Shoot to Suit
Part I: Getting Started
It seems to be a truism these days that to get an agent or a manager–and sometimes even to get a role–you need a demo reel. But what do you do if you can't get cast in the parts that you're "perfect" for, or the directors that did cast you can't manage to finish editing their projects, and it's months or years before you get the "copy" part of the "copy, credit, and catering" you were willing to work for?
One solution is called, "shoot to suit." If no one will cast you as the funny guy, or you just know that you could be the next great bitchy best friend, don't wait for someone else's schedule or depend on someone else's ability to see your abilities, write yourself a scene and get it on tape.
Obviously, there's a bit more involved than just "write it and shoot," but in this series of articles, I'm going to break down how you can do just this on your own for much less than what it would cost you if you went to a business that specializes in overcharging actors to film their scenes. I'll be using the real-world example of my own experiences over the 4th of July weekend shooting a bunch of scenes for some friends. I hope to show that even though there's a lot of work involved, creating scenes that can pass for something out of a student or low-budget film is definitely doable by just about anyone.
In this installment, I'll cover writing and/or choosing the scene(s), and scene partners. Next, I'll talk about what to look for in a location, crew, the equipment needed and ways to learn how to use all of it. Installment three will deal with day-of-shoot experiences, and finally I'll go over ways of expanding your scene into a short-format film that you can distribute to festivals, and online video Web sites.
It Begins with Words
If you don't currently have a demo reel, I would recommend filming at least two contrasting 30-60 second scenes, i.e. comedy and drama. Concentrate on the quality of your writing and acting, and don't worry about meeting some "industry standard" for demo length. If you think you're terrible as a comedian or dramatic actor, then still shoot contrasting scenes, just make them, say, low comedy and high comedy, or sad drama and angry drama.
If you have a demo reel, your scene or scenes should feature you in a style or an emotional state that's not already on your reel. For example, my reel was heavy on the dramatic, and light on the comedic so I wrote the following scene:
OTHER GUY: So, what do you think?
ME: It's good, but you forgot to capitalize the "S" in "Sunday."
OTHER GUY: That stuff doesn't matter as long as people know what I'm talking about.
ME: No. It does matter. It matters that "Sunday" is a proper noun and proper nouns have their first letter capitalized.
OTHER GUY: E.E. Cummings never capitalized his stuff.
ME: E.E. Cummings studied and taught the rules of English for 20 years before he started breaking them, and he only broke them in poetry and only for effect.
OTHER GUY: Yeah, but–
ME: Tell you what...if you're E.E. Cummings, you don't have to capitalize the "S" in "Sunday." If you were born someplace like Uzbekistan, or you're a five-year old, you don't have to capitalize the "S" in Sunday. But guess what: E.E. Cummings is dead, you were born in Long Beach, and your favorite drink is a Mojito, so capitalize the damn "S."
The advantages of such a scene are:
- The scene is about 45 seconds long so the viewer doesn't have to wait for the payoff. Don't worry about creating complex characters, backstory, etc. Enter as late into the scene as possible, hit the climax within a minute, and then quit.
- Through editing, the Other Guy can be on-screen for less than 10 seconds.
- It's simple to film since it only requires a medium-shot master and two close ups, and the scene can take place anywhere. We shot it behind my apartment so we could take advantage of natural–and unchanging–light since the building blocked the sun.
- It was easy to write because it's a variation of arguments I've had with dozens of people over the years. I'm sure everyone reading this article has similar experiences they can turn into a 30- or 60-second scene.
If you're not up to writing anything for yourself, and can't find anyone to write anything for you, there is the option of filming a scene from a movie or a play. However, if you go this route you need to remember the first rule of musical theater: Never, ever audition with any song sung by Barbra Streisand. It doesn't matter how fabulous you are, you're going to come up short when they compare you to Babs. So make sure the scene you choose is obscure. Really, really obscure. This means all of your favorites are out: no Usual Suspects, nothing from The Matrix, or Kevin Smith. The, "You can't handle the truth!" scene from A Few Good Men is not obscure. Not even close. No matter how intense and charismatic you are, you're going to lose if you go up against Jack Nicholson.
Also, tweak the dialogue and premise a bit so that it's not a direct copy. This will help make the scene your own. Change the names and relationships. Change any places mentioned, etc. One guy shot the, "You had me at hello" scene from Jerry Maguire, which breaks the rule above, but in his version, the love of his life was played by a sock puppet. It was a very effective, and very funny, twist that made the scene his, and not just a knock off.
I wouldn't recommend a scene that requires more than two actors. Getting coverage for two people will take a minimum of two hours if you have to reposition your lights, and you have someone who knows about lighting. Getting coverage for three people will greatly increase the complexity of your shot and location needs, and add a minimum of an hour. Plus, it's very hard for one scene to provide really great demo material for three people.
The actor(s) you cast should look as little like you as possible so there's no confusion as to who's who in your reel. I don't know how many times I've been reviewing demo material with a client, and said, "I'm sitting right here looking at you, and I still can't tell which actor is you in this movie." Make it easy for agents and casting directors to know who it is they're supposed to be watching. So if you're like me, a 30-ish white male, your perfect scene partners would be a 20-year old Chinese girl, or a 60-year old African-American male.
One way to convince someone to be in a scene with you is to offer to swap roles. So my 60-year old African-American male partner could just as easily have been the one to read me the grammarly riot act, and neither of us would have to worry much about the same people seeing our identical demo reel scene since we'll never go up for the same part. The same casting director might see the same scene over the course of a year, but it's highly unlikely that they'd remember it.
Just as it is in a movie, a demo reel scene has to be focused and well-written, and the actors have to be at a professional level. Don't cast non-actor friends because everyone watching your reel will focus on the terrible actors instead of you. Also, don't approach a scene with the idea that you'll just improvise something. Unless you and your scene partner are not only master improvisers, but can also match your exact moves and dialogue time and again, you'll make it very difficult for an editor to pull together a cohesive and effective scene. Which is the whole point, right?
In the next installment, I'll cover what to look for in a location, crew, the equipment needed and ways to learn how to use all of it.
Go to Shoot to Suit, Part 2.