Hi Kevin,

Thank you for being the guinea pig on this new “dialogues” feature on MinnesotaPlaylist—something halfway between a blog and the free-for-all quick give and take on Facebook. I asked you to join me here because you’re my go-to guy for the big picture on our Midwestern film scene (and if it even exists). You’ve written here and elsewhere about the trap of Hollywood, about finding our own voice, our own cinema. How are we doing?

I know you don’t have all the answers, and no one elected you Midwestern film representative, but I also know you have opinions. It seems to my untrained eye that a lot has been happening in the last year, at least. Aren’t there more than a few independent features from Minnesota filmmakers getting some buzz on the festival circuit and a few small, interesting movies being made here with Hollywood stars in them? Plus, I feel like I keep hearing about web series and more student shorts. Is it just that I’m paying more attention or is the film scene here getting healthier? And is anyone coming close to developing your Cinema of the North? (For the sake of your sanity, and Midwestern sensibilities, let’s just assume I’m not asking you to comment on your own work.)

But those are big questions. Is that too much to start? The inspiration for this conversation with you actually came when you invited me to the film class you were teaching. First, I was shocked to learn that your students had been instructed to avoid using theater actors for their films (not instructed by you thankfully!). The best actors I know are just good actors, and they know how to modulate the size of their performance for a 1000 seat theater or the intimacy of the camera. Especially in this day and age—almost all of them have had some on-camera training at this point in their career. No one just does theater anymore. Bad actors are just bad actors whether they do theater or film—though I do think that bad actors can hide more easily in front of a camera.

That being said, the whole conversation got me thinking about the real differences in film and theater storytelling, acting and writing, and I wanted to hear your take on it. You and I met because you were hoping to find better writers for the films you wanted to make and figured that all these Minnesota playwrights might be the place to look. Yet, after 10 years, we still have never collaborated. Is it because, in part, our sensibilities as film and theater persons are too different?

When I watch film and television acting these days I notice how much the camera zooms in on an actor’s emotion. In theater, we say that everything needs to be active all the time but on film it seems, everything stops to give the viewer a kind of secret view of the character’s emotional truth. Seriously, the close-up and its role in storytelling is an amazing thing. And I’m not sure I like it.

We don’t have the close-up in the theater. I mean, of course we can focus people’s attention on a character’s emotional truth/moment but its always in the context of the larger environment, i.e. generally the person in the scene with a character can obviously see what they’re feeling along with us, the audience. On screen, in a romantic comedy for example, the camera might zoom in on the “best friend’s” face to reveal the unrequited love they feel in that moment—with the unstated assumption/acceptance that the object of their affection, who is sitting right across from them in the scene, doesn’t notice the emotion that we get to see on their face.

As a strange result, it occurs to me that stage acting v. screen acting isn’t just about being big or being intimate. Stage acting requires an actor to constantly be doing actions, striving for goals, making things happen, revealing and hiding emotions in the context of a three-dimensional environment that, maybe surprisingly, is actually a bit more like our world than the stories we tell on screen. The actor’s focus and energy and intentions become our focus and energy and intention. Screen acting on the other hand requires the opposite. The heavier reliance on plot carries us forward actively and the editing and the direction control our focus. The film and television actor’s job is to just show emotion.

What do you think? Is there any truth in that distinction from your perspective as a student of film? If so, I think this results in a different style of writing/storytelling which I have even more thoughts on. But I should shut up here and let you reply.

If nothing else comes to mind, what are you working on this summer?


Alan Berks

Playwright, Theater Director, and Devil’s Advocate