Gorillas in the Mists of Venice

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A view of the filming from the bridge.

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And what I see when I’m ‘alone.’

What’s that? There in the fog? Look closely, that way, in the near distance, a movement, a murmur, the wildlife stirs.

Oh, that’s us. We’re shooting a film here sans the rest of our crew. The whole big scene, assistants, grips, FX team, assistant directors, catering, etc, will all be hunkered down for a few weeks of intense group participation back in LA, and that will be tons of fun, no doubt, but today is a very different animal.

Because for this segment of the film, probably the first three minutes, it’s just me, the director, and the director of photography. It’s a raw way of working, but let me tell you, it has its definite advantages.

First, as an actress. Yes, I’m doing my own makeup and hair, and keeping track of my own wardrobe, not very well, by the way, I won’t look as pretty or be as well lit, but that’s okay, this film isn’t a vanity piece, and on the other hand I don’t have a team of people in my face picking and fussing at me with spray cans, lint rollers and brushes right up until the director says action, which, when you are doing a scene where you are beginning to see the devil in your real life, helps I think.

So much of acting is about just being able to be alone in a crowd. Being capable of not seeing what is right in front of your eyes, but instead what you imagine and mentally produce. The more I think about it, the two most valuable qualities to have as an actor are probably a fantastic fantasy life, and emotional detachment.

Here’s an example. I’m shooting a scene in my hotel room in Venice, it’s a very intimate phone conversation with my estranged husband, (played by the fabulous Eric Etebari, who will shoot his part much later back in LA) I don’t have him giving me the lines, and the director is busy, so I have to just memorize my part, and ‘hear’ his lines in my head. Meanwhile, the DP is constantly checking the focus on the camera because the camera is panning and moving in as the scene continues.

Do you have any idea how hard it is not to look at someone moving suddenly in your eye-line? To stay fixed in a tense, emotional moment when someone is waving a hand a foot from the camera? The combination of ‘forgetting everything’ and ‘being in the moment’ is a dichotomy that is extremely unnatural.

But, hey, that’s what I do.

A huge part of being a good actress means being technically good. By that I mean that you know what the framing is on the camera and visualize how to best fill it, you match your hand and head movements so that the editor can cut between the master and the close up. You make sure you are in your light, even if that means a fraction of an inch turn of your head. You are careful not make any unnecessary sound that might mess up the audio. You sit into the shot and place your face in the exact inch that means you will be in focus. You pause when a boat in the canal outside sounds it’s horn and then repeat the line so that it is ‘clean.’ All in a days work.

Now add to that, shooting in a city packed with tourists with nothing to do but try to see what’s going on, and locals who try to get in the picture. It’s hysterical really. We got to the point where we would set up the camera facing the wrong direction. The Italians, always on the phone, would find a place to settle themselves directly in the shot, then, when they were ensconced, at the last minute we would swing around and I would move to the other side so that we could get the shot even amidst the indigenous flora and fauna.

And there you have it, Gorilla filmmakers in the mists of Venice.

And if I must say, we got some amazing footage. Atmosphere and emotion and history that we could never have achieved back in good ol’ Hollywood.

So for you actors out there, my message today is “be flexible.” Don’t expect everyone to be completely silent and still and cater to you. It won’t happen, not even on the biggest sets. Other people have jobs to do too, and you need to respect them as well. When the sound guy lowers the boom to six inches over your head to catch your whisper, don’t look at it, and don’t even think about it. Yes, you will see the grip angle the reflector card as you step in to your close up, yes you will see the first AD cue the extras to walk behind you. But you must stay in your own dream.

Forget them all, and remember everything. Be in the moment emotionally yet intellectually perform a thousand tiny physical tasks. That’s my advice for today. Whether you are shooting with two people on a busy street, or a crew of hundreds on a sound stage.

You will never be alone, but we must believe that you are.

Meanwhile, back in the jungles of Italy, in between shots, I smile at everyone, help the elderly man down the stairs of the bridge when our camera is blocking the railing, listen to the bells of the cathedrals tolling in their fullness, and remind myself again how lucky I am.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Shari Venice, Italy, March 10th 2013.

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