I've done a post about the experience of working with Evan Sneider, so I thought I might write a bit about working with the other members of the cast of GIRLFRIEND.
When I first came on board the project, I was told that one actor was already attached... that actor was Jackson Rathbone. At the time, to be honest, the name didn't mean much to me. I hadn't seen TWILIGHT, nor any of his other work for that matter. I went out that night to rent the first film in the saga.
It didn't change my perception of him. In fact, it didn't do much for me at all, really... but then, I'm not the core audience for the film. What I knew of him after watching the film was that he was (possibly) a good looking guy. I say possibly because you can't really get a sense of him either physically or otherwise by watching the first TWILIGHT film. He comes off as a new-age Johnny Depp. A vampire Edward Scissorhands with frosted tips... still, you'd be crazy not to acknowledge that he has charisma. With maybe only two lines in the first film, I was still intrigued. Anyway, it wouldn't much matter what I thought either way. He was going to be in the film. I just hoped he could actually act. Like with Evan, I was in for a surprise.
Early on in the process, Jackson came in to Brad Gilmore's L.A. office for *chemistry reads with a variety of actresses. It was during this process that all of my concerns related to Jackson playing "Russ" were put to rest. In the room, he was magnetic. His "Russ" was a man to be feared. He wa tortured. Dangerous. Crushed under the weight of a reality he may not want to acknowledge. In short, he was fantastic. This was only the beginning though. We would have a great many hurdles to jump through together - not the least of which was his schedule with the third TWILIGHT... which was already threatening to wreak havoc with my initial schedule for our film. Not to mention the budget.
For weeks, I tried to negotiate with the powers that be at Summit and for weeks, they held us off. They tried to tell me they had no schedule only weeks out from their start date (yeah, sure). I even generated inside sources in their office in Vancouver - hoping that I might get enough info to lock in our schedule. On our end, we were fighting several other issues. Weather in Massachusetts was going to be a huge factor. We had to shoot at a certain time to maximize the beauty of the changing season's, something which was very important to Justin, and we also had to begin at a certain time to create a window of time with which we'd be able to have the amazing Amanda Plummer in our film.
Fortunately, we had Jackson on our side. Jackson, when he signed on, had indicated that he was very interested in the behind-the-camera aspects of film-making as well. He wanted to come on as a co-producer, which meant that I'd have an ally when it came to scheduling him around his vampire adventures... in the end though, the only way to make our film work for him, was to bridge our shoot across weekends. He'd shoot all day Friday in Vancouver, then hop a red-eye to Boston, which would put him into Logan Airport around 8am. He'd brave morning traffic in the back seat of a Production Assistant's car, change into his wardrobe on the way, arrive at set to literally jump in front of camera (thanks to our crack AD staff who had the days scheduled down to the minute and really saved us several times during the shoot) and that'd be it. By Sunday evening, he'd be back on a plane and headed back to the wardrobe of "Jasper."
In short, he didn't sleep for about three weeks. His commitment to the shoot, the character and the crew literally changed the polarity of the set. When Rathbone showed up for the first "Rathbone Day" as Evan called it, everyone suddenly came alive again. We had spent several weeks with only Shannon and Evan, and to see Jackson and Shannon perform together and, in fact, Evan and Jackson... well. The movie really came together on those days.
I mentioned Amanda Plummer above. This is a woman who, above all, loves the craft of acting. When she's "in it," she is totally invested. Each take brings with it a totally organic quality.
I remember one take that was so great that it transcended what Justin had written. It just became something else. It became a living thing in Amanda and Evan's capable hands. Once we had cut, Justin ran over to Amanda and said, "That was brilliant! Can you do another one just like that?" Amanda surprised Justin and the crew when she gave her answer. "No," she said. "I can give you something else, but not that because I don't know what I did." In other words, she wasn't Amanda the actress playing the scene... like Evan, who's genius is that for him, there was no divide between "Evan Grey" and Evan Sneider during the scenes, Amanda ceased being Amanda in front of the camera. She was "Celeste." She went to great lengths to ensure that the transformation would envelope Evan as well - she even came out to Massachusetts early to spend time with Evan on her own. Doing this ensured that they didn't seem like they were "playing" mother and son, but that they had spent time off camera building a relationship for real. When the camera rolled, it wasn't capturing performance, it was capturing natural behavior... and it was beautiful.
Next, I come to Shannon Woodward. Again, being honest, she wasn't what I had pictured in the role. When she came in to read, she projected a natural strength I felt was wrong for the part. But when the scene began, it melted away. She became troubled. Weak and laid bare by the turn of events in her life. A desperate young girl forced to be an adult for the sake of her child. In other words, she became our "Candy." It's one of those Hollywood cliche's, right? An actor comes in and isn't at all what you thought you wanted... but they simply cannot be denied. He or she just becomes the only person for the role. Sometimes you even try to fight it. You say to yourself, "No. Let's keep looking," but in your mind, you keep coming back to them. Sometimes, it keeps you up at night. In the end though, there's no denying it. The part dictates what it needs just as in editorial, the film begins to tell you what should stay and what should go. It happened to us on DAKOTA SKYE, and it happened again here.
Shannon is a fantastic actress, and her work with Evan was really extraordinary to watch on set - sometimes, subtly directing Evan or providing cues from within a scene to help get him to a certain place or past a block. In many ways, Shannon's work was key to Justin and Craig Divino's work with Evan. Shannon and Evan are in virtually every scene of the film together and the tenderness, confusion and realization she brings to their scenes together are the perfect counter-point to her scenes with Jackson. Where Shannon and Jackson have this feeling of two caged animals trying to determine what to make of each other, Shannon and Evan give the feeling of two people who have come to depend on each others love - even if they can't understand how or why. By the way: Shannon has a new show on called RAISING HOPE that is supposed to be hilarious, and as of right now, you can check out the pilot for the series for free on iTunes, so go check it out!
There are bunch of other actors in the film who turn in wonderful and varied performances and who, many of them having little or no acting experience before, are stand-outs. Seth Chatfield, Dan Turnbull, Joe Turnbull, Darren MacDonald, Harrison Lees, Carole Helman and of course young Nate Krawshuk all leave strong impressions in the world of the film. They are each a testament to Justin's ability to work with non-professionals and to create and craft strong and memorable characters.
For those of you who had a chance to see the film in Toronto, I'm sure you'd agree. This film doesn't work if you don't care about the people in it. From the smallest part to the biggest, they need to make you feel something. They are your connection as the audience and your eyes into the world. If you don't get "Candy" and her decisions, or why "Evan" feels the way he does for her... or why "Russ" seems so completely crushed by the things he's seen or the scenarios he suspects, it all falls apart.
Post Toronto, the general consensus seems to be that the film is strong. In fact, only yesterday, we announced that we have been picked up for distribution by indie label Hannover House, to whom we are all so thankful for recognizing the potential in the film.
If the film works at all, it is all down to collaboration - to the cast and crew and to Justin's vision... I cannot wait until you can see the film for yourself.
(Toronto Blog coming soon!)
*Chemistry Reads: This is the process in which actors are paired together in the audition process to see if they have chemistry on screen.