Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Re: Two Left Feet and Getting An Education...

Many of you now know (by following me on Twitter, (@shaun_obanion) that I have become quite close with Evan Sneider, the star of our film and as we head to the Toronto International Film Fest this week, I thought I'd do a blog about Mr. Sneider and my experience with him on the film. Here it goes.

PS: It's a long one.

There were many questions during Prep on GIRLFRIEND. How long would our schedule be? (pretty short by feature film standards). Would there be rehearsals? (yes, but very informal). Would our DP even be available for the first few days of the shoot? (after a difficult negotiation with another production, thankfully, yes). Would anyone from Summit return our calls? (a very emphatic no). What the hell do you do when you lose your First AD three days before a Location Scout that everyone's flying in for? (...get lucky and find a better one, who also happens to be an old friend.)... I mean... there were a lot of questions... though nothing new for an indie film.

For a lot of indies, the biggest question is often: where is the money going to come from? We didn't have that problem. The Anderson's of Wayne/Lauren Film Co., had already secured the full budget, so everyone was basically waiting on Justin and our excellent casting director Brad Gilmore to cast the film, Justin and I to crew the film and for me to create the initial schedule and early budget drafts... but the one thing that was nagging at me was how we were going to pull this thing off. For me, there were a whole different set of questions in addition to the normal ones I'd be asking (and getting asked) on a shoot.

I had never really been around a person with Down Syndrome before, much less had to count on one to convincingly do what we were going to ask him to do, not to mention all of the possible technical issues:

If you've never done any acting, well, it's not as easy as it looks - believe me, I ended up in the film when an actor could no longer accommodate our schedule.

Actors, particularly film actors, have to be aware of so many things. Not only things like motivation and character, but knowing that (for example) we're shooting Scene 25 which is an interior, where the character comes into a room. 25 follows 24 in the script (logically) only, due to the availability of locations, or other shooting necessity, we shot 24 (the Exterior scene where our hero arrives at the building and enters) maybe, three weeks earlier and now we're shooting the room he walks into... so the actor has to approximate what head-space he or she (as the character) was in three weeks ago when we shot the entrance. By the way, I fortunately only had one scene and limited dialogue, so I didn't have to be too concerned.

Things like blocking. Matching... knowing that he picks up the cup of coffee on a specific line so that in the coverage(I) he does it at the same time for every take and every shot. Remembering where to stand at a given moment. When to move, so that the focus puller(II) [ours was Alex Cason, and she is, quite simply, a badass] knows the distance the actor will be from the lens. Then, maybe the other actor moves. He or she takes something down from a shelf. In the other shot, did he use his left hand even though he's right handed so that he wouldn't flag(III) the other actors light?

Take Down Syndrome out of the equation and it's a lot to think about for anyone... now an army of film personnel and actors were going to be dependent on an actor doing his first film in the lead role, not only being aware of these technical things, but of his performance at the same time!

Early on, Justin (the Director) and I had many conversations about this. Justin, it should be stated, never doubted for even a second that Evan could pull it off. Well. If he did, he never let on. He had written the piece with Evan in mind (he'd even named the character after him) and had worked with him before on his excellent short film THE REPLACEMENT CHILD ( )... but, as a Producer, I still had to wonder... would we be able to keep our schedule? Could Evan Sneider actually do all that would be asked of him?

I was about to get an education.

Evan isn't you're typical guy. He's extremely high functioning. In fact, what I came to discover is that Evan, like many people, really likes to break down barriers. He likes to play with people's perception of him, and above all, he's re-defining what you and I might call "special." What actually makes Evan special is his ability to be un-special. Don't get me wrong, he's a very special person... but he has this disarming quality that just makes you deal with him as though he didn't have Down's.

Evan's brilliance is in his ability to overcome his "handicap." Above all, Evan is... just a guy. He's smart. Funny. Sweet. Kind. Curious. Emotional. Whimsical. And sometimes devious. He knows what he wants and he'll do what he needs to do to get it. In other words, he's pretty much just like you, me or anyone you know.

What I had to learn was to get over my bias. To forget whatever I thought I knew about Down's; Forget what I saw in RAIN MAN or some Farrelly Brothers' movie and just come to deal with Evan as a man... which, ultimately, is what he deserves.

Evan's been performing in the theater for years. He has a nearly photographic memory and he is the most feeling individuals I've ever met. He exists on purely emotional terms. He's both Method(IV) and Sense Memory(V) at the same time. He doesn't play the character, he becomes the character. It's really amazing to watch unfold in front of your eyes and believe me, it translates on screen. Evan is, without a doubt, the beating heart of the film.

These are all things I had to figure out. When we started, my own misconceptions about people with Down Syndrome led me to feel "off" when dealing with him... and since I was often the guy who often had to deliver news about changes being made on set, we didn't get along that well in the beginning. In fact, I told his mother at one point that I just didn't know how to communicate with Evan... I told her I felt as though I had "two left feet."

