Tips for the low-budget filmmaker; an actor’s perspective.

 

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Since graduating from drama school eight *gasp* years ago, I have had my fair share of work on low-budget films. Experiences range from awful to sublime, I have made friends for life and also cried, wet, in a puddle, in the rain.

So here are a few low-cost things you can do as a filmmaker, which will make for happy actors and a great filming experience. These are mere suggestions; but they will make for a better film, in less time.

  • Provide healthy and filling food at mealtimes. Takeaway pizza, the low-budget film favourite is so expensive! Plus, your cast and crew will feel like passing out an hour after eating. Protein=energy, as do fruit and vegetables. You can make the most amazing, cheap, easy and nutritious food at home – I’ve attached a handy guide at the end of this article, as well as some of my favourite budget recipes.
  • Hire a makeup artist; having someone on set to make your actors look and feel beautiful or to create awesome special effects can make a HUGE difference. Sure, you could make fake blood out of corn syrup and food colouring but – there are hundreds of final year makeup artists desperate for experience! More often than not they will charge a small fee for supplies and that’s it, though its always best to pay if you can. I recommend calling Greasepaint/The Iver Academy, they will put out a call to their graduating students and boom you’ve got an MUA. Delamar Academy is also great.
  • Provide somewhere warm and comfortable for the actors to wait between setups; the UK can get especially cold and you may not feel it running around on set. Make sure there are enough seats in the room for everyone (I love rolling around on the floor but not at 2am in costume). Have some scripts lying around so people can rehearse. Keep a couple bottles of water and some plastic cups to hand. Tea and coffee making facilities are a bonus.
  • If there are costume changes, make sure there is somewhere for actors to dress. One of my favourite memories is changing dresses at 3am in Piccadilly circus, behind two towels being held up by runners, while it snowed. Bonus; I got double-hand groped by a drunk we didn’t know was kipping behind the statue.
  • Directors. After calling cut, and before going for another take, check in with your actors. Did you love that take? Hate it? Are we just going again just for sound? Am I fired? If actors don’t get feedback, they are likely to assume you didn’t like the performance, and they will try something different which might not be what you’re after. They may also think you don’t give a damn about performance, which will lead to them not giving a damn. Movie over.
  • If you go over time (and this will happen) check in with your cast and crew and make sure everyone is ok with staying. I was recently on a shoot which was due to wrap at 5pm – we wrapped at 6am. Don’t worry, nobody wants to be the person that walks away and ruins the movie, but you do want to make sure everyone is happy. If you’ve unexpectedly gone past public transport hours, offer to group people up in minicabs to get them home.
  • Respect the elements. If it’s raining and freezing, and everyone is soaking wet, and you can’t afford shelter, you might just have to postpone. People can get incredibly sick and you don’t want that on your shoulders. I recently did an outdoor shoot where I had to change costume ten times under a muddy umbrella, in the pouring, freezing rain. The filmmakers were lovely but about half way through, I was shaking so hard I broke down and had to take a half hour break under the hand-dryers in the loo.
  • For goodness’ sake, wash your props. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to drink out of a dirty cup or eat off a grease-encrusted plate. And if we have to eat something in a scene, try and make it edible, even if it means popping it in the microwave for a minute.

Ideally, you will be paying your cast and crew. Equity guidelines for student films for instance are a mere £65 per day per actor, which is excellent value and makes a world of difference. Trust me on this one – if you need to postpone your shoot by a couple months to get the savings together, it’ll be worth it!

So those are my two cents; maybe they’ll help. Let me know if there’s anything I’ve left out.

Feeding your cast and crew on a budget; an actor’s guide.

Whatever your job is, eating properly and keeping hydrated is essential for getting through the day. This is even more the case when you’re a filmmaker working 14 hours at a time, facing the elements and battling parking attendants. It’s easy to cast catering to one side and deal with it on the day, but it’s a decision that will cost you – both money and time. Good food = Energy, and that’s exactly what you need to run a film set well. Keep several healthy snacks around, like nuts, fruit and vegetables. Don’t overload on the sugary treats, they’ll only make you crash and feel terrible.

