directing Directing crisis


I am directing a self-financed no-budget feature film. This is my first film. We are six weeks out from our scheduled shooting dates, and I think that I'm heading for a disaster. There are lots of obstacles right now with the overall production, but my biggest problem is the acting situation.
The script is my own. I can't prove to anyone reading this post that it's good, but I can tell you that I have faith in it. It is, however, something of an "arthouse" script and it has a certain literary quality that might not be for everyone. It has several "soliloquies" of sorts that are a little anti-cinematic. My main heroes at the moment are people like Rohmer, who was all for a "talking cinema," and Fassbinder, who of course came from the theater and made films that were both very theatrical and very cinematic. The visuals were supposed to be more about subtleties of gesture, elegant blocking, subtext of expression, etc.
When I cast the film, I tried to do it the right way, but I realize now that I've made many mistakes both in the casting process and even in the very conception of the film. I decided to take a "Bressonian" approach, which is also what Rohmer did, and to try to cast actors who were like the characters they would be playing. I wanted to cast for their real personalities because I think that comes through on screen. In itself, I think that was a good idea.
The film is held up almost entirely by the two leads; a guy and a girl. The guy is "central" and the story is from his POV, as he is in every scene. He is a slightly "unlikable" protagonist in a Chekhov sort of way. The character means well but is a little bit of a jerk. The girl is the especially interesting character, however, and the emotional core of the story. She is weird, creative, and sad.
Well I picked my actors. Almost no one who had any professional experience, or clear talent, applied for the male lead. I was surprised at how few I had to choose from. One talented actor stood out. He also had a little bit of an edge about him, like he was halfway between being a nice guy and a jerk. This seemed to me to be perfect for the role, so I cast him. I considered myself lucky at the time as I had no other great options, but I am inexperienced in knowing where to find people.
There were many more applicants for the female lead. This is where I made my biggest mistake, I think. There was one girl who was very, very interesting. She had a certain alien quality about her, which was appropriate to the story. She was also very hard to read, even just in talking to her in real life-- she was sort of inscrutable. That was perfect for the character too, as people have a hard time figuring her out. I don't know that she was "sad" however. She did the sides that I had given her, and part of it really impressed me. It was a little chilling, even. But I realize now that I also engaged in some wishful thinking because of her personal qualities. She had her little "soliloquy" but didn't really sustain herself through the whole thing. She didn't quite follow the emotional logic or "story" of the monologue, which was written with a certain narrative rise and fall. She was just weird and interesting and it worked in parts. Other actresses who came in played the emotion more, I guess you could say, truthfully... they understood what was actually going on, and played it. But it always seemed to me that they were "playing" it, and that she "was" the character. The problem, I think, is that she "was" the character without always living as the character in the moment. I didn't direct her enough during the audition, to see how she would react to direction and play the scene differently. She was the first one to come in, and I was nervous. I also didn't have a callback, as I'd originally planned, and I don't think I was vigilant enough in vetting training or ability. Thinking back to her reel, which came entirely from an acting class, I realize that I was focusing on the good too much while downplaying the red flags.
Anyway, that was over a month ago. The biggest part of my plan for directing, or one of the most important, was in finding the actors early enough to give them time to learn the lines and then rehearse together. But due to various circumstances, we finally had our first table read only yesterday. That I also see was a mistake-- we should have done this much earlier in the process to allow me to gauge how everyone worked together, and with the script, when I still had more flexibility.