Evan, for his part, never changed. He knows exactly who he is and, unlike myself and most people I know, he never seemed to be wracked with doubt. He displays a high level of confidence, not only in what he's doing, but in the manner in which he does it. Maybe it's from his stage training. He'd often be heard telling Justin, "I know the drill."

As the shoot went on, my friendship with Evan grew and my understanding of him deepened. As that happened, my desire for what the film could or would do out in the world changed. I hoped (and hope) the audiences perception of what Down Syndrome is would change - as Evan had changed my perception. What I learned was that Down Syndrome is really just a term; A way for the rest of us to deal with that missing chromosome. A way to classify something... but that's all. It can only define the affected person if he or she lets it. And Evan refuses to let it define him. It absolutely does not define him. Just like you and anyone else you know, Evan is unique. A true original. To compare him to anyone else who has Down Syndrome would be like telling you that
you are like everyone else... and you aren't, are you?
I soon realized that what I wanted, by the end of the film, was for the audience to see 'Evan Grey,' the character he plays in the film, not as a man who has Down Syndrome, but as a man.

If even one person leaves the theater thinking that way, then I'll be happy. I know it's a tall order, but not out of the realm of possibility. It, of course, doesn't determine the success of the film for me, but it would be a great bonus.

It should also be mentioned that Justin, who cared for and nurtured this film beginning with some notes scribbled on a few scraps of paper a little over a year ago, would never tell you how he wished for the film to be received. Justin Lerner does not make "message" movies. The film is purely subjective. It isn't meant to educate you. It's art. It's storytelling. And I agree. It is. But I still have that wish in my heart - for Evan.

I should also mention that the credit for Evan's choices and abilities cannot be given to Evan alone. His mother has instilled in him a lot of ideas... He was taught that there are no limits to what he can do, and throughout his life, whenever someone placed a wall in their way, she and Evan would simply find a way over or around it.

Here's an example: when the Massachusetts School Board told them that Evan would have to ride the short bus and attend school with other "special needs" kids, they fought... and they won. Evan didn't go to school in classes with other Down's kids. He went to regular classes. Just like everyone else. And why shouldn't he have? As it turns out, that would prove a fortuitous decision... Evan met Justin in High School.

There were a couple more people who brought Evan to this point as an actor... When we were almost ready to shoot, Evan began rehearsing with Amanda Plummer. She came out early to spend time with him and to build a history together. They walked around town. They did their Wardrobe fittings together. The ate together. By the time they got to set, Amanda had really become like a second mother to Evan... and their scenes together are really lovely. Amanda, as many of you know, is an artist in the truest sense of the word. She's a total professional and is just lovely in the film. Justin's handling of the scenes between Evan and Amanda (aided by the stunning photography of Quyen Tran and the skillful editing of Jeff Castelluccio) create some really beautiful moments on screen.

Another ally in Evan's cinematic journey: A fantastic young New York actor named Craig Divino. Divino had also worked carefully with Evan to make sure that he understood all of the emotional beats in the story. He designed breathing exercises and physical movements to loosen Evan up before a scene and had taken time out of pursuing his own career to be present and available on set whenever Evan needed him. Evan also asked a lot of questions. He and Justin had many conversations about his character. He also wanted to understand the other characters in the film. He wanted to know about their choices and how what they did would affect his character.

So, after working with Justin, Craig and Amanda, Evan came to set and was one of the most professional actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with. He was obsessive about referring to the script. He knew it front to back and back to front. He understood where he had been and where he was going. He felt the emotions of a scene.

There was a day on set where he literally had the cast, crew and background in tears. It was a hugely triumphant moment and at the end, everyone broke into applause. He blew us away, time and again. Now, I don't want to completely sugar coat things and say that there were no issues... no tough moments, but by and large, things were very smooth and working with Evan was really, really wonderful. Justin and I had dinner recently with our Casting Director Brad Gilmore and we talked about how we'd like to work with Evan again. That says a lot about the experience. He was, and is, nothing short of extraordinary.

I can't wait for you to see him.


(I) Refers to shooting a scene from a variety of angles and distances so you will have the raw material necessary to edit the scene together into an interesting visual and emotional experience for the audience. Each of the shots, or individual angles, requires a different setup.

(II) In cinematography, a focus puller or first assistant camera (1st AC) is a member of a film crew's camera department who is responsible for keeping the camera properly focused during each shot so that the Camera Operator is able to focus on the Camera movement.

(III) Blocking a light with ones body or using a Grip tool designed to block the light.

(IV) An acting technique introduced by Stanislavsky in which the actor recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed. This allows the actor to experience emotion in the moment, as the character would.

(V) Sense memory is reliving sensations that were experienced through the five senses.


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