Wisdom is a bewitching thing. In the entertainment industry it tends to come in blips overtime with multitudes of experience or expensive training programs. Most of the time you find yourself drowining in a excess of your own thoughts. Luckily, John Swanbeck is around to provide an easier route for aspiring artists.
The veteran Director (The Big Kahuna), Producer (owner of BlueSwanFilms) and Writer (to name a few of the impressive hats he dawns) has universally shared access into his mind with his trilogy of useful ebooks for Actors and Directors. The first of which, “John Swanbeck's How To Steal The Scene & End Up Playing The Lead”, is available on Amazon & iTunes now. He also generously tweets invaluable nuggets of advice daily on his buzzing Twitter account - @CleverActorTips.
Hone Your Craft sat down with Mr. Swanbeck to discuss his books, unorthodox career path, working with Kevin Spacey and the best pieces of advice for aspiring performers...
RP: How did you get your start in the industry?/ What was your first “gig”?
JS: I got my start in the industry by helping actor friends run lines, which led to them hiring me to coach them in stage and film roles, which sometimes led to directing a project when the project was “actor driven”, which is why I was asked to direct The Big Kahuna. It was while I was in editing for The Big Kahuna that I had this vision, if you will, for an online based production company. It was at the dawn of digital filmmaking and no one knew where any of it was leading but we all knew it was going to change everything. I knew that meant primarily creating one’s own content, and that meant writing, and it meant a particular kind of writing tailored to what the digital age would bring. So after The Big Kahuna I went about teaching myself how to write while at the same time putting into place the machinery of a company that’s now becoming BlueSwanFilms.
RP: Did you always want to be a director?
JS: Honestly, what I always wanted was to be uniquely talented at something or be able to do something in a way no one else could. Directing actors, working with actors, and now writing as a way to empower actors and filmmakers turned out to be that something. Lucky for me. That’s why half of what BlueSwanFilms does is devoted to empowering actors and filmmakers. It’s the ebooks, the CleverActorTips, the workshops, the speaking engagements, and starting in 2016 the BlueSwanFilms YouTube channel where we’ll produce such things as CleverActorClips. The other half of BlueSwanFilms is devoted to The Character Factory where we start by creating a character first and then developing projects for that character.
RP: I have to ask you about the film you directed, The Big Kahuna. You worked with the likes of Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli and more wonderful talent. What did you learn from that experience?
JS: That biggest thing I learned came to me on the first day of shooting. From the day we were given the go ahead to make the movie, which by the way was only three weeks before we began shooting (yes, we only had three weeks of pre-production before the cameras were rolling), I knew that my biggest challenge was the fact that, no matter how good Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Peter Facinelli were, or how interesting the material was, it was three guys in a room talking. We were always going to be in danger of losing the audience. My number one priority was to keep that from happening. My creative strategy for doing so was to create different stories happening to the characters that were under the dialogue or behind the dialogue but happening at the same time. Not subtext of lines but entire and separate emotional stories running concurrently with the story on the page. It’s as if we were making three or four different movies at the same time. What that allowed me to do was use the actors’ faces as my landscapes and make the movie’s special effects the conflicting emotions in their eyes. So on the first day of shooting I knew I not only needed to learn very fast how to use the film camera to create cinematic performances, I was going to have to come up with some pretty unorthodox techniques for directing actors that would allow me to create the effect of multiple emotional universes, as it were, coexisting at the same time.
RP: Why do you love actors?
They feel like family. I feel, in one way or another, as if I grew up directing them. They’ve been the only constant in my life other than my real family and, just like real family, they sometimes make me crazy but they always bring out the best in me.
RP: What do you believe is the biggest change a stage actor has to make to adapt their performance for the camera?
JS: I hear actors talk as if the two are related and that it’s a matter of not being as big or not being as loud but that just reveals the actor doesn’t understand the creative power of the frame. The frame has enormous creative power. Actors who don’t know how to use the creative power of the frame generally fall through the cracks, or they end up in the background or in smaller roles if they are cast. Years go by and they wonder why they’re still playing small roles. Actors who do know how to use the creative power of the frame end up playing bigger roles and having more measurably successful careers.
Here are a few "CleverActorTips" that not only will help actors make the technical transition to film more easily but will give them an idea of how to use the frame. I write and publish "CleverActorTips" almost daily on social media.
CleverActorTip#16: “Slightly moving in slow motion while talking at a normal speed instantly makes an actor cinematic on camera.”
CleverActorTips#22: ”The camera's not interested in many different moments. It's interested in many facets of the same moment.”
CleverActorTip#29: “The louder the emotion, the softer you speak your lines.”
CleverActorTip#33: “What’s going on in your head is more important than what’s coming out of your mouth.”
CleverActorTip#45: “The conflict that interests the camera is the conflict you have with yourself.”
RP: What do you see is the biggest problem actors make when stepping onto set?
JS: Thinking like an "acting class actor" and not like a "film actor". The two aren't the same. Without cinematic thinking and techniques what actors learn in most acting classes usually comes across as boring, forced or over-the-top on camera. Word of advice, experienced directors don't hire actors who look like acting class actors in auditions, and we don't hire them with the idea of directing them to be film actors. That's not directing. That's teaching. If there are any actor-directors reading this they should ask themselves this question. When they’re hiring a cinematographer do they hire someone they have to teach how to light a shot or how to move a camera, or do they hire someone who already knows so that they can have fun making a film with that person? We hire actors who think like filmmakers just like we hire cinematographers who think like filmmakers, and sound recordists who think like filmmakers, and so on.
