AWFJ Women On Film – Paul Schneider on “Bright Star” and more – MaryAnn Johanson interviews

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Paul Schneider’s been working steadily for years in well-respected, well-crafted, but low-profile independent films — now, though, his star is rising fast. He made his directorial debut at Sundance 2008 with Pretty Bird (which he also wrote), and was seen earlier this year in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. He’s featured in the ensemble cast of Parks and Recreation, the quirky comedy just starting its second season on NBC, and is starring as the Scottish poet Charles Armitage Brown in Jane Campion’s cinematic ode to John Keats, Bright Star, which is generating huge Oscar buzz… including some for Schneider’s powerful performance.

AWFJ’s MaryAnn Johanson talked to the North Carolina native about why he’s not interested in being a movie star, how he finds creative satisfaction as an actor, and more.

Johanson: There’s a real difference between people who want to work as actors and those who want to be movie stars. You’ve obviously not gone the movie-star route: you’ve taken on really juicy, meaty roles, you’re not starring in the latest blockbuster…

Schneider: I think on some level it’s just a taste thing. The scripts that I read and the ones that I chose to try out for are the ones that I would want to go see. I’m not interested in doing movies for the money, because even small movies pay you a lot of money. How much money does one need? And making movies is hard, it takes a lot of work — at least for me it does: a few months of pouring yourself into another project, getting to know a new group of people, putting yourself in someone else’s hands… If you’re not really optimistic about the project, then what are you doing? You’re just a shill.

Johanson: So you wouldn’t want to devote months and months of your life to some explosion-filled movie that doesn’t satisfy you creatively?

Schneider: Right. And there ain’t nothing wrong with an explosion, but I just have to find a reason to do it. There could be lots of different reasons, but it’s not gonna be money.

Johanson: You’ve made films both as a writer and a director, and now you’re acting–

Schneider: And I was PA’ing [working as a production assistant] before that…

Johanson: Right. So you have this extra experience of being on the other side of the camera. Do you think that makes you a better actor? Does it change the kind of actor that you are?

Schneider: I think it does. But when I’m acting I really try to stay an actor. I think my first job is just to be flexible for the director, and to know the script. I don’t think it’s good manners to get in there and say, “Oh, I’m a writer too.” As an actor, you’re always gonna look at a scene and feel uncomfortable with the dialogue, because you don’t know it yet — you have to study it first, and then you’ll get comfortable with it. The fear comes in in that you’re gonna be asked to do something in front of cameras that you don’t know yet. Well, hotshot, go fuckin’ get to know it — you know, it’s not rocket science. I want to be very sure that when I’m hired as an actor, I’m just acting, because I think for a director sometimes it’s never more annoying to be handling all the things that you have to handle plus an actor’s piddling concerns about insecurities and ego satisfaction.

Johanson: How long does it take you to get to get comfortable with a script? Does it happen while you’re shooting, or is it before you’re shooting?

Schneider: All of the above. A lot of that depends on what the film is, how big the role is, how demanding it is, how different I think the character is from me already. What I tend to do is take a script and I sort of marinate with it for a while. They do a lot of canning where I come from, and so a script like Bright Star was sort of like a big Ball jar of peaches sitting in my windowsill. [laughs]

And I have my little dorky ways of preparing. I write out my lines longhand a lot to memorize them. I write in the margins. I take the script to the coffeeshop and I read it and I think about stuff and if something comes to me I write it down. But then, weirdly, I don’t always refer back to what I’ve written down. Right before I shoot a scene I always think, “I need to go read those notes again,” but then a lot of times you don’t have time or things get out of control, or maybe you have to be ready to do this scene today even though you thought this scene was gonna be tomorrow.

I’m wondering lately if just the act of writing down the idea is enough, even though when I started doing it, I thought the act was to take note of something so I could go back and remind myself of it later. I don’t know if that’s what my brain is doing.

Johanson: You’ve set your brain in motion to be thinking about it.

