Working with Actors
by, 08-09-2010 at 08:12 AM (7917 Views)
Slime in My Eye #2: Working with Actors
I love working with actors. I don’t know if the adage that “90% of directing is casting” is true, but it’s damned close. As a writer, I judge each actor by how he interprets the character and dialogue on the written page, as a director, I judge them based on what new qualities they bring to the material, and how they interact with their co-stars; and as a producer I worry primarily about what each person’s needs are in terms of scheduling, transportation, and housing.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with talented, collaborative actors on all four of my films, but never more so than on SLIME CITY MASSACRE, for which I cast not only many of the actors who starred in my previous films, but for the first time hired professional actors for key roles. SCM is playing on the horror convention and film festival circuit now, beginning with a screening on Saturday, August 28th, at Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear, part of FanExpo Canada in Toronto. We’ve received several wonderful reviews for the film, but one thing I’ve noticed is that because there’s so much to discuss about it – its connection to horror films from the 1980s, the way it blends science fiction, horror and comic book tropes, and so on – is that few of the actors are singled out for their performances.
Robert Sabin is the first actor I ever worked with. He starred in a little Super 8 film I made fro Roy Frumkes’s Introduction to Film Production class at the School of Visual Arts. I wrote the lead in the original SLIME CITY for him, and persuaded him to take a role in I WAS A TEENAGE ZOMBIE, on which I worked as production manager. Robert was a great collaborator, and endured a lot in those latex appliances sculpted by Scott Coulter. We’ve remained good friends for 28 years, and he’s appeared in all of my films. He’s also the best screenwriter I know, and always has scripts “in development” out in L.A. He’ll break through soon, and then his genius will be appreciated. In SCM, he plays “Zachary Devon,” who possessed the character Robert played in the original film. We shot all of the flashbacks he appears in over two days, and he stayed at my house, just like old times (we were roommates during SLIME CITY).
24 hours before shooting commenced, the actress cast as Lizzie, Zachary’s young daughter (played as an old witch by Jane Doniger Reibel the first time around) had to bow out due to her work schedule. I woke Robert up after he had gotten maybe three hours of sleep, and told him he had to start calling other actresses. A lovely local actress named Sandra Roland accepted the part by lunchtime, read the script that afternoon, and rehearsed with Robert and the other flashback actors that evening. She was the first person shot the next morning. Sandra did a great job, and was a joy to work with.
Brooke Lewis is a name some of you may recognize. Brooke got her start doing comedy, and has found success in the horror and thriller genre the last few years. Because she has her own production company, Philly Chick Pictures, she has a strong sense of the business side of this business. I had discussed a number of roles with her, and ultimately suggested she play “Nicole” opposite Robert in the 1959 flashback scenes. In these scenes, Zachary uses his NYC soup kitchen to lure various street people into his Coven of Flesh; we’re introduced to him and his followers, and the “slime,” through Nicole’s eyes. I’d originally written this part for a popular “scream queen” who had worked on another project of mine, but the actress – who was quite good and fine to work with – never lived up to her promise to promote that project. When you put everything you’ve got into a film, you want to know that your key cast will support and promote it once it’s finished. Not only is Brooke a very talented actress – she brought a real vulnerability to her role that exceeded what I wrote – but she is a master promoter, and works very hard promoting the projects she acts in and her collaborators on them. Although she hails from Philadelphia, Brooke is a west coast woman now, and I’m an east coast filmmaker. I loved working with her, and she’s working hard to promote the film now, and as associate producer steered me to our foreign sales rep. “The business” is often sleazy and there are plenty of snakes out there, and I’m glad I’m not an actress. I really trust Brooke, and between her and Debbie Rochon, I believe I’ve worked with two of the hardest working actresses around.
