Just Charlie began its life as a stage play.
Inspired by a daytime television program, screenwriter Peter Machen and I were fascinated by the idea that someone could be born and feel completely disassociated from what they saw in the mirror and how those around them identified themselves. This issue became the inspiration for the very first play that we created, Killing Larry, which told the story of a transgender woman from birth to the night before gender reassignment surgery. When I came to make my first feature some 20 years later the subject of identity was still one that I felt strongly about. It seemed logical to update and revisit our old material.
Not a single member of the team behind Just Charlie has been to film school. We all began our careers as theater actors. I branched off and became a Theater Director, working closely with Peter Machen who had now started writing plays and Karen Newman who had left acting to become a Producer. Just Charlie was our first feature. This film became our film school. The things we learnt making Just Charlie could never have been acquired from a classroom or a book. I do strongly believe that the best way of learning is by doing. That would be my main advice: go out and do it. Of course, there is value to be had in taking courses but you also need to put things into practice. If you don’t, then you won’t start to get a sense of the type of director, writer or producer you are.
Making a low budget Independent film is always going to come with challenges, but you need to look at these challenges and turn them into opportunities. We often refer to the making of Just Charlie and the process we went through as the vertical learning curve. It was tough, it was blood sweat and tears, almost literally at times. It was also, magical, creative and life-changing. When I think about it, I wouldn’t change a minute of it.
With an indie film, there is never going to be enough money. This can inspire you to make very creative and bold choices in order to tell your story. The opening of the film, for instance, should have included two full soccer teams. Unfortunately, no one turned up at 7 am on a cold November morning and we were forced to rethink. It was sunny and the light mixed with the frosty morning air was quite beautiful. Cinematographer Karl Clarke and myself quickly came up with a plan to create an almost dream-like quality for the scene using the flare from the sun and just focusing on Charlie and her joy at playing football. We managed to grab a few boys who were walking past to join in and we created the opening sequence. This turned out to be far more true to my vision than the original opening could have ever been.
As a Theater Director, I was constantly told “You direct theater like film.” I can only assume my use of underscoring and movement sequences (montages) to move the story along and attention to small details in design are what led to this observation. Now, when I direct film, I get told “You direct film like theater.” This is probably because I insist on making the complicity of the actors my primary focus, rather than using them as props (as I have often heard crews refer to them).
I give time to my actors, which is often more apparent in theater. I would have liked to have given my cast more time, and undertaken more work with them before we began the actual shoot but, on a production made for under $100,000, we just didn’t have the money to do this. I relied heavily on my actors preparing in advance and using the research tools we had provided for them. I ensured I saw my cast every morning before we started so that we could talk through the day and discuss what I was looking for. This also allowed me to answer any questions or concerns that they might have. My aim was to rehearse every scene with them before shooting but I soon realized that I needed to prioritize these rehearsals. We shot the film in a little over three weeks so time was of the essence. If a scene was simple I just had a quick discussion with the actors before the scene. The scenes that were more complex, either physically or emotionally, I spent as much time as was needed. This allowed everyone to feel confident, comfortable and in the right emotional place for us to continue with shooting.
It is important to really gain your cast’s trust, understanding their individual style of working. For instance, I could work with the trained adult actors using theater techniques to explore their texts. This proved a quick and efficient shorthand that we all understood. I would definitely recommend reading Stanislavsky, Max Stafford Clarke and other theater practitioners in order to develop this shorthand. With the younger actors, it needed to be more instinctive and based on a series of “What If’s” such as ‘what if your father rejected you.’ It was also vital that I facilitated a sense of family between the actors. Harry Gilby (Charlie) and Elinor Machen-Fortune (Eve) became very much like brother and sister.
Some scenes were shot using a theater workshop approach. The scene in which Charlie is caught dressing for the first time, for instance, I didn’t want to rehearse. It needed to feel fresh and truthful; however I was the guardian of a 14-year-old boy’s emotional well-being so needed to prepare him. For this scene I talked to Harry (Charlie) and Scott (Paul) independently about their motivations, needs, wants. Neither was aware, however, of what the other’s brief was. After doing some very basic blocking, we shot the scene twice. Harry was very emotional and I knew that this was that raw emotion that we needed on screen. I was not prepared, however, to put him through it time and time again.
