Why Shooting Reality-Fiction Blur 'Actor Martinez' was 'Like Being on LSD'
When you're making a movie about a movie about someone's real life, it's hard to keep truth out of the way.
Not even the filmmakers behind Actor Martinez can fully explain what's fact and what's fiction. The film-within-a-film stars Arthur Martinez, a frumpy computer salesman in Denver who dreams of making it big as an actor. Martinez plays himself as a film crew, helmed by indie directors Nathan Silver (Stinking Heaven) and Mike Ott (Lake Los Angeles), follows him around, poking and prodding and rearranging his mundane life to make art—while they, too, play themselves.
Martinez wants the film to launch his career as a genre star, but Silver and Ott have other plans: they're after some ineluctable truth that exists in the space between life and making movies. To jumpstart the action, they recruit Lindsay Burdge, an indie actress, to play both herself and (somehow) Arthur's new girlfriend. When Burdge arrives on set, she has no idea what the movie is, nor what her role entails—and as she soon finds out, neither do the directors. And that's the point.
"We had our initial ideas, but we knew they were just that: initial ideas. We were always reworking what the movie was."
Silver and Ott begin by providing vague and fairly innocuous direction—"You guys should go grocery shopping"—but as the process unfolds, they become increasingly aggressive in pursuit of drama. They goad the reticent Martinez into expressing emotion, but do they want him to act or to become emotionally disturbed? (Is there really a difference?) They spring an undisclosed sex scene upon Burdge, who becomes uncomfortable and feels exploited. These actions, as well as the discussion they provoke before and after, are omnipresent in the meta-production, which challenges the viewer to consider the implications of art on life and the catharsis therein. All the while, Adam J. Minnick's camera wanders from face to object to background as if unmoored by the proceedings, propelled only by a vague anthropological curiosity.
When No Film School sat down with Silver, Ott, Burdge, and Martinez following a screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, the discussion felt like a continuation of the film itself. The four often disagreed upon what was staged and what was not, and it became clear that the filmmakers and actors remain entangled in the webs of their reality-fiction well after the final day of production.
NFS: How much of the movie was scripted?
Lindsay Burdge: Well, there was an outline. It was about four pages long, and it had maybe three of the scenes that were in the movie.
NFS: What would the outline say for a specific scene, for example?
Nathan Silver: "Torture Arthur."
Burdge: It was like, "They decide to hire an actress, Lindsay Burdge, from New York. Arthur's worried that she's not Hollywood enough. She arrives, they meet each other, and they discuss that neither of them knows what's going on. They do some scenes where they walk around, they kiss, they bring home groceries. She looks at the camera. They tell her not to. She quits the movie. Arthur sits in his house as his house is taken down around him." That's basically how it was written.
Silver: It is pretty awesome that we knew that you were going to say she wasn't Hollywood enough, but you actually said it without—
Arthur Martinez: No, I didn't; you guys told me to do that.
Silver: No, we didn't.
Martinez: Oh, I would never say such a thing. So full of shit.
"At first, when I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, I was intensely uncomfortable. I had a complete breakdown off-camera."
NFS: Did you just start rolling the camera, then give the actors intermittent direction?
Martinez: [Nathan and Mike] had all the control.
Silver: We would talk to the actors, absolutely. Mike and I would discuss what scenes we were going to shoot that day, then we would discuss it with the actors and see what the hell happened.
Burdge: Yeah, it was sort of like Arthur was this animal in a cage and then they would take this other animal—me—out of this other cage, and they would whisper in my ear and then throw me into the cage with him. Occasionally, I wouldn't know that they'd also whispered in his ear.
Martinez: Wow, yeah, it was like that.
NFS: Was the discomfort experienced onscreen by the actors real at any point?
Burdge: The first day or two, I was incredibly uncomfortable. We didn't have any prep at all. I just showed up. They said, "Bring eight clothes." It was like, "Who am I playing?" They were like, "Woman, nice. No make-up. Compassion. The ideal woman for Arthur. You guys don't know what that means and neither does he." At first, when I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, I was intensely uncomfortable, and then it became fun. Then, it was fake discomfort.
NFS: What do you think it was that switched?
