Hiding The Brushstrokes
Hiding The Brushstrokes
In most forms of painting, it is considered good form to "hide" your brushstrokes, making your finished piece appear like it was somehow transferred directly onto a canvas, unblemished and beautiful. In our modern lives we encounter something similar- in today's media-soaked environment, we are encouraged to present an almost superhuman highlight reel of our successes while minimizing or ignoring the failures, rejections, and hard but unglamorous work that are the stepping stones towards the previously mentioned success. Our preoccupation with ourselves as a product- our "brand", our carefully curated stories- does ourselves and everyone who appreciates our work a disservice by hiding the humanity underneath our efforts like so much dust being swept under a rug.
I can't change this societal stance, but I can change what I do about it.
Below you'll find my production diaries and retrospectives, my acting notes made by and for myself, and reviews of my own work by my own hand and others. Not everything I have made is art, and not all the art I've been blessed to be a part of has survived, but in the end, I hope these stories serve as a testament that the only reliable way to make art is to leave something of yourself in it.
Happiness Adjacent (2017)
Written and Directed by Rob Williams
Produced by Rod Johnson
Starring Adam Fried, Ian Dick, Rachel Alig and Jorgie Goico
To say Happiness Adjacent is a triumph is not enough- in the context of its creation, it's a miracle it ever got made. Director and Writer Rob Williams had devised a film that could only be made if we...
...shot onboard a $300 million dollar cruise liner and in busy, beautiful Mexican ports of call.
...shot a feature-length film script (89 pages) in just seven days.
...shot entirely guerilla on unsecured locations, slipping security in dozens of public areas onboard and off.
...shot two or three takes (at most) for the vast majority of the scenes, many of which were emotional, carefully choreographed and irreplaceable if we missed our chance.
...shot not one, not two, but three sex scenes with two actors who had never done a single one in their careers.
Basically, Rob devised and we shot a movie that to this day is one of the proudest accomplishments of my career, not just because of the hurdles we had to clear to make it, but because it tells a story that transcends the medium that we present it in- Happiness Adjacent is about love, and nothing but love went into its creation.
The sheer magnitude of what we attempted amazed me back then and still astounds me to this day. Rob Williams, in my mind, was one of the first filmmakers to utilize the versatility and ubiquity of the smartphone camera when he shot Happiness Adjacent on the iPhone 6+, allowing all of us to move and shoot discreetly in environments where even a skeleton film crew would find themselves either unwelcome or hard pressed to fit. The whole reason we were able to shoot the film in the first place rested solely on Rob's ballsy conjecture that he could make a movie shot on a smartphone feel it was shot on a camera worth exponentially more. He succeeded at this by making the camera another actor, flowing through the labyrinthine interior of the ship and the fantastic beauty of Mexico as it followed myself, Adam and Rachel on the ride of a lifetime.
When I initially inquired about Happiness Adjacent it was just another submission in about a dozen I sent off every day. Like all the others I had no idea if it was going to be fantastically good, painfully bad, or the average case in LA's- just another audition. Around four months later Rob reached out to arrange a self-tape audition, I was enduring a bout of the flu at the time and fully thought his email was a fever dream when it bounced across my laptop in between viewings of The West Wing and Airplane. Rob was incredibly understanding about my delay, and once I received the sides that I was to audition with, I quickly realized that this was a story that I would love to tell. Kurt Dimmeldorf, on the surface, was fairly far removed from me- a married yet closeted bisexual Jew(ish) man from the midwest who seeks out flings with other men on the rare vacations he and his wife take (apparently a well-established trope in LGBTQ cinema), but the depth of pathos that Rob imbued this character with floored me and easily stood out from the crowd of poorly-written protagonists. Kurt wasn't a guy on the hunt for some vacation dick- he wanted desperately to connect with someone on an emotional level that he wasn't capable of reaching with his wife. He was a man for whom loyalty and love were tightly interwoven and yet as fluid as the life he led. He drinks heavily, he lies convincingly, but through it all he loved so, so deeply.
