Independent Filmmaker's Guide
September 15, 2020
Still Here: A Focus On Acting
Still Here is a film about resilience, following the heartbreaking story of a missing 12-year-old girl, and the pain her family endures. In a previous talk, we were able to sit down with the director and cinematographer of the film, where director Vlad Feier stressed that films are made by people, not equipment. And so, in this episode we are joined by some of the very people who brought this story to life: cast members Maurice McRae, Johnny Whitworth, Jeremy Holm along with their director, to talk about about their personal processes for the roles and their experiences on indie sets. A focus on acting in indie films.
Steven Pierce: Welcome back to the Independent Filmmaker’s Guide podcast. I’m your host, Steven Pierce. Today, I’m very excited to speak with the cast and creative team behind the film Still Here, which was set in today’s New York. It’s a story about resilience and follows the heartbreaking story of a 12 year old girl who goes missing, and the pain her family must endure. With me today is Maurice McRae who plays the character of Michael Watson, Johnny Whitworth, who plays Christian Baker, Jeremy Holm, who plays Greg Spalding and Vlad Feier, the co-writer and director. Now Vlad, get us started off here with, what’s at the core of the characters and their journeys in the film?
Vlad Feier: The story, the script suffered transformation during the whole process of, from writing to production and editing. And regarding the family, all the time I want to see the story from the point of view of the fathers. In missing kids stories usually, we see the mother and the suffering of the mother. So my idea was to see a vulnerable father. Male. Who, all the time we look at them and they’re strong and they don’t crack. So that was the whole idea. Now with Johnny, I wanted to see it from the perspective of a journalist. Even these days, or actually when we start to shoot the movie or when I was writing the movie, journalism and press was not such a high debate it is today. So I wanted to bring somebody from an exterior world giving Johnny… That’s why his character, Christian Baker, it’s a person that it’s totally out of touch at the point, with what’s happening in a neighborhood like the Watsons’. And then it’s his transformation of realizing that the world is not just what he lives, but it’s way bigger. And he goes into it. It’s the healing of the father and in the end as well, a huge transformation from the first, actually last draft before production, was with the two police officers, one played by Jeremy here. And we see as well, their transformation during the whole process.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. Maurice, to go to that strength of character of a father searching for their lost daughter, and trying to present that strength forward. How do you approach the character and what were you trying to say within the journey of the film?
Maurice McRae: Well, kudos to Vlad and Peter, who created a really beautiful character in Michael. My approach was, when I read the script, I’ll be frank, Michael immediately resonated with me. His strength and determination in really dire circumstances. I was really attracted to it, as an actor, particularly as an actor of color. There are not a lot of opportunities, a lot more now than in 2015, where we have the opportunity to work with so many emotional dynamics. But my in to Michael… You know when you’re out with the kids, say in Disneyland and you got your eye on all of them and then one of them for a split second just, you don’t know where they are, and that raw thing goes through you. And so I imagined that, and then I extended it. And that was my in to Michael. He’s in this extended state of panic, that plays out in various ways, as you saw in the film.
Steven Pierce: And Johnny, you have a pretty contentious relationship with, your character does with Michael in the film. How did you approach that, as far as bringing that kind of melancholy that your character was carrying in, and then activating into something to chase?
Johnny Whitworth: I just allowed myself to be present, and all the actors are so strong and we move so fast with the work. I think that was my salvation is I had no other choice, but to react off what was happening to me. And it felt raw and real. Well, I like reacting more than driving. That to me brings a freedom where you remove trying to do anything or having a pre-supposed idea, by just being in the moment and taking what that is. And then hopefully it gets captured by the camera, so we see it. And then with editing, you’re able to tell what he’s reacting to. I really commend Vlad and I don’t which editor, the editors. All the performances, they breathe. Like the moments are there to land. And a lot of times that doesn’t happen.
Steven Pierce: Do you approach a scene where you’re reacting versus driving the action, any different within your process?
Johnny Whitworth: Early on in my career it’s all about the eyes, and it’s about the silent moments and how you’re reacting. It’s behavior. Doing this was a really great experience for me because that was the whole process. We couldn’t do it another way. It was fortunate that we… When I first saw the first cut of the movie, I was so pleasantly surprised, because I didn’t really know what the hell we were doing. I didn’t have a lot of time. So it was always moving from one thing to the next and it was all an emotional, like beats that I was following. It was just allowing myself to be present. This was something. It’s how good the other actors were, that I was able to do anything that I was doing.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. The performances are very, I think, strong in the whole film. Which I think speaks to all of your amazing talent and Vlad obviously helming the ship with all the performances. Jeremy, kind of the same question to you. Playing a police officer, which is something you’ve done probably more times than you can count on your fingers and toes. How do you approach a role like this to keep them different? Is there any nuances you’re bring in or you just start from a base of self and listen?
