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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO


(January 2006) The brisk winds of winter are upon us. The New England landscape is once again locked in the grip of a freeze. A warm fire, a heavy sweater and something hot to drink are just the right ticket for this type of weather. Add in a great flick on DVD and kick back and let the season pass by. It’s the time for hibernation, seeking warmth, comfort and replenishing one’s en

ergy.


That is of course unless you’re in the film business.


Down here in the Ocean State things have been bustling. The Showtime series, “The Brotherhood,” has just wrapped after several months of production. The Mario Van Peebles action-thriller “Hard Luck,” a new $15.5-million production starring Wesley Snipes and Cybill Shepherd recently spent 5-1/2 weeks in Rhode Island. The movie that has been described as "a cutting edge action drama in the spirit of Pulp Fiction meets Unforgiven."


The independent feature, directed by Van Peebles, is the third major production to come to the state since lawmakers this summer granted tax breaks to TV shows and movies shot here. Next up from Walt Disney Pictures is Underdog that will be shooting here at the end of March. Yes, that’s the animated TV series, which will be shot as a live-action feature.


On our end at the RI Film Festival, we have been deluged with entries: over 300 at this writing. Last year we peaked at over 1,500 entries when our call for entries ended in June and early signs indicate that we will surpass that milestone. So far, we have had films that have come from Russia, Israel, Spain, Italy, Greece, New Zealand, India, Denmark, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Croatia, and films from throughout the US.


One thing I’ve noticed in an early review of entries is that a fair number focus on issues of health and disabilities. From documentaries to narrative films, the human experience presented on film is so universal and compelling.


Here is a brief look at some of the titles and their descriptions that I selected at random (and no, listing them does not mean they have been selected to the fest—that will be determined much later):


• The Red Scarf USA, dir. by Peter Sands
The Red Scarf is a memory piece; the story of Vivian Barry’s reluctant journey into the past, which results in the acceptance of her, true self.


Vivian, a well-known star of stage and screen, has been incapacitated by a traffic accident leaving her with a broken leg. Relegated to spending long periods of time reading scripts and playing voyeur with her binoculars, Vivian is visited by the ghost of her past, Alice, who confronts her with the lie that the aging actress has lived with all these years.


• My Life as an Underdog USA dir. by Boris Gavrilovic
Suzanne Muldowney wants to be a famous artist. For the past thirty years she has been taking her interpretive dances of the cartoon superhero “Underdog” to parades, community events and cable access television in an attempt to make her dream come true. Filmed over the course of seven years, My Life as an Underdog examines the idea of fame and explores one woman’s quest for immortality.


• Twitch USA dir. by Leah Meyerhoff
Twitch portrays a young girl's conflicted relationship with her disabled mother and her irrational fear that the disability is contagious. Her boyfriend, oblivious to her increasing hypochondria, only seems interested in her physically. Ultimately, she must learn to confront her fears and take care of herself. Slamdance Grand Jury Prize winner and Student Academy Awards finalist.


• Calvin's World USA dir. by Judi Stroh, Lauren Kinsler
Everyone has family. They are the reason we are ourselves, from the profession we choose to the kinds of shoes we wear. And for most of us, we would not change a thing. But sometimes they are too hard to deal with and we would do anything to change the past, or even better: the people. Anything to just belong.


Calvin Graves is 8-years-old. He likes to play soccer, watch cartoons, and can dance like a penguin. He is also the only one in his entire family that can hear. Find out how he belongs with his family and how much they belong to him.


• Doing Therapy USA dir. by Joe Giacobello
A Hollywood actress develops a problem with panic attacks and is sent to a top anxiety specialist based in Pittsburgh. To avoid media attention, the unlikely couple is stuck together in the shrink's sloppy bachelor pad for an entire month for extensive 24-hour-a-day therapy. This heartwarming comedy redefines the doctor-patient relationship.


• 'urges' USA dir. by Pamela Vitale
A young man goes through a journey of personal realization. He become aware of his lack of love, patience and understanding, and see his fears in a failed relationship with a women that no longer exists in his life. He re-lives many segments including his girlfriend’s mental digression and his projection of a 'possible' better choice of boyfriends.


