Me, Myself, and I, a.k.a., Writer, Director, and Star!

20 Jun

There is an identifiable trend in the independent film world that is a bit disconcerting to me: people are increasingly writing themselves into scripts and subsequently directing themselves.  Tiny Furniture is the quintessential example from 2011.

Perhaps the rise of mumblecore movies and reality TV has something to do with it.  I suspect YouTube has played a huge role as well.  After all, half the videos on YouTube are people ad libbing on a webcam.  I guess such YouTubers not only deserve writer, director and actor credits, but also producer, cinematographer, costume designer, editor…

Regardless of where this trend stems from, I am intrigued by it.  Will it lead to better art?  Is it mostly narcissism?  Laziness?

One thing is for sure: just because you can attempt something doesn’t mean you should and it certainly doesn’t mean you know how.  I personally know actors who have studied for years under master teachers and they still claim to know nothing about the craft of acting.  They have the utmost reverence for their craft.  To be on stage or in front of the camera is an earned privilege, not a right, nor an opportunity.

Just because I can go to Home Depot and buy electrical equipment doesn’t mean I can rewire my house.  Sure, the tools are available, but I have no idea what to do with them.  It seems the “democratization of film,” i.e., the proliferation of cheap digital filmmaking equipment, has not only liberated us from the prohibitive costs of film production, but from the art of filmmaking as well.

Believe me, I try to have an open-mind; I do.  But all this self-saturated stuff is beginning to depress me.

I really would love to hear what you think….


21 Responses to “Me, Myself, and I, a.k.a., Writer, Director, and Star!”

  1. Amir Teymouri June 28, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    Good stuff Chris. To me it seem quite clear, once the price ranged dropped on cameras, there was an increase in the amount of “filmakers”. I look at the Panasonic dvx and the cannon x2(?) as the start of this trend.

    Chris you have made outstanding films with the dvx which argues this is a good trend, but that means we have to endure those countless youtube/facebook works of “art.”

    I guess its a fair trade off…?

    • Christopher June 28, 2012 at 8:35 am #

      Definitely a fair trade off. I totally agree with you about the influx of “filmmakers” since the digital “revolution.” But the glut of crud is worth the liberation. I can’t imagine trying to make films back in the day when only studios owned all the equipment – gees!

  2. stolaroff June 25, 2012 at 12:52 am #

    Oh, Chris, I understand your frustration, but I do disagree with these notions that people don’t have a right to try. Yes, you probably shouldn’t try to re-wire your house because if you fuck up, the whole neighborhood could suffer. But who’s suffering if someone less than talented tries their hand at acting? I mean, mostly nobody is going to see that film. And, as you know, I’m a big believer in everybody trying because I don’t know who the next Woody Allen or Lena Dunham is going to be.

    I’m not so sure it is absolutely a new trend either. Think of ”Brothers McMullen”. ”Clerks” (to a degree). Joe Carnahan starred in his first feature and he was terrific. I wish he would act more, (though he played a small part in ”The A-Team”). I think it comes down to knowing what you can do and writing for that. In my early days, when I used to write skits, then films, and then theater, I would often write stuff I could play. I loved acting, but I definitely knew my limitations. I founded a live theater in Houston 22 years ago and probably performed in half the plays. It’s not brain surgery or electricity. Now, could I perform Chekhov? Absolutely not. Bring in the pros for that. But a parody commercial for ”Fish World” (the one-stop spot for all your pescatarian desires), that I wrote for myself to perform? We didn’t need Merrill Streep for that! And no one got hurt, either!

    BTW, I saw Lena Dunham’s co-star Alex Karpovsky act in his new film “Red Flag,” which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I wrote about the film (which was shot with a one-man crew) and two other no-budget films I’ve seen recently here:

    • Christopher June 25, 2012 at 8:24 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Mark!

      If you reread my post, which I know you won’t do – LOL – you’ll notice that I never deny one a right to try anything :) Who the hell am I to deny anyone a creative choice?

      I’m simply calling into question the prevalence of the actor/”star.” I’m not convinced it’s entirely coming from a genuine place of artistry. I’m wondering how much of it comes from good old egotism and navel gazing.

      I am open to the possibility that all this can lead to good art as well, which I mention in my post.

