Last week I was part of the
48-Hour Film Project in Minneapolis. For those of you who have also done it, the very mention of the name may solicit heart-pounding anxiety. For those of you who have not - it is precisely what it’s called: teams (directors, actors, writers, crew) have 48 hours to write, shoot and edit a 4-7 minute film. On Friday at 7PM all teams get a line of dialogue, a prop and a character name that must be included in the film; they also get one of a dozen genres, from Film Noir to Opera. By Sunday at 7PM, the finished film is turned in and judging commences. This was my fourth time playing and it was, as ever, a fun and frazzled weekend - peppered with hilarity, panic, rain (always rain) and about three hours sleep.
The whole experience had me reflecting on the deep divide that often separates the world of theater and the world of film. Although the jobs are similar, the process of working on a movie and working on a play are wildly different. As a result, a surprising number of people see a line firmly drawn between theater and film and rarely cross it. Not just actors, believe me - until last year you would never have seen anyone on a film set wearing a Les Mis t-shirt. Ever. Not because they hate it - because they’ve never heard of it.
The path to theater and the path to film often begin in very different places and attract very different personalities. Think back to high-school - so much still holds true: the theater kids doing trust-falls in the cafeteria and the AV nerds (future film-makers) taking pictures of a Star Wars figurine ‘walking’ through their mashed potatoes.
(I'd like to pause here for an overdue disclaimer: I am making broad and unfair generalizations about a community I am a part of. I've made some already, but there are a lot more coming. Don’t hate me - I’m a very nice person and really, what do I know anyway?)
Having worked on my fair share of plays and films, I present a look at the differences between the world of theater and the world of film for: actors, directors, and behind the scenes.
In theater we have what we call “the triple threat”: those actors who can sing, dance and act. Most of us navigate among these abilities - great at this, acceptable at that - and hope a Baldwin doesn’t show up to the audition to throw the curve.
In film there is a different “triple threat”: those actors who can act, improvise, and be motherfucking beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, many actors are attractive, but then there are the real stunners: part Venus-covered-in-glitter, part jungle cat. They walk in the room and it's as if everyone was just slapped in the face with a beanbag full of pixie-dust. Other people, who are themselves quite attractive - great skin, nice teeth, perfect hair - they disappear into the furniture as this motherfucking beautiful person pulsates across the room. The motherfucking beautiful people are rare, but they are less rare in film, and if they also act and are funny... well then, they're Julia Roberts and we must accept them.
And if they can’t act or be funny, well then, they’re Denise Richards and we also must accept them.
Although directors seem to cross over the least between film and theater, I would argue their jobs are, essentially, the most similar. Both manage large groups of people with big personalities. Both must have a clear vision, communicate it well, and maintain it throughout a chaotic and grueling process. Both find themselves blamed for what goes wrong, overlooked for what goes right, always trying to keep art and reality in happy balance.
But that is broad, cocktail party, meta-stuff. In general (**note disclaimer above**) theater directors see stories in people - characters, voices, bodies. Film directors see stories in pictures - locations, lighting, image. From an actor’s perspective this demonstrates itself in creating incredibly different working environments.
For example, in a theater production of Romeo and Juliet, the director might spend weeks with the actress playing Juliet in order to fine-tune the balcony scene: talk about her real life experience and how to draw from it, improvise over themes of longing and loss, a little yoga, maybe.
In film the director spends weeks with the writers, storyboards and crew. They find a location, they spend hours setting and adjusting a myriad of instruments to make it look and sound perfect. Actors, even if they did extensive rehearsal prior to shooting, are then inserted to frame, do a very specific range of motion, and go sit down again.
Which brings us to...
BEHIND THE SCENES
In theater all crew are absolutely essential. It is live, in the moment - you got one chance. The cues must be called, lights must come on, and things must work as prescribed in order for any of it to happen.
In film, all crew are absolutely awesome (**note disclaimer above**) but only as essential as quality and time demand. By this I mean that one needs a big crew in order to execute a great quality film. If you want HD picture that sounds great, with perfect continuity, dolly-shots, action sequence, yes, a huge crew is totally essential.
The most essential behind-the-scenes role, in my opinion, is the film editor. From an actor’s perspective, their hands are the very hands of God and if this person is also the director, how one’s performance will be seen is largely out of their own control.
For example, let’s go back to Romeo and Juliet. In live theater, the actor ultimately has full control of that scene in the moment the audience sees it. The actor may feel the moment so deeply that the torment courses through her very veins. The audience holds their breath as she crumples and sobs, a woman facing death - good god, the tears and sweat are real! There isn’t a dry eye in the house. The reviews are glowing.
Take the exact same performance and put it in the hands of film editor. Cut away to a toilet, zoom in on her flared nostrils and clenched teeth, add a zany little soundtrack and boom - your Juliet is slapstick before you can say “where art thou.”
When friends or family outside of the business ask me which I prefer between theater and film, I always give an ambiguous “yes.” They both have their joys and their pitfalls and I couldn’t give either up forever.
Cut to: Interior Theater Night: Dawn sits on the stage in a circle of other actors. Half of them are giving each other back-rubs. In the back of the room, a girl sobs into the arms of her gay best friend, and next to Dawn a woman stands, Pez-dispenser-like, doing an ear-piercing vocal warm-up.
Cut to: Exterior Woods Night: It’s raining. Dawn sits on a plastic folding chair under a drooping tarp surrounded by trees and darkness. A cardboard sign hangs on the wall: “Green Room” with a sad face scribbled under it. She is wearing extensive special effects make-up and it appears as if her skull has been smashed in, her eye dangles from its socket. She and her “killer” await their scene, shivering together under a home-made blanket. He is giant, bald, and mostly naked. A guy in a baseball hat walks up to them and says, “One more hour - a battery died and James wants to try to light the scene from above.”
“Yes,” I tell them, “I love them both equally.”