Jeremy Holm: This guy is different than other cops I’ve played. The job itself has put a kind of a nasty armor around him. So I was mindful of that habit. And I do know a lot of cops, New York city cops in particular. And I know a lot of homicide cops. So I just tried to talk to them a little bit and steal some small things. There’s a dark humor that cops have and that’s how they get through the day. I think that mentality is definitely what helps Spalding get through his day. And I think he’s really like a bulldog. And every scene, I just had that idea in my mind.
Steven Pierce: Vlad’s very open to improv, especially within this script I believe. Does that terrify you guys? Whenever you know you’re going into a scene that may take a different path than was on the script?
Jeremy Holm: That was a lot of fun, doing that.
Johnny Whitworth: I welcome it. That was like the crux of how things would work. It was like the behavioral thing that you’re reacting to in the moment, and it really allows for you to be real. Or as real as possible, just because you’re reacting. So yeah, I love working with him for that reason.
Steven Pierce: Improv scenes in my experience can be really, really hard to get off the ground. It’s kind of hard to figure out what the first proposal is. Who makes the first action, who has the driver. And then everybody else responds. Do you have a specific technique you’re using whenever you work with actors, to allow them to have the freedom to change things or to modify them?How do you get that energy in the room?
Vlad Feier: I believe that any director that tells you that knows how to control an improvise, it’s a bullshitter. Doesn’t matter how big of a director he is, you cannot control an improvisers. You are not living inside of the brain and the soul of the actor. Maybe at that point, he feels to say something that five seconds ago was not there, but because of the reaction of the other character, builds him something. So I believe improvisation, it’s building, building, building. So the only thing that you can do, at least as a Writer-Director, I believe… That was an easy thing for me, being Writer-Director, because I knew the script is just to see where, if they go off the rail, move them. Keep them there where you know what you will need in the editing. But ultimately, there are many ways of… You can come from the back and feed information to one actor, that the other actor doesn’t know and vice versa, you know? You build that improvisation. But in the end you won’t know where it comes. As a director, make sure that whenever you give a cut, you have everything that you need in the editing room. And everything else that comes on top, it’s a bonus. And that’s, in my situation, made many scenes like they were here and with improvisation came here. For instance, a scene that we shot lately in the re-shoots. Not re-shoots, because we have not re-shot anything. Additional shooting. It was Jeremy and Danny. Danny Johnson is the other detective. They came to me and it was a scene, and was like, “Hey Vlad we had this notes. What do you say?” It was the whole scene there, the dialogue. “What do you say if here we go like this. And here we go like this, and here we go like this?” I was like, you read it, you know what your goal of that scene is. If you hold that and for the actor, feels way more organic and natural to go with it, then you just have to put the ego somewhere in a back pocket. Leave it there, hold it there and allow the actors to work, because that’s how you will get a real performance.
Jeremy Holm: I’d like to add one thing and that is, when you’re doing a film for a guy like Vlad it’s so freeing. Because I do a lot of episodic TV and that stuff, I’m like a continuity actor. My goal is to make the script supervisor happy and the continuity person, the editor happy. And maybe I’ll make the director happy. If I make those people happy by doing this every time on the same line, I know I’ll get hired again. So for me, it’s so freeing to film a shot where you can just do whatever comes to you and you don’t have to worry about the hand there.
Steven Pierce: I hate being a slave to continuity. I think if it takes you out, it’s a total thing. If you had, all of a sudden, somebody jumps across the room or is now holding a golf club, you know what I mean? That might be too much. I really believe, follow the performance. Follow the best performance, the best take the best emotion.
Maurice McRae: Exactly. I appreciate these seasoned actors that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I’ll be honest, I was terrified. I was terrified coming from the theater scene and knowing some things about film and the importance of continuity. So when Vlad was like, “Okay, we got one in the can, do your thing”, I was like, “What?” It took me a minute, but once I got it in my head I said, “Okay, I’m going to go.” I fell back on my crafting, coming from Meisner. I had crafted the hell out of Michael, there wasn’t a detail of his life that I didn’t know. So once Vlad gave me that permission to really go, I was comfortable. And as Johnny said, it was a freeing moment. But that first moment when he said it, I believe it was in the scene with myself and Johnny in the living room. I think when Michael comes in from work and his character is there. It was an absolute freeing beautiful moment on the other side of it. In theater, you’re taught, you honor the writer’s words. And unless there are specific direction within the text, you stay on it. You stay on it like a radar. That was my entree into acting. It was absolutely fabulous to have that moment, and those that were subsequent.
