To all film students casting actors on Mandy.com

In an effort to beef up my film demo reel, I’ve been submitting to lots of film projects casting on Mandy.com, a web site where indie filmmakers post casting breakdowns and crew opportunities. A lot of student filmmakers use the site to cast their film projects. While a lot of student film is bad, a good project can be a great showcase of your abilities.

Since indie creators rarely hire actual casting directors, they often write their own casting breakdowns, and they’re often poorly written. Spelling mistakes, unclear project description, unclear character breakdown. I’ve been collecting some of my favourite bad casting calls on Twitter with the hashtag #MandyAuditions. Like:

“Must be nondescript ethnicity. Preferably South Asian or Mediterranean.” (uh, what?)

“There may not be pay, but there are food scenes included, I will cover expenses.” (I’d bloody hope you’re not expecting me to pay for your props!)

Sometimes the stupidity doesn’t come up until you get the confirmation e-mail from the director offering you an audition:

“Your audition’s tomorrow. BTW, we forget to mention in the casting notice that this is a musical. Bring a song.” (Wait, why would you not mention in the casting breakdown that you’re looking for musical performers?)

Normally, when this happens, I just ignore the offer and move on. But yesterday, I got an e-mail from a director that needed a response.

Hello, 

thank you for applying, just a heads up, the role has no lines, so all we need is a head shot, or some kind of picture with you in a tank top. We’re going for more sex appeal than acting performance for this character.
 
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PS. please bring a head shot.
That was the entirety of the e-mail. I haven’t just deleted the details so as not to embarrass the director. There was no project name, no director. But don’t worry, there was a follow up a minute later with the date and location, but still no project name. It turned out that this was a Centennial College production — had this been mentioned in the breakdown, I wouldn’t have bothered because past experience has shown me that Centennial College’s film program is essentially a high-school level class with students that lack basic competences in anything involving film, and instructors that are more or less absent from the process (this could be the subject of a much longer story, but it involves a director telling me to run around a park in East York waving a gun around with no permit or police presence). A minute after that came a second followup asking me to contact her if I had any concerns.
Did I have concerns? You bet I did. I also had another writing project I was working on, so I was eager for the distraction. This is what I sent her back:

Sorry, but I won’t be coming to your audition. I’ve had some bad experiences with Centennial Films, and no longer work with students from there. But good luck with your production.
 
So that this isn’t completely fruitless, please accept the following advice in the spirit of good will in which it’s given:
 
– In future, when responding to a casting submission, make it clear what project you’re working on. Actors might submit to 5-10 productions daily on Mandy.com and might not remember what project you’re offering an audition to. I can’t find your project there right now.
 
– It’s also best to offer as many salient details as you can on your casting call, if only to get the best submissions. Had I known this was a silent role with no lines, and that it was at Centennial, I probably wouldn’t have wasted both our time with my submission. The only reason actors do student films is to get decent material to throw on a reel. A silent role doesn’t help me with that, but you may have gotten the aspiring model you were looking for, since that plays to their strengths and needs.
 
– Telling an actor that, “We’re going for more sex appeal than acting performance for this character,” is actually kind of rude. “None of your skills and training matter as long as you can hold up this tank top!” If you want a model, say that on your casting call, and you’ll get those submissions. Moreover, it makes you sound like you don’t care about your own production, since you don’t care about performance (yes, I know film schools generally suck at teaching how to get good performances from actors — I went to film school too — so take this as a teachable moment). And if you don’t care about the quality of the finished product, then you’re leading me to believe that the finished film isn’t going to be good enough to want to put on a reel. Since the finished video is my only payment for doing a student film, why would I work for someone who doesn’t want to make a good one?
 
I assume you want the people coming in to audition for you to be excited about working with you. Trust me, take these steps in the future and you’ll get much higher quality submissions.
 
Cheers,
Rob

The director eventually sent an apology and clarified that the project is not affiliated with Centennial, only doing its casting there (why, because Pape and Mortimer is so convenient?).

Casting breakdowns aren’t difficult to write, especially if you’ve got a decent product. Actors want to work on great films. They want every casting breakdown they read to be an exciting project that would be perfect for them. You’re shooting fish in a barrel. So just tell actors what’s great about your project and what’s great about each role.