Here are some ideas for sandwich fillings which aren’t much more complicated than dry baloney on white, and don’t taste like disappointment.

  • Tuna salad – tuna, half yogurt and half Mayo, sweetcorn, salt pepper
  • Chicken salad – cooked chicken, half yogurt, half Mayo, celery salt pepper
  • Cheese and pickle – what it says on the tin
  • Ham and cheese – don’t forget the mayo
  • Curried egg salad – chopped boiled egg, curry powder, mayo, salt pepper
  • Easy Coronation Chicken
  • Hummus and roast vegetables – peppers, courgettes and onions roast low for 1 hour

If you get tired of bread, try this recipe for the best baked potatoes. Keep ’em warm in a slow cooker.

A slow-cooker is a fantastic investment. Hot food goes a long way to making people feel nourished. They are not just good for preparing meals, but for keeping them warm or heating them up from cold, too. A hotplate and microwave are also good investments and none of these cost the earth.

If you’re not much of a cook or seriously don’t have the time, set up a toastie making station; all you need is a toastie press, ham, cheese, bread and spread. Hey presto, hot food. Serve with a pot of soup and you’ve got a meal.

Here are some of my favourite, budget recipes.

and finally, my absolute favourite for feeding a crowd –

Ma Metaxa’s incredible barbecue spare ribs (or chicken drumsticks) – super easy and can be served cold.

  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 4 cups passata
  • 3 cups water
  • 3/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup worcester sauce
  • 4 tsp paprika
  • 1 tblsp mild chili powder
  • 1-2 tsp tabasco
  • 2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tblsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 cups brown sugar

Combine ingredients in order given.  Heat to boiling and simmer 10 minutes.  Place 8-10kg of spareribs or chicken legs in a single layer in baking pans.  Pour sauce over meat and bake at 170 (160 fan oven) for 2 hours, turning once.

 

How to get into acting; or stuff I wish I’d been taught at Drama School but wasn’t.

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A few days ago, a good friend got in touch with a request; her sister is going into professional acting and wanted to know if I had any wise words. It made me think of all the things I wish I’d been taught at drama school. So here is what I told her; with any luck, it’ll reach the ears of hopeful young thespians or maybe even further the career of working actors.

Edit: This article assumes you have some experience in acting – if you don’t, then before you do any of this I’d recommend you join some am dram groups, take some part-time classes, or create something yourself. If you go in before you’re ready, you’ll just get burnt.

Headshots; 

A killer set of headshots should be your number on priority. Do your research, find a photographer whose style you absolutely love and call them – the great ones book up months in advance. It will usually cost you about £250-£350. Please do not get your Mum/neighbour/postman to do it. This is an investment in your career. A Casting Director will receive between five hundred and two thousand applications for each role (yeah not kidding) and the tiny little thumbnail of your headshot needs to FLY off the page.

On headshot day, I recommend getting someone to give you super natural makeup (if you’re a girl, or hey even if you’re a guy – not judging). Make sure you’re happy with your hair. You want to look like you on a really really good day, without the help of too much post airbrushing. Embrace your age! Don’t try and look younger or older. Ever since I got into ‘mom’ territory, I’ve had loads more opportunities. Get some sleep the night before, and do whatever you need to do to look your best. People who say it’s good to look average in headshots can sod off. You’re in competition with thousands.

Showreel; 

Now its time to get a showreel. Without a showreel, it will be next to impossible to be seen for TV or film. I’ve known casting directors who have been so inundated with applications, they just get rid of the ones without an attachment.

There are a few ways of creating a showreel – signing up to student films and collecting material; getting friends together, renting some amazing equipment, and shooting some scenes; or getting a showreel company to do it. If I could do it all over again (oy vey) I would get a showreel company to do it. This is my biggest regret. I spend two and a half years working my butt off for free on student films, most of which were either bone-chillingly awful or simply never sent me a copy. If you must work on student films, focus on graduate films from the more recognisable schools. If you have just one scene, put it up. All you need is something that can show you can act.

