The good news about the digital filmmaking revolution has been that filmmakers no longer need to rise through the ranks of filmmaking to make their films. The bad news has been that filmmakers no longer need to rise through the ranks of filmmaking to make their films. Why is it bad news? It’s bad news because aspiring filmmakers no longer learn how to create cinematic performances from experienced filmmakers who have risen through the ranks before them. The result is a generation of filmmakers who are, generally speaking, ill-equipped to direct actors on camera. They can discuss scenes, beats, and moments with their actors, and direct actors how to play scenes and connect with their characters. What they can’t do, generally speaking, is direct a performance to be cinematic.
There’s a big difference between directing actors and directing actors to be cinematic. Actors also take note: When it comes to auditioning, the experienced filmmaker is looking for actors who already know how to make a film performance cinematic. It is the student filmmaker and the aspiring filmmaker who will cast actors who don’t know how to make their own acting cinematic and then make a bad situation worse.
Making a film performance cinematic is the essential ingredient not only to creating fascinating film performances. It’s the essential ingredient to creating performances that are even believable to a film camera which sees life differently from the way a human being sees life and translates that way of seeing life for the audience.
Without the “cinematic” element, film performances are, at their best, ordinary and, at their worst, too big, too loud, and “over the top.” The phrase “over the top” is actually a direction I hear student filmmakers give to their actors. Actors also take note here: One of the biggest tenets of your process is, “Acting is reacting,” and yet, “acting is reacting,” is one of the leading causes of “over-the-top” acting on film.
How, then, does one audition for a student filmmaker? Keep in mind that student filmmakers, as one would expect, think of themselves as having original voices, but what they are trying to do with their student films, generally speaking, is emulate the filmmaking of the filmmakers who have inspired them. This isn’t a bad thing—quite the opposite. It’s one of the ways art evolves. What it means for an actor who wants to be cast by a student filmmaker, as strange as it may sound, is to make typical choices. I often hear actors say that, when auditioning, they don’t want to make choices that are typically made. This is exactly what they should do when auditioning for student filmmakers. Think of it as making classic choices versus making typical choices.
Next, you want to act your audition scenes as though you’re acting in a play on a stage in a small theater. Think of theaters with 99 seats or less. For whatever reason, student filmmakers tend to view scenes that way. Don’t imagine you’re on a large stage. That will be too big. Don’t imagine you’re in a film frame. That will be too small. Once you’re on set making the film with the student filmmaker, the two of you will need to figure out how to make the scenes work in a film frame if you want the film to be successful, but let’s get you on their film set first.
Next, you want to give your character one distinctive character trait and repeat it every few lines. This shows that you know how to create a distinctive character, a thing that they themselves, instinctively, know is necessary, but, generally speaking, don’t really quite know how to create. They will feel themselves in good hands working with you.
Finally, play one moment in the scene in a way that makes absolutely no sense. If the scene is a sad, dramatic scene, then, on one line, laugh. If the scene is an angry scene, then, on one line, be suddenly soft and caring, and only for a moment. They’ll think you’re a genius.