Understanding Acting

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Tilda Swinton, one of the most versatile and gifted actors of our time

In Cinema, there are no good actors. They are either great or average. Or bad. For a director, it’s important to know the difference between an average actor and a great actor.

An average actor is someone who does great impersonations. She always gets the gestures right, her mannerism is perfect, the way she walks, talks and dusts her cigarette, it’s all very charismatic. But she fails to illuminate the interior of the character she is playing. As a result the audience watches ‘her’ performing on screen instead of watching her ‘character’. It leads to what we know as overacting.

A great actor on the other hand is someone who assists the audience’s understanding of the character. She is able to achieve this by presenting the character’s inner world to the audience, in the most natural, humanistic way, and in the process making herself and her character indistinguishable from each other. A great actor never relies upon superficial impersonation and animated caricaturing. She transforms herself into her character. Anything that she does on screen, she does as the character and not as the actor. A great actor DOES NOT ACT. She BECOMES.

I think overacting roots from insecurity, when the actor is not confident in her abilities. Let me clarify, overacting does not necessarily mean loud acting or vice versa. Great acting performances have been delivered by intense, over-the-top, loud acting in Cinema, e.g. Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface(1983), or Isabella Adjani as Anna in Possession(1981). Overacting is when the performance becomes gimmicky and predictable, when the truth is lost in the whole act of cliches, the kind of incredulity that separates the actor from the character. Film is a cruel medium. It magnifies overacting.

Case Study: During one of the ‘Directing Actors’ workshops in my film school, before she went into Stanislavksi and method acting, our lecturer, who also happened to be a Czech actress, informed us that she has hidden the white-board marker pen somewhere in the classroom. She asked us students to volunteer as actors who will ‘act’ to find and steal the marker. Two of my classmates volunteered and both of them tried to act out the skit with their best abilities, which were terrible to be honest, bless my friends, and both failed to actually find the marker.

In the end the lecturer took the marker out which was hidden behind a switch board. And she told us something very important. She reasoned that Lewis and Jure could not find the markers because they took it as an acting assignment, and they ‘acted’ as if they were searching. In reality they were not searching, they were just playing a game, pretending to search. A true actor would not pretend to search but actually search the entire classroom and not leave a stone unturned. A true actor will become the searcher instead of acting to be the searcher. That lesson taught me more about film acting than anything else.

PS: I have met Tilda. Biggest fanboy moment of my life.

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Why Assisting Isn’t The Right Path To Film Direction

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Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese film poet, directing actors during a film production

If you have serious aspirations to direct a feature film someday, consider this one thing: do not become an Assistant Director or AD. An AD is nothing like an Assistant Cinematographer or an Assistant Editor or even an Assistant Art Director etc. Those roles provide a certain structured learning on the job, a learning and convention that is imperative for their future careers as cinematographers, editors and other film professionals. But a director is fundamentally different from all of these technical professionals. A director is never a technician. He is primarily an artist who has to think independently and in abstract terms. Schooling removes independent thinking and reduces people into conventions and practices.

As an AD in feature film productions, you assist and assist, until you have no time for research or contemplation to develop your own project. No time for writing, no time for reading, no time for participation in outside affairs, no time to watch films — basically no time for any personal intellectual progress. You work like a machine, almost never make a decision, never question a decision, you just follow instructions and carry out assignments, do the same things over and over again until your mind grows dull and your creativity goes kaput. You become an automaton doing the same dull, menial things over and over to the endless whims of the director or the producers. You start to talk dumb, you act rude with your subordinates and you try to pretend that you are somebody important by spewing expletives when deep inside, you know you don’t mean a shit. You don’t matter, that you are just a hired hand to build somebody else’s dream. You are as invisible and dispensable as a labour or a clerk.

People from the film industry who believed in you from the beginning, those who believed that you had the potential, will notice this moral and intellectual decline in you, won’t be able to understand why you have become so vile, so uninspired, lose respect and spread this disrespect out in the film fraternity. And suddenly you will be dismissed from every corners, you will be taken for granted that you are only as good as an AD, that you are not really a director material. That’s when you realise that being an Assistant Director is not the right path to become a director. But by then it’s already too late.

There are people who honestly want to become Assistant Directors. They do not have any aspirations to become a director or make a film. This piece is not addressed to them. Assistant Direction is a viable, lucrative, fulfilling profession for those who want to become an AD by choice. There are many successful ADs through out the world, I have met a few, some are fantastic people and they have happy, successful careers and lives. Their expectations are clear and they are happy to work within that framework. The problem is that too many youngsters are told to become an AD because they want to be a future director. Those naive young minds are most likely to fall into this trap and become bitter when the reality hits them.