Steven Pierce: Talk about packing your bags for characters like this. This is not slapstick comedy, where you’re kind of coming in and being light. Everybody’s got some baggage their dragging. So how do you pack those bags so that whenever you hit the scene from the first take, because it is an indie film, you’ve got to move quick, you can really execute right on the first try.
Johnny Whitworth: You got to give yourself, as the actor, the permission to be bad and not worry about that. That you want it to be good. But I’ve found that personal pressure of that will stiffen your work. You just allow yourself to get through it. And then if not, that was your good rehearsal. Now you move on and you’ve gotten through that first one. And if it’s brilliant, then it’s like, “Great! Moving on.” But you can’t put the pressure of being good. You’ve got to just trust yourself and your talent and your work, and the work you’ve put into, and just let it rip. It’s a confine. It traps you. If you try to work towards an outcome or the idea of whatever is good.
Steven Pierce: I went to acting school and I was an actor for a hot second, before I decided it wasn’t for me. I had a really smart acting teacher one year, because I was very heady. I wanted to analyze, wanted to have all this background and I was constantly thinking about it. We were doing like Ibsen, something that already is really hard for anyone, not regardless of how young I was. But he told me, it was a great note, he said, “In this next time through, you have to make at least three mistakes”. It was just so clever, the way he just manipulated me to allow myself to fuck up, as you said. It totally changed my game. I’m never going to forget that.
Johnny Whitworth: That’s nice. I had to learn that the hard way. I was stressed the fuck out man, at the beginning of my having to do everything. Just trying to achieve something like the greatness of the people that inspired me. I realized that there’s no doing that, you got to be you. You got to bring you. And that’s what the authenticity. If you’ve worked on your craft, you build a framework and you just let it bounce, when they say, “Action!” Then I’m not thinking of what I’m doing. I had been thinking, without laying bricks. I’ve done things where I’ve come out of a scene, not knowing what I was doing, but the action that came… Like actions. Like characterizations came out of a character. It’s like, I have a whole trajectory of who this guy is, through asking a lot of questions about him. And then you got to throw it all away. I think those happy accidents or the constraints, when you got to work around something, I forgot the word you used. But when you were like, not worried about continuity. I think that’s the way the divine works with you, with it. And the artistry is being able to work in that and think of better solutions or how this… Work with it.
Vlad Feier: You have to give freedom. It’s not just actors. You have to give freedom to everybody. That’s why it’s called Art Director and Production Designer. If you want to control them, then where is their craft? Why don’t then just have somebody to do it for you. Same like with actors. If you want to control them to an extent where like… Then I don’t know. Put yourself a mustache and play all the roles and do everything yourself. That’s why you hire these people. It’s very nice that you have… Sorry, I just have to move a little bit closer. It’s very nice that we have Jeremy and Johnny and Maurice, because as a director, I can tell you how different they prepare for the roles. Jeremy told you, I’m used with TV, with series. Jeremy gets like this, gets in the role. And then you give cut, and then he can talk with you. And then you go back and he has everything prepared to detail. He works in a lots of jobs. Maurice, I have not met the real Maurice until it was a wrap. At the beginning when he came in the casting room, I thought the guy is upset. And was like, he’s upset but I like him. He came, I don’t know in the sheet that they have for the casting, probably they had two scenes. So out of those two scenes, he understood the character so well. So he came as Michael Watson. He came from the casting and then he came to the… The callbacks were just for me to make sure that I’m taking the right decision. I was pretty much 99.9% sure that I want him. But I said, “Okay, I have a group of five. Let me see them again.” And he came the same. I was like, “Okay, if it’s a typecast and this is how this guy is, so big.” During the whole movie, and then he would go, and again, our production, don’t imagine that we had trailers. Maurice, he would prepare, like it would be on the street. He will find somewhere like a little cocoon, stay there and get into his character. And then I met the real Maurice. And it’s like, Oh! this guy is fun, man. He talks different. So it’s different.
Vlad Feier: And then you have Johnny. Johnny will come on set and he’s like, “Hey, do I chew again the gum? Do I keep the cigarette left or right?” Or this or that. He has 1 million questions. So it’s very interesting because you work with such a variety of talent actors. And then as well, you as a director, you just don’t work with robots. Everybody has a question. And maybe the fact that Johnny asked, “Hey, where do I hold my cigarette left or right?” helps you with that question. Maybe not necessarily for that, but how you want to build the character in that scene, how to give the reaction to Johnny. It’s very complex. It’s a huge puzzle, from the part of acting and how they build their parts and how they relate to the movie, and how they act in a world created by cinematographers and art directors and costume designers and so on. So it’s beautiful.
