Using Non-Actors to Push Reality Boundaries
Aren't we all actors, anyway?
Last spring, a strange thing happened: I walked into my garage and stumbled upon my roommate building an AR-15 rifle. This, naturally, led me into a line of questioning: "Why are you building this? What does this piece do? What's your favorite place to go shooting?" The mechanism of a firearm was mysterious to me, but I ended up watching him at his workbench and eventually running to the other room to get my camera.
After shooting some footage of him focused at work, I became fascinated by the images we were creating. There was an undeniable seduction, repulsion and power in these images, and they became the basis for my new film Shadow of a Gun.
In my first film Menthol, all I wanted to do was create something that felt “real.” I wanted to push the rules of a traditional narrative framework to create the illusion that anything can happen—to make an audience believe they are witness to a present moment.
To achieve this, I (and co-writer Sam Jones) wrote a script based on our friends (2.5 years), cast actors to play them (1 year), shot the movie (19 days), edited (6 months), and released the film (9 months). This nearly five-year process has been the standard trajectory for the construction of narrative film for the last 100 years.
This approach worked, but it left me with only more questions on how to approach screen performance, my constantly bending perception of realism in film, and the goals and virtues of micro-budget cinema. After Menthol, I started writing a script for another (larger) film and I not-so-quickly realized that my appetite for moviemaking was not being satiated.
I want everyone working on the film to be inside the moment as it is being created.
The things that mattered to me at a particular moment in my life were the things I wanted to make movies about, but my script-writing process was too slow that by the time I could understand something through writing, the immediacy (the blood) of the material was lost.
Cutting out the middleman (the screenwriter)
I mainly write from the position of a director: as a means to an end. Playwright Tom Stoppard said that most screenwriters dream of directing their own scripts, which is why many directors "write their own scripts, even if they can't write." As a filmmaker working at the extreme end of the micro-budget spectrum (we have made a feature for $2,700), I've found myself a writer by necessity.
When my desire for a sense of "reality" in cinema coincided with frustration over my languid writing process, I knew I had to change something in my system. I want my work to act as a continual peeling at the fabric of mediated life, revealing new virtues in relevant banalities. As culture becomes oversaturated with entertainment, artifice becomes less and less desirable, and plot becomes a place where moments go to die.
Each time a layer is peeled back, a new leveling of the playing field occurs. A new form is suddenly legitimized by a culture that craves reality without the sheen of advertising, agenda or entertainment. YouTube videos can become documents of immediate life that are as lyrical, autobiographical or fictive as any other storytelling form can be. The recreation of "reality" through screenwriting is valid and virtuous in itself, but now it can easily be perceived as a lost sense of immediacy. Unlike the movies, we cannot ignore reality. Without immediacy, how do we really know that we're not simply dreaming or living in a simulation? What good is someone's work if it's distinctly ignorable?
In the era of Italian Neorealism, when cameras became readily available after the WWII, a similar rejection of formalized script writing took place. Cesare Zavattini (the eminent screenwriter of the Italian Neorealist movement) qualifies this rejection:
"The term neorealism—in a very Latin sense—implies elimination of technical-professional apparatus, screenwriter included. Hand books, formulas, grammars, have no more application. There will be no more technical terms. Everybody has his personal shooting-script. Neorealism breaks all the rules, rejects all those canons which, in fact, exist only to codify limitations. Reality breaks all the rules, as can be discovered if you walk out with a camera to meet it. "
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer also said (in our SXSW 2015 interview) that traditional narrative scriptwriting and filmmaking did not "embody the kind of exploration of the world" that he sought from filmmaking. In his work, he discovered that "what seems to be our factual world is actually constituted through myriad interlocking fantasies." It is in these interlocking fantasies that I want to base my exploration in film.
"If reality TV manages to convey something that a more manifestly scripted and plotted show doesn't, that's less of an affront to writers than a challenge."
What I'm after isn't the invisible camera of cinéma vérité; it isn't the "man on the streets" neorealism; it isn't non-fiction framed as documentary; it isn't escapist fiction. It's a rejection and a remix of all of the above.
In terms of screenwriting, one thing is certain for me: I can’t make a perfect movie on paper. I want to become a better writer. I'd love to write an amazing script someday, but the definition of writing for me has shifted: words are no longer the only tool, but also the wall-to-wall reality all around us.
