Professional actors can often propel your stories to new heights. However, when you’re hunting for authenticity, sometimes you just can’t beat the real thing.
The aim of this article is twofold. First, we’re going to dispel the myth that professional actors are always preferable. In order to do this, we’re going to spotlight two recent films, one short and one feature, that have used non-actors to masterful effect.
Second, we’re going to use excerpts from our interviews with the directors of those two films in order to delve into the process of casting and working with non-actors on set.
Directing non-actors is an entirely different ball game, one where most conventional directing techniques go right out the window. We’ll also talk about the circumstances in which it makes sense to choose non-actors over professionals.
So without any further ado, let’s take a look at two stellar examples of just how powerful non-actors can be.
Bob and the Trees, a feature film that premiered at Sundance in 2015, directed by Diego Ongaro
Bob and the Trees is one of those films that defies all of the conventional wisdom about how to make a film, and is better for it.
For starters, the film was shot on a shoestring budget with a tiny crew in the dead of winter in rural Massachusetts. Trudging through two feet of snow in subzero temperatures was the norm on this particular shoot.
It features two separate cinematographers, Chris Teague and Danny Vecchione, who shot the film in a vérité documentary style on a pair of Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras and old Nikon prime lenses.
And perhaps most importantly, it features a cast made up almost entirely of non-actors. At the center of this cast is Bob Tarasuk, a licensed forester who's been logging in that region for nearly 40 years.
Let’s set the scene for what Bob and the Trees is all about. Here’s the IMDb description:
It is deep winter in rural Massachusetts. Bob, a fifty-something year old logger with a soft spot for golf and gangsta rap struggles to make ends meet in a changed economy. When a beloved cow of his gets wounded and a job goes awry, Bob begins to heed the instincts of his ever darkening self.
Though I’ll have more clips from Bob and the Trees later on in this article, let’s start with the film’s understated trailer, which gives you a great sense of both the style, and how this role is tailor-made for Bob.
Before we get to the next film and the discussions about working with non-actors, I should mention that Bob and the Trees was just released on several VOD channels after touring the festival circuit for the past year.
If you’re in need of an incredible film to watch tonight, look no further than this one. Here are the places where you can either rent or buy Bob and the Trees right now.
Why this story couldn’t be told properly without non-actors
In my interview with Diego Ongaro, director of Bob and the Trees, he talked about the inherent authenticity of casting people as versions of themselves, especially when it comes to roles for blue-collar workers like loggers and farmers.
It was very important to be as authentic as possible. We were telling a story about blue-collar people, farmers and loggers struggling in Western Massachusetts, and had I hired a cast of professional actors, I’d have felt like a fraud. It was essential to have as much veracity as possible so that we wouldn’t have to train an actor on how to log or how to gut a pig.
Diego and I also talked about how the idea for this film developed. In essence, it came after he and his wife moved to Massachusetts and became friends with Bob.
I met Bob shortly after my wife and I moved to a small town in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts. He was kind of a local figure there and owns a beautiful farm up the hill from where I live. We quickly became friends and started spending time together.
Bob has been a licensed forester in the region for more than 35 years. Witnessing his daily life at the farm, the endless struggles, and his work in the woods made me want to write a story with him as the lead character.
After getting to know Bob in his personal life, Diego crafted a short film in 2010 by the same name as the feature. It was essentially a “slice of life” piece about Bob, and it was very well received at the many festivals at which it played.
For the feature film version, Diego knew that he’d need strong counterpoints to Bob, so he turned to Matt Gallagher, Bob’s son-in-law in real life, as well as a host of characters from in and around the town where the film was shot.
Bob was very comfortable having Matt on set and share the screen with him. It relieved some pressure and responsibility of carrying a whole feature film on your shoulders when you are not a professional actor.
Plus, they know each other well and have both done a lot of logging. Matt proved to be extremely natural in front of a camera. The two complimented each other well.
Here’s an excerpt from the film in which Bob and Matt argue over a logging job gone wrong.
How Diego found the rest of the cast for Bob and the Trees
For finding the remainder of the cast, Diego and his team took a multi-pronged approach, where they would both write roles for specific people they knew, as well as find local people who matched roles they’d already written.
For the rest of the cast, we initially wrote some of the roles for specific people we knew (like Winthrop Barrett, Bob’s competitor in the film).
We also tried to find local people who would be a good match for the characters we wrote. Then we would do informal tryouts and rehearsals of specific scenes that I would film with my phone. This way I could see if they were able to be natural and forget about the presence of the camera. This is something you see very quickly. We also asked a real doctor to play the doctor for example. I made sure each character knew what they were talking about.
There is one professional actor in the cast. It is Bob’s wife character, played by Polly McIntyre. She was very comfortable with improvised dialogue scenes and was able to adapt herself to all kind of unpredictable situations.
Here’s one more quick scene from Bob and the Trees:
Diego's process for directing non-actors
During my interview with Diego, I also asked him about his process for directing non-actors, since it can be quite a bit different than directing actors that are professionally trained.
