Monday, November 29, 2010

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving. And Thankfulness, and friends

When you live this Nomadic Life, it happens now and then: you vanish.

Everyone in your life --at least everyone who thinks to wonder about it-- assumes that you're somewhere other than where you actually are. At that moment you could be anywhere, or nowhere at all. The wind of life has calmed and you are, for the moment, adrift: your course, for better or worse, is yours alone.

Where I am is Del Mar, a sleepy surf town turned chi-chi beach community north of San Diego (and home, over the years, to various Kelleys). I'd come down for the holiday and realized, once here, that I wasn't really needed in LA until noon on Monday. We've got a spare house on the hill (long story), and, after saying my familial good-byes, rather than heading back up the coast I chose to stay.

But something's not quite right, and it takes me a minute to place it: I'm walking funny. I'm moving fast, hands dug into packets, tilting against a sharp wind. It's a New Englander's walk, this, and its strange dislocation brings a thought I've not thought in years: it's a "cliffe-y" day. The phrase arrives as a memory; it brings a smile and warms me in that way that only nostalgia can. It's from years ago, learned from a grad school chum back in Boston who'd done his undergrad at Harvard, and the "cliffe" is meant to reference Radcliffe girls. Like Radcliffe girls, you see, a "cliffe-y" day is Bright But Cold. Ahem.

One so seldom gets these days in Southern California. The vivid blue sky, the ocean a foreboding slate grey, flecked with whitecaps hair-tussled by the wind. It strikes me that the day and I are both out of place: we're Here, yes, but we're a better fit Back There. The thought brings a vague ache, which I trace back, as I so often do, to family. After all, it's Thanksgiving, and the iconography of the holiday has always run deep in me: the fire, warming against a shortening day, the day-long aroma of the great meal-- and, of course, family, gathered close.

One of the wonderful advantages of family --one's actual, flesh-and-blood relatives--- is the ability of such relationships to endure a certain amount of what can best be understood as a kind of laziness: you love 'em, you don't; you're speaking to each other, you're not; no matter. They're still family and nothing will change that. And while we should nurture those relationships, well... even if we neglect them, come Thanksgiving, there's still a seat at a table, somewhere.

But as one ages, one wants to create one's own table. (It's what your parents did, after all.) And if you live a life like mine you may not have yet succeeded in doing so. And if you haven't, you learn something else: the incredible generosity of a seat at a table, any table, that is set aside for you by friends. And when a seat at the table of friendship is be the only seat available, one's friendships grow valuable indeed.

Because unlike family, friendship is always a choice. And like any relationship of choice, if left untended, it will simply fade. And that's a pity, but it seems epidemic of late. It has become so easy to simply not return the call, to blow off the party-- but as we do, bit by bit those wonderful friendships fade.

This is what I'm thinking about as I drive along the coast later: my friends. Who have so often, over the years, become a fill-in family when I needed one most.

If you know me, you know I've got a love-hate relationship to all that San Diego represents (when I lived here, I was a small, pale, druggie kid who didn't tan or surf well, a decidedly bad combination in the Land of the Beautiful). But this stretch of of the PCH, from Torrey Pines Park through San Diego's coastal north, late in the afternoon when the sun is low, grows only more beautiful to me over time.

I'm headed to the E Street Cafe, a little coffeehouse in Encinitas that's retained the raggedy, surf-town vibe that most places in Fashionable North County have lost: hippie kids, elderly couples, and a few leathered, weathered Lost Causes that one sees in beach communities. On the drive up, I wasn't really sure why I came, but once I walk inside the place I know: I've got something to write.

There's a singer, see, a portly fellow best described as a San Diego Cowboy --a kind of Wilfred-Brimley-by-way-of-David-Crosby, if that makes sense-- and as I walk in, he's singing a Beatles tune: "With a Little Help From My Friends."

I do not think this coincidence. I am certain it is evidence of God. But to talk of God at a moment like this, it's best to talk first of Gratitude, and Thankfulness, especially as we're at the tail end of a holiday meant to honor the giving of thanks.

Gratitude seems to have come into vogue lately. A good thing, to be sure, but in so doing it is often confused with thankfulness, which may not be quite the same thing. I've always understood thankfulness as an inter-human notion: I am thankful that you gave me a ride, or that you called me when I was feeling down. Gratitude is a deeper, less concrete notion; it has at its core, I think, an appreciation for What Is, for life itself as much as one's things in it, and requires an accompanying acknowledgement of one's incredible fortune to be a part of All That Is. As such, I think it's impossible to contemplate Gratitude without some acceptance of a Higher Power. Here's why:

It could be argued that it's simply a matter of coincidence that I find sunsets beautiful. After all, it's only a sunset, nothing more than a refracting of light as the sun dips below the horizon-- it would occur without humanity to bear witness to it. I could be indifferent to it, I could be made nauseous at the sight of it. Instead, it brings me a kind of quiet joy. You too, I'm guessing.

A fortunate coincidence? That we just happen to exist on a planet that happens to have this phenomenon that we happen to find beautiful? Perhaps... but. That feels to me wrong. In some way that I cannot articulate, it makes sense that the setting sun would please us. It feels right when I contemplate it; "righter" still when I experience it.