Maurice McRae: Looking back, it was abundantly important that my execution was as honest as possible. There were a lot of unknowns on that set for me, it being kind of a new environment. I knew how to craft, in terms of to your question about packing your bags. I knew where I needed to be in terms of the emotionality, I like to refer to it as a musicality of a moment. I knew the points I needed to hit, and it was important for me not to generate emotion, but to allow those things to live. I answered every question that I could about Michael, in preparation. I pay close attention to what others said. If they made a comment, one line about me, and I just filled in all the blanks, whether they were true or not. I just used the script to build him from A to Z as much as I could, so that there was no room for my actor insecurities or my actor anxieties to come in. When I was in as Michael, there was no breathing room outside of that. That was my kind of in. Once you have all that homework done, and then you look up at someone like Afton, who played my wife, or Johnny or Jeremy or Danny, what they’re giving you. All you have to do is open your mouth and lips. Because the set was, it’s relaxed so to speak. You’re able to just play, as they say. Just play.
Steven Pierce: Let’s talk about something that… You think about action a lot. You build up all this emotional baggage, you prep, you do whatever you need to do to get into the moment, for the moment of action. Then deliver your performance. But what happens after they call cut? What are you guys doing then? Are you immediately resetting to kind of go back? Do you try and cleanse and totally walk away from the moment, or do you try and stay in it? How do you guys approach the moment of cut and reset.
Jeremy Holm: Look for my coffee.
Steven Pierce: Coffee?
Jeremy Holm: Coffee.
Steven Pierce: You can do a big emotional scene, they call cut, and then you have to live kind of in purgatory here. To figure out if we’re going again, are we moving on? What’s going on and how do you get ready to do what you need to do again?
Jeremy Holm: Well, we all always want another take, no matter what. We want another take. Unless it’s that one perfect take, which usually isn’t very good at all. You think it is, but it’s not. So for me personally, I know that I’m going to try to stray the performance here, here, here, and here. So if I think I got that one, and I don’t need another one, I’m now going through my process of moving the target a little bit. Whether it be with pace or amplitude or a different kind of wrinkle for the day the characters had. Or trying to get a little something different out of the other actor, trying to stray the performance. So that when Vlad gets in the editing room, he can use the different takes to make the puzzle, build the puzzle a different way. That’s what I’m thinking about. And then coffee.
Maurice McRae: It was really important for me to be honest the entire time, emotionally. Because Michael had so much emotion and being too big for the camera, was a definite thing in my head that constantly ran. I leaned back… My master teacher in grad school often talked to us about the importance of privacy, the sense of privacy. I think up until maybe close to the last shot coming in and out of scenes, I didn’t look up. I didn’t-
Jeremy Holm: I remember that. I was like, why won’t this guy talk to me?
Maurice McRae: Because I didn’t want to feel like there was an audience. It was important for my instrument to feel like when I was home with my wife and my son, I was home with them. And there wasn’t a large group of people standing behind me. Because then my theater actor thing kicks in. And so that’s how I was able to protect that. Jeremy, there was a moment where we were shooting at the door, I think this was a couple of days into it.
Jeremy Holm: Yep. I remember.
Maurice McRae: We were resetting something and then Jeremy leaned in and said, “You’re doing amazing”. I looked at him and I remember distinctly my nostrils flaring up for a hot second. I was like, he’s not taking me out of character. He’s not doing it. He can’t be a nice guy. He cannot be a nice guy. He cannot be an ally. That’s not going to work for me. But you know, that’s really who Jeremy is, and that’s who John… It was really this ensemble kind of environment. Trust me, I would not say this if it wasn’t true.
Jeremy Holm: Listen, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again?
Maurice McRae: I always tell friends and family, I say, “He was my angel on the set”. Because he really intuitively, or otherwise, had a sense that this actor partner of his could use a little encouragement. I so appreciate it, for him. But that one moment I was like, You Mother… It was that kind of environment. I’m grateful for it, definitely.
Jeremy Holm: I love you, man.
Maurice McRae: I love you too, bro.
Steven Pierce: How do you approach Johnny? Do you want to add anything to that? How do you approach? What happens? What is your preparation for going again?
