Marking the mid-point in our 5 month premiere series of Writer/Director Dee Meaden’s short films (following Good News & Mark) DN today brings you An Actor. A layered portrait of a relentless actor who takes to the streets as a homeless man in order to hone his craft, we hand things over to Meaden to discover how concerns about restricted artistic expression and our attitudes towards the homeless inspired her to wrangle a cast of 25 across numerous London locations.
A homeless actor begs as different characters. A portrait of an enterprising and relentless talent or perhaps a sufferer of multiple personality disorder turns in to a meditation on creativity and delusion.
An Actor was written specifically for Charlie MacGechan. I think it partly came from a quality he has that fascinates me, in that he has a slightly wild energy but also an astonishing openness that can read as amazing vulnerability or innocence. I find that mix hugely exciting and it naturally leads me to characters the audience might have a complicated relationship with.
I liked the complexity of the idea of a homeless actor inventing stories he could accost people with, not really to extract money from them but so he could perform for them, so he could express something of himself unbeknown to them. To me, there was something comic in how crazed that would be but also something desperately lonely and possibly something psychologically dangerous in it.
I think my idea was to create a portrait of someone which just kept getting more complex psychologically until the audience got to a point where they were sort of dizzied or didn’t know what to think.
I wanted to suggest that the truth might be more complicated, that it might be hugely complicated in fact.
I feel you rarely see representations of homeless people as individuals rather than as symbols of something and I wanted a homeless character who was entirely unique, someone who has a whole world inside him that no one is bearing witness to. I wanted him to go against our expectations with his positivity and enthusiasm and then for us to slowly have the feeling that the bottom is falling out of something and to realize we’re watching someone spiral into some sort of madness. I thought the film should feel like watching someone float out to sea. As if it’s too late to help this person by the time we’ve understood what’s going on with him.
At the same time, I wanted to play with all those responses people have to homeless people. The idea that whatever story they tell you isn’t true and has been fabricated for sympathy. I think I wanted to suggest that the truth might be more complicated, that it might be hugely complicated in fact.
I was also preoccupied with ideas about creativity turning in on itself. In what it does to a person when their force to create or express themselves is denied. My Dad, in some ways, experienced something of this when I was growing up. He was an actor and was successful in his youth but struggled to find roles in later life. The urge to create was so strong in him that it became damaging when there was no outlet for it.
I think that’s had a big effect on me. Perhaps this is some sort of expression of my fear about not finding a way to make my work and have a meaningful dialogue with people about it. Or perhaps it’s some kind of love letter to my Dad.
I had the idea for the film years before we made it. We started working on it and then stopped because something didn’t feel right. Then Charlie was about to go to LA for a while and I was about to go to the NFTS so we thought we wouldn’t get to work together for at least two years and all of a sudden we became very passionate about making it. As it happened Charlie stayed in London and was in most of what I made while I was studying but the fear we couldn’t work together for a bit prompted us to just make this film happen.
It felt like something we could make quickly as we had to shoot it doc style with a really small team but it was actually a huge amount of work to set up as literally every scene had to be in a new location and every time the character interacts with someone that had to be a new character. I think we had 23 locations and 25 cast for the final schedule which felt like a slightly ridiculous amount for a 15 minute film but I liked the challenge of having to shoot it all within a ten minute radius of my house and the speed it made us work at.
I shared The Beaver Trilogy with Charlie sometime after we had made Sibling together in 2014. I wasn’t sharing it as a reference just as something that I thought he might enjoy and he became slightly obsessed with it. Eventually, through Charlie’s enthusiasm, it became the key reference for this character who was just delighted to be filmed and to feel he has a moment in the spotlight.
We became really interested in the small details that reveal how much performance is going on when someone is being themselves on camera or trying to appear relaxed and so also watched a lot of documentaries including Lift by Mark Isaacs which also felt really important to us. I think my work in advertising, where with my DP Ollie Verschoyle, I’ve filmed more vox pops and presenter pieces to camera, than I can remember, also informed all this. There was something really fun in using such a common and simple visual language and upbeat delivery with a character who had so much going on mentally.
We had to shoot it doc style with a really small team.
It was also very interesting being forced, because of the conceit that this is doc footage shot by a hidden crew, to shoot all the scenes where he is interacting with people in wide shots and with very minimal cuts. It meant performances had to hold and couldn’t be built in the edit and I like the tension you sometimes get where you want to cut in but are held at a distance.
At the same time, the structure of the script with a large number of very short scenes meant that it has a kind of incremental or accumulative quality to the storytelling where sometimes nothing much seems to happen in a scene but over several, you start to see a progression. That made it strange to shoot as it was only in the edit that we could really see the character’s development.
Next month Dee brings her isolated brother and sister short Sibling (29th August) to Directors Notes and we’ll learn why a stripped back production was the perfect approach for a story about claustrophobic seclusion.