If you want to be a director, you are on your own. No film school, no workshop, no film director/professional however great they are, nothing can really teach you how to be one. There is no prescribed path, no easy way to it. Many say that you are either a director or you are not. You cannot become one. I personally do not agree with it completely; I think everyone can direct a film, and most of them will make a terrible mess of it. And most of them do it consistently, often with humongous amounts of money. What I believe is that not everyone can become a ‘valuable’ director. Valuable, important directors are rare because they are most often that not, exceptional minds, and an exceptional mind by definition is rare. You see what matters is what’s inside you, what you learn from your personal experiences, not what you mechanically acquire from schools and teachings and other people’s experiences. The only productive way, I feel, is to become more aware, more attentive; try to develop individual ideologies, opinions and discourses by constantly upgrading yourself intellectually, by exposing yourself to various fields of learning, by having an eventful life, by interacting with individuals and by interacting with nature, by introspection and by actually making something tangible. Write. Make terrible short films. Be brash. Be fearless. Make something abstract, be brave enough to be called pretentious. It does not matter. In the end if you find out a truly personal expression you will bring in something new to the medium and that is what will put you on the map of world cinema.

I have a magic number. Two. Two films as an AD. No more no less. That’s what I have done and that’s what I have advised most people till this day. If you are really keen, go work in two feature-film productions, as an AD or even as a production assistant or an observer. That will give you sufficient insider’s knowledge about things that happen behind the scenes. You will discover that there is a method to this madness called film production and to some extent it will teach you discipline and prepare you for backbreaking hard work that is filmmaking. Beyond two films as an AD, you wont learn anything significantly new, instead you’d run the risk of becoming a rat in a cage.

Andrei

Everything that I am and everything that I wish to be is only and only because of him. I discovered his films back in 2004, watched his entire filmography on big screen, back to back, in a span of three days, and I realised Cinema was my calling. Nowadays Andrei Tarkovsky has become a canonised figure, a recognised maestro, but back in those days he wasn’t very widely known here in India, and I found him through a retrospective festival screening. Everything that I did from that moment is a result of that proverbial life changing experience.

Recently I found this hauntingly beautiful music video with Arvo Pärt’s music featuring excerpts from Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975). My tears betrayed me but they stayed true to my soul. I cried.

There is no greater love than you, Andrei and I can die for your films. I love you.

A Discourse on Art and Philosophy

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“Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?” – Paul Gauguin

Recently I had a reunion with a group of friends from my engineering college. They belong to various professional fields, like banking, telecom, software and even publishing. It was a pleasant meeting but what surprised me the most was how they looked down on my choice to quit the corporate world to become a filmmaker. On the surface they seemed very encouraging and supportive. However during our long conversation over unending servings of beer and whiskey (I do not drink alcohol, so I was on my usual dosage of marijuana) things started to turn ugly. And I realised how these people who I grew up with, those who had wonder in their eyes and dreams in their hearts have become products of social engineering designed to chase fabricated greed and social norms of success. They have hardened beyond a point where they cant even appreciate logic in an open discussion. It was shocking to see how they would disregard, even vilify art and philosophy to justify their mainstream ethos of materialism and defend their own superficiality.

I tried to understand their point of views. Nobody told that everyone had to have creative aspirations. Civilisation needs people from all walks of life and all kinds of profession. In fact nobody in the group (I mean myself) criticised materialism or capitalism etc on a macro scale. I did not question their professional choice even once. However it seemed that the consensus among the group was that art and philosophy are basically waste of time and nobody practically needs them.

In a country like India, where half the population lives under poverty line, it is understandable to question the relevance of art. However none of these folks are remotely deprived. All of them are successful professionals, drive swanky cars, have nice apartments, families and dogs. The only person who has some financial difficulties at the moment is me, because of my career choice. So why would they behave like this? Is it because of guilt or jealousy? Or some sort of inferiority complex? Or did it root from the regret that they failed to pursue artistic careers (one guy played guitar really well) for the safety of financial security? I didn’t know. But I tried to reason with them.

Humans became civilised from being savages through reasoning. And the discipline of reasoning is called philosophy. The entire human history and intellectual evolution, knowledge, opinion, science, technology, commerce and even modern day jobs grow their roots in philosophy. My friends were talking about nationalism, economics and even social concepts like marriage etc and how they are way more important than something trivial as arts and philosophy. I was aghast at their ignorance. Their nationalism and political ideas came from philosophy. There would be no state, no country, no concept of marriage or money if there was no philosophy. And here they devalue and demean philosophy. How naive! Art is the expression and wonder of philosophy where as science is the logic and analysis of it. Not having any regards for philosophy! How do people live like that? It is such a pathetic waste of opportunity to be born as a human and then fail to notice the beauty around us and wonder.

One’s choice of profession doesn’t automatically give a person upper hand in aesthetics or reasoning. O’Henry was a fraudster. Einstein was a clerk. Faraday was a bookbinder. Van Gogh was a failed priest. Michael Bay is a film director. Surely if only profession was the criteria Bay would have had an upper hand in aesthetics. We know that is not the case. So I am not trying to prove superiority over any individual based on their profession including my friends. In fact I have been an analyst for seven years before I went to a film school. But to live without a sense of wonder, to not be able to see beauty in nature and life and art, to not be able to ask questions and question reality is a terrible way to live. And it seems most humans miss that gift.