Honestly, initially Happiness Adjacent was just another project on a casting site that I screened for parts that could fit me- I used to submit to dozens of these potential projects a day, blasting my headshots, reels and dumb jokes into the ether in the hopes of getting an audition. After scooping up the most interesting (and the least offensively paid) roles, I'd click submit and forget about all but the most promising ones- getting a call for an audition is just the next step in a long journey, there's no sense in getting your hopes up until you're walking onto set with the job in hand. In an unusually long turnaround, about four months later, Rob got back to me- would I be interested in shooting a self-tape audition for his film? I of course couldn't remember who he was at that time, not just because it had been a busy four months, but also because when I got his email I was in the throes of a bad case of the flu- my usual remedy of repeat viewings of The West Wing and Airplane were barely keeping me alive. Once my head felt less like a tailings pond full of tissues, I opened the pair of scenes he had sent along, prepared for yet another day of trying to make a two dimensional character seem alive and likable...but immediately, I saw this was different. On the page, Kurt was outgoing but awkward, masculine and vulnerable and funny and above all, careful. His character had a voice that spoke to Robs naturalistic writing style, and he said things that I hadn't had the words to express until I read them. He was a human with so much love to give that he couldn't, and wouldn't contain it, and every bit of it was plain to see on the five or so pages Rob sent me.
Fucking A, I thought, how did he pack all that into just two scenes?
Needless to say, I rushed to get the self-tape as quickly as possible, like hell I'd let a little sickness get in my way of attempting this part. Now I know some people who treat self-tape auditions like their own full productions, with extensive makeup, complex lighting packages, "massaging" the edit in Premiere, the whole nine yards, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, like any audition, you have to do something to stand out from the hundreds of other people saying the exact same things as you, and if that's how you put your best foot forward, I say go for it. Personally, I treat them like a low-key in-person audition, albeit one where I can (openly) swear at myself or the camera and restart whenever I feel like it. I shot mine sitting at the kitchen table at the decidedly collegiate house I shared with five other people in Tujunga, ironically as one of my best friends from college, David Murakami, read Hanks lines from across the table. My phone was the camera, and was propped up on a stack of DnD books left over from the previous night.
Well, apparently it worked. Rob emailed me
Round One: The Self-Tape
My self-taped audition...whoo. First of all, it's easily one of the longer single take auditions that I've made, clocking in around five minutes for two scenes, one awkwardly comedic and the other painfully intimate. The first scene was an early version of the one where Kurt and Hank meet, a snappy back and forth where the two joust over family history and career choices. As I watch it three years later, I remember sitting in the kitchen of the collegiate Tujunga house as David Murakami, one of my best friends from college, was reading the lines opposite me. You can hear him and I stumbling over some Yiddish that Rob sprinkled throughout the script to lend some authenticity to Kurt's Jewish heritage. Months away from the finished product, Kurt's last name was different and some of the dialogue would be massaged for the final film, but the core of the character shone through, his awkwardness and amiability revealing themselves in turn as he gets to know Hank for the first time.
The next scene, however, was the one I was worried about. The affability of the first scene had to halt almost immediately as I transitioned into the pivotal scene where Kurt explains to Hank why he loves him the way he does. Context required me to play it drunk, but looking back that went out the window about halfway through the scene. Since I shot the pair of scenes in one go, I was able to use the whiplash of the scene transition to get myself where I needed to be, on the brink of emotional collapse. Again, in hindsight, my performance in the finished film is more nuanced but I loved how vulnerable Rob's writing made me feel in the moment, a brief span of time where Kurt not just admits what he needs Hank for, but where he realizes it for the first time.
Self-taping, in general, gives you the opportunity to put your best foot forward- you're no longer constrained by the five minute window that almost all in-person auditions occupy, which allows you to go to great lengths to make sure that the take that you submit- the snapshot of your character- will be good enough to stand out from hundreds of other actors all saying the exact same lines that you are. I know people who shoot a dozen versions, mix and match separate takes and edit audio and color balance until they're sure every extraneous eventuality has been brought into line, but I take a different tack. I treat it like a normal audition, albeit one where I can swear and start over as many times as I need.