The other flashback actors include Michael O’Hear, a local Buffalo actor who also served as my casting director and 1st assistant director. Michael is a very nice guy and a gentleman, and I offered him his choice of several parts. He chose to play “Roman,” the beat poet in Zachary’s coven (played to goth perfection by Dennis Embry back in 1986), not because it was a showy part, but because he thought he could bring some interesting qualities to the character, and he liked the idea of acting with Robert and Brooke. I admire his reasoning: he approached his choice for purely artistic reasons, which is so rare.
The other member of our flashback cast was Sephera Giron, known to many readers for her horror and erotica novels, and short stories which combine both genres. I’ve been friends with Sephera for several years die to our mutual involvement in the horror Writers Association. For years I’ve been aware of her interest in musical theater, and I’ve read about productions in which she’s appeared, but it had never occurred to me to cast her in a film. I actually wrote the role of “Ruby,” Zachary’s wife, for Brinke Stevens, with whom I’ve always wanted to work (I know Brinke from the con circuit, and think she’s a class act). But I ended up making SCM for one third of the desired budget, and just couldn’t afford to bring her in from L.A. in addition to Robert and Brooke. I offered Sephera the role, and she threw herself into it. She didn’t get to sing or dance, but she created a unique character, speaking in a sing-song voice and opening her eyes very wide. The thing that surprised me about all the flashback characters as portrayed by these wonderful actors is just how likable they all are, and Sephera brought a degree of creepy menace to her scenes that I appreciated.
I wrote several roles in the script for actors who appeared in my previous films, including Mary (Huner) Bogle, Tommy Sweeney, Dick Biel, Eric Mache and Tom Merrick. A lot of time has passed since we made those earlier films, and these folks now have families and careers, and couldn’t devote a lot of time to SCM, so I created characters for them – as I did for Robert – that could be filmed in a couple of days. Mary’s character was critical, since it’s a carryover from the first film. She had to come back. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to make this film in the first place was to work with her and Robert again (although, sadly, they don’t share any scenes together; maybe next time). Dick Biel reprises his role as “Irish” the cop from SC, and he was genuinely touched by how many of the cast, crew and extras new who he was. The other guys played mercenaries named after mercs from THE WILD GEESE, THE DOGS OF WAR and McBAIN.
I wrote the pivotal role of “Alice,” one of the four main characters possessed by “Zachary Devon’s Home Brewed Elixir” and “Himalayan Yogurt” for Debbie Rochon. I will tell you upfront that I didn’t know Debbie, and I was unfamiliar with a lot of her films, though I’d heard of them. I was impressed by her work in my friend Justin Wingenfeld’s film SKIN CRAWL, and also by her work in J.R. Bookwalter’s DEMON FIRE: WITCHOUSE 3. I’d met her briefly a couple of times at cons, and she struck me as being very friendly and very serious about her work, but after seeing her in SKIN CRAWL, I knew she was also a trained actress. As a producer, it makes sense to cast someone with a fan base, who understands the genre and what goes into working in it. Debbie is actually a bigger expert on the genre than most people realize, not because she’s worked on so many horror films, but because she genuinely loves them; but her interests include all good or interesting films, she’s very well rounded that way. Casting her in SCM was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
I could easily write an entire column about Debbie’s work in SCM, but she is such a team player, and so fully embraced that this was an ensemble film, that I doubt she’d accept that. At her request, she flew to Buffalo a few days before her first scenes so she could absorb the vibe on the set, finalize her costume details, and work out some ideas with her primary co-star, Lee Perkins (unlike the flashback actors, I was unable to rehearse the four key “Slime Heads” until I had them all together for filming). I wrote a monologue for Debbie in which her character fills us in on her background, and Chris Santucci, my amazing DP, shot it with a gradual dolly move. After the first take, everyone present burst into applause. Driving home alone for once, I actually choked up because I was so moved by the performance. That’s what hiring a pro does for a project. I’ve never heard anyone who’s worked with Debbie speak ill of her, and I came out of this film with tremendous respect and admiration for her. I’m glad she’s having such a great year, with so many good projects under her belt. She’s all about the work, and I’m proud to call her a friend.
