was known in some circles as the “God particle” because it was the one key particle from the Standard Model of matter that held everything together, and that hadn’t yet actually been proven to exist. In the documentary, there are a number of theoretical physicists who are hoping that, when the LHC finally smashes its particles together, it will prove theories they’ve been working on for the past 20 or 30 years. When, at one point, it seems that what has been discovered might just mean that their entire careers have been wasted, one of the physicists jokes that “jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the secret of success.”  

This is a good thing to keep in mind. Every plan or Plan has the potential to fail — and even if you succeed, then what? I know folks who became stock option millionaires at 30 and had no idea what to do with the rest of their lives. So here’s to learning, hopefully with undiminished enthusiasm, to improvise, to keep going, and to come up with whatever comes next – no matter how tired my arms get.

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