Edit – as with headshot photographers, there are some truly shoddy showreel companies out there. Do your due diligence and research all you can.

In total your reel should be about a minute and a half long. Forget montages or musical intros – go bang into a shot of you acting, within the first five seconds. Agents and casting directors have next to no time, so you need to make it easy for them or they’ll just skip your reel. If you must have a montage, put it at the end.

Credits and your CV;

While all this is happening, work on getting your CV nice and juicy. To become a member of Spotlight (see below), you will need four professional acting credits. Sites like Starnow and Casting Call Pro can be useful here though you’ll have to wade through some rubbish. Get your amazing new headshots and showreels uploaded and apply, apply, apply.

Do your research – what does the role require? Can you find other work by the company online? Directors love if you’ve made an effort to see something they’ve done in the past. Keep your application succinct. They are going through a tonne of them and you want to make a great impression in a short amount of time. 

Do not lie on your CV. Especially when it comes to accents and abilities. I’ve seen a guy come on set at the last minute because he said he could do a flawless American accent. He couldn’t. It was super embarrassing and he got cut from the whole production.

Later on, when you start to pile on the credits, delete the ones that aren’t as impressive. A CV with five amazing credits is better than a CV with twenty mixed ones.

On the plus side, all this applying for jobs can be done in your pyjamas with the cat/dog/guinea pig on your lap. When it comes to auditions, unfortunately you’ll have to get dressed.

Auditions;

Get to the audition on time, or even better, early. Make an effort to look nice and gear your clothing, hair and makeup towards the character you are going for. If you’re being seen for Mom-of-Three, be mom-of-three. Not lumberjack girl.

Above all, enjoy the auditioning process – its fun! You’re getting to act, meet new people, and walk into a room with twenty or more actors that look just like you, which isn’t creepy at all. If you enjoy the process, the casting director will know. And you will be much more likely to book the job.

As for the Casting Directors? When you walk into that room, they are hoping against hope you are the perfect person for the job. They want you to do well as badly as you do, so don’t forget – they are on your side.

My final tip for this, and I probably shouldn’t be sharing it with you – go in pretending you’ve already got the job and its the first day of rehearsals. Sure it’s a little nuts, but it works.

Spotlight; or the centre of the universe;

So you’ve got your four professional acting credits! Great. Get your butt on Spotlight. Spotlight is an online directory for acting jobs. Without it, you pretty much won’t be considered for representation by an agent because its where they get 99% of their work. When you sign up without an agent, you will automatically be listed under ‘care of Spotlight’.

This will give you access to a pool of casting breakdowns you may apply to yourself. These jobs will be way better than Casting Call Pro and Starnow. Agents will get access to higher calibre breakdowns on Spotlight than you will, and the better the agent, the more access they will have. Which is why you will likely need the next step.

Agents;

Yay! Now you are ready to write to agencies. I really like the book The Actor’s Yearbook as a resource for agencies and more, but you could also do research online and ask your friends. It is best to write to agencies when you a. know someone signed to them and b. have something to invite them to.

Aim to land a great role in a fringe show to invite them to, and always remember to give them three or four weeks notice – they are ridiculously busy. When you sign with them, remember they are on your side – you work for each other. Do not fear the agent. However you must keep them up to date; write to them frequently with your availability – you don’t want them to call you in Malaga with an audition for the BBC that afternoon. They will always be working to get you auditions unless you tell them not to.

Formal Training and drama schools;

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention drama schools. This is because I have some incredibly talented acting pals who never went – but equally I know some who did very well out of it. This is entirely up to you. If you don’t wish to get formal training, write to one of the schools and see if you could be mentored. Either that or take classes with The Actors Guild or at The Actor’s Centre.