• Martha in Lattimore USA dir. by Mary Dalton
The first thing you notice when meeting Martha Mason is the bright yellow iron lung that encases her body and helps her breathe just as it has since 1948 when she contracted polio at age 11. She has lived in this life-saving machine longer than anyone else in the world.


At first the image and sound of the iron lung are shocking. Soon after talking with Martha, however, the massive, metal cylinder becomes inconsequential because it is so greatly exceeded by her spirit. Her personal story has long inspired her friends and neighbors, but Martha has been a private person for most of her life. This film tells Martha’s story in the context of Lattimore, the little town and relationships there that have nurtured her.


THE RHODE ISLAND CONNECTION
There was also a film we received with a distinct Rhode Island connection that caught my attention: Chloe.


Directed by D.W. Brown, the film stars Joanne Baron.


Again, addressing a health-related theme, the story is about a successful, young model who suddenly discovers she might be seriously ill. In the course of the film, she confronts her difficult relationship with her parents and reaches out to an old boyfriend. The film was inspired by a diagnosis of autoimmune disease in the filmmaker’s own family, and is, in part, an effort raise awareness for the brutal reality of this common, but little known, condition.


This film uses the glamour of the modeling world and the tendency of people to obsess on their own personal issues, to throw into contrast the very real problem of having one’s own body attack itself. One in 31 people have an autoimmune disease, and 9 out of 10 cases are women; very often with its onset in the early twenties. In fact, in addition to the uncertain and terrible disabilities it threatens, it is among the top 8 leading causes of death for women 15 to 25.


Aside from gaining the interest of festival programmers and distributors, I began to think seriously about films that addressed issues of aging, health, sex and disabilities. Who would want to attend what could look like a disease of the hour—if programmed poorly? And why would talent get connected to films of such content. A documentary is easier to understand; but a narrative feature? Sure, actors who break molds win awards: remember Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot? or Patty Duke playing Helen Keller?


I began wondering just what were the criteria for actors when they tackled such difficult roles: Just how do you play someone with a disability or health issue and do it credibly? Playing an alcoholic or someone with an addiction problem is one thing we’ve seen done frequently, but not someone with Lupus. How do you create a character with clinical depression and elicit empathy from a viewing audience?


As serendipity would have it, D.W. Brown along with Joanne Baron run a noted acting program in California. I would never have known this had they not submitted their latest work to the festival. So I decided to contact Joanne and asked her about her work in Chloe and to learn more about the type of training needed to effectively convey real emotion on screen without seeming arch, false or affected.


SOME BACKGROUND ON JOANNE BARON
Joanne Baron was raised in Providence RI where her parents have resided for over 50 years. She attended Classical and Pawtucket High Schools. Of local note, her parents, they have been involved in the acclaimed Trinity Repertory Company since it's inception.


Joanne Baron has starred in countless feature films and produced several as well. Her film acting credits include Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (also directed by Martha Coolidge), The Secret Life of Girls, The Ungodly, Spiderman 2, Prince and the Freshman Legally Blonde 2, Universal Soldier, Someone to Watch Over Me (directed by Ridley Scott), Valley Girl (with Nicolas Cage) and Real Genius (with Val Kilmer.)


Her credits for television work are extensive including roles in Street Strong, Going to California, Veronica's Closet, The Ponder, Diagnosis Murder, Civil Wars, Dream On, A Year in the Life, Sledgehammer, the ABC Series Lovers & Other Strangers, (as a regular), and the ABC Series Heartbeat, (in a recurring role)

She acted as producer for Perfume, Brooklyn Babylon, and Allie & Me. She recently appeared in Hard Luck and The Myersons.


Joanne also has extensive stage credits, including for local interest, There Once Was a Girl from Pawtucket staged in Los Angeles and which received two Dramalogue Awards in 1997.


GTM: Why did you get involved with Chloe? Did you have a personal experience that drew you to the subject of this film?


Joanne Baron: I got involved because I loved the script and the true subject matter and the talent involved. I also had a similar experience as the lead in the film.