The male lead has been a problem, in trying to schedule rehearsals. We have already missed several target dates because he wasn't communicating with me in my attempts at scheduling, and because he had several conflicts one after another (even though he had told me that he had open availability not long before). He insists that after the next week or so he will be working around my rehearsals, but he had also said some things about "not knowing week to week" that made me doubt that I can rely on him. I don't know how much I can trust him. But what really made me flip out was that he admitted to me, without seeming to think it mattered, that he has barely read the script at all in the time he's had it, and doesn't know any of his lines! He claims he "didn't want to learn it the wrong way, and have to change it later" but surely he could have become familiar with the words and story without becoming set on playing a certain way! That was the whole point of my scheduling the production the way I have, to give the actors time to learn the script and to rehearse. I expected at least some fluency coming into rehearsals. I see now that this was another mistake, that I didn't make this expectation clear from the beginning, but I was naive enough to think it was obvious. The role is very demanding. The character is in every scene. It is also, as I've said, a bit wordy. There is no way to do it without knowing it. I don't know if he'll have enough time to memorize it, and even if he does, I don't know how much harder it will make rehearsals. He is not a bad actor, though.
But the biggest problem is my actress. From what she's said she seemingly has studied the script some. I didn't see any notes or anything on it, but she has thought about it some from her comments. However, from the table read, it is as though she hasn't memorized anything. She was very "read-y" and not too fluent with it. I don't know, though, if I'm judging this right, or how fair it is to judge a table read like a regular rehearsal. But she did have to lock onto the script the whole time.
What was worse, though, was how alien she played it. It was as though she wasn't listening to herself, sometimes. She was tone-deaf. It wasn't always human-sounding the way people actually talk. Parts were good, even great, but this was inconsistent and seemingly accidental. She was best at the simplest back and forth moments between her and the other actor. The more involved a given section was, the less she seemed to make sense out of it. She has a rather monotone delivery, actually. Her emotions don't change very much over the course of a speech, or a scene, or the entire story. She plays everything similarly. She speeds through, sometimes, running sentences together unnaturally. I can always tell her to slow down, but what concerns me is how illogical the inflection is. When she got to her big monologue, which is the centerpiece of the whole movie, I could barely understand her. She recited it swiftly and dispassionately without any emotion whatsoever, until it was explicitly mentioned in the script that the character was crying (which I shouldn't have even necessarily had to write in). The whole thing was butchered.
I don't necessarily think that my "Bressonian" instincts were wrong in themselves, and I actually think she could do very well in a simpler and snappier role. But this seems to be a terrible mismatch as far as style and professional ability. I just didn't write a Bressonian script, I wrote a more actorly one. It doesn't fit. It is far too much to cut it down and simplify it now, the whole thing would unravel. So I completely fucked up my casting! Keep in mind, we haven't had any real rehearsals yet...and maybe she is capable of learning this, but I don't know that yet. And I really don't know if she'll have enough time. We have six weeks until shooting. Maybe twenty-some rehearsals, total, but she'll be out of town for some of them. I don't feel like we have anywhere near enough time to do justice to this. I love actors and the idea of working with them, but I also have very little practical experience of it, and I don't know how qualified I am yet in taking on this task in this span.
So, I don't know what to do. We haven't signed any contracts yet, and I haven't spent exorbitantly yet. But if I were to attempt a major retool, we couldn't really push back any farther because the story relies on the weather (I am stupid) and so I would have to postpone until next spring. I have never done this before and I'm afraid that stopping now will mean that I will never be able to finish a film. But can I invest tens of thousands of saved dollars on a disaster? I may only get one shot at this. I don't know how bad it could be, or how good it has to be to keep going (or to be able to respect myself as an artist). I am afraid of my own inexperience and I wish I had designed a much simpler film, both in terms of how demanding it is of its actors and all the logistical crap with locations, etc. How do I stop though? Am I just in the panicking phase? Am I overreacting? Am I royally screwed? I can learn from this experience but only if it doesn't kill me.
Any advice?
My advice is to postpone. Better to wait and have a movie you are truly proud of
and shows your talent than make a movie you are less than happy with because
of perfect weather and time already spent.