Schneider: Yeah, maybe. Unless the idea is superspecific. Sometimes you do have those ideas, and you can go to a director and say, “Hey listen, can I try this really quick? I just want to scratch this itch for my own curiosity.” I think a smart director will get what they need first, and then give the actor one or two takes to let them feel involved in the process. Maybe the idea is terrible and they’re wasting film, but whatever time that they spend and whatever film that they spend on those one or two takes is gonna pay you back, as a director, at the end of production. Because if you need to go to that actor and say, “Hey, I need to push your call, we need to be in at 6am tomorrow morning and I need you to do your most emotional scene,” if that actor feels included, he’s gonna say, “No problem, I’m gonna be there for you.” But if you keep actors out of the creative process, when you need them to be flexible, they’re gonna stay in their trailer because however it manifests itself, the child inside of them is going to demand to the rest of the world, “I exist.”

A lot of people use the movie set like they go to a shrink. I just go to my shrink. [laughs] I try to keep ego satisfaction off the movie set. But I’ve seen it a million times. You see people demanding to the world, “I exist, I exist,” and whether that means “I exist by not doing what you say” or “I exist by not coming out of my trailer” or “I exist by saying the word no–”

Johanson: Like a three-year-old…

Schneider: Like a three-year-old. But if you include that three-year-old at the beginning, well, that’s good parenting. You include him, you listen, you discipline when you need to, but you’re a loving disciplinarian. And that three-year-old is gonna grow up into a really flexible and ethical adult, and once you get to the third month [of a shoot] and shit really is going crazy, you’re gonna be dealing with an ethical adult, not a three-year-old who demands to be seen.

Johanson: I think for all creative people — actors, writers, anybody who works with fiction — there’s a whole range of possibilities of how you live with those characters. Either you become the total Method actor — you know, going to restaurants in your costume — or you’re the one who doesn’t even think about it and comes on the set and just does it and it’s brilliant. How much do you live with your characters in your head while you’re working on a film, or while you’re preparing?

Schneider: I don’t tend to get very Method. I think that’s because I don’t need to be sequestered from my coworkers. I don’t need to be alone. I don’t agree with the idea there’s a hierarchy on the set, that the actors are more important and the crew is less important. I worked on a lot of crews. I PA’ed on Third Watch and used to get the actors on that show their breakfasts. So I think it’s weird when people want to put you on a pedestal. It doesn’t help me.

What I find does help is getting to know the crew. [On Bright Star] I was in England for three months. What am I gonna do, stay in my little hole and close the windows but peek out, desperately hoping someone respects me and respects my solitude, when inside, I’m just alone? Bright Star was one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with, a really fantastic group of people, and if I’m chatting with them and joking around with them [off the set], it helps me because I’m less nervous to do stuff in front of them later on. If I’m acting in front of a bunch of friends, I can act like a fool or I can act sad. I feel more flexibility in front of someone that I feel like is a friend rather than someone who I’ve made a stranger.

It is incumbent upon the actor to do that, because of this power dynamic: you really do have to go cross the line and start shaking hands, and say, “Hey, I’m Paul. I respect what you do.” Because if you don’t cross the line, you will just live on the upper side of the power dynamic and you’ll be very lonely, and a failure as an actor doing so.

Johanson: You mentioned that you want to work on the movies you’re drawn to creatively. What is it about a movie that draws you?

Schneider: I have no idea. [laughs] I’m not kidding you. But I’ll tell you what happens. I read a script and they say, “Be focused on this character.” And you read that character and sometimes ideas come to you, and sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether the script is good or bad. I’ve read really good scripts that I feel like, “Hey, man, I don’t know what I would add to this as opposed to Joe Schmoe. I don’t know what I would give you that you wouldn’t get from someone else.” And I think other times I read a script and I just start to get ideas about how I would do it. And mind you, I’m not saying that my ideas are the best ideas, I’m just saying that they’re my ideas. They started coming to me and I don’t know who turned on the faucet. The scripts that I choose to try to be involved in are the ones that, for whatever reason, that faucet gets turned on. And it doesn’t matter the genre, the style, the budget, the paycheck, the whatever — if that faucet gets turned on and I feel like the director is someone that I can learn from, then I wanna go be involved.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).