The scene in the waiting room, although short, is one of my favorite moments in the film. Rather than rehearsing in the traditional sense, I allowed Patricia (Susan) and Harry to play out the rehearsal in front of the camera. I told them to just sit on the sofa and see what happened. We waited with camera rolling for a long time. The awkwardness and tension built naturally and I knew that, eventually, one of then would instinctively do something. Without looking, Harry placed his hand out for Patricia to hold. It is such a truthful and moving moment that I don’t think we would have achieved had it been blocked. Despite not being able to rehearse as much as in theatre, you do, as a director, get to hone the rhythm and tone of scenes whilst editing along with having the opportunity to pick individual performances that are most akin to what you are looking for. On stage, once an actor has done it, there is nothing you can do about it, other than give notes and hope they do what you wanted in the next performance.
Regardless of wanting to work with my actors in this way, I had a visual style that I wanted to realize and that needed to be done with my crew. Again, when you are working on a film with a budget this low, or any film for that matter, making everyone feel important and valued is vital. I am a very collaborative director and I think this does come from years of working in small-scale and fringe theatre, where everyone contributes what they can to help realize the production. I am fully aware and completely happy with the fact that I am an actor’s director and not a technical director. I don’t know what lenses but I do know what I ultimately want. I storyboarded with my editor and cinematographer and thoroughly communicated to them what I aimed to achieve before we started. Then they used their expertise to make it happen.
One of the big differences between directing the mediums of stage and screen is that on film, you are responsible for directing the audience’s attention. You decide how much of the world the audience will see, who they should empathize with, and from what perspective they view the story. You can do that to some extent on stage with lighting, blocking and stage pictures, but you can’t vary the distance between the viewer and the action. In the theater, your audience will all be looking from different angles and different distances, so you must make it feel like what they are witnessing is absolutely real. I suppose the advantage I have over more naturalistic theater-makers is that I worked in very physical, visual theatre. I never really tried to create a sense of this being a real world. I imagine the cinematic equivalent of this would be magical realism. I always felt that theater should be theatrical and film was the best place to present naturalism.
Conversely, in film, everyone thinks (rightly or wrongly) that you have unlimited access to all the tools to let your imagination know no bounds. This may be true on some sets, but when working low budget you are just as restricted as in the theatre, in some cases more so, I love deep staging but its almost impossible to do in a tiny kitchen or garden shed. I wanted jib shots and steady cams but you work with what you’ve got. In better-funded films that are attractive to the large industry awards, it’s usually the complexity of the cinematography and the cleverness of shots that create a more cinematic feel. What working in theater has taught me is that, in a film like Just Charlie, character arcs and relationships are what’s important. It’s a simple but truthful style that makes its audiences mob you, in tears, thanking you for telling this story.
One thing that I did find difficult is the timeline. When you direct a film, you can’t get lost. You are responsible for knowing where this moment you are filming fits into the whole jigsaw puzzle so need to be fully prepared for each day. You can’t just see what happens quite like you can in theatre, you need to know everyone’s journeys and exactly where they are at all times. When you rehearse for the stage, the whole sequence of the story is clear to everyone all the time: actors, hair, makeup, costume. On a film, everyone has to really be on their toes and have planned everything out meticulously. I tried to shoot in chronological order where I could to make things easier. This was primarily for Harry, so that he could know where he was on his journey, but it was not always possible.
Ultimately, though, the biggest difference is that, when you direct a play, you are giving your best work to the cast and crew hoping that they will create magic out of it; when you direct a film, everyone working on it gives you their best work in the hope that you will create magic out of it.
Despite the belief of many, however, I don’t think that there are that many fundamental differences between the crafts of directing film and theatre.
The key to both is communication.
The Director always has a vision regardless of the medium and it is our job to communicate that vision to everyone from the runner to the producer, from the writer to the actors. Then, everyone utilizes their expertise to bring that to life. MM