These are a few lectures and classroom activities I’ve developed for my own courses and a few guest lectures that I’ve been invited to give to other sections of the class I teach. If you’re in Chicago and you’d like me to come to your college or high school class, please email me at jpeepasATcolumDOTedu and we’ll set something up.
Casting Workshop: What can you tell from a headshot?
- Time: Approximately 1 hour
- Level: Beginner
To make fiction films, you have to find people who will breathe life into your characters and make them real. How do you start to imagine your characters as living, breathing people and start the process of collaborating with actors?
I bring in a big pile of headshots from Chicago actors I’ve worked with or seen audition over the years. Each student selects a photo and is asked to make up a story about that person, with about 15 minutes to write. What kind of film do you imagine them in? Does a particular genre or time period come to mind? What is their job, social background, upbringing, etc.?
Then students present their ideas and we discuss them. Running this exercise has had several fascinating unintended consequences in getting students to think about common tropes surrounding race & gender in casting Hollywood films, discussed at length here.
Casting Workshop #2: What can you tell from an audition?
- Time: 2-3 hours
- Level: Beginner
Chicago is teeming with actors who want to work on film projects. How do you find good people to work with and make them want to work on your films? Students receive a casting handout ahead of time with information on how to advertise and audition actors and the etiquette of communicating with them about appearing in a film project.
Using Craigslist, I advertise for people who want to do a practice audition for student filmmakers, and invite the first 4-5 people who submit headshots and resumes to prepare a brief monologue and come to class. Monologues are useful when you are first learning to cast, because they are little pieces of story that the actor is comfortable with that you did not have to prepare.
Before the actors arrive, we briefly cover the usefulness of verbs in avoiding result-oriented direction, how to give an adjustment and ask an actor to try something different, and what to look for when you do give some direction. An audition is not a performance, so your direction might not necessarily inspire them to greatness, but it should elicit something different from what you just saw.
When the actors arrive, they do their monologues and the students practice giving them adjustments and having them try different things. Time allowing, we do some cold reading and improvs between pairs of actors and interview them about their experiences working in Chicago.
After the actors leave, we talk about what we saw. Who was immediately good to work with? Who struggled? If someone who struggled was the only person you could get to show up for your film, how would you work with that person to get a performance?
- Time: 2 hours
- Level: Any
This combination presentation and discussion covers what (if anything) documentary makers owe their subjects and their audience in terms of truthful representation, preparation, research, informed consent.
Some key material:
Images meant to be received as truthful are constructed and exist inside a genre like any other. What kind of person usually reports the news? What does that signify about the assumptions and the agenda of the people who make the news? You could use a “documentary style” to imply that any material is truthful. What are the implications of doing that? What makes you trust and not trust a filmmaker? What are the advantages of being skeptical and looking for a filmmaker’s agenda & assumptions?
”Documentaries are… a construct, and they reveal as much about their makers as their ostensible subject. Like it or not, it is our own assumptions that we put on the screen. To make films intelligently means to examine and evolve who we are and what we believe.”
-Michael Rabiger, Directing The Documentary
Since feature documentaries have existed, all of the problems of documentary ethics have existed. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North brought up questions of:
- What, if anything, do we owe documentary subjects financially if a film becomes successful?
- What do we owe them about truthful representation?
- Who gets to tell whose story?
- What are the potential consequences of misrepresenting someone to serve your own agenda?
We screen a clip from Nanook, and ask the students to tell us what they know/assume about the people in the film based on the clip. Someone always says “simple” or “primitive,” and we talk about the implications of using those words to portray and describe human beings.
Then we talk about all the things that Flaherty faked or exaggerated in order to deliberately portray the “brave, kind, simple Eskimo” and the very real consequences that those assumptions had in terms of the treatment of Inuit communities in Canada, including forcible relocation and removal of children from homes. Flaherty was working at a time when colonialism and conquest of the world’s “simpler” people was at its apex. He was not evil, and was in fact a brilliant filmmaker, but his work had very real consequences in re-inforcing the mindset that some people are “simpler” and therefore it is okay for more powerful people to take things from them or arrange their lives.
Time-allowing, we screen some other short documentaries, and try to leave students with a question to keep them up at night:
It’s easy to sit in 2013 and see all the places where Flaherty went wrong. But chances are, 100 years from now, people will look back at things that we take for granted about the way the world works and shake their heads at us the same way. Can you identify any collective assumptions or injustices that we have in our society that will not stand the test of time? When you make any film your own assumptions about the world will be on the screen whether you want them to or not. So what can you do as an artist and a thinker to test those assumptions and try to be someone who investigates and questions rather than someone who reinforces prevailing power structures?
How can you decide on a visual strategy for your film?