By Hunter Lee Hughes
The stylized world of mystery/mindbender films raises a question for actors – what adjustments to their process (if any) should actors make to accommodate the genre in which they’re working?
In shooting my debut feature film “Guys Reading Poems” – a stylized mindbender shot in black-and-white – I was a bit concerned about one of the performances, based on what I’d seen in rehearsals. But when we got to set, the actor delivered beyond my wildest expectations. I leaned over to our cinematographer, Michael Marius Pessah, and asked for his theory on what changed between the rehearsal and the set. In all seriousness, without skipping a beat, he calmly said, “It’s the lighting.”
Michael’s response still brings a smile to my face years later, but it raises interesting issues related to film performance. The aesthetic of suspense/mindbender films plays an oversize role in guiding the audience through a specific experience of the world, one which is both terrifying and erotic. And while it may be the cinematographer’s job to help create that aesthetic, along with production design, costume design, hair/make-up department and so forth, what about the actors? Certainly, the actors must delve into the interior landscape of their characters, discover their needs and develop their relationships with other characters, but are they also somehow obligated to the aesthetic and tone of the film being created?
Our team’s design and aesthetic choices did provide imaginative clues (forgive the pun) to the actors. In a sense, Michael is exactly right. The high contrast lighting invokes a world where dark choices feel in tune with your surroundings. So, all of a sudden, the actor is perhaps more comfortable pursuing those choices in the scene. Shpetim Zero’s haute couture gowns grant a tremendous power to the actress wearing them and her ability to use seductive prowess to get what she wants. A delicate finger puppet designed by Nathaly Lopez invokes an empathetic response from a trapped seven-year old. And so on.
But underneath all that, the actor still makes choices about his backstory, his needs and how he goes about fulfilling them (or makes choices about not making choices and simply existing in the present moment, etc). So the question remains…is the actor’s process impacted or influenced by the genre in which he works?
There’s a real danger for actors in stepping outside their characters to observe the world in which the film takes place. After all, if observations of the tone of the piece cause actors to become self-conscious, the performance suffers. We all know how painful it is to watch an actor’s hackneyed idea of a detective. We’re internally rolling our eyes within a few scenes. And yet….some actors seem better than others – perhaps unconsciously – at understanding the new rules to the strange universe being concocted by the director and her team. Some actors score roles in these constructs repeatedly and their success may be traced to a gut-level knowledge – or perhaps conscious observation – of how the genre functions. Think of how Veronica Lake and Humphrey Bogart allowed themselves to become not just performers but iconic representations of the archetypal characters they embodied in noir films. But was their preparation the same as if they were auditioning for a warm family drama or slapstick comedy? Or did they prepare differently? Was it just good casting? Some studio exec figuring out that Veronica Lake just seemed to work in noir films? Or did Ms. Lake understand how to make the tone, design and shot selection of noir films enhance her performance?
This is a question I hope to continue to explore as a director and actor for many years to come. But based on my observations on shooting this film and working with actors for many years, I believe there’s a two-stage process when working within a specific genre like this one. In a very general way, I believe actors must start out by developing a role in a mystery/suspense film in exactly as they would for a comedy film. Identify the driving needs of the characters, develop a backstory, make personalization choices, etc. But once an actor is deeply involved in that process, I recommend making adjustments and “new rules” to account for the genre.
For example, in a stylized mindbender film, to be elegantly shot in black-and-white, you might add the rule, “No one moves haphazardly in this world.” Now, on the surface, that seems like a pretty strange rule, a limitation. But, after all, characters have other limitations, too. No one is using curse words in “The Sound of Music” even if an actor playing a Nazi in that film really feels it’s right for the moment. And if you’re cast in a super-WASPY family like the one in “Ordinary People,” those characters are going to have limitations in how they behave, due to their conditioning, etc. So working with limitations and rules is something that an actor can accept, if explained properly. Neo-noir films, in my opinion, make careful use of how the characters are blocked. There’s a sense that moves have been planned and executed, then neutralized by another character, who pre-planned a response. So deliberate movement and the actor’s control over his/her own body enhances the effectiveness of the characters in these sorts of films. Maybe it’s interesting to see spastic movement in a broad comedy. But in a noir film, it feels out of place (except when it’s the exception that makes the rule, etc). Actors can even create a backstory that justifies the rule. Perhaps, the character was playing around with friends as a kid and the horseplay got a bit chaotic. All of a sudden, the character’s father stepped in. Slapped the child. And said, “This is a dangerous world. We move through it carefully. Stop that horseplay.” This gives the actor an ability to have a sense of truth in applying the rule rather than simply feeling that an overbearing director told him what he wasn’t allowed to do.
Also, an adjustment to the tactics of the character should be influenced by the genre. A quintessential cliche may suffice as an example here. In a romantic comedy, a great tactic may be for the character to charm her love interest. In a neo-noir film, perhaps she would adjust that tactic slightly and choose to seduce her love interest, instead. The need underneath might remain the same but if the world being created is one that rewards seduction rather than charm, it makes sense that the character might choose accordingly. Altering some of the tactics might be an organic way to ensure an actor’s performance matches the world in which they reside. After all, in life, different environments require different tactics. An abusive, dysfunctional home may require a child to be sneaky to survive, whereas that same tactic would be counterproductive in a healthy, emotionally-aware family. So again, when presented in this way, actors can accept adjustments they need to make once it’s coded into language that has less to do with genre and more to do with the environment they encounter.
The final piece of the puzzle (again, sorry for the pun – I can’t help myself) is trust. Films in this mindbender territory often deal with betrayal and danger and characters incapable of trusting one another, but paradoxically trust between actor and director is the one quality needed to make a really good film in this category. Here’s the rub. A lot of great actors have an incredible sense of truth in how they build their characters. On set or in rehearsals, they speak out at the right moments as guardians of their character, “Hunter, I don’t think he would ever do it this way” or, “Hunter, she’s still so focused on what just happened, why would I change focus so quickly?” And most times, actors are 100% correct to bring up these concerns so that the truth of the character can be reconciled with the action in the scene. But sometimes, with stylized films, a director might need an actor to “take one for the aesthetic” of the film. Let’s not forget that the shot itself is often revealing the character’s psychology as much as the performance in these types of films. So when the director says, “That was great. I just need you to lean your head this way before you say the line” or “let’s find a way for you to enter with just four steps instead of six,” trust is paramount. It may feel slightly uncomfortable or even offend the actor’s sense of truth. But the shot may be so f’ing cool that it ends up doing the work on behalf of the actor, when the performer’s temporarily challenged sense of truth finds a way to make it work.
In conclusion, I believe genre matters and an understanding of how to personalize the rules of the genre to empower the actors – in addition to a mastery of the character’s psychology – enhances the work. That’s why I’m excited to continue working in this genre with the next film…and the one after that. (But for my fourth feature, I’m already planning a tennis comedy. After all, every once in awhile, you need a break).
Hunter Lee Hughes, founder of Fatelink and StoryAtlas, is a Los Angeles-based actor-director whose award-winning feature film directorial debut Guys Reading Poems was recently called “essential viewing” by The Los Angeles Blade. The film debuted at the Palm Beach International Film Festival and went on to screen at eight international film festivals, winning three awards before a week-long theatrical run in Los Angeles. The film will be coming out across platforms in January, 2018.