What do you want people to see when you finally show the end product? The movie
you wanted to make or the movie you made because you couldn't wait any longer.
I am afraid of my own inexperience and I wish I had designed a much simpler film, both in terms of how demanding it is of its actors and all the logistical crap with locations, etc.

I've been in a similar circumstance before. As an inexperienced director, my guy was screaming that we needed more work on the script. Turns out I was right but I didn't pull the trigger and the film suffered.

How do I stop though?
We're stopping/postponing. Not going to sink good money after bad. It's really that simple.

Am I just in the panicking phase?
You could be.

Am I overreacting?
You could be.

Am I royally screwed?
You could be.

I can learn from this experience but only if it doesn't kill me.
This is my first film.
Any advice?

If this is your first film, the big issue is you don't know what you don't know.

A big red flag that I noticed from what you mentioned, you seemed to be putting all your eggs in one basket. I'd suggest you'd be better off aiming at a smaller production that you won't feel the pressure you're experiencing right now.

Do you really want to put all your resources into what is essentially a million to one shot. Then again, if it's a bucket list thing, go for it. In the end, you'd have made a movie and you'll have that experience to cherish for the rest of your life. If this is to kick start your career, put some serious thought into following rik's advice and postpone.
My wife and I have produced and directed a dozen low budget features. To cut to the chase, we see that you cannot rely on your main actors. They MUST show up when scheduled and on time, and they must be prepared to deliver their lines. YOU are the producer, and YOU are the boss...not them.
Your inexperienced actors are acting like "A-list" actors who can show up when they feel like it. You need actors who are REALLY interested in acting, who are dedicated, and are willing and able to change their schedule to fit yours. In a low budget film, scheduling is everything. Time is money. LOTS of money. As you hire actors, look at their resume...what they have done before. "Actors" with no acting credits are not actors. Actors with live theatre experience are usually pretty good. They can memorize lines. People with few credits but lots of "acting classes" shows that they are at least sincerely working at their craft. They will work hard for you. Discuss the role...the character...with them, and have faith that they will do their job. Bottom line, if you don't have the right actors for the lead roles, you are throwing your money will never finish the film. Get actors that you can rely on. Until then, don't do the film.
Get actors that you can rely on. Until then, don't do the film.

Yup. That sums it up.

My impression from your post is that this is your first film of any kind, not just first feature - is that correct? If so, I strongly recommend that you make several shorts before getting into features. It can also be a good way of testing out the approach you want to use, to see how well it works for you in reality.

One thing I learned about auditions: no matter how much you like the way the auditioner does the lines the first time, ALWAYS ask them to do it a different way - as if they are angry, sad, afraid, whatever. That way you can see whether or not the person can take direction.
Hey buddy

Sounds like you bit off more than you can chew.

If you have that amount of a budget to spend, I highly recommend putting a pause on it, simplifying it to a 10 minute short film and recasting.

How long is the script?

I suggest simplifying because you want to put MORE EFFORT into a shorter piece, instead of spreading your efforts thin for a long ass film. Especially if this is your first.

Dial in and make something super badass that’s short.

A feature is a huge undertaking for your first time.

Happy to peek at the script.

With regards to auditions. Are you videotaping them?

This is hugely helpful.

Also, you’re asking a first time cast to give you A LOT of their time.

It’s gonna be a bitch getting everyone to commit to that, especially for a feature, and especially for your first time directing.

Making the film shorter will make it way easier for your cast to commit. Unless you’re paying them a bomb ass salary, ask them for less of their time.

Once you’ve done this film, and if it turns out well, then you’ll be able to build up some street cred and some currency in asking people to do a longer film.

I’ve directed commercials for so long now, people know the quality of work I do, and are ASKING ME to be in my things because they know it will be good.

Build up your skills and cred with short pieces first.
I'm just going to copy and paste my response to another recent thread, and then give you some follow up that pertains to your situation.

"I worked with a producer on a number of projects who was a fanatic about preproduction. She was the master of the shoestring budget. By far the largest budget item was craft services - food & drink and other "comfort" items. The first pre pro meeting was herself, the screenwriter, the director and the primary actors for a table read. Inevitably there would be script revisions. The next meeting would be a technical meeting with herself, the screenwriter, the director, the primary actors and all of the department heads. As an example of one crew the DP did commercials and corporate work, the gaffer/lighting was a commercial photographer, H/MU & wardrobe was a woman who worked weddings, corporate and the like, the editor was another commercial/corporate type, and I did the production sound and audio post. At the meeting was beer, wine, soda and lots of tasty noshes. We would walk though the whole script and put together our technical, location, personnel and other requirements. The third pre pro meeting, where we all got complete binders from the previous meetings notes, would nail down all the technical details and have a complete read through following basic storyboards (sometimes drawn on location photos), again with food and drink. By the time we got to the shoot we were a functioning team with confidence that we knew what we were doing and had everything we needed. Her husband, who loved to cook, laid out a lavish craft table and made delicious meals. (No alcohol until we wrapped for the day.) The shoots went (mostly) smooth as glass, lots of laughs and, occasionally, even some extra time for improvisation and "arty" stuff. Aside from meals all we got was gas money, yet everyone wanted to know when the next project would be because working with Dianne was really, really FUN! The "corporate" folks got a chance to be creative for a change, and everyone was treated like a professional."

All of these projects were shorts, the longest being about 15 minutes. Dianne would spend between $1k and $2k on food, drink, gas, props and rental gear (if we needed it). The exquisitely detailed preproduction allowed everyone involved to contribute to the projects. (One script was about 50% re-written because of suggestions that I made which were improved upon by the DP and embraced by the director. We changed about 10 minutes of script into about 2 minutes using sound and visuals instead of dialog - show, don't tell. The actors at the table reads explored the characters and dialog was modified to strengthen the characters. H/MU & wardrobe was discussed with the talent to further enhance the characters. Everyone involved would rummage through their attics for props and set dressings. Alternate locations were discussed and sometimes used. The message here is that everyone on both sides of the camera had substantial creative input and creative investment in the projects, we weren't just unpaid lackeys. Because we were creatively invested we had motivation to make it the best project that we could. Add all of this to the professional treatment of all involved - and the fantastic food and other extras - very talented people were eager to participate in every project that came along. There was even one guy of about 20 who came up from North Carolina (we were in Connecticut) just to be a PA. His contributions were invaluable and he ended up working for the DP (who did commercials and corporate work) and eventually moved on to work on real Hollywood productions such as "I Am Legend."