Tell actors what exactly you’re looking for in each role — even if you’re not entirely sure! The character’s age, gender, and race may not be salient. But there’s got to be something else important when you see the character. Maybe they’re the sensitive type. Or the artsy snarker. Or they need to be able to communicate to the lead that they’re in love with him with a single nonsequitor line. Give actors an idea if the character plays to their strengths or gives them a challenge.

Here’s a pro-tip: Film schools are notoriously bad at training directors to think about anything other than the technical and compositional aspects of filmmaking. But your biggest responsibility as a director is to get great performances out of your actors. In order to do that, you should work to understand the craft of acting. It’s actually worth taking an acting course or two to round out your knowledge, but if you don’t have the cash, pick up any of the many books on acting you can find at TheatreBooks. You’ll get a good sense of how actors think and you’ll get better at communicating your choices to them. And ultimately, you’ll make better films.

Finally, if we’re working for you for free, be grateful and treat us with respect. You’re getting your final grade on this project and making your calling card movie. We’re being asked to give you several days work, plus audition time, headshots, travel costs, etc. Don’t waste our time. Know what you’re looking for, understand the craft of acting, and give actors their due. (Oh, and remember to send your actors a copy of the finished film when it’s done. This is our payment for our work and a part of your contract with us.)

POSTSCRIPT: Not all student filmmakers or film schools are bad, by the way. I had a great experience at Sheridan a few years back. And Ryerson typically impresses me with the scripts I read. But yeah, definitely stay away from Centennial.

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Alleged “gaybasher” was actually the victim: Judge

I’m a little late getting to this, but I was quoted in this story that appeared on Xtra.ca last week about an alleged gaybashing that I reported on nearly two years ago, which finally finished its way through the legal system with the result that the presiding judge found that there was no evidence that a gaybashing occurred, and that the purported victim was indeed the bully in the situation.

That was an ugly story, which I’m not linking to, in order to prevent it moving even futher up the Google rankings.

Essentially, a guy named Jon Chaisson called Xtra claiming he’d been bashed (he’d also called several other news outlets and the local city councillor) in the King Subway Station. I was assigned the story, which typically means get the vitcim’s story, and confirm whatever you can with the police. In an unusual turn, since I had the alleged attacker’s name, I managed to find his contact info on Google and gave him a phone call, fully expecting him to say something like “no comment” or “speak to my lawyer.” Instead, the guy, Collin Dillon, invited me to come meet him and his girlfriend, who was a witness to the incident. The guy turned out to be far from the bigotted caricature that Chaisson had portrayed him to be — in fact, I found him much more trustworthy and convincing than Chaisson. Dillon also disputed several of Chaisson’s facts, including the timeline of the incident, and whether or not Chaisson had fought back. Dillon had multiple bruises and cuts on his face which seemed inconsistent with Chaisson’s story that he only hit him once in self-defence.

When I called Chaisson to clarify some of these details, he was outraged that I would dare question him. He said he wouldn’t speak to Xtra again. He also refused to give us a picture of his injuries (he instead supplied a corporate glamour shot that Xtra ran alongside the story in a pretty questionable decision) or documents of his purported medical expenses (Chaisson had claimed that Dillon broke one of his teeth — a fact I placed in the lede without verifying… Ooops. In the end, Chaisson apparently couldn’t prove that the the chipped tooth wasn’t preexisting). He at one point claimed to be planning a civil suit against Dillon, and suddenly a motive emerged.

After the initial story went online, the comments section was flooded with people claiming that Chaisson was a scam artist. A few of my friends and acquaintances told me stories of similarly shady encounters with him. Xtra decided not to follow the story.

Fast forward a year to the criminal trial, and I’m subpoenaed by the defence. My investigation, it turns out, is what led the defence to figure out where Chaisson’s story was changing over time, to prove that he was altering his story to suit the details as the emerged, and what his motive for lying was. Chaisson alleged on the stand (I’m told) that I’d twisted his words and invented quotes to make him appear like a liar. So I was needed to testify, essentially, that I don’t do that because I am a good journalist. Cue several days of me waiting in College Park to give my testimony (stretched, unfortunately, over several months due in part to my touring schedule).