I met Lee Perkins and a little film festival in Florida called the Halloween Horror Picture Show back in 2005. I was promoting the SLIME CITY DVD, he was promoting KATIE BIRD, in which he gives a chilling performance as a serial killer who trains his daughter to follow in his footsteps (ironically, Debbie was a guest at that festival too). Even though I didn’t know if I’d ever get another project off the ground, Lee stayed in touch with me. As Robert says, “Filmmaking is about building relationships.” I wrote the role of the leader of the mercenaries who invade Slime City for Lee. It was another of those two-day parts I mentioned. But as production drew closer, I felt I really needed an experienced actor to play Mason, Alice’s partner in crime; someone who could stand on his own opposite Debbie. I felt more and more that I needed Lee for this larger role, and my wife agreed and went out and raised some additional money so we could bring him in. It was an important move: Lee is a very sweet guy, and the kind of actor who likes to try many different things, and he brought a lot of color and nuance to his role. He visited the set during the shooting of the flashback scenes, just to see how things were going. Lee is very aware of camera placement, and he’s a very physical actor. An exchange of just a few words with the DP tells him exactly what he can do within the frame, and he loves to work out bits when he’s not needed for filming. He and Debbie worked out back stories for their characters, and developed some physical dynamics between them that took me by surprise. Lee also choreographed a fight scene with Alexander Sloan McBryde, a local actor who plays a pimp. We didn’t have a fight choreographer, and in this scene Mason throws the pimp into a bathtub full of orange slime. Lee was very concerned about Alex’s safety, and by the time we shot the scene they had it all worked out.
Kealan Patrick Burke is a fellow horror author, a talented Irishman who lives in Ohio. One day I happened to learn he’d done some Shakespearean acting while in college. He’s done some male modeling, and although soft spoken, has a wicked sense of humor and exudes charm. I’d wanted to cast him as the lead in a film which never got off the ground, and when SCM appeared to be going forward, I offered him the part of “Cory,” the film’s male lead, and he said yes. I brought him and Lee up ahead of production to do some preliminary special effects work and to do a table reading. I don’t think either one of them knew exactly what they were going to do that far ahead of production, but they developed real chemistry in that weekend and I knew they’d deliver. After shooting the flashback scenes, I spent two days directing Kealan and Jennifer Bihl, a local actress who is the film’s star. Since Kealan and Jennifer have far less experience than Debbie and Lee, I wanted them to get comfortable with each other – they play lovers – before bringing in the other actors. They were wonderful from the get-go, and learned to trust each other very quickly. Kealan was always observing how the set ran, kidded around with cast and crew, never stepped on anyone’s toes. I knew he was doing solid work throughout the film, but it was during a tender moment between him and Jennifer early on that I realized how much the camera loved his subtle, low key intensity. When I showed some scenes to a filmmaker friend unfamiliar with horror literature, he was very impressed and said, “Who IS this guy? Where did you GET him?” The climax of the film occurs in three stages, the first being between Kealan and Jennifer. For his part, Kealan had to spend much of the day with a prop meat cleaver in his head. He didn’t complain once, even though the guys used silicone to attach the cleaver… I’m very proud that Kealan won Best Actor at the PollyGrind Film Festival for his work.
In some ways, I had Jennifer Bihl in mind for SCM even before I wrote it. Jen played a cheerleader who gets her finger bitten off by JOHNNY GRUESOME in the short film I made based on my novel, and she reminded me of Mary Bogle in many ways: physically, but also in her easy going work ethic. I thought, “If I ever do a SLIME CITY: THE NEXT GENERATION, she would be perfect!” I never doubted Jen would deliver a good performance, but I will say she surprised me from day one. She’s a much more physical actress than I expected, saying more with a cocked eyebrow or a shoulder shrug than other actresses can with primo dialogue. This is really important, because the script is structured so that her character is often in the background, reacting to the other three characters around her; she really only takes center stage about two-thirds of the way into the film. Debbie delivers her killer monologue to Jen, and after we shot Debbie’s coverage, we turned the camera on Jen, who had very simple dialogue designed to set up Debbie. I was stunned watching every little thing she did – not attempting to draw attention to herself, but making her character very real. I loved watching the two of them together. And from the day I wrote the script, I looked forward to shooting the two scenes between Jen and Mary, and they were every bit as much fun as I’d hoped.