GTM: What is like for you personally given your own emotional attachment to the subject of this film?


Joanne Baron: It's cool seeing a true story told in an inspiring and emotionally affecting way it is fulfilling to me to see the film.


GTM: Do you think that women's health issue are not given enough attention in today's media and in the health industry?


Joanne Baron: I am not sure of the media, but I think there are many women unaware of the tests they should do to watch their health and more press could help save lives.


GTM: What kinds of feedback have you gotten from the film?


Joanne Baron: The feedback is that people really admire the acting and find the look of the film extraordinary particularly- a digital film and that they find the story compelling.


GTM: How did seasoned actors like Jeff Goldblum and Adam Arkin become involved with this film?


Joanne Baron: Adam was asked by the director to read the script and responded to wanting to participate and Jeff supported the production as he knew and liked the actors and director's work.


GTM: What would you like to see happen to this film- in terms of its viewership and distribution?


Joanne Baron: I would like to see the film get distribution on television such as Sundance shorts collections and in various film festivals.


GTM: Tell us about your background: Where you came from and the professional journey you've taken.


Joanne Baron: I have come from 25 years of acting in film, TV and theater and running an acting studio in Santa Monica, California that was born of my training and work with Sanford Meisner and William Esper in NYC. I have also produced TV and feature films.


GTM: What roles from your career have had the greatest impact on you personally?


Joanne Baron: My latest opposite work Wes Bently in the film, The Ungodly, which was a tremendous creative experience. I played the sister of a serial killer. The creative experience greatly impacted me as the team on the film worked so deeply and intensely seeking the truth.


GTM: Was there a particular role that you've had that prepared you for this film?


Joanne Baron: My life experience really prepared me for this film.


GTM: What words of advice would you give to someone entering the field, given your experiences and your career?


Joanne Baron: Train — persevere — and keep open to continual improvement. I think true success is happiness in living your life- loving what you do is part of that and doing what you love the best you can and staying open to continual growth.


HOW AN ACTOR IS TRAINED
Two names stuck out from this exchange: Sanford Meisner and William Esper. The former is known for the Meisner Technique. And what is that if you are not an actor? For an explanation, I turned to Joanne’s husband, D.W. Baron, an accomplished director, teacher and actor.


Having started in theater at an early age, D.W. came to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and starred in films such as “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” as well as many guest appearances on television. Continuing to act in the theater, D.W. Brown turned his attention to the art of writing and direction, and working with The Ensemble Studio Theater, developed plays for production, where he directed his own works as well as those of others.


Through his wife, Joanne Baron, D.W. became an instructor of the Meisner Technique; and for nearly twenty years they have established what is generally considered southern California’s premier acting school: The Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio (an off-shoot of The William Esper Studio in New York). Located in Santa Monica, D.W. has taught a very stringent training program in acting and conducted seminars with Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Sidney Pollack and many other luminaries. He has directed countless scenes, coached major stars and directors, and provided the initial instruction for many now professional actors.


He co-produced the international festival hits “Allie & Me” and “Perfume” (a Sundance selection) and wrote and directed the short films, “One Clean Move,” starring Harry Hamlin and Gary Busey, honored at The Taos Film Festival, and “The Need For Flowers,” that received a best actor nomination from The Method Fest in Burbank.

THE MEISNER TECHNIQUE WHERE PRESENCE IS SUPREME
The following is an excerpt from "Brown's Acting Manual" by DW Brown


Emphasize being in the moment. With work on the stage it is critically important for the player to guide the audience's attention through the play, but in film and television an audience's attention is controlled by the editing; therefore, the emphasis for an actor shifts from being clear to being truthful and present.


When James Cagney was asked what was the most important thing in acting, he answered: "Don't get caught doing it." This is very much the case in most film acting where the style tends to be naturalistic, and, free from the obligation of projecting because of the large magnification of the close up, it is essential for an actor to be relaxed and subtle.


While this is true with theater as well, an actor on film should be especially fluid and be relating deeply and continuously. This deep relatedness will produce subtle activities such as clenching of the jaw, pursing the lips, flashing looks, etc., that come off very dynamic on camera.


