Shannon Young used some very extraordinary methods in order to prepare his actors for their roles. The characters he had created were complex and needed to be portrayed with as much fervor and realism as Shannon had written them with.
We focused a lot on improvisation and the characters instead of just reading the script. It was always more interesting to do improv. We took the characters and we put them in scenarios and went back to their history. Scenarios like how they met, how they came together as a group, which isn’t even in the film, but I think for the actors it really fleshed out the characters a lot. They were quite punishing too, some of the things we did were horrible!
Because guys like Orville, (a character in the film) he’s a schoolyard victim. He’s been picked on all his life. He’s been brutalized and picked on at school and he’s become vengeful. He has to be the one at the end of the film saying, “I beat you, I beat everybody. I’m better than everyone.” We rehearsed all that in improvisations where we would literally gang up on him. We would push him around; we were really nasty to him. Then suddenly we’d all back off and walk away and walk out of the room and leave him on his own. We would punish him, with really typical schoolyard bullying. He told me, “I need this. I need to do this. I need to know how this feels.”
Sometimes we would do abstract exercises. There wasn’t literal drama. We would create a certain aspect of the character. For example, Anthony (another character in the film) was a former drug addict. So we would sometimes sit him down, blindfold him, and surround him and shout at him and whisper in his ear, to imitate the drug voice you would experience as an addict. And we’d do it to him for five, ten minutes at a time and just walk away and leave him sitting in the dark because he’s an isolated character. You do things like that just to get a taste of what it’s like.
I was anticipating then that some of that stuff would seep out, especially some scenes where we just improvised in front of the camera.
You’re making an independent film, right? People will sometimes forgive poor camera work, bad writing, maybe they miss a line of dialogue, they’ll even forgive crummy special effects. What people will not forgive are two things: A shit script and shit acting. If those two things are shit, you’re fucked, basically. I knew that going in big time. Those two things set aside films like “Clerks” and “El Mariachi” unlike the rest of the crap that doesn’t get anywhere. Fortunately, both those things fell into place. There were good actors who responded to the script.
We thought, what can we come up with, what can we do, that’s interesting that’s unique that can help these guys to really get a handle on the characters? It was out of those discussions that we came up with these exercises. The auditions were the same. We devised, for each of the five key characters, an improvisational exercise that would allow us to get a handle at how good these people would be at thinking on their feet, and how well they would respond to what we saw as the intrinsic nature of the character.
We devised an exercise for everyone who auditioned for the character of Roger.
We put Paul in the chair as a hostage. We said, “This guy is a hostage. You’ve got him here; in this room is a key. You need it bad. Get it out of him.” And we handed them a gun, knife, a few props, and we’d see what they’d do. That separated the men from the boys. We found our casting choices came from these exercises.
Explosions? There were some great explosions in your film.
It sounds silly, but an explosion in your film really lifts the bar. One of the criticisms of “El Mariachi”, Robert Rodriguez’s film, when it came out, people said to him, “You need an explosion in this film”. So, I was determined to have at least one, if not three or four. Paul, who played the detective in the film, is also a licensed pyrotechnician, so he took care of all of our explosive work. And this is the other reason I think filmmakers should put explosions in their films if they’re thinking about it; they’re actually not that expensive to do. You can usually get a pyrotechnician for about a couple hundred dollars. Beyond that, you’re only expenses are the thing you’re exploding. We exploded cars and a building.
Oh yeah. In many scenes, we have the characters holding and playing with their guns and rifles. Ordinarily shooting those scenes would have cost me a couple of hundred dollars each to hire an armorer to come out just so we could use the guns as props. We were lucky that we had Paul to make it all possible.
There was a bad experience with an explosion. The first time we attempted to blow up a house, we had a house that was scheduled for demolition, and we went in and made all kinds of safety precautions. We dug a bunker in the ground, we had volunteers out as safety people, and we had to block a highway. The house was chalk-full of explosives, explosives which actually destroy things and fire balls which are not destructive but they look really good. The bombs just didn’t go off. They just didn’t detonate. That was really painful, because it cost us a lot of money that night, and nothing happened… The scariest part of that is that Paul had to actually walk back into the house to disarm everything. It was still loaded with explosives.
The house was due to be demolished. The shots and the effects and everything were ready to go, but the house was due to be demolished the following morning. So we had to blow it up that night if we wanted to get the shot. Once it failed to go off, we couldn’t do anything because the house was gone the next day. Initially, I thought it was going to be a problem to find a house, but there always seemed to be someplace that was getting knocked down.
Generally speaking, you just ring a demolition company and half the time you’re saving them work.
Heidi’s note to self: I’ll bet more people would use house explosions in their films if they knew that.
Usually what you’ll find is that if you’re professional enough and you present yourself as a filmmaker, and say, ”hey, we’re making a movie”, people just respond, they go, “Oh wow! really? What’s it called, when’s it coming out? Oh yeah, I wanna be involved.” That tends to happen. You can sort of put the stars in their eyes a little bit. It works. It works in obtaining all sorts of locations.
I worked and saved for quite a number of years, working shit jobs. I tried to find jobs where I had flexibility, my employers were fortunately very understanding. They’d let me take these trips to come overseas and that sort of thing. And that provided me flexibility, and timeout to do the bits and pieces. Then I quit my job prior to making the film knowing that I could get another job easily after it was finished…During the period when I was making the film I didn’t have any income, so I was just staying at my folks’ place. My family was incredible supportive, it makes a huge difference. That helps a lot when you’ve got support at home because you go through an awful lot of self-doubt doing this. The last thing you need is someone at home telling you you’re wasting you life. You need people who are there, when you doubt yourself, telling you to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That really helps an awful lot. I was living off the film. All my meals were on the set, when I could actually stomach food.
Get the rest of the interview in part four of SHANNON YOUNG’S RAZOR EATING ACT>>>
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