I'd respectfully submit that the "right-feeling" is the presence of God inside me. And I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful for the day that I've been given, for the God that produced it.

So. Thankfulness and Gratitude. And friends.

For all my wonderful friends, who are so crazy and baffling and loyal and wonderful that I may not even deserve them, I am thankful. More, I fear, than they know. And to God (or The Universe, if that helps), I am Grateful for the ability to care so deeply and appreciate my friends so very much. It is something that does not get said enough, I think.

It's dark out now. The cold snap that has settled over Southern California remains. Or maybe it's me-- maybe it's simply that my blood has finally grown thin. Either way, I'm already bracing for the quick walk to the car. But tonight, even in the chilly dark, I think I'll leave the top down.

Speaking of thankfulness: thanks for reading.

Del Mar, CA
November, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Acting 101: A tale of Two Entrances

People sometimes ask what, exactly, I do on set. By way of an answer, here's a story - and a little Acting 101 brush-up. Which everyone needs, sometimes.

DAY ONE of a new episode is always interesting. Everyone's shaking off the cobwebs of the previous episode (which we were working on 12 hours earlier), everyone's getting warmed into an entirely new story. As a result, we're often on the soundstage (the "Operations Center") on Day 1-- it's a controlled location, crews know their way around the space, and things can move quickly.

This new episode is bookended by two scenes between Callen, our lead, and Hetty, the wizened "boss" of the investigators. More, they're set in the same location, and the staging is almost identical in each. Since they're both relatively simple "gets" involving only two characters, we'll start day one with these two scenes.

But here's the thing: due to a number of logistical considerations, they'll be shot in reverse order. And since the story in the script covers a single day, that means that Callen's first entrance (a shot that will go off at 7:30AM, give or take) is meant to be at the tail end of a long, wearying day that ends the episode; as soon as that scene's done, we'll shoot the very first shot of the story, when none of the day's violent events will have yet occurred.

Same actor, same entrance, completely different emotional moments. Two hours apart. Think it's easy? Try it.

So we start with the wide. All looks good, except Callen is not quite entering with that heavy, "end-of-a-long-day" energy that the moment requires. In the focused momentum of getting that first shot, we've skipped a commonly overlooked part of an actor's prep:

The Moment Before

It's a concept borrowed from the theatre, to be sure: essentially, the actor must ensure that the energy of their entrance is in keeping with the circumstances of the moment-- or, more specifically, the moment just before one's entrance. Hence, "Moment Before." (Some of you may have learned this as "Given Circumstances", but it's the same concept. ) It's a simple idea-- but mastery of it is so, so much more critical to a film performance than theatre.

Why? Two reasons: first, we often shoot the place you're leaving days after the place you're going to, and without doing this work you will never maintain continuity. Second, often a film or TV scene is so short that the entrance IS the scene, or a big part of it. Think: how many entrances and exits does a character make in a play, and how many in a film? So call it what you want-- Given Circumstances, Moment Before, makes no difference. The key to mastering it is the same:

remember that every entrance is an exit, and every exit is an entrance.

Like so many things in acting, you can notice this in action in life: when you're entering your apartment, you're leaving the hall. When you're entering a restaurant, you're leaving the sidewalk. And if you pay attention to the entrances and exits of others, you'll notice just how much of the "Moment Before" they carry with them.

In this case, our work required no more than a 20-second conversation to shift Chris' emotional focus from where he was entering (the gymnasium) to where he was leaving (his office, at the end of a draining day). Since we'd already worked the scene itself, that "scene energy" would take over when it happened. There was no need to focus on the upcoming moment.

Which seems counter-intuitive to some actors, but: imagine walking out of your apartment, fresh off a phone call with a debt collector, and now you're late, and life just really really sucks.... when there's Megan Fox (or Johnny Depp), passed out naked in front of your door.

Suddenly, that crappy phone call doesn't seem so important.

So if that's your scene (and if it is, LUCKY YOU), you don't open the door with "here comes Megan/Johnny, can't wait!"; rather, you open it with "well, THAT sucked..." The sight of Megan/Johnny will then carry you into the present moment.

It is understandable that an actor with a long day might overlook this. It's even more understandable that the director, who's rightfully focused on not getting behind on Day 1, is not going to slow down because of an entrance on the wide that may or may not even be used. The truth? If the actor hits their marks, connects on their lines, and all of the technical land mines that can sabotage a shot are avoided, then everyone will be happy, and we'll move on.

Which is, on one level, as it should be: taken on its own, the specific energy of any single entrance a character makes is a minor thing, to be sure. But minor things add up. "So what," you say - "who will notice?"

You will. The audience will. And over the arc of a season you'll notice that the show is demanding just a little less of you.

But at 7:30AM on Day One, it's possible that everyone might miss it. Except the guy who's hired specifically to watch for these things.

And if you don't have one of those guys --and chances are you don't-- then it's your job to remember: context. On an entrance, remember where you're coming from. On an exit, think about where you're going to.

Because we'll notice.