Sylvia Chang has just garnered another nomination for “Best Actress” at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards for my film Rice Rhapsody. She has already been nominated in the same category at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, and won a Jury Award for “Best Actress” for this film at the Newport Beach International Film Festival. Congratulations to her once again!
This is a great way to start my blog on actors.
In life we are taught to think before we speak. In acting, the opposite is what we, the audience, respond to. The actor should speak before he/she thinks. Act and/or react before he/she thinks. That’s when we see ourselves at our purest. Alive. Flawed. True.
Sometimes, as a writer, I would sit in a room or café and do my best to dream up a funny line. Then when I get on the set, I’d find that the actor will act and react according to their instincts and their natural reactions are so genuine and so simple that my clever line becomes redundant and not so funny any more. Sometimes, what really works is just a simple facial expression.
The one actor I would love to work with is Stephen Chow. In my opinion, he’s the most amazing dramatic actor in Hong Kong. His instincts are alive and without a hint of self-censorship. Before he was a full-blown star and best known for his outrageous comedies, he acted in a TV mini-series where he played a bad guy’s son who turned out to be more ruthless than his father. It was an enthralling experience watching him, committing atrocities as if they’re the most natural and routine activities in the world.
I grew up watching my parents act on film sets. To me, acting on film seemed an uneventful profession. Performances are done in seconds. I remember hearing someone yell ‘Action’, then something inconsequential would happen and then the same someone would yell ‘Cut!’ To an outsider, it wasn't very interesting.
The first time I really observed acting on a film was on Sylvia Chang’s 1994 film The New Age of Living Together. I was invited to visit the set and meet some industry people. I went to their location, the presidential suite of some hotel and saw her and the lead actor, Nicky Wu, mumble something to each other between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut.’ The room was not huge; Sylvia and Nicky were being filmed in a corner of the room with all the lights, lighting crew, camera, dolly, tracks, tripods, C-stands, and cables surrounding them. It was a strange sight for me. The space available for movement for the actors is so small. “Are they acting in there encircled by all this stuff and all these people? I can’t even hear them,” I wondered.
Well now that I’ve become a director myself, all the above is as it should be. The actor’s performance is not for the people in the room. It’s for the camera. And what the camera sees and the audio mixer hears are entire universes separate to the realities of the film set.
I once walked in on my father acting in an emotional scene. He was behind prison bars, screaming and yelling to see his wife. He was crying and totally hysterical for being separated from his wife. When they yelled cut, I felt bad for him because there was more than tears coming out of his eyes, clear liquids poured out from his nose also. He wiped his nose and dried his eyes and went on. What a way to make a living. My hats off to the many actors who share their hearts and souls for our enjoyment.
When it came time for Sylvia to do an emotional in Rice Rhapsody, I learned a huge lesson in the craft in filmmaking: prepare more film or have two cameras rolling when shooting an emotional scene. The shot began as a long track shot into Sylvia’s and Mélanie’s close up. Then we cut. The crying scene is coming up so we change the lens to a tighter one for a more dramatic close up. The cinematographer and I were ready and we waited for Sylvia’s signal to let us know when she was ready. We rolled and as she started to cry, we ran out of film.
The film stock we used was 400 feet long (90 ft = 1 minute). The problem was we had a few magazines of partially used film stock. Do we gamble and see if we could do the whole take with the left over film or do we spend about ten to fifteen minutes reloading the magazines with fresh rolls and risk losing the emotions Sylvia has so delicately built up? The atmosphere was tense. We finally decided to gamble and shoot with the left over film stock. At the end of the second take when Sylvia started to cry, I saw the red light flashing on the camera, meaning we were running out of film. The cameraman also looked at me signaling there was no more film in the camera. Meanwhile Sylvia was still crying and in the moment. I waved for the cameraman to sit back down and pretend we were still rolling. Had Sylvia known we’d run out of film when she was giving us all she’s got, she could’ve become really upset. For the sake of atmosphere, we didn’t tell her about the film. Instead I told her we needed to improve the camera movement and asked her to do another take. She obliged and in the end we lucked out. On the third take Sylvia delivered a beautiful performance just before the film ran out. Whew!
Having experienced this ‘scary’ moment and judging from what I saw in the rehearsals during pre-production on another emotional scene, I asked the production manager to order three rolls of 1000 feet film for that scene. We shot the scene but it turned out to be a less emotional scene on the actual set. After only one take, I knew Sylvia was not going to cry in the scene and knew that it worked better this way. I ended up not having to use those three 1000 feet film rolls. They are still sitting in our office.
Check back later as we’ll be talking about music in film and my experiences scoring for other people’s films as well as my own.