How to Make an Indie Musical: Tips from Life of an Actress: The Musical

On December 19, 2014, Life of an Actress: The Musical will open at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Laemmle NoHo7 in Los Angeles. Opening on the same day are the feature musicals Annie and Into the Woods. What is the difference between these films and Life of an Actress?

The main answer is budget. Compared with budgets that range upwards of $40 million and stars such as Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, and Jamie Foxx, Life of an Actress has a modest budget with a cast of lesser-known Broadway stars. (But having Broadway stars in a musical just feels right, doesn’t it?)

Making a musical is very difficult in itself, because of the incremental cost in bringing in the musical elements of song, choreography, dance, etc. Making a low-budget independent feature musical can be quite a bit more challenging, but we took on that challenge. Life of an Actress was originally written for a Broadway stage. In 2012, we did what is known as a 24-hour reading in front of a small audience that included over 10 different Broadway producers (all friends of mine). After the reading, though, I realized that the musical lent itself best to a film, given that many of the songs were pop and it was about human stories of three actresses (aged 25, 30 and 41) trying to achieve their dreams. No explosions or crazy special effects needed, so a lower budget was possible. And if it connected with an audience, we could always take it to Broadway in a few years.

So what should you keep in mind when making a low-budget, but high-quality, musical? The tips below may not go along with the usual rules of making an independent film, but sometimes you have to be versatile and stick with your instincts.

Bart Shatto, Orfeh, Taylor Louderman, Paul Chau, Allison Case and Executive Producer Richard Speciale

Bart Shatto, Orfeh, Taylor Louderman, Paul Chau, Allison Case and Executive Producer Richard Speciale in Life of an Actress

Actively Source for Cost-Effective Music

To license or commission music for your musical, it’s a good idea to see shows Off-Broadway to acquaint yourself with the work of songwriters. There are many good, affordable songwriters who would welcome an opportunity to write for a film musical. Life of an Actress started with my background as a songwriter. I wrote 15 original songs for the film in addition to producing and directing. I did raise money to make the film, but in order to keep the cost down I did not take any salary or pay myself for the usage of the songs. I made sure all the money went into production value. The hallmark of independent film is that key people often wear many hats. In this case, I added a few more hats.

Turn to Broadway for Your Cast

One of the pivotal decisions I had to make was whether to cast film actors or Broadway actors. Ultimately I decided to go with a Broadway cast because I chose the high level of singing, acting and dancing talent that I knew they would bring. To get an equivalent level of talent from film actors at our lower budget would have been tough. It’s amazing how many good actors are on Broadway that never get the opportunity to showcase their talent in film, because of the pressure for “names” to sell a film. From a pure talent perspective, I would put our Broadway cast up against any musical film cast.

Taylor Louderman, who has recently been cast as Wendy on NBC’s Peter Pan Live, brought out a spark and energy that didn’t surprise me, having seen what she could do as the lead in the Broadway adaptation of Bring It On. The Tony-nominated actress Orfeh has a powerful voice and presence that fit the role of Hannah, the 41-year-old actress faced with the fact that she may never get on Broadway. Our third lead, Allison Case, has a tremendous range, able to pull off different tones from quirky to touching. Her work on Broadway roles, ranging from Sophie in Mamma Mia to Chrissy in Hair, attests to her versatility. On the men’s side, Bart Shatto (Les Miserables, Civil War, Dracula) drew you in as a conflicted diner owner. Bart was also the lead vocalist for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for more than nine years. Finally, Xavier Cano has a quiet dignity as Taylor’s character’s accountant-boyfriend.

So for an indie feature, look to the world of Broadway. I have been part of many producing teams for different Broadway shows, and I go to many readings, so I’ve had the privilege of meeting many great performers of whom I’ve made mental notes for future projects. To a certain degree, I like to think that I am providing casting services for indie films looking for Broadway talent.

Lisa Finegold, Taylor Louderman, Mayumi Miguel

Actresses Lisa Finegold, Taylor Louderman, and Mayumi Miguel

Longer Takes are Your Production Values

Go with longer takes when shooting to allow the actors to deliver the scene with their performance. Unlike an action film that relies on snappy editing and fast cuts, a musical is about a performer expressing their emotions through song (the rule of thumb being that a character will break into song when they reach a point in which speech alone can no longer express their feelings). Longer takes, whether shot locked down or handheld, can work well because the audience gets to concentrate on a performer and their emotions.

Les Miserables went with longer takes, but they actually recorded the singing live on set. Recording songs live on set is difficult with a lower budget, because (once again) the incremental cost is quite high (including, for my film, the sound mixer and the cost of bringing in a live piano to adjust the pace and emotions of the singer). So for our film, performers sang to pre-recorded playback tracks. It worked extremely well.

Xavier Cano, Taylor Louderman

Actors Xavier Cano and Louderman

Teamwork on a Musical is Even More Important

A musical film involves an even deeper collaborative process than other genres, because you work with a musical director, lyricist, composer, arranger, choreographer, dancers, recording engineer, and musicians. You need strong partners who can work with you efficiently. Luckily, I was able to allocate some of that responsibility to myself (as I was the lyricist and composer), but I had a great overall team that was crucial to the success of this project, including my talented and level-headed musical director and arranger, Seth Weinstein.

Look for partners that  you are comfortable working with, who feel comfortable at your budget level. Life of an Actress had some
interest from some partners that were well-established on Broadway, but ultimately I didn’t feel they would adjust well from a typical $9-15 million Broadway budget to the limited resources of independent film. That’s not to say we had pizza for lunch every day. We had catering, trailers, and a full crew, but it still paled in comparison to a Broadway show or a big budget film.

Rehearsals are Everything

You have to be extremely efficient in your rehearsals and prep for a musical. Big-budget films only shoot two or three pages per day; even big-budget musicals have the luxury of effectively doing the rehearsals on shoot day. We shot six to eight pages per day, on the other hand, so we had to be well-rehearsed. Our rehearsal/music prep period for the performers was one week.  For the first three days, we split each day between learning the songs and choreography. On day four, we went into the recording studio and recorded vocals against a piano only. This provided us with the tracks that the performers would follow during playback on the set. (It is critical to record the playback tracks at the emotion level of the scene in the film.)

Starting on day five, we spent the entire day going over scenes. We focused on understanding the relationships between characters; their desires, conflicts, and their different points of view throughout the film. We ultimately devoted most of the time on singing and dancing because I felt that the actors’ understanding of the characters was strong enough.

LifeofanActress (1) (439x650)

Unfortunately, my next film will not include a musical element (it’s a drama/thriller set in a Jewish ghetto, Terezin, built by Hitler). But I’m very much looking forward to the release of Life of an Actress: The Musical. MM

Check out pcpdtns.com for more information on both projects.

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