To echo others here, do a number of shorts. Develop your talents & skills, and build a reliable creative team. Make mistakes "on the cheap" before committing to a feature. Have you ever noticed that many of the great directors tend to work with the same people over many pictures? This creates a comfortability and "shorthand language" that makes for an efficient filmmaking process, and, by the way, makes for great films.

I hope my two cents have been of help. GOOD LUCK!!!!
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I made filmed my first feature film about 2 years ago. I spent about 3 months casting the film in both Arizona, the sate where we were filming 90% of the film and in LA, where we would film the remaining 10% of the film. I found good/decent options for all the roles in my film in both locations(about 15 characters cast in Arizona and 3 in LA) I had many callbacks to see how actors took direction and how well the leads chemistry was. I made my decisions based on my instinct and moved forward into production. Then shit started falling apart. I think that Murphy's Law of what can go wrong will go wrong is very applicable to a film set. Especially true when resources and time are limited. My lead actress dropped out on the first day of filming, she didn't show up to set because she was "sick" and then another supporting actor e-mailed me a couple days into filming to drop out of the film for "personal" reasons. I want to preface that the communication throughout the pre-production process was constant. Sometimes in life "shit" happens that you have to deal with. So the female actor dropping out was a big problem because she was playing the love interest of the lead, whom we had some rehearsals and she was cast because they had great chemistry in person, something that seemed important to me for the onscreen chemistry. I ended up asking a favor from an actor with whom we had a long history and she jumped into the role with 12 hours to prepare herself for the first scene on her first day of filming. The chemistry or lack of it between the 2 leads definitely changed the dynamic of the film, which later had to be edited accordingly. The supporting actor who dropped out was replaced with another actor's friend who was experienced in the indie world in AZ. He showed up with limited time with the script and rehearsals. At the end of there filming days, both actors did what their profession suggests. They acted. They listened. But most importantly they showed up. Yes, these replacements changed the dynamic of the film, even some main plot points, but through out the entire filming process there were so many more issues. I guess my point is that you need to keep moving forward in the face of the problem. If you wait until things are perfect, they you may be waiting for a very long time. I couldn't afford to wait. My time and resources were limited, but my passion was unlimited. At the end of the day I am proud with the film I created and learned so much from just "doing/creating." One of the biggest lessons that I learned is that yes, casting is so very important. It might make your job as a director so much easier. But directing is not easy. Good luck!
On my first feature, a major supporting actor pulled out the day after the table read due to a "scheduling conflict."
I never figured out if it it was something about the script (which he'd had for a while), or he didn't like someone in the cast, or....whatever.
We were able to replace him quickly with a guy who had auditioned for the lead. He stepped in and was probably better than the other guy would have been. So sometimes you get lucky with this stuff. But a lot of it is just trudging forward, even when shit happens (which it will).
My impression from your post is that this is your first film of any kind, not just first feature - is that correct? If so, I strongly recommend that you make several shorts before getting into features. It can also be a good way of testing out the approach you want to use, to see how well it works for you in reality.

Do this, I did this, ......there is no better advise than this.
For my first feature, I purchased a used 16mm news camera which recorded audio directly onto the film. We shot for three weeks on a location which was miles from way to process the film on a daily basis. After the movie was shot and all of the sets were dismantled, we processed all of our exposed film, only to discover that (1) the record head in the camera was dead, so we got NO audio whatsoever, and (2) the film footage counter in the camera was not working accurately, so we had run out of film during several crucial "action" scenes in the film. As the result of the missing footage, we actually had to change the plot of the film, and most importantly, we had to change a "silent" film into a sound film by adding ALL dialogue, sound effects, and music. It was an outdoor action film, so every engine sound, gunshot, and explosion had to be added. We spent more on post production sound then we did shooting the whole film. The end result was "THE VERNONIA INCIDENT", filmed in was also released on DVD as "LYNCH MOB VIGILANTES". We made lots of obvious (and stupid) mistakes...but we finished the film. (film website)
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