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Friday, January 6, 2017

Director Craig Brewer talks to me about Acting

Craig Brewer has written and directed "Hustle and Flow," "Black Snake Moan," "Footloose," "Urban Cowboy" (series), "The Idolmaker." He has directed multiple episodes of "Empire" (series on Fox) and he wrote the screenplay for "The Legend of Tarzan." 

See his imdb.

Corey: I recently saw Michael Shannon in an interview talking about how when he first started working in front of the camera, it was awkward for him. Even some of the biggest stars have done movies early in their careers where you can see that they didn’t yet have the understanding that they do now about the relationship with the camera. Would you talk about this from your perspective?

 Craig: I usually give two types of direction to actors and actresses when I‘m directing them, and sometimes I can do it with hand signals from the camera to where they are. One is “more gas,” which could mean speed, it could mean energy, it could mean it being just anything. And that’s my hand signal, it’s sort of like me pushing down the pedal of the gas. And then I have another one which is this kind of like me wiping one hand with the other hand, which is like, “take the butter off the toast,” and what that means is…they’re putting too much into it.  They’re trying too hard. They’re trying too hard to perform.

And I think that what happens is… I know that actors over time can get more comfortable with the lens and where it moves and how to work in front of it. But at times it’s a dance that you play, between takes, as to how much energy you’re going to give, as opposed to sometimes trusting that the camera and the scenario of the scene is going to do all of the work. 

I think most actors, when they’re trained, when they first start training, the majority of training is about getting them to express themselves. Getting them to open up and not be so internal. And the camera is different than that. The camera is truly the Geiger meter of truth. I sometimes tell people to straddle their toilet in their bathroom, where their face is like a foot away from their mirror and then run their lines. Because they realize that, “Oh God, I’m so close!” and that’s really helpful with the understanding of the camera. As you know, when you’re dealing with film, and you make that face forty feet high, uh…it’s very expressive.

I know there are actors who are better at it than others and I think it’s sometimes very frustrating to stage actors when there’s some people who start acting in films and they never acted on the stage before. They’ve never done any acting, but they just have this natural sense about them in front of the camera.

Corey: From an acting standpoint, can you tell me what you’re looking for in the audition and then in the callback?

Craig: I think the hardest thing about auditions for actors is that they have to think of it more as a lifestyle than as an opportunity. You know what I mean? I think that so many people think that, “here’s my one audition.” But when I go out to Los Angeles and I’m in the middle of pilot season, and I see numerous actors coming in and they are doing numerous auditions, they may have three in one day. And they come in and they’re prepared, they’re off book, they bring their essence right then and there. I think that to some degree that’s the hardest thing for an actor to do, to be both incredibly prepared for the audition but at the same time think of it as one of many auditions.

Recently, I did a pilot for Urban Cowboy. The first round there was this one actress and watching her I didn’t quite see it the first time. And then we had done callbacks and we didn’t even call her back, and I went back and looked at that audition and I said, ‘you know what? I’d like to see her again.’ Because you just never know. You see so many. You have to, I wouldn’t say give your all, but you have to be very prepared and be very truthful. There are a lot of times too that you’ll see someone in one audition and you want them to read for something else, or they’re not exactly right for what you’re doing.

So many variables go into choosing an actor or actress for a role. One can be height, or one is too strong because you’ve already cast someone that may not be as strong. Or they don’t look the right way. So it’s incredibly subjective but no one should think of it as a judgement of their worth or their talent.

Usually when I do a callback, it’s because I’ve seen something in the audition that I want to see again, and I also want to see if they can take direction. You can sometimes see where they completely perform a scene or a monologue, and they’ve done it their own way, and you want to see if maybe they can give you something different…right there on the spot.

Sometimes I get very vague with my directions. I’ll say something like, “I know you think this is a family argument, and I think it’s more like a prayer.” And I’ll walk away and just see what they do with that. How they interpret that doesn’t mean me necessarily giving them something specific, but I see what comes out of it. If something refreshing comes out of it, even if it’s just a choice.  If a choice comes out of it, and it feels inspired or it feels somewhat different from what they gave me before, then I know that I can have fun with options on set.

Corey: I found that with a recent TV production that came to Memphis, there was frustration that the local actors who had been booked, had never been on a set before and didn’t understand what was expected of them on set. Memphis is different from Nashville or Atlanta in that there is no industry here, and there is no culture of the professional actor here. What is your take on this as a filmmaker who spends his time in Memphis and in Los Angeles?

 Craig: Even when I did Footloose, and a few others, that was shot in Atlanta, there is a pool, I’m finding, between Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, and I know some actors in Tennessee that will fly around. You find that there’s only a certain number, a pool of local talent who can deliver and who are comfortable working with bigger name actors.

My only pushback personally with the kind of films that I do, is I look at one of the best moments in my movie “Hustle and Flow” came from this guy Claude, who plays this junky who sells Terence Howard a keyboard. He’s never been on a set before, but he’s very authentic. So you have Terrence who is trying to do an accent, do a character, and he’s a fine actor, he knows how to stand on his mark and deliver a performance, but he’s also trying to create an authenticity. You then pair him with somebody who is authentic, but who may not be as completely prepared. I think as a director you have to learn how to handle both of them.

Corey: I think helping the actors understand how to find a mark without looking is one way I can begin the process of being prepared to work on set.

Craig: Yes. I direct “Empire” a lot. I work sometimes with performers like singers or rappers who may not have had any acting before. There’s a learning curve there on set as well. The one thing they do is that they’ll look at their mark right before they stand on it. Terrence Howard actually did a great thing with this one singer who every time she would come to her mark, she would look at it. I would say, “don’t look at your mark, try it once again.” And then she just couldn’t get out of it. Terrence was like, “hold up, hold up…here’s a little trick I learned- start on your mark, walk backwards to your first mark and count the number of steps, and then count it back. Count in your head five steps and then say the line and you’ll be on your mark.” And she nailed it. And what it was is that she was always hitting her mark, it’s just that insecurity and you need these little tricks sometimes. To find a way to put your mind on something else instead of the technical part of it. It’s like if you’re walking with a tray of full glasses and you’re only looking at the water, you’ll spill more than if you just walk with trust.

 Thank you Craig Brewer for taking the time to talk !

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