This is important not just to learn new skills, but to make contacts and the occasional fab friend. Being self employed can be isolating at times. If you do want to get formal training, focus on getting into a really, really good school. I’d say there’s only about five of them. With the rest you’d be better off using your money (£19,000 a year, usually) for individual classes, and you know, for eating.

Work; like, regular old work;

While you’re doing all this running around preparing the entertainment world for your greatness, you’ll need to pay the rent. Most important here is to find a job that is ok with you taking off for auditions at the last minute; your regular nine to five ain’t gonna cut it. I’ve done a lot of promotional work, hostessing stands at exhibition centres, and handing out goody bags or samples.

These days I am super lucky to be working at a film school with directing students, and with a lovely catering company at the weekends. Lots of friends work for call centres or with temp agencies. Ask your friends. Believe it or not, we’re all here for each other.

Acting(ish) work;

Another way of making a living is through role play. Now if you can get in with one of the good role play agencies, and you will need to be with an agency, you’re golden. I have a friend who was sent to Florida for a three day job, and in general it is much better paid than your average job. Role play requires incredibly strong improvisational skills, and there are generally two categories; medical and corporate.

Medical role play involves pretending to be a patient and getting diagnosed by doctors or trainee doctors, often in examination situations. Corporate role play involves working with big companies on improving their skills; like how to deal with difficult customers or employees, how to fire someone, etc etc. I am desperate to get into corporate role play, so if anyone has an in, hook a sister up, m’kay?

Afterthoughts;

In addition to acting, role playing, catering and teaching, there are other things you can and should do. For instance, voice acting is an avenue I’ve just begun to get into and I absolutely love it – but that comes with a whole other set of rules which I can’t even begin to get into. But it’s great.

At the present moment, I have an acting agent, three modelling agents, a voiceover agent and a role play agent. This world is a constant juggling act and your calendar will be your best friend. Just because you have an agent doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax. Keep writing to Casting Directors with your materials, keep applying to jobs on your own. Go to film festivals, plays, attend meetings with your local Equity branch. Meet people. Talk to them. That’s what its all about.

A few years ago, I discovered that keeping ‘office hours’ worked best for me. If I wasn’t at a job, I would try and spend the hours of nine to five (at least) furthering my career in some way or another.

It will be a hella lot of work, and you might miss some great parties and holidays but let me tell you – nothing beats that feeling of waking up at five in the morning to go on set and do your thing. And me, I like my sleep.

In which I rehearse in a bikini, get my first spray tan and enjoy the last of the summer sun. Plus wontons.

Brixton Village. Where I met and fell in love with Garfield the cat.

Brixton Village. Where I met and fell in love with Garfield the cat.

For the past two glorious weeks, I have been rehearsing for a play called Fat Pig at the Prince of Wales Theatre, which is a brilliant venue smack pow in the middle of Brixton Village. Cue delicious shrimp dumplings (Mama Lan), Japanese omelettes (Okan), and fried chicken that you just want to take a bath in (Chicken Liquor). Yum. When I realised that I was two weeks away from appearing on stage in a bikini, I did what every health-conscious actress would do; I booked a spray tan.

For the uninitiated, spray tanning involves standing naked (with the option of hilarious little paper underpants) in a space age inspired booth. A tiny woman in a breathing apparatus will literally spray paint you with orange goop. Then you assume a starfish position while the stuff dries on. Of course, I tottered off to my dinner date straight after. Little did I know my skin would rapidly develop into an alarming colour, and take on a peculiar biscuit smell. My sincere apologies, diners at Tibits Covent Garden.

Akie Kotabe, Aslam Husain, and I in my stripper coat

Akie Kotabe, Aslam Husain, and I in my stripper coat

Anyway, back to the show.

I don’t usually invite people to shows. In fact I mostly hide the fact I am in something and discover the flyers ten months later. But this time it’s different. Fat Pig has been a revelation, partly due to the brilliant script but also thanks to the team behind it. Georgia Goodman, the producer, has fought tooth and nail to provide us all with well paid Equity contracts. This is very, very rare for a fringe production. Mackenzie Thorpe is a simply brilliant director who constantly surprises me with his insight and suggestions, and the actors, Akie Kotabe, Aslam Husain and Francesca Fenech are phenomenal. I am so, so proud to be a part of it.