It is my duty to speak for art and philosophy because I am a soldier of Cinema. If I do not fiercely believe in those faculties how will I act on them? Art is and always will remain the founding stones of humanity. Unlike countries, nationalities, political ideas, armies and materialism, art will be constant and relevant till the demise of human race. Not losing the sense of wonder is the essence of being human. And hence it’s a sacrilege to disregard art and philosophy, even if you happen to be an accountant or an insurance agent.

Featured artwork: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897 by Paul Gauguin

Stuck On Festival Submissions

I haven’t been able to log on or even write anything these last few days since there was a film festival submission deadline for Busan and for some reason they only accept DVDs as screeners. Hence the film had to be converted into a VOB format, burnt on a DVD and then physically sent to South Korea through international courier. Lots of money and time spent, but its done now. So hopefully I will catch up from where I left 🙂

Playing Safe Is The Most Unsafe Thing To Do

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A still from the film KARMA IS A SHE-WOLF (2017)

There is no point in being an average film director, the one who plays safe, abides by the rules and churns out uninspiring, unimaginative and inevitably unimportant films. These directors do not matter to the cinematic medium, no matter how popular they maybe.

The ones who do matter to the world of cinema are individuals who are driven to express themselves in their own terms using their unique voice in spite of mass rejection. They are not afraid to stand up and be heard in a crowded cacophony, like a lone wolf among a pack of dogs. Visionary filmmakers are not interested to be a part of the pack. The idea is to attack convention with imagination and inventiveness, to challenge and alter perceptions in cinema, and in the long run, society and its views, to set new standards of excellence.

The only way to go forward is to be brave enough to not play safe. Playing safe is the most unsafe thing that one can do as a film director.

On Monologue: Part I

Dialogues are difficult to write. But monologues are harder.

At least interior monologues let the screenwriter use his skills freely, one can be extremely poetic in interior monologues. Take the opening lines of Last Year At Marienbad (1960) dir. Alain Resnais, one of the greatest films ever made in the history of Cinema. This very long monologue follows a strange structure of repetition over a series of low angle tracking shots creating a disorienting mesh of words and images setting the tone of the film. Poetic enigma has rarely been created with such efficiency and economy in Cinematic history.

“…silent rooms where one’s footsteps are absorbed by carpets so thick, so heavy, that no sound reaches one’s ear, as if the very ear of him walks on… once again along those corridors, through these salons and galleries in this edifice of a bygone era, this sprawling, sumptuous, baroque, gloomy hotel, where one endless corridor follows another, silent empty corridors, heavy with cold, dark woodwork, stucco, moulded panelling, marble, black mirrors, dark-toned portraits, columns, sculpted door-frames, rows of doorways, galleries, side corridors, that in turn lead to empty salons, salons heavy with ornamentation of a bygone era…as if the ground were still sand or gravel or flagstones over which I walked once again…as if in search of you between walls laden with woodwork…among which even then I was waiting for you…far from this setting in which I now find myself standing before you waiting for the man who will not be coming now, who is not likely to come now to part us again, to tear you away from me. Will you come?”

The interior monologue eventually turns into a spoken monologue as the film progresses. I think this transition is virtuoso because it still justifies the excessive poetry even in the changed context. Even after six decades of it’s release this opening scene and the monologue sequence from Last Year At Mariendbad remains jaw-droppingly powerful.

Let’s consider La Jette (1962) dir. Chris Marker, another film which employs internal monologue to its full potential. The entire film is narrated in third person with only a series of photographs. The film features only a single moving shot which is barely noticeable. This strange visual narrative and the dystopian setting of the story are complemented with a poetic monologue which creates the dreamy, other-worldly nature of the film.

“This time he is close to her, he speaks to her. She welcomes him without surprise. They are without memories, without plans. Time build itself painlessly around them. Their only landmarks are the flavour of the moment they are living and the markings on the wall.”

But spoken monologues or soliloquies are tougher. You don’t want to sound too poetic as then it would sound theatrical and synthetic, but you don’t want to sound too prosaic either. You want to capture the best of both and make it sound cool and profound at the same time. This is a hard task. Remember a screenplay is not literature and one must know where to draw the line. And yet sometimes, if used properly, a screenplay or a part of it can reach the heights of literature.

I would like to present two of the finest monologues ever written in Hollywood. The first one is short but vividly cinematic and poetic.

“I have seen things you would not believe. Attacked ships on fire off the shore of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” – Blade Runner (1982), dir: Ridley Scott

The second one is calm as a monolith and lethal as a machine-gun mayhem.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” – Pulp Fiction (1994), dir: Quentin Tarantino

In the next part I will discuss how these beautiful use of monologues influenced me as a screenwriter and how monologues played such a huge role in my yet to release, debut feature film ‘Karma Is A She-Wolf’ and how poems can play an important role as monologues in films.