Burdge: Well, I had a complete breakdown off-camera. Then, I had an opportunity to talk to Arthur off-camera, and I got a sense of what was actually going on with him: he was uncomfortable but he was willing. He was a completely willing participant, but he didn't want to know what was happening to him. I also started to realize that maybe he was acting more than he was letting on. Then I felt safer. I felt like I wasn't just fucking with some guy but that we were doing something together, even if we had different understandings of what we were doing. That was my hump that I had to get over. I don't know what yours was, Arthur.
Martinez: I agree with everything.
NFS: When an element came up organically, like Lindsay's discomfort with Arthur being an animal in the cage, how did you work it into future scenes?
Silver: For instance, that's how that argument scene came about, where we have Lindsay pushing Arthur's buttons. There was discomfort and we needed to bring that into the movie, and we would then plot scenes around that. But I think the argument scene was just pure acting, you know? It was sparked by the initial discomfort. Who's doing what and who's manipulating whom.
NFS: Since this was such a run 'n gun shoot, was there ever a point when you just didn't know what was going to happen—and were scared that things wouldn't happen?
Martinez: Every day.
Silver: We had our initial ideas. We knew they were just that: initial ideas. We were always reworking what the movie was.
Martinez: We're very nimble.
Burdge: The whole crew was, too. They would be like, "Okay, meet at Arthur's in the morning." It was just like, "We have no idea what we're doing."
Silver: They were light on their feet. They worked really well.
"The whole movie is built around personalities rather than character."
NFS: Okay. Let's back up a little. How did you guys come into the project? How did you all meet?
Martinez: I met Mike five years ago volunteering for the Denver Film Festival. He's always been a regular. I needed a project because I didn't want to play the stereotypes anymore.
NFS: What were you playing before?
Martinez: Bad guys, terrorists, gigolos, weird stuff. I murdered a lot, so I just wanted something that was normal. Everything went down the tubes from there. No, seriously, when I was looking for a start I'd just seen Mike's work. I just was like, "Okay, Mike, whatever you say." I walked out of Nathan's movie, but that was after we shot. Oh my god, I was so mad when I saw that movie. I told Nathan if he did to those actors what he did to me, I'll murder him.
NFS: Did he do it?
Martinez: Don't tell me if he did. I promised his mom I wouldn't murder him now.
Burdge: I knew Nathan from around the New York film world. I had met Mike one time at his birthday party. I don't understand how you decided to put me in the project. It seems like such a risk. You couldn't know necessarily what I was going to do.
Silver: I think because everyone was talking about Midnight Swim when we were at Denver. "Lindsay would be great." Your name kept coming up. Why not try it? It worked.
Burdge: I was thinking about how different it would've been, you know, if any one of us were a different person. It's obvious, but it's more so than a regular movie.
Silver: Because the whole movie is built around personalities rather than character. Yeah, so Mike pulled me into it. The rest is misery.
NFS: Let's talk about the things that you struggled with—that your character struggled with—in the film. How much of those do you guys actually struggle with when you're acting in other films?
Martinez: An actor's job is to always to struggle. Everything should be a struggle, no matter what job you're doing. When I do a training video, it's a struggle. If you're not struggling as an actor on camera, you're not doing your job.
Silver: A job is a job is a job.
Burdge: I think for me, some of it was cathartic in that way because it was stuff that I'd experienced to a lesser degree, especially when I was first starting to do movies.
Martinez: At least the sex scene was kind of something you'd experienced before.
Burdge: Yeah, like my very first movie.
Silver: Oh shit, no way.
"An actor's job is to always to struggle."
NFS: Your first onscreen sex scene was exactly like how it happened in Actor Martinez?
Burdge: It wasn't exactly like that. I don't want to say anything about anyone in particular, but I've had experiences that felt a little bit like that when I was younger.
Martinez: Me too.
NFS: What about you, Nathan and Mike? How much were you putting on a performance as directors in the film, and how much of that was just you guys directing?
Silver: I think it's all performance. Absolutely.
Burdge: What about off-camera? Off-camera, were you still performing?
Silver: I think it bled off-camera because I don't know how it would've worked otherwise.
Martinez: We had a lot of misfires the first few days. I'm a classically-trained actor and these guys don't want to have anything to do with actors, really.
Mike Ott: That's total bullshit.
Burdge: Well, you kind of do act like that when we're shooting.
Ott: We weren't interested in some classically-trained bullshit.
Burdge: See? Exactly! Remember when we were yelling and you'd be like, "You're giving us nothing to work with. This is stuff that's not in the movie." You were like, "It's funny because we've worked with tons of people who aren't actors at all and they don't have a problem with any of this."