      Knowing you and your passion (and your experience, which you share in your comment), I can see how my post seems obnoxious, close-minded and opinionated; however, keep in mind that there are two sides to every argument and, based on conversations with others, I believe there often is a negative side to one acting/writing/directing (often producing), their own thing too soon…

      • Mark Stolaroff June 25, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

        Well, first, I have a hard time believing you could ever be “obnoxious.” And this is your blog–you’re supposed to be “opinionated”! So power to you!

        I think there are plenty of egotistical directors who DON’T act, (and egotistical actors who don’t direct), and a lot of navel gazing to go around. I think in a case like Joe’s or mine, it’s a situation of trying to think of something you’d like to do, no money to do it, coming up with an idea that you like, and you like it because it involves yourself, and it’s tailored for yourself, and no one is beating down the door to do it and you have no chance of getting Tom Cruise to do it, so you go out and do it. And you like doing it; it’s fun. That doesn’t have to be negative. (Unless, of course, you were in the audience of one of those shows I did all those years ago and you had to suffer through my acting!).

      • Christopher June 25, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

        Thanks, Mark! You definitely have a solid point about doing it for the fun of it, so I’ll leave it at that! It really is a good point; I’m just a bit wary, that’s all….

        BTW, are you aware that I mentioned you twice in my recent Film Courage interviews?!!! (@ 5:20) (@ 5:00)

      • Mark Stolaroff June 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

        Thanks for the shout-outs! (I don’t know if I told you, but I spoke about your 7 Films in 7 Weeks in my last class. Had a slide and everything!

      • Christopher June 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

        No, I never knew! Awesome, thanks :)

  3. onfoodandfilm June 21, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    This seemed slightly related (and it is funny)

    • Christopher June 21, 2012 at 9:34 am #

      Oh man!!!! I’m freaking cracking up!!!! Beautiful!!! “Who told you you can act? Your director from the Power Aid commercial?”!!!

  4. Sajib June 21, 2012 at 2:23 am #

    This goes will with photographers.

    The latest trend here in Bangladesh is getting a hold of a DSLR camera and claiming themselves to be a photographer. But photography is way more than just having a DSLR. That’s just the first step, I believe.

    • Christopher June 21, 2012 at 6:28 am #

      Quite true, Sajib! I shot still photography for years, processing negatives and printing on fiber paper. Every frame counted. It’s so easy and cheap now, technically.

      I’m sure the ease will lead to some innovation in the art, but it will also undermine it as well. Quite often, shortcuts lead to an overall negative effect, like fast food…

  5. Chris June 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    I think it might just be another factor that is less of a headache. Getting other bodies on set for an indie film is a pain in the ass, so I’m sure the filmmaker figures that, since they’re going to be there no matter what, they’ll fill the title role. Sure, it’s another headache, but at least they don’t have to worry about scheduling and paying another person.

    In the project I’m working on now I had to fill an extra role because the people I had asked to help decided to stay in Brooklyn instead. It’s a bit different of a situation, but sometimes they’re all circumstantial like that.

    One recent film I love is “In The Family” by Patrick Wang. He played the lead role while also directing it and found it very beneficial — if a scene was moving in a direction he didn’t like, he could fix it while the camera was rolling through improv or different delivery, etc. Pretty fascinating.

    • Christopher June 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

      That’s pretty interest regarding Wang’s role as director while the camera is rolling! However, I must ask: doesn’t that effect his performance? Can one truly sell out to a character while wearing the directing hat? I realize actors are always the character and the actor, in other words, there will always be a detached part of them objectively outside the character. For example, even though the character punches someone, the actor knows not to and fake it.

      My point is that actors are always a bit detached from the character. However, how much more detrimental is it when the actor needs to be the director as well? That’s even more detachment. The best thing I can do for an actor is to create a totally comfortable, safe atmosphere, one in which they feel totally prepared with boundaries, so they can let go and just be the character. The goal is to get them out of their head, not stay there and think, the way a director must always be doing…

      I understand your logistical argument, which is tough to challenge in the micro-budget world. However, casting is the one area I would never, ever default on, especially with the leads.

