I read a tweet once by an agent that said, and I am paraphrasing, “I can only do my job if an actor is willing to lose the job.” The agent meant that he can only properly negotiate if an actor is willing to walk away from the project. That can be scary for actors, but here is a great way to practice that…don’t sign the actor release form for student films.
As soon as an actor signs the release form, they lose all power. I recommend not signing it until the last day of production. If that is too uncomfortable, then start by writing an addendum on the form. Something like, “If the shooting script is changed in any way during production, this release is void.” I recommend talking with your agent to see what wording they would use.
This may require a discussion with the director on why you are doing this. Simply tell the director that it is not about them or lack of trust in the current project, but due to an unprofessional experience on a past project, this step is taken as protection.
Need an example of a past unprofessional experience? Here is the story…
I signed on to play the lead role in a USC graduate film. It was an interesting story and we would be shooting six days around LA and in the desert. In hindsight, there were some red flags in pre-production and production that I justified or shrugged off. One red flag was that the director sent an email out requesting cast and crew not to take behind-the-scene photos as there would be an official photographer. He stated that if anyone did take pictures they would be removed from the film. That language seemed extreme, but I justified it by thinking the director was just trying to make a point.
The graduate film was a 582 thesis film, meaning that the student raised their own money and held the copyright. USC also has the option where the student can use school money, but then the school holds the copyright. The director was also the executive producer, director of photography (with many shots being hand-held), and production designer. This was also a red-flag as it was clear the director was a one-man show. The only other producer was an associate producer, which was basically a gloried assistant. The associate producer had no say, power or input. Another red flag was the crew was all hired help. There were no fellow USC graduate students helping on this film. In all my past experience working on student films classmates crewed each other’s projects. Those other classmates obviously knew something that I did not know about working with this director.
It was the night before day four of shooting. I emailed the director and associate producer to confirm mileage reimbursement. Many student filmmakers ignore, or gloss over, the fact that mileage reimbursement is not deferred. The day rate is deferred, but not mileage reimbursement. After a couple of emails back and forth where I nicely pointed the mileage reimbursement out in the contract that he sent us, his last email stated he will mail me a check, that he was going a different direction in the script and I would no longer be needed on set. The director was not CCing the associate producer in the emails he sent to me. I called her and she knew nothing of this decision. He would not return my phone calls and the associate producer recommended I show up to set the next day so the three of us could talk. I showed up on set and the director would not come out of the building.
Through emails and messages with the crew I heard the director was saying I did not deliver. I had two artistic “conversations” with the director. Once was by email after a four person scene. I said that I felt like the end of the scene did not click until the last shot, which we shot in profile. I knew the last day was a pick-up day and I offered to shoot that last section again so the director could get close-ups, if he wanted. The director emailed back agreeing to re-shoot as he also did not like the blocking. The last scene of the third night was a scene between me and the actress playing my sister. At the end of shooting, he said we had good chemistry. That was the extent of his artistic direction. Nowhere did he ever have a one-on-one conversation with me saying that something was not working. There was no collaboration between the director and actor. No talking between takes to try it a different way. He did not have time to talk with actors as he was too busy being executive producer, director, DP and production designer.
One speculation I have is that we did not get the last scene of the film and he had to re-write the script. In the last scene, my character is supposed to run up to a gas station in the desert and shoot the bad guy. The bus got to set an hour late that day and by the time we shot that scene we only had enough daylight for one take. Due to camera placement and movement, we did not get the scene in the one take. By the time we shot it again it was completely dark and the scene would not match with the earlier footage. Again this is speculation, as I have no idea the reason for the director’s decision because he would not talk with me.
I reached out to the faculty advisor, who was nothing less than completely professional. He agreed the director was taking on too much responsibility, over-worked and did not conduct himself in a professional manner. After the faculty advisor was in contact with the director, I received an email stating that the production had no issues with me. The faculty advisor quickly responded that the director did not take his advice to offer to meet with me person-to-person and instead chose to talk as the production. After the director and faculty advisor met in person, I received a two-line email basically saying, “Hey, you want to meet in person for coffee.” I replied that I did not have the time to meet with him and the time to talk was the day on set when the director would not come out of the building. I stated the director’s request to meet was disingenuous and that it would not be productive as the director clearly did not understand how unprofessional he was. I never heard back from the director and the faculty advisor emailed me to confirm that my assessment was correct.
We had shot the beginning of the movie and the end of the movie before I was released. From what I heard, the director changed minor things in the script and somehow killed off my character. I also talked with a USC graduate film alumni I work with at my day job. He was shocked to hear this story. He said if the project was funded by USC, the director would have been assigned a producer. The producer would have fired the director for doing this.
Here is where the release comes in. If I did not sign the release, the director would not be able to use any of the footage of me and would have screwed himself over by firing me. Since I did sign the release, he can use the footage of me however he likes. I will now be in a movie that I did not originally sign on to be in. Not signing the release (or writing in an addendum) protects an actor from a director going rogue and changing the script half-way through production. Nine times out of ten will this happen? No. But there is a chance. An actor needs to set-up protections of how their image and voice will be used.