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A Film Director Explains how to Get Spontaneous Performances from Actors

September 28, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

The most important thing I look for in films is performances,” says photographer/director Alejandro Ibarra, whose new short feature, Safe & Sound, was shown at Cannes and other film festivals in the past year. It’s the third short film he has written and directed. During preproduction, he decided to try an unusual rehearsal technique to help his actors improvise and create moments that felt real and true to their characters. He also asked director of photography Mich Castro to light the interior sets in a way that allowed the actors to move without worrying about having to hit their marks, and without having to pause the action to adjust lights for close-ups. “I don’t need a perfect, glamorous, super flattering back light,” Ibarra says. “What I need are truthful moments.”

“He’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with,” Castro says. “I thought it would be chaotic or uncontrolled, but it was the opposite. He was so clear about what he wanted.”

As he did on his other two films, Ibarra took inspiration for his film script from an incident in his own life. In Safe & Sound, a young man named Sam and his boyfriend invite Sam’s mother, sister and brother-in-law over for dinner to tell them big news. The family thinks Sam and his boyfriend are getting married. But Sam drops a different bombshell: He has cancer. The mood of the film shifts between comic and serious as the characters joke, argue, worry, tease and console.

“Everything that I do, whether it’s stills or film work, is rooted in personal experience and inner struggles,” he says. “I don’t personally think I’m that creative. I could never write something like The Matrix.”

© Sam Zhang

Director Alejandro Ibarra with director of photography Mich Castro (left) and actors Eddie Gutierrez and Michael Gmur. © Sam Zhang

Raised in San Diego and Mexico, he started taking photos as a teenager: His brother died, and the family had no good portraits to show at the funeral. He made his first short film—shooting with a single camera in locations he found himself—about coping with grief. After he posted the short on YouTube in 2014, the grateful comments he received from grief-stricken people convinced him to try filmmaking. He enrolled at The New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. As a student, he used crowd-funding to raise funds for Cope, a short film about a young man coping with a relative’s illness; at the time, Ibarra’s mother was recovering from cancer. He later earned his MFA in photography at the school. Ibarra shoots portraits for editorial and music clients, and works as a still photographer on film productions. This year, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post published Ibarra’s “Coming Out Stories,” his series of portraits of gay individuals with recorded narratives about when they came out.

Through his film and photographic assignments, Ibarra has gained an understanding of production, including how to hire and manage a crew, and how to scout locations. Working with a small budget on Safe & Sound, he chose to keep the cast small and confine the action to just three rooms in one location. “In the short film format, it can be very powerful to keep things more constricted,” Ibarra notes. He did, however, put money into hiring a casting director who could draw on “a wider network of people” to find the right actors.

To play the part of Sam, “a fictionalized version of me,” Ibarra says, he cast actor Eddie Gutierrez. Ibarra says of Gutierrez, “He was naturally similar to me—super charming. Just kidding.” Before he chose the cast, he had the auditioning actors do “chemistry readings” to see how they interacted with each other and make sure they could portray a believable family.

Once the actors were chosen, he gave them details about their characters’ back stories—“so they were familiar with their childhood, their biggest fears, what they wanted to be as a kid, so it felt like a richer character.” To create a family feeling among the cast, Ibarra took an unusual step: “I didn’t rehearse a single scene.”

Instead, he invited the cast over for dinner, and asked them to stay in character throughout the evening. “I cooked, which was a terrible idea,” says Ibarra, who participated in the dinner by pretending to be a cousin. “We improvised moments that happened before the film.” For example, in Safe & Sound, Sam’s sister is pregnant. During the pre-shoot dinner, the actress told the cast that she was pregnant, and then they discussed possible names for the baby. Ibarra says of the improvisation, “It really helped them make a stronger bond. When we got to the set, all that was part of their history.” The dinner also helped the actors understand their characters, and kept their performances fresh once shooting began. “If you rehearse only the scene you’ll shoot, that’s all the actors know. It can feel too rehearsed,” he explains.

© Alejandro Ibarra

Milo and Gutierrez in a still. © Alejandro Ibarra

Ibarra is from Mexico, Gutierrez is from Cuba, and the actors who play his mother, sister and brother-in-law are also Latino. “We all understood this mother character that most Latinos know. She’s a single mom like mine, who had to be tough and strong because she was raising her kids by herself.” During the dinner, he says, “There were things improvised that didn’t make it into the film. Like when the main character says, ‘It’s cancer,’ then explains, ‘It’s skin cancer,’ the brother-in-law said, ‘Just put some Vicks on it.’ We all started laughing. Things like that come from the culture we all understood.”

Ibarra had met Castro, his DP, while working on the set of another film. He showed Castro the script for Safe & Sound, and asked him if he could tackle the technical requirements. “I wanted it to be lit 360—almost like a play—so that the actors had the freedom to move around if they wanted to,” Ibarra explains. He also did not want to say “cut” often, taking actors out of the moment. Not many DPs would work that way, he says, “They want to have perfect lighting and perfect angles for their reel.”

Castro lit the scenes, which took place at night in a living room and bedroom, with ARRI 650s and a small fresnel that he diffused with silks and placed above the practicals—the table lamps already in place. “Then we’d dial down the practicals so they weren’t overwhelming,” he notes. He also placed a Kino Flo 750 outside to suggest moonlight visible through the windows. The effect added some contrast and shadow inside, but also warmth. “The film is a comedy and a drama, so we didn’t want to go too comedic on the style. It has some dark moments.”

Castro and a second camera operator used RED Epic cameras, which work well in low light. Ibarra “didn’t want a really static scene where there is a lot of talking heads,” Castro says. He mounted the REDs on Steadicams to follow the actors. With one camera, he would record lines, while the second camera would record another actor’s reaction.

Rather than sitting by the monitor, Ibarra stayed by the cameras, to whisper suggestions on when to move in close or what action to follow. Not wanting to say “cut,” he would let a scene play out, then say “reset.” As the cameras moved back into position, he would first give the actors suggestions or praise before he spoke to the crew.

He also gave the actors suggestions for lines they could cut or change, or asked them to improvise new dialogue as needed. When the guests arrive at the door, they all talk over each other—as people do in real life.

Ibarra says he cared less about the dialogue he wrote than about advancing the story he wanted to tell. “The script is just a blueprint to figure out budget, locations, characters. It’s more important to be truthful to the moment. The actors may have great ideas and you need to put your ego aside and to listen. They’re in the moment with you.”

He observed the number one rule for directing actors: “The worst directing you can do is to say ‘Be an emotion’: be happy for this or sad for this.” Instead, he says, “Action verbs are good. If I say ‘Seduce her with this line,’ rather than ‘Be sexy with this line.’ Or, ‘Inform him’ or ‘Attack him with this line,’ there are different ways to play that.”

Ibarra and his producer have submitted Safe & Sound to more film festivals. He has written a full-length feature based on the story that inspired Safe & Sound, and he hopes to use the short to attract funding for his feature. “I wrote it before I made the short,” he explains. “I felt like I needed to show people what it would feel like and look like so they were more comfortable giving me money.”

In the meantime, some of his still photography clients are asking him to shoot video and he’s sometimes asked to work on music videos, but he’s reluctant. “I’m so comfortable in my still photography world and I’m comfortable in narrative film.” For now, his goal for his filmmaking is to work on narratives “that I relate to,” he says, “though I definitely prefer to write the stories I direct.”

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