In baseball there's a term used when your team relies on the little things to win games. Your team doesn't have big hitters so you rely on the singles and steals and sheer effort to score runs. It's called playing small ball.
In our biz the "small ball" equivalent would be the low budget, friend generated, student or indy projects that come along and give you an opportunity to work but don't pay you a living wage. SAG has made contracts available for these projects so that you can stay guild friendly and digital cameras have created a boon for these projects. The thing that separates them from the big budget experience is just that, the budget. It's an interesting dynamic that simply making the shoot comfortable with a budget also makes it change the emphasis of the project. Money seems to corrupt the beauty of doing a project because "the only reason" to do it is because you believe in the project or the people that invited you to do it.
What is it that causes a project to only be as valuable as our salary?
I read all the time where big stars cut their salary to do a piece that really moved them, but their cut in salary is like anyone else's lottery win. It's not like they are really enduring hardship for the sake of the project. Doing a one day, one scene, one week job on a movie that requires you to be a team player to pull it off gets you in touch with how pure and wonderful the spirit of making a movie can be.
I was asked by a friend to play a role in her first movie, a short, that she had written and was going to shoot in Santa Fe N.M. where she lives. The hardship on her of course is that I'm not a local, but since I go there a few times a year she thought she'd ask and as luck would have it I was planning on taking the family there for a summer trip at that time and I said yes I'd love to do it. Then as the date neared things changed and I found that my trip would be postponed for a few weeks. I emailed and said I was stuck on this end and I was sorry, she emailed back that she'd fly me in. Really? Wow. I guess she really wants me there. Without saying so I knew this had to be a strain on the budget so I found a place to stay with a friend and then I got an email from the 1st AD/Lead actress/Co-producer (I was playing Jim);
(The Director) asked that I communicate with you briefly about your costumes for the shoot. Our costumer has been detained out of town, so I apologize if you've been left hanging about your costumes. I understand that (the Director) has asked you to essentially bring your wardrobe with you. I would just like to remind you of the following:
Jim will need three changes of office clothing.
The Make-up/Hair team has requested, considering the nature of this shoot, that you do your best to take care of your hair yourself. So please bring any products, appliances etc. that will help you feel hot & sexy (kidding, sort of), of course taking airport security into consideration…they'll help tweak etc. on set.
We have a few requests we'd like to be very explicit about. As most of you know, this is an extremely low budget film, and thus we must ask you to take care of yourselves on this shoot as much as possible. We will provide craft service and first meal (lunch.) We ask that you come having had breakfast already as we simply can't afford that courtesy. We will also be restricted to cold beverages, so please get your coffee beforehand, and we'll do our best to get you what you need during the day. Also please plan to provide yourselves with dinner after we wrap–only if we run over twelve hours will we provide second meal. I apologize on production's behalf for all of these restrictions–of course we wish we could be treating you to three five-star meals per day plus daily massages at Ten Thousand Waves. We are just barely covering the nuts and bolts so to speak, so that being said we SO appreciate your presence, energy, willingness and expertise, and look forward to a great shoot with you all!
We so appreciate you guys doing so much of the legwork for this shoot yourselves–we can't wait to see you!
That's pretty straight forward, isn't it? It lets you know what kind of show you're joining. And you either jump in and make things as easy as you can for the sake of the project, or you bail out and say it's not for you.
Film, for some reason has lost touch with the spirit of theatre where the script is king. We all live to play certain roles in theatre and hope the salary is enough to keep us alive so we can do it. It seems the minute a camera is involved, everyone needs a bigger trailer. Projects like this reconnect the gap between the two by making it fun to be on the set with a group that you know is making the same as you are, nothing (Sometimes it's a even a deferred contract so technically you have to wait to get nothing. Ha!). Why is it money dictates so much in our attitude toward our work? Doing a job like this makes that ugly fact glaringly obvious.
Why do we need the money to validate us so badly? Why would we ever let the money tell us where our effort should go? Yes we need to survive, I'm talking about how quickly we talk ourselves in "great" jobs that pay well and "crap" jobs that are doing favors. Every season TV Pilots are shot that don't get picked up. The actors on them thank god for the money, but I know all of them would rather make less and be on the air for 22 episodes than make a huge pilot fee for work no one will see. So the money is comforting, but never in the face of not doing more acting work.
She could have used a local. I'm flattered, but I'm also a realist, my role wasn't tailor made for me. A lot of actors could have done it, but I like to think she's smart enough to know that if she surrounds herself with friends and people who will carry the spirit of the project through the long hours and hardships of the day, she'll end with a better experience and probably a better finished product. I know I did.
That's what we get out of it, the experience of doing something that matters to all of us involved. Yes I'll get some new stuff for the reel, yes I'll be seen in the festivals she puts it in, but what I didn't get in money was made up for by putting myself in a place where not only my talent, but my person, was valued for everything I did. How often do we feel that?
I offer you this thought for the next time you are asked to do a project that you're not inclined to do because it has no payday.