We shot many of the scenes in which Jen, Kealan, Debbie and Lee meet in sequence, and for the big one when all four of them are together for the first time, I marveled at how they created their characters before my eyes and amplified what I had written. Seeing Kealan and Lee work out their physical business with a gun and the keys from the first film, and how Debbie worked with Jen (and her injury) made me realize that I had four terrific performers. That was one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had as a filmmaker. As the shoot progressed, I watched the four of them challenge each other by trying different things that altered the dynamics of the scenes. I imagine this is very much what it’s like to direct theatre, and I’m grateful to have experienced it on a little horror film.
By the time Mary arrived to shoot her scenes, Kealan had gone home and Debbie had moved on to her next film. She got to work with Jen and at least met Lee before he left, but had to shoot her big scene – in which she confronts the Slime Heads – by herself. It’s funny, because seeing the scene cut together, you would never guess they weren’t all in the room together. She looked great and fully embraced her action heroine role; at least the crawling brains were there. For a while, it looked like Mary might not make it to Buffalo for her scenes due to a family emergency; that would have been a shame. I had a Plan B, but it just wouldn’t have been the same. No one but Mary should be allowed to say, “Die, Goddamn it!” Her big moment entailed some physical business with the brains, choreographed by R.J. Sevin., who created the new brain puppets, and her dance training really came in handy. It was great fun to watch on location, and really works. Mary finally met Debbie at our NYC screening, which was also fun to see: two classy NYC actresses, neither of them with an ounce of discernible ego, watching themselves go at each other on a big screen.
There are a few more people I should mention before moving on from the subject. Lloyd Kaufman came to Buffalo at his own expense to make a cameo; I have Debbie to thank for that. Lloyd was a charmer, and it was a big thrill for the crew to have him town for a day. We shot his scene against a green screen, and in between takes he shot footage for one of his documentary DVDs, and asked me to explain how the crew made our green screen. I went through it once and he said, “No, no, no – say it like this…” I had Lloyd Kaufman directing me on the set of my own movie!
John Renna, who was my production manager and who designed Lee’s Slime Head make-up, plays a Dickensian character called “The Mayor of Slime City.” John is over six feet tall, and in the film he wears mutton chops, a tux with the sleeves torn off, and a top hat. He’s a larger than life guy and plays a larger than life character. He did a great job, and if the film finds its audience, I expect he’ll be a fan favorite.
In many ways, this story begins and ends with Roy Frumkes. Roy was my film school teacher at SVA, and because SLIME CITY and STREET TRASH were made around the same time using many of the same people, we have a very sticky, translucent connection, and we’ve become good friends over the years. He’s an associate producer on SCM, and he plays the role of “Ronald Crump,” a media and real estate tycoon who hires mercenaries to wipe out the homeless population in Slime City. He came to Buffalo for the last day of shooting, and seemed to enjoy himself very much. Because we had so much to shoot on the last day (but still finished a day early), I had very little time to direct Roy and his co-star, Andrew Walsh. But they came fully prepared, knew their lines, and Roy gave a chilling performance. It was great to have him there when I called a wrap.
So there you have it: my public “thank you” to the cast who worked so hard on this movie. If you’re a filmmaker, I hope you’re lucky enough to assemble such a talented group of people, and if you’re a horror film fan, I hope you enjoy their work in SCM.
Next time, a more sobering look at the world of indie horror filmmaking.