Film-making on the cheep

The other night I beheaded a chicken. All, you understand, in the interests of art. And of course no animals were harmed in the process. The chicken was already dead and having enjoyed a full life of freedom and fertility is now immortalised on film.

IMG_7875Phyllis (the chicken) and I have a part in a feature film called Dalriata’s King being made in Scotland by Fellowship Film and due for release in Autumn 2016. It’s a brilliant story set in 9th century Scotland where good and evil forces battle across the land. Amongst the Celts, Picts and Druids a shadowy force is at work and children are being abducted but a rumour is circulating of a king who will rescue them from the darkness and hope begins to rise.

My character, Biddy, has a lot going on. Her daughter is abducted by tree demons, her husband bravely sets off to rescue her and she has her work cut out to persuade the local villagers to fight for the king. I can’t tell you much more – nobody likes a spoiler – so you’ll just have to go and see the movie when it’s released to find out what happens to Biddy and her village. Suffice to say that it’s great to be playing a character of depth and I feel very privileged to have been cast in the role.

And being part of a micro-budget production is causing me to think about the film industry and those who work in it. All of which has also given me pause to reflect on what it looks like when people work together to serve a common vision. IMG_7864

Being part of a cast and crew who are dedicated to telling a great story well with limited resources is one of the most rewarding parts of the actor’s life. Sure, there are plenty of people in the industry who want to achieve personal success and celebrity, and on film projects there can be a fair amount of rivalry and competitiveness but, like the majority of people working in the creative industries, most do it because they want use their talents to serve a bigger story.

IMG_7865On Dalriata’s King, everyone is trying to make the best movie they can, whether their job is to give a great performance in front of the camera, get the lighting and sound correct, create authentic-looking battle scars, look after the child actors well or make a temporary hut in a back garden feel like an authentic 9th century dwelling. The common goal is more important than the egos of the individuals concerned and, when everyone is allowed to play to their strengths, the result is magnificent.

IMG_7866Then there’s the camaraderie. People love watching those ‘behind the scenes’ documentaries that are often included in DVD extras. Partly it’s because the bloopers and mistakes are funny to watch, but I think it’s also because it gives us a glimpse into the feeling of family that develops amongst cast and crew. Working together on a project builds a level of trust and depth of relationship that is unusual in our self-absorbed world. That’s why it can feel like a bereavement when a theatrical project is over.

And finally, there’s the satisfaction of doing something well. So much of what passes for entertainment these days is cheap quality,  and so much of life is rushed, so there’s something beautiful about taking the time to do something with skill and care. And, necessity being the mother of invention, there’s a lot of imagination being used to see the possibility beyond the reality. Everyone on the cast and crew is buying into a reality they cannot see, and is committed to helping the audience see it for themselves.

For me, it’s interesting to take these observations and apply them to different situations, either in other artistic contexts, or as missional disciples working together for a different kingdom of light. Many of the ‘given circumstances’ are the same – everyone comes to the project with a different set of skills and experience, rich community is created when everyone is focussed on a goal and the pursuit of excellence sparks the creativity and commitment of the group. All of this reminds me of what the church looks like on a good day.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that church is just another expression of activity that we do. It’s not the same as making a film, playing in a sports team or going on a trip with friends. Church on a good day is the living, growing, dwelling-place of the Spirit of God (see Ephesians 2:19-22. In fact if you’ve got some time, read the whole book!). If you like, all the good characteristics of a committed film crew are reflections of something even better. Church on a good day is not an event or an experience but an envisioned, gifted, creative, loving body of people infused with the power of the Holy Spirit and focussed on the remarkable love of the Father made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we understand that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work amongst us we are free to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.

I stumbled across a quote from film-acting legend Uta Hagen the other day:

Thoughts and feelings are suspended in a vacuum unless they instigate and feed the selected actions, and it is the characters’ actions which reveal the character in the play.

She was talking about the actor’s motivation to action on camera – expressing the view that there is no point in feeling an emotion unless it is then used to prompt the physical action of the performer. People understand what a character is thinking or feeling by what they observe them doing. And the job of the actor is to allow physical action to reveal the truth of the character’s inner life.

And again, I think the same applies to God’s people on mission. Thoughts, feelings and experience of God prompt us to action, and our character is revealed to the world by our actions towards it. So, from a place of worship, presence and intimacy with God we are prompted to care and love and build his kingdom. So, our experience of God is not suspended in a vacuum but lived out in our day to day interactions with those around us, hopefully without harm to chickens, and without quite as much mud being applied as on this particular film set!

You can follow the progress of Dalriata’s King on Facebook or by going direct to the website. I’ll also be posting some thoughts and tips on acting for camera at a later date.