Johnny Whitworth: I don’t prepare. I try to… I prepare, but if I do a… I don’t try, but I think in the best situations, every take is different. I was saying earlier, there’s a framework of a character that is built, and I’m living in the moment. So the reaction is natural and everything is going to be different in each take. Unless I get a specific direction, to go in this direction. Then I’ll just give colors for someone, for the editor or director to put together a performance. To have choices. It’s always going to be different if you’re living in the moment. It’s always going to be different. So you don’t have to try. You just got to be present.
Vlad Feier: I think some of the best scenes have not even made the final cut. You have to oversee the movie, not… You can have three great scenes that they don’t fit with the rest of the movie or you don’t have time or they don’t move the story forward. So individually, there are three great scenes, but do you really need them? So whenever you get into the editing room, you see how they match with the rest. You have to be open to leave in the editing room, scenes that feels like, you thought that they are the main, the center of your movie. Realizing that yeah, they’re emotional, they’re great. But then you go to the next part and they don’t even, they don’t have anything, one to each other. So again, I think, what they all said in the end, you finish a scene, but you just have to think about the other one and how you hold yourself as a character.
Johnny Whitworth: Yeah. The only way to understand it, because you can’t get perfection and they’re going to make those decisions and cut scenes. And you’re like, “But my arc! I needed that moment to match with this trajectory that I painted”. You got to let that shit go too. I’m a sensitive person, so that can really break your heart.
Vlad Feier: I wrote the script with Peter. On set, I’ve been with you. And each of you, because it was just pure improvisation, I would not cut the scene that I was saying about Johnny and Maurice in the room. We let the camera roll another 10 minutes and in the end, actually those 10 minutes, part of those 10 minutes made the half of the final scene. Because Jeremy or Danny, that they come and they have notes on the dialogue, or like how to, even blocking at that point. “What do you say if we come like this and like this? It feels more natural and more normal and more organic.” And then you go into the editing room, I worked with two editors, they come with their own ideas. Like literally you collaborate with all these great artists and you have to be open to take. Listen to everything. There is a lots of opinions of how you should do the movie. If I would have listened to all the opinions right now, probably we’d have a thriller or a science fiction movie. Everybody has an opinion and especially people that are not directly involved in how you should do it. And it’s like, “You know what, next time, raise your money, we’ll make your movie and you can do it the way you want. This is how I want to make it.” As we already know, time will say if it was a good, bad, mediocre, whatever movie. This is where I was at 30 what? When we shoot it, I was 31 years old. The changes have been seen as well through my years, my growth from 31 to 36. So yeah, if I would’ve had the same script at 50, definitely it will have been looking totally different. This is what we have right now. And I’m very happy with what we have.
Steven Pierce: I think that’s wonderful. Honestly, I think you guys should be very proud of what you did. I think the performances are very raw and very organic. I think that that’s a great achievement. COVID has kind of ruined all the upcoming plans, but do you have any upcoming plans and where can people follow you to see what you’re going to do next? Maurice?
Maurice McRae: Next projects, I am working on a writing project with me and two friends. That will be my first feature script. That’s pretty much it at the moment. I’m on Facebook as well as Instagram, The Maurice McRae.
Steven Pierce: Johnny, how about you?
Johnny Whitworth: I only work with Twitter and Instagram. And it’s Johnny Whitworth. Just that. And I have Facebook, but I don’t do much on there. I do contribute on Instagram. Just share some vibes there. So Johnny Whitworth and I have a check mark. So it’s me. There’s other ones. I have impersonators that do like weird things with people.
Steven Pierce: So if you want a real fun time, follow one of the impersonators of Johnny Whitworth. If you want the real Johnny Whitworth, look for the blue check mark.
Jeremy Holm: If you want good vibes, go to the real on.
Johnny Whitworth: And Jeremy, what about you?
Jeremy Holm: I’m developing a Sci-Fi thriller with my friend, Chris Kelly. I just found out today, I’m going to finish a movie I’d started in February, with Matthew Newton. And then I’ve got two movies coming out, actually Friday. This movie, and then another movie called The Block Island Sound by the McManus brothers. It’s a thriller. And then I have another thriller called Don’t Look Back, coming out in probably the fall. It’s by Jeffrey Reddick, who did the Final Destination franchise. And I’m Jeremy S. Holm, on Instagram.
Steven Pierce: Great. And Vlad, last but not least, what’s up next for you and where can people follow you?
Vlad Feier: I’m working already on a story. I would not like to say more because I change, a lot of time, my mind and direction. Just follow me on Vlad Feier on Instagram, and whenever time will come, you’ll definitely hear about it.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org