Ott: That was the mantra for the entire shoot.
Burdge: "We've done this before and nobody else minds. It's just you two."
"There's no statement. I think it's funny because it seems like there should be a statement in a movie like this, but there isn't."
NFS: This isn't your first experience at a festival with this film. You also played at Rotterdam. How are people responding here at Tribeca?
Ott: I think the response has been surprisingly good. People ask about Lindsay a lot. They think she's mad at us and really hates us.
Burdge: That was one of the only things that was in the script. But yeah, the reception is really different in Rotterdam than here.
Ott: There was a lot of anger in Rotterdam. The Dutch audiences didn't really seem to appreciate our....
NFS: Brand of humor?
Silver: Brand of humor.
NFS: Did they think people were being exploited?
Silver: Yes, exactly. They weren't willing to even try to look at it at any other angle than just pure exploitation. It's not like they would talk with us and engage with us and say, "What were you trying to—"
Ott: "Why did you make this film? What was the point?" We discovered that Lindsay is the key, though. When she tells her story of what happened, [audiences] take it a lot better.
Silver: Just Lindsay being present [at screenings] and the fact that she didn't quit.
Burdge: And that I was smiling.
Silver: Somehow that just changes the whole tone of it.
Burdge: Well, you realize it's a movie.
Silver: Exactly. She wasn't in Rotterdam so it might've seemed like we were just a bunch of assholes.
NFS: Well, I'll take over for the Dutch: What is the point? Why did you make this movie?
Silver: I would say it's all Arthur. I never want to go into a movie and say something or express anything. It's just because I want to make movies. That's more interesting to me. If you have some sort of philosophy or some sort of idea that you are trying to expound, who cares? This is what I love about movies: you can take something from reality and mess with it and mix it up with your ideas. It wasn't a statement. There's no statement. I think it's funny because it seems like there should be a statement in a movie like this, but there isn't.
Martinez: That actually makes me proud to have worked with them, that they can say that, because I can't. They can do something I can't.
"I find it problematic in filmmaking these days that you can't experiment; it has to be a product."
NFS: What do you mean by that?
Martinez: I'm lacking in that ability, that artistic drive to just do.
Burdge: And to create a story out of an experience.
Silver: I find it problematic in filmmaking these days that you can't experiment; it has to be a product. With every project, you have to have something in the end that you can present to world, that you can sell, because movies cost money and we all know this. What fascinates me more is when you're playing. There should be movies that are playing around, that are trying things. I think we should fail more. We're a failure.
Ott: I was just on a real film set last week. It was so boring. Everyone was doing their job and no one wanted to be there, or everyone was acting too cool to be there. The whole process was so boring to me that I just want nothing to do with this world. Also, they were making a crap movie. I like making a movie with five people in an apartment. I had a lot of fun. I had the most fun any of my shoots.
NFS: Did you guys just hang out a lot?
Silver: I think this was more of an excuse to hang out than anything else.
Burdge: There was a lot of hanging out. I was so sad to leave when they made me leave.
Ott: She wanted to leave the first day and then she was very sad when she had to leave on the last day.
Burdge: I think I was just being really method, maybe.
Ott: It was sad when everyone left. It was very emotional.
Burdge: I felt like I fell asleep in Denver and woke up in L.A. I lost my purse within 24 hours.
"She wanted to leave the first day and then she was very sad when she had to leave on the last day."
NFS: Coming out of these roles, was it hard to transition back into real life?
Silver: Yeah, yeah, the shoot was like being on LSD the whole time. There was a sobering up.
Burdge: How did you come down from it, Arthur?
Martinez: I don't remember. I don't know. Something happened. I guess maybe not much happened because my apartment still looks the same.
Silver: Yeah, it looks exactly the same.
Ott: Is there still a hole in the wall?
Martinez: Well, I put a tapestry over it. The place was empty before these guys showed up and about a week before, somebody talked me into a couch that was too big. We put a big hole in the wall to get the couch in. Then [the film crew] showed up and said, "Leave it." I was like, "Okay." It just became another character in the story.
Ott: Not only is the apartment exactly the same, there's food in the fridge. No joke. I opened the fridge, like craft service from the shoot. It was so disgusting.
Silver: No, it was not disgusting. That was the point.