Don't say much. A general recommendation for film acting is: "Speak as quickly as you can and act as slowly as you can." What this means is, because being in the moment and telling the truth are the supreme values, it's good to de-emphasize the words. The actor wants to reduce excessive animation, especially in close up, and not try to sell what they are saying. They don't want to be clear with the language.


There are exceptions to this, of course, but for the most part the value of what is said should be minimized and rather be communicated with a deeper subtextual intent. What's being communicated is projected on a very deep, nonverbal level; and the words just fall out on their own.


In order to do this, to be fully present in the moment and concentrating on projecting intent, it is necessary to have one's lines down absolutely cold.


THE MOMENT OF NEW RESPONSE
Get caught reacting. While again, being reactive is nothing new in the process of acting, and it may only be a value emphasized because of the close-up shots with a camera, there are in fact some special techniques for camera work, beyond just listening well.


Reactions are the most powerful aspect of film acting; particularly that moment when an event hits the character's heart for the first time and changes their world. It isn't the talking. Savvy film stars have been known to give away dialogue to innocently grateful secondary actors who then later hear these lines of exposition droning away on the soundtrack while the camera lingers on the stars silent, soulful reaction to events.


Delay your response until it's time to speak. Because there is a tendency for what comes before a line and what comes after the line to be cut, in order to guarantee that the fresh moment of reacting makes the final edit, especially if acting with a star or the leading character of the piece whose performance will tend to be favored by the editor, an actor might tend to save important reactions until just before they speak. In this way if the character opposite says: "Your brother is dead. We did everything we could." The actor, who normally would have their reaction to the death begin with the first sentence, may want to artificially wait until the other character finishes speaking to have their initial response to the death begin as their own line: "He was just talking to me." starts to spill out.


There's nothing wrong, per se, in having already started to react in the natural way on the first sentence; it just increases the likelihood that that precious first reaction will be kept in the film if it happens immediately before one's lines are uttered.


There needn't be a concern that the audience will notice this delay and think it strange. Film reality distorts time so much, slowing it down, speeding it up, chopping it apart, even the most outrageous delays, as with the typical, descending security door that takes forever to close, are usually forgiven if not completely unnoticed.


ALWAYS BE RESPONDING.
This advice on occasionally delaying a response for a major moment is not to suggest that the actor should remain blank faced and passive until it's their turn to speak, and the actor must always be cautious to avoid the major acting fault of indicating responses instead of really having them. It's good to be reacting all the time, giving the editor plenty of film of the character reacting while others are speaking. This delayed reaction is really only a suggestion for big events.


USING THE EYES
Just as the moment of reaction is the most important feature in film acting, the eyes are the most important organ of response. With this in mind, the actor can have a sense of using their eyes effectively. By the same token, lapses in concentration are most profoundly reflected in the eyes.


Use the eyes. An actor may deny the camera their eyes, or let the camera find their eyes for effect, and the player might want to know where their eye light is, the specific fixture called a "Tweeny," so that they can catch that light with their eyes, or, much less frequently, use the shadow on the eyes.


Keep the gaze steady. It's usually preferable to maintain a stillness with the eyes. For this reason, while it's normal in life to look back and forth and down at both of someone's eyes and their mouth, it is probably best for an actor to maintain the attention on only one of the opposite characters eyes when addressing them. When it is the actor's single shot, and the other actor is opposite them standing next to the camera, it's best to look at this actor's eye that is closest to the lens.


When doing a scene with more than one person, it's probably better to keep watching the person who is speaking. In this way the editor has a steady look to use for a character absorbing what is happening. That means not doing what is normal and throwing looks frequently at the other person being spoken to, checking in with their reactions to what is being said, unless it's for a singularly important reaction to what was just presented.Naturally, there is much more. Acting is a craft, after all. But this at least gives a snapshot understanding of what type of work is involved. Whoever would have thought so much was needed to create every nuance we see on screen?

 

And to think how much talent is out there creating exciting and challenging work that can touch our hearts and minds.



About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and is currently completing the multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached at <flicksart@aol.com>