What is a non-actor?
In addition to Brando's notion that everybody is an actor, a non-actor is a blanket way of expressing what I desire from any person working on-screen: a non-performance. For me, theatrics (words memorized from a script) are extinct.
How do we compete and create in a world where Every Story Has Been Told? I don’t just want actors representing a character; I want actors to be the characters. In effect, any person who is willing to let you film them is a player, an "actor."
What if, instead of having people play a part based on a fictionalized account of reality, you had a person's reality become a fictionalized basis for the part? Once I've established a documentary-style link with a person, I suddenly feel enabled to start fictionalizing. It's almost sick—as if I need an edge of reality to exist before I can start inventing.
This concept isn't new — but it's empowering. Look at the rise of improvised cinema since the 1940's Italian movement, the 1970's Cassavettes-era cinéma vérité and the advent of 24p in 2000. Abbas Kiarostami's Ten is shot entirely (digitally) from two angles in the front seat of a taxi cab as a woman drives people around and has candid conversations. American filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg are experimenting with their intimate anthropological cinema. When I got really into making movies in 2009, there was nothing more exciting than Swanberg's approach to acting: simple, raw, messy, banal—you could hardly call it acting. Swanberg took reality head-on, which was (and still is) too much for some audiences (I remember Menthol co-writer Sam Jones yelling at the television during the Kissing on the Mouth masturbation scene: "This is not a movie! This is shit!").
In an interview we did about his 2014 film Sabbatical, Brandon Colvin, a director and PhD Candidate in Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin, cited acting as "the final frontier for experimentation in cinema.” Though Colvin rejects the concept of realism ("the unthought, de facto sort of realism"), attacking it as aimlessness or as a lack of intention, 19th-century French novelist Émile Zola says every artist is "a realist according to his own eyes." If so, doesn’t that make realism in art impossible to define?
"An artistic movement, albeit an organic and-as-yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate un-artiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real."
Shadow of a Gun: A pseudo manifesto
A year has gone by since I first encountered my roommate in the garage tinkering with his rifle. During that time, we have created a character—one that is entirely his own—and yet his "self" is now protected by the codification of fiction. From this seed came more ideas, characters and collaborators (Jake King, who starred in Menthol, will play opposite Dominic as a less responsible gun hobbyist) and found a simultaneously pragmatic and experimental approach to this film:
- I want everyone working on the film to be inside the moment as it is being created. I want to reflect "reality" not through the words of a scriptwriter, but by the pangs and tantrums of everyday existence.
- I don't want a film based on real events; I want the events to spring from real film.
- Using non-actors, we will create Non-Performance, drawing from their lives as the foundation of character.
- As the director, I am not a sole author of the film, but the main curator of ideas.
- Following what we call "The Grid," we will collect and (re)arrange our story as we shoot.
- Using notecards, I will direct my actors silently (giving direction publicly but without the other's knowledge) to create spontaneous dialogue.
- We will make the film for less than $30,000 over Summer of 2016.
Whether it's real or not.
Sometimes the best films are those whose form fit their function. The approach I'm taking on this film is an extremely pragmatic one — but pragmatics only gets us in the room. It's imagination that takes us to the margins of what's possible in that room. This philosophy has been years in the making and is tailor-made for this film.
In the case of Shadow of a Gun, the approach supports what the film is itself exploring: the treacherous and confusing nature of mediated reality. At the $35 reward level on our Kickstarter, we will be producing an exclusive educational video that will depict us in the throes of this philosophy, with tips and tricks of micro-budget filmmaking.
In our industry, there are, much like rust on a sink, many rules and regulations that have accrued over time. People with some experience are often quick to say what can and cannot be done. Recently on Reddit, I made a very unpopular comment defending two filmmakers who broke rules at Yellowstone National Park to get a shot. I wrote (and stand by) the statement:
"Art is thievery of reality, which belongs to all of us."
For what is a film but a reflection of one and/or many realities? To skeptics of this point of view, I ask: are you not willing to bend or break rules for your movie? For independent filmmakers looking for stories to tell, they're all around us. They're in the garage, lurking and waiting to pounce. As these windows of reality awaken and open up to us, it's our job to remain open to them.
So I say: gain documentary access to your subjects, shed the auspices of fiction or non-fiction (don't be afraid to break some rules), and go make your movie.