Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Friday, March 20, 2009

One person's reality is another person's ...

...you fill in the blank.

Most "serious" film critics consider "reality" a gritty, tough, downer drama.

As if, in the real world there are no laughs, no high points, no fun, no hope, no promise, not a glimmer of a brighter side, no light at the end of the tunnel - only gloom, doom and disaster.

Only worlds in which characters we are lured to care about suffer loss, loneliness, abuse, self-destruction, grief, beatings, arguments, drug addiction, misery and title credits-to-fin strife.

Mind you, even in the most dire of circumstances, in *real* life, we find something to laugh about. Journalists, doctors, nurses, soldiers and others who deal with life and death every day always find something about which to laugh - although in many cases it may not be politically correct because it's usually a "dark humored" way to release the tension of the moment.

I'm not saying every dramatic film needs a laugh or two - although that would actually be more "real."

But there should be at least the minimal understanding in the industry that "serious" films can also be comedies.

Artistically, screwball comedies are the toughest work for an actor. The range is great, the circumstances unusual, the interpretive beats are counted in the hundreds - whereas a serious drama's interpretive (subtextual, emotional) beats can be relatively few by comparison for the average drama.

This is not to dismiss a great dramatic performance in any way - good acting is hard work for any dedicated performer.

But imagine your favorite dramatic actor being in a comedy. How would he or she make the transition? Could he or she make the transition? It takes guts. Comedy is hard - writing, performing and directing - to make it work.

Mercifully, Kate Winslet - someone with whom I hope to work one day - says she's near desperate to be in a good comedy after playing two seriously tortured, self-destructive roles that won her many well-deserved kudos and awards, including the coveted Oscar.

She will bring the same extraordinary, award-winning brilliant talent and massive skills to a comedic character. But she'll have more fun and have to work even harder because great comedic performances demand it. I believe she is a superbly gifted comedic actor. She was hilarious in TV's Extras, and needs a great comedic script to devour!

There are so many different types of comedy - the best, the most intelligent, has anger at its core, but diminishes the power of whatever makes us angry by putting the subject on its ear so we can all laugh about it.

In THE WHOLE TRUTH, it's the injustice of the American "justice" system. I think that pisses off nearly everyone. It certainly does me - enough to produce, write and direct a screwball comedy about the subject embodied in the lead character of Angela Masters, brilliantly played by Elisabeth Röhm. Originally, I started writing it as a drama, ala Michael Clayton.

But I love to entertain audiences, and who would want to sit through that morose bit more than once? Also, we feature filmmakers must devote at least a year of our lives living with these characters and plot twists and turns. Myself? I'd much rather have fun and laugh through the excruciatingly detailed process.

Actually I start all my comedies by writing the "serious" and "real" dramatic logical story, with psychological profiles and backgrounds of the lead characters. Then I flip everything into comedy.

Of course, there are those who believe film should reflect the reality of the difficulties faced by millions of our sisters and brothers around the world. That is absolutely fine with me.


There's a 1941 Preston Sturges film called "Sullivan's Travels." It's about a film director, famous for doing comedies, who decides to do a nitty, gritty, pity drama about how shitty it is out there. To understand just how bad it is, he takes off - without a cent - to find and live with the despondent, miserable and heartbroken "common man."

Long story short - and worth watching - he ends up living with a group of these depressed, disillusioned and destitute folks.

And guess what he discovers they want more than anything?

To. Laugh.

They don't want to see more of the grief they are living.

As he watches a film with them, he sees these former sad sacks lost in laughter, enjoying the socks off a silly cartoon.

He finally realises: he is doing something that actually helps them. That they genuinely want. Something needed in any culture. To laugh, no matter how dire a circumstance.

But I digress.


When I coached actors, we'd role play the all-important casting interview. This is an interview conducted by casting directors or directors intended to gain insight into the actor. It's thought the more open they are, the more intimacy they give their performance. Likewise, the more insightful their answers, the more insight it is believed they'll give their characters.

One of the questions I like to ask: "Tell me about something you'd like to do over again if you could."

Literally 100% of the answers revolved around a mistake they made they'd love to rectify, that they hurt someone and want to take it back for a do-over, take school more seriously instead of blowing it off, tell someone they loved them when they had the chance .. you get the idea.

Finally, a little dismayed by years of never seeing a totally different way to answer the question, I started giving them another type of answer idea, which made them light up, show a ton of subtext and far more personality than their "serious" answers ever did.

We (directors, producers, casting agents) like to be surprised. To see something we weren't expecting.

Here's what I told them: "Instead of going the way of regret, why don't you take the enjoyable route?"

As in:

"Wow. What I'd love to do over... You know, I'd really love to re-live my weekend skiing with my girlfriend at Whistler Mountain. It was amazing. We played all week-end. Skiing, snowboarding, throwing snowballs, building a snow 'person' -- boobs and what have you. The meals were fantastic and we even had a fireplace in our room. Where we built a fire of our own, if you know what I mean. It was the best. I'd love to re-live that weekend; do it all over again."

