Making my feature film Blood Stripe, I formulated a mantra based on my acting experience: “Go to the yes.”
In improv, it’s essential to be flexible, to accept what is given and to always say “yes.” Making Blood Stripe, I found the same to be true.
I’ve been a professional actor for many years. I’ve spent plenty of time in rehearsals and on sets and on stage. I’ve always admired actors who put the blinders on and really only think of their character’s point of view, but that’s been something I’ve had to cultivate. I have always been conscious of, or you could say distracted by, a bigger picture: the function of the scene in the story and the genre cues that the character fulfills. Many people I’ve worked with have expressed that, as an actor, I take a director’s perspective. It hasn’t always served me as a performer, but when the moment came to direct my first feature, I found that my acting skills came in useful.
Certainly, being an actor helped me speak to the actors about what I wanted from them and the scenes. I found that it was very useful to have a common language which allowed for a shorthand between us and helped me get my thoughts across to them in a succinct way. Beyond that, however, I found myself using many of the actors tools. I had to rely on the script and use my creativity to depart from it, and interpret it, in surprising ways (even though I wrote it!). I had to trust my partners. I had to accept the given circumstances. I had to improvise.
We wrote Blood Stripe to be an ultra-low budget feature (as per SAG categories), although we ended up being in the modified low-budget range. In developing the film, we wrote to locations and resources we felt we could marshal, and the story grew out of that, pursuant to Mark Stolaroff’s “No-Budget” philosophy. My writing partner, Kate Nowlin, wanted to make a funny family wedding movie, based at a summer camp that we felt would be a great base camp and location for a film shot in northern Minnesota. As a first-time director, I wanted to keep my work focused on a central character (that Kate would play), not a big cast event movie. I knew that she would be entirely committed, and that we could get away with minimal coverage by focusing primarily on one character’s journey.
As an actor, you have the raw materials of your body, your voice, the text and your imagination. The text provides answers, but it also leaves you with questions that require creativity to resolve. This is the basis of the actor’s craft. I found the same held true with directing: Creativity came into play in answering the questions the script couldn’t; imagination was required to figure out how to efficiently and effectively shoot the film, and solve the logistical puzzle of production. The script provided the blueprint for the schedule and the budget and the scenes, but the creativity of the team was what allowed it to live. Just as an actor brings his or her own unique self to the challenges posed by every character, so does a group of film artists and technicians bring their individual set of answers to the ever-changing requirements of making a movie. Necessity truly is the mother of invention, both when performing and producing.
As with so many independent films, we ran into some roadblocks. We had a commitment for full financing from a single “high-net-worth individual” with ties to the area. This fell through after we had begun pre-production, and we were required to slash our shooting schedule by a week and get by with the money we could scrape together from smaller investments from friends and family. As the director it meant that I had less time to shoot, less time to prepare, and less money for the stuff and staff required. In responding to this, my actor’s craft again came into play: As a stage actor in particular, one must remain calm in the craziest of circumstances, while keeping your focus on the task at hand absolute. “The show must go on” is a truism that I was happy to have internalized long ago.
Immediacy, the ability to drown out a lot of background noise, is something that actors understand. When you’re on a set performing and there are 30 crew members hard at work all around you, it’s imperative that you keep the thread. We did a massive overhaul of the script after the financing fell apart, with a focus on cutting down the script, combining locations, and detailed creative scheduling. Because I had to do this extra work, as well as the work of pulling together new financing with my partners, my pre-production schedule was very limited. I had to believe that the act of overhauling the script and schedule in a very focused manner would serve as a kind of pre-production process in its own right. I had to focus on the immediate problem in front of me in a that was consistent with the film I wanted to make.
Actors have a capacity to adjust and respond to the circumstances presented to them. A scene partner will often do something unexpected, requiring you to react in a way that is truthful to the character and also keeps the scene moving forward. I found the same held for the curveballs that arose during production. We had a couple of days where we had to be very mobile and hit multiple locations out on Lake Vermilion. We had a flotilla of boats: pontoons for camera, for cast, speedboats for shuttling, fishing boats for picture and a barge for equipment.
There was one location that DP Radium Cheung and I really wanted to capture that the producers felt we might not be able to get into the schedule and that we didn’t strictly “need.” It required shooting some of the cast on a tiny teardrop of an island that wasn’t used in any other scenes. It was an unscheduled/time-permitting “floater,” but I really wanted to get it in the movie.
This one morning, there was a thick fog over the lake, and it wasn’t going to match a scene we’d shot prior, so we wanted to wait to see if it would burn off. This pea soup fog gave us our chance. It was the perfect moody atmosphere to shoot the island and we made the snap decision to grab that first before heading on to the planned location. The whole flotilla shifted course and we shot the cast on the island, while camera stayed on a boat circling. We ended up with a beautiful, wordless standalone scene that crystallized the growing attraction between two of the characters, played by Tom Lipinski, and Kate, the lead.
The ability to shift in that way was a testament to the cast and crew’s professionalism and flexibility, and it highlighted the value of being able to respond to the “given circumstances,” as we say in the acting world. It’s not just a hallmark of the actor’s craft, but of filmmaking in general. My best moments as a director were unplanned and came out of reacting to what was in front of me at the time, just as an actor hopes for moments that are organic.
I’m really just scratching the surface here, and it’s not like I think it’s necessary to have an acting background in order to be a good director. Many of the finest ones I’ve worked with have no aptitude or interest that way! But I drew heavily on that experience and found that it gave me a foundation with which to approach the work. And in some respects, it’s also made my acting work easier, as I now have the perspective that runs the other way. I don’t plan on giving either one up for awhile! MM
Blood Stripe premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival June 2, 2016, with a second screening on June 7. All images courtesy of Tandem Pictures.