Dear film folk,
I’ve never studied filmmaking. I barely know which end of a camera to do a selfie into. But being an actor who is in need of footage for a showreel, I read a lot of casting breakdowns online for short films, so I get a fairly good picture of the kinds of films that students and new directors are making at the moment – and a lot of it makes for a pretty depressing imaginary mid-film montage. If I were making it, I’d put the Benny Hill music over it. Or the Funeral March.
Of course, many students and filmmakers are doing brilliant, innovative and interesting work. But it seems to me that for every ingenious gem there’s a real clanger that lets the good ones down and gives short-filmmaking a bad rep. A lot of the time it’s not even down to incompetence or ignorance, it’s just things that people don’t think to consider when they’re not on the business end of the camera, so to speak, as we actors are. So here are a few ways in which you can make sure you write great films that don’t make actors want to tear, maim and damage things, and also help create a richer film industry that’s not saturated with damaging stereotypes and lazy clichés.
First, we need to talk about women. If I were a Martian whose sole means of understanding the human race was the ‘Opportunities’ section on Casting Call Pro (now THERE’S a great film idea), I would assume that women are a different race from men, that they don’t really matter, and that they are mostly either strippers, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, girlfriends, broken-hearted victims, mothers or receptionists. They also only exist in relation to men.
Take a look at the last script you wrote, or film you directed. Do the women in it exist *fully* when the man isn’t in the picture? Are they just there to tell his story? Does it pass the Bechdel Test (two named female characters, who have a conversation at one point, that isn’t about a man)? I guarantee you that writing/directing properly rounded, complex, flawed female characters who aren’t entirely defined simply through love, sex or relationships, will immediately improve the quality of your films by a factor of Judi Dench.
In fact, why not consider writing a genderless script? That way, you avoid the unconscious draw of the gender clichés and focus instead on who that character really is. Then haul in a load of male and female actors for audition and just choose the one who fits the part best. Bosh.
Now let’s get into the nitty gritty.
1. Sex scenes. Your film is seven minutes long. Is it absolutely imperative to the story that one of those seven minutes is spent leering over two actors who met each other that morning, awkwardly pretending to bang with their pants on under the duvet? See also: nudity. There aren’t many actresses who want footage of their own boobs for their showreels, and your ‘tasteful and artistic’ might be someone else’s ‘plain nasty’.
2. Consider carefully before stipulating about the looks of your characters in the casting brief. Just because Jessica is thin and blonde in your head, and Michael is tall and willowy with round glasses and a rakish grin, do you really want to completely eliminate a brunette actress or a bulky actor who might totally own the role of Jessica or Michael if given the chance? Is Jessica’s hair colour imperative to the story? Does Michael need to be tall and willowy in order to fit through a small gap and then reach a high shelf in the closing scene? Do they need to be attractive? Do they need to be white? Don’t limit your film by limiting the types of actors who can apply. And while we’re on the subject, there are so many briefs I come across where the female character must be slim/attractive/curvaceous/sexy/young/ pretty/size 8-10/skinny/gorgeous/cute/good hair/good figure/great smile/pixie-like features/a sad, faraway look in her eyes, and yet no demands are made about the physical appearance of the dude character at all. Don’t be that guy.
3. If you are using professional actors, you should pay them wherever possible. You are paying for their time, their skills and their training, and if you want respect as a filmmaker, you should respect your actors equally. There are many ways to raise funds for films, so find a way. Student filmmakers will, however, still find professional, fully trained actors who will do films for nothing as long as their expenses are covered, if it promises good material for a showreel. Covering expenses is considered the bare minimum, so it’s as simple as don’t make a film until you can do this at the very least.
4. Wherever possible, avoid writing extras or incidental, one-line roles into your film if you can’t pay your actors. You will get very few applications, and the actor who is eventually cast as ‘Man In Cafe’ or ‘Passerby With Hat’ won’t get anything useful for their showreel, which is the only reason they’re doing the film for no pay. Not even an unemployed actor has time for that.
5. Finally, for the love of Hitchcock, check your spelling on the casting brief. No actor fancies putting their celluloid image in the hands of a filmmaker who has managed to misspell the name of the actual film (yes I’ve seen it, so many more times that you’d even believe). Make sure you know your your from your you’re and have someone check it over before it goes out.
You are the future of the film industry, so, on behalf of all actors (and people who watch films), please stop and think before you write that next script. If it’s a no-pay film project about a man with a drug-addled, heart-broken, rape victim stripper girlfriend, who MUST have a shaved head, one leg and a sad, faraway look in her eyes, featuring an army of extras and five and a half minutes of shagging, go back and read this article again. And then maybe consider writing that one about the Martian instead.
Essential further reading for filmmakers: Casting Call Woe, or ‘how definitely not to write a film, ever’.
Photo by Flickr user Max Chang under a Creative Commons licence.