Mackenzie Thorpe, director extraordinaire. Looks good in hats.

Mackenzie Thorpe, director extraordinaire. Looks good in hats.

On top of this, Georgia and Mackenzie suggested that everyone, including themselves, show up in a swimsuit to put everyone at ease for the beach scene. So yeah, you should come.

All this talk about Brixton Village has made me hungry, so I’m gonna leave you guys with one of my absolute favourite (and surprisingly easy) recipes for Won Ton Soup:

Soup Base:

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions (scallions)
  • 10 cups chicken broth (I just use stockpots)
  • 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced pak choy (bok choi)
  • 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms (I like enoki)

Wontons:

  • 2 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 2 1⁄4 teaspoons corn flour (corn starch)
  • 1 tablespoon minced scallion
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1⁄4 lb ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • 20 fresh wonton wrappers (3 1/2 inch squares) (you can buy them at any Asian grocery store)

Instructions:

Soup: Heat oil in large saucepan. Fry garlic and ginger until fragrant, then add green onions (scallions) and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20-30 minutes while you make the wontons.

Wontons: Mix chicken stock and corn flour (corn starch) in a bowl. Add rest of ingredients (other than wrappers) and mix. There are many ways to fold wontons but the simplest is to put about a teaspoon of filling in the middle, wet the edges with water and fold over to form a triangle. Pop the prepared wontons onto a plate covered in wax paper or baking paper.

Add mushrooms and pak choi (bok choi) to soup and cook for two minutes. Add wontons and boil for another five minutes, or until they float to the surface.

I love to eat this with chili oil drizzled on top. Yum!!

In which I learn some lines, pretend to be a man and eat some lentils.

FullSizeRenderI woke up this morning with the realisation that our new play, Fat Pig, starts rehearsing in a mere six days. Ahh! Time for some lines. Settled downstairs on the couch, my iPhone placed firmly across the room, I prepared to soak in some dialogue. It took me an hour to realise that I was not alone, and an additional ten minutes to persuade my flatmate that I hadn’t just been shouting at myself.

At midday, I pootled over to an audition with Lydia Parker, artistic director of Over Here Theatre Company, at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead. The church is beautiful, and the Vicar is super cool about having thespians roaming his hallowed halls. It was great seeing Lydia, whom I have worked with several times before, and I got to help out with some of the readings (playing a dude! Yay). She
is directing a image1rehearsed reading of The Truth Quotient for New American Voices, at the Tristan Bates theatre on the 8th of October. Its a chilling but surprisingly funny play set in a not too distant future, where technology provides a solution for loneliness and disconnection.

On the way back I stopped at the fruit market on the corner of Finchley Road underground station and picked up these lovely specimens for a bangin’ £4.50. Fruit bought at these markets is cheap, and tends to be on the perfect side of juicy. In fact if you don’t eat them on the train ride home, you’ll have a whole lotta jam on your hands.

And then I made this Spelt bread. Because you know, lines to learn. I’v
discovered a foolproof way of baking bread which involves the following;FullSizeRender

  • Make some dough.
  • Throw a covered cast iron casserole pot in the oven at 250 degrees for half an hour to get well hot.
  • Throw the dough into the heated pot. Cover. Try your best not to get wazzocked by the lid.
  • Bake in oven for twenty minutes. Uncover.
  • Bake in oven fifteen minutes. Ta da! Rustic loaves with holes in.

It went really well with our spicy root and lentil casserole, which was uh-mazing.

Full day of line learning tomorrow and some possible photos back from Revival Retro which remains one of my favourite stores in London. If anyone can come up with ideas on memorising a script please let me know. I for one will be sleeping with the script under my pillow, and hoping the words float in.