Working with non-actors is very interesting. There isn’t a model for it, so you have to adapt to the different personalities and test the waters to see how far each could go with a specific direction.
Ideally you should stick to who the person is in real life. The rehearsals were good for that. We’ve tried to create a story fueled by real life rather than plot, where fiction can cohabit, and actually be strengthened by reality.
I was excited to put people in a situation and see how they handle it using their own words and actions. I chose people for who they were first — trying to find people whose personality is close to the character they’re going to incarnate, people whose real life experiences will enhance their performance.
Diego also told me about one of the techniques that he used to make sure that Bob was comfortable and confident in his ability to perform in certain tough scenes.
I remember I did something that most people tell you not to do when you make a film: show some takes to your non-actor. People fear it’s going to make them self-conscious (which it definitely can).
It was the opposite for me with Bob. When we shot the short film, Bob was very nervous about his ability to deliver things right on camera; he felt like he wasn’t good and was self deprecating himself.
So in order to make him feel more confident, I showed him some good takes and told him: “look how good you were, you can do it”. And he was like, “Ok, so you just want me to be me… I think I can do that!”
When asked what advice he’d give to beginning directors, here’s what Diego told me:
Most of all, be flexible yourself. You can’t be sitting in your director’s chair directing people all high and mighty. It won’t work like that. You’ll have to really listen, adapt and change things if they don’t work one way. It is also true with professional actors but even more so when you have non-actors and are on a tight budget.
Now on to Clayfist, a short film that makes tremendous use of non-actors.
Clayfist, a timely and momentous short film, directed by Skyler Lawson
Clayfist is one of those rare short films that leaves me speechless every time that I watch it.
It tackles extremely difficult subject matter — broken father and son relationships, the abandonment of veterans, and racial tensions in contemporary America — in a way that’s both brutally honest and incredibly heartbreaking.
Though the film’s director, Skyler Lawson, originally sought to cast professional actors, he quickly realized that his minuscule budget (which came out of his own pocket) wouldn’t allow him the ability to cast the caliber of actor that he’d need for these emotionally-challenging roles.
Instead, he went with a real-life father and son — Matthew and David Officer — for the two leads. And the results were beyond his expectations.
Here’s Clayfist in its entirety:
Why casting non-actors turned out to be a blessing in disguise
After troubles with casting traditional actors, the recommendation to use Matthew Officer (who plays Xavier in the film) came from cinematographer Kassim Norris.
Before ever talking about the prospect of Matthew acting in the film, Skyler and him talked not only about about the story and the various levels of subtext, but also deeper topics that built a foundation of trust between the two.
We talked about each other's backgrounds and our influences. We talked about the content of the script and the real life issues it touched on. He recognized my passion for telling an honest story. Although it was brutal, he was willing to throw himself out there. He believed in the content, but what that first conversation did was give him faith in me.
As a director you have give your collaborators a reason to follow you into the abyss. Finding that common ground right up front is essential. We grew up in vastly different cultures, but we had that mutual respect.
Out of that mutual respect came Matthew’s recommendation to use his own father, David Officer, as his counterpart in the film. As Skyler explains in the interview, that real-life father/son pairing turned out to be serendipitous.
Having Matt and his real father in the scenes together was dream come true. You can feel their relationship, the years that preceded the moment I called action.
The look in their eyes when they see each other is not manufactured. They have a lifetime of history with each other. The camera can feel that, I think.
How to direct non-actors in emotionally-challenging roles
Skyler and I also talked about his approach to directing non-actors, especially considering how emotionally-challenging and deeply nuanced these roles were, even for professionals.
I was asking a lot of these non-actors, performance wise, but once again the low budget led to a deeper collaboration. I asked them to bring their own struggles and beliefs to the forefront. We talked a lot about what I was going for and where I was coming from when I wrote it, but more so we talked about their life experience and how we could adapt it.
I wanted to give them the freedom to deviate from the script. As a director I want to discover the truth of the moment when we are rolling, I don't want to manufacture it. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, and it probably stems back to the writing.
You have to be brutally honest with yourself as a director on set. When you all discover the scene together it is a good feeling. I try not to get in the way when things are clicking. Only small corrections when an actor truly believes in what he is doing.
In the end, finding people that truly relate to the content can result in amazing performances. You just have to be open to the collaborative process and let them breath life into the characters you wrote.
How the non-actors pushed Skyler to edit the film more thoughtfully
I also want to add that having a real father and son in the story raised the stakes for me when it came down to editing the piece. I had this immense responsibility to deliver something that they would be proud of, something they could show sons and grandsons.
I wanted them to have a memento of that moment when the two got to be in a film together for the first and possibly the last time. It was a true motivator and a true honor that they let me be a part of their lives in such an intimate way.
So there you have it, two incredible examples of films that have used non-actors masterfully, as well as insights from the directors themselves.
In a future article, I’m going to break down very specific techniques and processes for working with non-actors, but for now, I hope you’re inspired and thinking deeply about how you can work with non-actors in your future projects.
Until the next time.
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