Let me get something out of the way: Criminal trials are way more exciting on TV. Example of an actual question I was forced to answer on the stand: “What do you mean when you write something in a story in quotation marks?” Sidebar: My tradition of being woefully underdressed for every occasion continued in court, where I leared that even in June, when you’re going to spend the rest of the day on a bus to London, it’s ill-advised to show up at court in jeans and a T-shirt.

Ultimately, the judge found that my testimony was more convincing than Chaisson’s, in large part because I have no motivation to lie. That wasn’t the silver bullet in the case — Chaisson’s story was undermined by several factors including his own inconsistencies on the stand, and there were a few witnesses who backed up Dillon’s version of events — but it apparently helped bring this story to its conclusion.

While I’ve chatted with Dillon since the verdict came out, he’s eager to move on and didn’t want to be quote on the record. Suffice it to say, this was a brutal, nearly two-year-long ordeal for him, and a costly one. I hope this is truly behind him now.

Freelance: 2012 in Review — better than 2011

This went to print two weeks ago, but I guess Xtra.ca was saving it for the New Year’s lull: my 2012 Year in Review. I’m a little sad that they cut my opening joke about how the year was pretty good for queer Canadians and therefore “in what I hope will become an annual tradition, we look back on a year of positive developments for the queer community.”

It is a bit of a turnaround actually. I wrote a bunch of year-end features when I was on staff last year, including a feature on the 2011 in Gay Bashings. My feature on the most-read stories of 2011 included the then-unsettled question of GSAs in Catholic Schools, the suicide of Ottawa teenager Jamie Hubley, a homophobic and transphobic Progressive Conservative election campaign, the seemingly nuclear war over Pride Toronto and its former executive director, a Tim Hortons in Ontario that kicked out a lesbian couple, and the start of a deeply unpleasant boycott of the paper led by a handful of trans activists.

(I remember doing a similarly snarky year-in-review last year too, but I can’t find it online right now. Perhaps I’m hallucinating.)

By contrast, 2012 was pretty smooth sailing. Xtra‘s top videos were all celebrity(ish) interviews, which is something of a switch — and a welcome demonstration that that kind of content can coexist, even compliment Xtra‘s more political coverage. If Xtra’s numbers are accurate, a behind-the-scenes pornstar photoshoot was not only the most watched Xtra.ca video of 2012, but also the most looked at story Xtra has published ever. Those “several hundred thousand” pairs of eyeballs were all potential readers of the more activist content Xtra publishes.

Onward and upward for 2013!

 

 

Why making art without government support isn’t novel

Last night, I was at Buddies in Bad Times for the launch of City Voices, a new anthology of monologues by mostly Toronto(ish) writers, compiled by ​Jenna Harris, Anila Pant and Ronit Rubinstein. I’d read about the launch party on Torontoist and figured it would be worth checking out, since I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with how artists craft Toronto in their work.

According to the interview at Torontoist and from the sampling of monologues performed, the collection isn’t really about Toronto, so much as it contains works by people who live in or once lived in Toronto. That’s not the most exciting thematic connection between works as far as I’m concerned, but I suppose read in the whole it might paint a picture of what a selection of Toronto voices sounds like. (I confess, I haven’t read it, so don’t think of this as a review.)

Something noteworthy about the collection is that there are 28 contributors listed on the book’s back cover, and only six of them are men, including one trans-man and one man who is credited as the coauthor of a piece with a woman. Oh, how the theatre landscape is changing.

Something not terribly noteworthy, despite Torontoist making it the kicker on its profile and a big focus of Carly Maga’s interview, is the fact that the group who published it did not receive any government grants to get it published. It’s not clear from the interview that the group applied and was turned down or simply decided to go it alone, but Maga frames the decision to publish despite not receiving grants as a bold action in the face of threatened cuts to the arts from the conservative administration at city hall (and, presumably, in Ottawa and soon at Queen’s Park). Indeed, even the book’s website says City Voices is a “response to the recent political climate, which has too often portrayed the role of art and artists as superfluous in our society.”

Nevermind that this year’s proposed city budget actually increases funding to the arts, and that even the budget chief has asked city staff to propose phasing in increases to city support for the arts up to $25/capita compared to the present $18/capita. (We’ll also brush over the fact that at least some of the contributors to the book have received writing grants, since although that subsidizes some of the content of the book, it doesn’t help with the actual publishing costs.)