If you want to make it super real, add that you broke up when you got home fighting over who the better skier is - or whatever really happened. If you broke up.

Or maybe that you got married - and never went skiing again.

Or maybe you got married and actually lived happily ever after.

Whatever really happened.

At the end of shooting THE WHOLE TRUTH, one of our lead actors had to rush off to do another film - which was not going to be fun. It was going to be rushed and working with a not-so-well written script, but for good money.

Like other actors on the production, s/he said it was the most enjoyable production and most difficult work they'd ever done, and was very sad to leave.

His/her parting words: "Well. Back to reality."

I said, "Working on THE WHOLE TRUTH was also reality."

There are different types of reality.

Happiness is just as much a reality as sadness as pushing through the crap out there every day.

As for me, when I realized this? I became much happier.

Seriously, I decided my reality was going to be positive, happy, fun and make the most of whatever the world handed me. A sense of humor is a valid value and personality trait, too, ya know.

That was many years ago.

So far, so good.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

R u a romantic?

The thing about romantics is that they want things to be different than they really are.

They want things to be the way they want them to be. The way they feel they *should* be.

You know, romantics actually believe Cinderella is swept off her feet by Prince Charming and they live happily ever after -- even though they're missing a few (million) crucial steps to create a functional relationship.

Nothing wrong with wishing things could turn out that way though, eh? But believing that something should turn out a certain way because it's so romantic? Um, that's the recipe for a life rife with disappointment, I'm afraid.

But! It can be constructive or destructive romanticism.

Here's how it's destructive:

Like when we're first ga-ga over our someone new and special. We view that person through "rose colored glasses." Which means we don't see them the way they really are, or future trip about him/her enough to realize that those little habits and quirks we find so cute and cuddly now can feel like nails scraping a chalk board in only a matter of months.

That's romantic.

The realist in these situations is seen as hard, harsh, unromantic or even unfeeling. Not true!

The fact is the realist falls in love with the real person, not who they want the other person to be, not someone to "complete them," not someone to mother or smother them with love.

All too frequently a control freak is experienced in the beginning by a romantic as someone who cares so much about us they try to make things "right" for us. Isn't that sweet? Actually, no. Been there, done that!

The guy who seems so straight up, cute and smart - when googled? Turns out to have a myspace page full of brags about his drunken outings, crazy driving stories while smoking bud, descriptions of outsmarting the police and a list of "girls I'd like to bang."

Likewise, that down to earth girl next door-type you want to date? When googled? Turns out to have a myspace page full of photos featuring her nearly nude, suggestions of throwing open s&m parties, is irate that she was just fired from her job at McDonald's for being late every day ("What? They didn't party when they were kids?"), yadda yadda yadda, and at 25 she's been divorced twice.

Good idea to google your date these days, no matter how romantic. If you're really concerned? It's easy to get a criminal background check on anyone - just go to your stat patrol's website and for $10, they check for pedophile activity - for $25, they check for all criminal activity.

It may feel creepy to do these sorts of things if your new paramour's stories just don't add up, s/he's gone all the time, etc. But it's way better than having your heart broken and your bank account drained by some slob who doesn't care about you in the first place!

As for the "constructive" romantic:

These people envision things the want they want them to be in the future. Politics, art, culture, education, religion.

The Declaration of Independence is a romantic document. Declaring a nation where truth means we are all created equally, and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is that promise that makes the US so appealing - why everyone wants to come here. They may hate George Bush and US policies, but they love that promise.

And promises are romantic notions because so many of them are broken. Even when they're written contracts - signed and dated.

But so many - including me - have put on a uniform, willing to fight and die for my nation that has such a romantic notion. A notion I still believe in but have been greatly disillusioned along the way by the people who are supposed to be leading us toward those goals. They seem today to be leading us directly away from them.

I think perhaps reading that Declaration of Independence daily, before they start their workday, is something our politicians, government employees and school children may want to do, just to remind them what we're actually supposed to be working toward.

Romance itself is another subject entirely.

Romance is expressing love in a special way you love to show it.

Doing things with your paramour they love to do or doing things they want you to do is the best part of romance.

Writing notes is a loving thing to do - Sarah Jessica Parker says that she and husband Matthew Broderick do that for one another and each one is special.

Giving someone that special candy they love, the book they've been meaning to buy for months, a coupon for something they need to have done or would enjoy - all expressions of love because to be the right gift - we have to listen to the one we love in order to know what they want.

In short, a romantic deals with a notion, something that doesn't exist, but that s/he wants to materialize in reality. I can dream, wish and work to have the US live up to its Declaration of Independence promise - but it remains a promise nonetheless.

Romance is a fact, a reality. I give you a card. A poem. Sing you a song. Write you a blog. Train your dog. Wash your hair. It's an action we can see, hear, smell, taste, feel.

So for the addled romantic? I wish you a day of happiness with a dash of reality.

My hope for everyone else is a day of romance, with you receiving as many loving gestures as you give - including the romantic wish that your personal truth includes the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

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