 

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Learning to breathe on both sides

stadtbad
© Berliner_Baeder_Betriebe

I went swimming yesterday.  Sadly the pool I frequent doesn’t look as grand as the cathedral-like Mk Berlin Stadtbad, but I always leave feeling as though my soul has been restored. Recreation in the true sense has taken place as I plough up and down the slow lane. Recently I’ve been trying to reeducate myself in breathing. Since I learned to swim front crawl (about 36 years ago) I’ve always breathed to my left. It feels natural and “right” to do this and I’ve swum miles without ever feeling the need to look to the starboard side. Now, though, I want to shake things up and learn some new technique so I’ve decided to alternate my breathing between the left and right side. Easy, right? Nooooo! It’s difficult to break the habit of 36 years and I’ve had to analyse how to take a breath in order to avoid a mouthful of chlorine and a lungful of panic. It’s hard work. It doesn’t feel natural. But yesterday I began to feel I was getting it, and I had a minor sense of triumph. Noone else would notice but I’d spent some time making a radical change and I’d broken some bad habits. Hopefully my front crawl will be more elegant and efficient as a result.

Which is all good and well, but what does it have to do with creative foolery? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about missional discipleship and asking some hard questions about what it looks like to live as a creative disciple of Jesus in the 21st century. And I think relearning how to breathe has something to teach me. I want to be a more elegant and efficient performer, writer and disciple of Jesus, but it doesn’t just happen without working at it.

First of all, you have to decide that you want to change. It’s easy and comfortable to keep doing what you do the way you’ve always done it. This is true whether when it comes to making a lazy acting choice, writing a sketch with a predictable outcome or assuming that by “doing church” a certain way people will somehow find their way to Jesus. Creativity is often about not making the predictable, familiar choice, but choosing something different. So, the best actors are the ones who captivate you with their bold physical and vocal choices and the best writers are the ones who surprise and delight with the unexpected. And the most creative disciples? Perhaps they are the ones who remain open to the new things that God wants to do, and sense that there is reward in breaking old habits. Jesus talked about the new wine of God’s kingdom requiring new wineskins. It’s a bit like breathing in a different way.

Of course there are good habits too. So, when I breathe to the left, I do it well. I’ve been practising it for the last 36 years. And, in finding a new rhythm, I have discovered that I need to recognise and learn from the good. This is about the discipline of creativity. In acting, the performer’s body  is their instrument, so there is merit in maintaining good habits of physicality and vocal training, of staying open and responsive to other performers. In writing there is the discipline of structure, form and language that creates the freedom to express depth. For the missional disciple, there is the rhythm and discipline of intimacy with God. I have nothing to offer the world if I do not start from the place of prayer, Bible study and listening to the voice of the Spirit. And these practices take discipline, especially for activists who wake up with 12 ideas of how to change the world before breakfast. It’s no good just rushing in with a good idea and hoping God will bless it. It leads to failure and disappointment. So to become an effective creative missional disciple there are some habits to break and some new habits to establish. Habits we can learn from ancient rhythms and practices. It doesn’t feel natural at first, but the more we do it, the more we create from a place of security, intimacy and clarity.

And finally, there’s something about risk. I wasn’t likely to drown in my local swimming pool – there’s a lifeguard, it’s not very deep and I could always put my feet down – but if I want to push myself in my creativity and my discipleship then there are lots of risks involved. The risk of failure, of looking foolish, of being misunderstood. Why go to the places I would not previously have gone when I can play safe and stick with what I know? The older you get, the harder it is to avoid risk-proofing your life. But that’s not picking up your cross and following. That’s not leaving everything for the sake of the one who died for you. That’s not living a resurrection life. So, I want to push myself as a performer, stretch myself as writer and live an adventurous life worth imitating. It might be risky. There might be failure and foolishness. But I want to push out into deeper water…

The Creative Fool speaks up…

FullSizeRenderHaving flirted with various forms of blogging and communication over the years it seemed sensible that at last the fool should speak up. So here I am.

I work for a company called Foolproof, and we like to think we have things to say that you might want to read. I’d like to make you laugh, cry and think about what really matters in life. That’s the job of the fool.

Why the fool? Well, historically, the fool serves as the truth teller in the royal court. Through jokes, tricks and comedy, the fool has the power to challenge and provoke with impunity. The fool is a clown who bursts the bubble of pomposity and challenges the accepted norms.

Meanwhile, in the Bible, Paul speaks about the foolishness and wisdom of God:

“Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe…For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
1 Corinthians 1:20-21, 25

At Foolproof Creative Arts we want the foolish things to challenge and provoke our culture. We believe that we have been given a foolish upside-down, creative message to share about a God who chooses lay aside the riches of heaven to get involved in our lives.

So, if you’re the kind of person who slips on the occasional banana skin, walks into the odd lamp-post or spills their drink down their front when checking the time, then read on, because I think you’ll like our foolishness…

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
Love, in fear, in hate, in tears

(Sit Down, James, Rough Trade Records)