RP: Understandably, actors tend to get passionate about their characters, sometimes making them clash against a director's vision. You've spoken a bit about this on your blog, but can you weigh in on if an actor should fight for their character or simply agree with the director?
JS: It depends who I’m directing. If I’m directing a movie star (whose name is the reason my movie is being financed) and that movie star has a different vision of the character than I do, well then I probably have to accommodate that movie star’s vision of the character. That’s exactly what happened with Kevin Spacey on The Big Kahuna. We had very different visions of his character and absolutely no time to explore the two options as a director and actor might ordinarily do. Kevin had spent years making movies while I had been making them for less than a week. My job, in that case, was to creatively adjust to his vision of the character while making sure it still worked within the film I saw and heard in my head. That’s just being professional. Now if I’m a good director I can have a strong vision and lead everyone to the realization of that vision but I’m also quick on my feet and creatively flexible enough to take the unexpected and use it to my advantage just as easily as I can take an unexpected rain storm on a day when we’re scheduled to shoot a happy picnic scene under a sunny sky and turn it into two reluctant lovers scrambling to get out of the rain and ending up huddled together under a tree.
By the way, Kevin was right. I didn’t see it until we were watching the movie at it’s premiere in Toronto. His version of the character was more timeless than mine would have been. Lucky for us too because the movie has ended up being timeless in a way. It has a passionate following that only grows bigger every year. One other thing about Kevin. Early in filming he came to me and said that watching dailies he realized Danny DeVito’s performance was going to be the emotional anchor of the movie and that we better make sure we deliver something good enough for it to anchor. Other than his character, with everything else during production and post production, Kevin entirely trusted me to make the movie the way I wanted to make it. Kevin produces by inspiring.
RP: Filming is generally a long process. How do you elicit great performances from actors when they're speaking to a person that's off camera, when there's no one there?
JS: Actually it’s easier than eliciting a great film performance from an actor when he or she is acting in a scene with another person who is there. Filmmaking isn’t as much about capturing a scene between two people as it is capturing what else each character is going through while they’re engaged in dialogue with other characters. The camera’s always more interested in each character’s personal story. Once everyone understands this then it’s not only easier it can be a lot more fun.
Click the image for more on John's Ebook.
RP: Your book ("JOHN SWANBECK’S: HOW TO STEAL THE SCENE & END UP PLAYING THE LEAD") is certainly filled with wonderful tips for actors. What was your purpose in writing it?
JS: I wanted to take some of the directing techniques that I used on The Big Kahuna and others that I’ve developed since then and put them in the hands of actors and directors everywhere. Not only that, I wanted actors and filmmakers to be able to quickly access the techniques in the ebook and be able to apply them right there on set or in an audition. It’s not a book you read, it’s a book you use. It’s a playbook of 25 quick and easy cinematic techniques for creating cinematic power in any filming and audition situation. I also wanted it to be user friendly so its formatting adjusts to whichever device you're using at the time so there’s no enlarging of any text or anything like that. It’s available on Amazon and iTunes for digital download to any mobile device or laptop and you can use it on multiple devices. As I like to say, it’s like having John Swanbeck in your back pocket. Plus it’s only 25 pages so you can read it during the commercials while binge-watching your favorite TV show.
RP: What would you say is you #1 tip?
JS: Buy the ebook.
RP: Sounds like the way to go! Any upcoming projects you'd like to share?
JS: I’m writing my next ebook which is titled “How To Direct Actors Like A Pro & Look Like A Genius Doing It”. I plan to publish that one sometime in the fall of 2016. And at BlueSwanFilms we’re developing projects for what will become the flagship character of The Character Factory. Those projects will include of a children’s book series, the first of which I’m also writing now, a mobile game, and a PSA series, all developed around the one character.
RP: What’s your most valuable piece of advice for actor's looking to break into the industry?
JS: Start creating your own content and never stop. That and go to BlueSwanFilms.com and get on the email list. I send out an email once each month with the best of my CleverActorTips, a link to my latest Backstage column, free samples from my ebooks, and starting in 2016 the only place you’ll be able to get CleverActorClips.
For more on John visit blueswanfilms.com and follow him on Twitter @CleverActorTips.
John Swanbeck is an author, columnist, speaker, creator and publisher of CleverActorTips, Chief Creative Officer of BlueSwanFilms, and Producing Director of The Character Factory. He is a renowned director and teacher of actors, directed the existential comedy The Big Kahuna, starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, and currently packaging some of his best directing techniques into a trilogy of ebooks for actors and directors. The first in the trilogy, “How To Steal The Scene & End Up Playing The Lead”, is available on Amazon & iTunes. The second ebook in the trilogy will be out in the fall of 2016 and is titled “How To Direct Actors Like A Pro & Look Like A Genius Doing It.” The third, titled “How To Think Like The Camera”, is planned for publication in 2018. John is the creator and writer of the comic strip “The Daily Life Of Pants” and is currently writing a children’s book series for BlueSwanFilms’ The Character Factory.