Framing the decision to publish despite not receiving grant money as bold or brave or innovative is ridiculous. By far the vast majority of art is produced without public aid. Grant recipients are – and should be – the exception to the rule when it comes to art projects. There is nothing innovative or new about trying to create or publish art without grants.

But there seems to be a strange attitude among certain theatre artists that this is not the case, and that theatre necessarily requires public support. Poppycock. Public support is nice, and it can certainly help artists either earn a decent living from their work or achieve higher technical standards. But even in the theatre world – if you count the entire theatre arts community – the vast majority of art is created without public subsidy (or at least without direct public subsidy).

Theatre can be expensive, and expensive shows usually do require either investors, sponsors, or public support. But theatre can also be very cheap – especially when it’s produced in co-op or outside of main venues. Most producers working under the latter conditions simply save and invest their own money into shows and hope for the best. Every single show I’ve produced has been without direct public production support, for example (yes, Fringe Festivals receive various public supports – but ultimately, I’m taking on financial risks alone).

Publishing can be expensive. But self-publishing is actually really cheap. Heck, in recent years, there’s been a whole revolution in self-publishing. I know this because I’ve self-published my own book. All it cost me was the time it took for me to edit and layout my book, and the printing and shipping costs of the individual books I ordered. (HINT: Don’t want to wait 2-5 weeks for shipping? FUCKING STEPHEN HARPER is available at Glad Day Books in Toronto).

These editors invested some time soliciting, reading, and editing submissions. They may have offered the writers an honorarium or perhaps a share of the royalties, but I don’t recall seeing that in the call for submissions. And they hired a graphic designer. They had to print the book, including free copies for writers and supporters. They created a web site an printed some posters for the launch event. These are not monumental costs, and they should be able to at least break even on the book. And good for them! I wish them well!

Just don’t pretend that they’re unique in the community for putting their time and their money where their passion is.

I don’t want to just single out Carly Maga, either. This is a really ugly attitude toward public support for the arts that’s been festering in the theatre community for a while. I remember a panel discussion during the 2008 election hosted by Xtra, in which Theatre Centre Artistic Director Franco Boni tried to make a stand against the then-controversial cuts the Harper government had announced to a couple of touring support programs. He went on at length about how the way we should mobilize against the cuts is to make more art, to rub it in his face, to prove that we’ll make art anyway, regardless of whether Harper lets us have public money.

WHICH IS THE WHOLE ARGUMENT FOR CUTTING THE FUCKING GRANTS!

If the art will get made regardless of public support, then it’s a waste of scarce public resources to spend them on art. The reason we as a society invest in art is because, if we don’t, it wouldn’t get created, and/or it wouldn’t be created to the standards that we expect of professional artists, and/or it wouldn’t reach a wide audience of Canadians who can be entertained/enlightened/engaged by it.

Presenting it as a novelty that artists venture to do something without government support is unhelpful to the ongoing debates about the appropriate level of public support for the arts because it obliterates the huge amount of artists who already are out there creating work without government support and who could really use it. It makes it sound like we’re all already spoiled brats crying for entitlements.

If we’re going to win the argument for greater public support for the arts, we need to do a few things. First, we need to be grateful to the public – not the government of the day, mind you, but the people – for their support. Second, we need to make the case that more public investment would mean more and better art created, and we can do that by pointing to the huge pool of talent in Canada that the current grant envelopes can’t/don’t reach and connecting the dots between more money and these artists receiving the platforms that will get their work to an audience.

I think books like City Voices can actually be part of a compelling case for the latter, insofar as they are a chance to showcase lesser known voices or projects and the potential that can be mined from them. Let’s not muck up that narrative by appearing ungrateful to our public and framing artists as having no skin in the game.

Maybe I’m being sensitive about this because I’m in the midst of preparing for Ten Foot Pole Theatre’s upcoming show BIG IN GERMANY, which I’m putting on at Buddies in April. We were unsuccessful (again) in applying for production grants from Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council. That means that I’ll have to scale back aspects of the show and invest more of my money into the show upfront to cover costs, but the show is going ahead. It is, after all, a show about a rock band. It wouldn’t be very rock-n-roll to say “we can’t do this until we get official approval in the form of a large cash payment from a government agency.”