  6. Daniel Nenadovic June 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    When you’re creating any kind of art, you need to be surrounded by honest people who can tell you when they think you’re screwing it up or give you tips for improvement. If you’re filling too many roles, you’re eliminating quite a few people with their own perspective that could help your work progress in a more artful direction. There are rare cases where this seems to work out fine, but more often than not it seems like films made this way would have benefited greatly from having different perspectives that were deeply involved in their creation.

    • Christopher June 20, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Great point, Daniel. I’ve recently been more and more aware of how crucial a director really is regarding an actor’s performance. They are the coach, watching on the sidelines, assessing and adjusting.

      I’ve always guessed that actors who are “directing” themselves most likely have someone on set watching them and the DP is most likely fulfilling a lot of the technical directorial duties.

  7. onfoodandfilm June 20, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    For me, it is all about the outcome. If someone can direct themselves and the outcome still be terrific (ANNIE HALL, BRAVEHEART … there are numerous good examples) then go right ahead. It’s hard to imagine ANNIE HALL with someone other than Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, no matter how classically trained and hard working the actor. Sometimes people do it simply for financial reasons… it saves money!

    If on the other hand the outcome is not so good (M. Night ain’t the best actor in, say, “Signs”) then feel free to label it an act of vanity and be depressed about it.

    • Christopher June 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

      I absolutely agree, Tom. Thanks for sharing.

      And because you mentioned Allen and Gibson, I want to point out that they are great examples of folks that actually have acting talent (in the case of Allen, perhaps, stand-up talent). Nonetheless, you will get a great performance out of them.

      The problem I have with the common indie self-saturated trend is the lack of talent. Ironically, but not coincidentally, these films are often made by folks in their 20s/30s who have had very little experience. They NEVER would be cast in their own film if it wasn’t their film! Whereas Gibson, Allen, Cassavetes, et al. would…

  8. Juli Jackson June 20, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    I tend to believe there is a long tradition of artists writing themselves into their work. George Melies to Orson Wells to John Cassavetes & Woody Allen to M.Night Shyamalan & Miranda July. I know there are many more worth mentioning. And I believe the good examples have the uncanny ability to know what they are capable of and play to their strengths. I believe filmmakers have been doing that from the beginning.

    But I think I understand your point that it does seem more common recently. I don’t claim to know why exactly but from my own experience I would have to say it could partly come from the current generational trend of isolation and single-mindedness.

    Is it that filmmakers think they are just that talented on screen or is it really that they are more comfortable trying to multitask and direct themselves than trying to communicate their ideas to an actor. I would believe the latter before blaming narcissism. Of course, it depends on the individual.

    I personally know that I cannot act and wouldn’t want to try. The more I direct and study directing, the more I hear that I should take acting classes to understand the world of the actor better. My background is in camerawork. I cringe at the thought of having to be in front of the lens, although I will probably do so when I can.

    On the other hand, as a photographer I have often used myself as a model. Not because I’m very interested in self-portraits and certainly not because I’m photogenic but because I’m always available for my own project. I imagine many filmmakers find this to be true as well.

    • Juli Jackson June 20, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      let me clarify – I’ll probably take acting classes when I can, to learn. I don’t plan on acting on camera anytime soon. Or ever. :)

    • Christopher June 20, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      Thank you for the solid comment, Juli.

      As an acting major turned film director, I highly encourage directors to take acting classes. At the least, it will help them appreciate the immense challenge of the craft and the vulnerability involved. Rather than barking out remedial orders, directors with an intimate knowledge of acting are much more compassionate, patient and appreciative.

      I bet you’re great with actors because you’re a great person! So for you, it would mostly be helpful for the sake of communicating with actors more effectively and efficiently, which I will forever be working at!

      You mention some director/actors above that I would argue should definitely not be in their own films. However, Cassavetes was an actor turned director, so he most definitely earned the “right” to act in his films. But, quite often, he was not the lead; he focused more on directing and knew that acting in the film got in the way, so he was most often a supporting character. And, honestly, my favorite of his films, like Woody Allen (above), don’t star him! Nothing against their acting, per se; they simply are better IMHO.

      “Is it that filmmakers think they are just that talented on screen or is it really that they are more comfortable trying to multitask and direct themselves than trying to communicate their ideas to an actor.” Great point! There is no one reason why there is a proliferation of self-acted/directed films; however, I strongly believe it is generational and cultural – definitely worthy of a lengthier discussion…

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