Interviews: Director John McNaughton, Two Actresses at Best of the Midwest Awards

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CHICAGO – Early last month, the Midwest Independent Film Festival had their year-end “Best of the Midwest” Awards, honoring their showcase films throughout the 2010 calendar year. Director John Naughton and two actresses – Elizabeth Laidlaw and Erica Lynn Schmeck – were interviewed during the event.

The Midwest Independent Film Festival will resume their ongoing film program on Tuesday, February 1st, 2011, and will gather every first Tuesday thereafter throughout the year.

StarDirector John Naughton of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Mad Dog and Glory”

Chicago native John McNaughton made his feature film debut with the notorious “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986) and has had notable mainstream film success with “Mad Dog and Glory” (1993), starring Bill Murray and Robert De Niro, and “Wild Things” (1998), with Neve Campbell, Kevin Bacon and Denise Richards. He has also directed a number of familiar TV shows including “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “Without a Trace.”

Six Degrees: Kevin Bacon and Director John McNaughton on the set of “Wild Things
Six Degrees: Kevin Bacon and Director John McNaughton on the set of ‘Wild Things’
Photo credit: © 1998 Columbia Tristar

HollywoodChicago.com: What was the strangest or most notable thing that happened to you the first day you stepped onto the set on your first major film?

John McNaughton: My first major film was ‘Mad Dog and Glory,’ which was shot in Chicago. On the first day we had set up a big scaffolding for the camera platform and lights, we were shooting a drug murder scene in a funky part of town, and a storm came in and lightning struck that platform. We had to shut down for awhile. What it amounted to was that I had a 20 million dollar budget riding on my back, and we lost half a day. On the first day.

HollywoodChicago.com: Was there trouble with studio on Mad Dog and Glory, didn’t you show scenes to focus groups and had to re-shoot?

McNaughton: Yeah, but that’s normal. Wild Things we did the same thing, and toyed with the ending. We had a lot of vignettes that explained what was left unexplained at the end, and actually that played pretty well. It was other parts of the film where we had to go back and change. The studio loved the ending in the first screening, and then hated it on the second. So I said let’s keep the ending, but change another part in the second edit. It worked out and did pretty well.

I would say that most movies work on the ending after the filming ends, and you go through a testing process with a studio film.

HollywoodChicago.com: But wasn’t there was a continuity problem when you revisited a fight scene in Mad Dog?

McNaughton: We had to wait for De Niro’s hair to grow. Because he had a buzz cut from doing ‘This Boy’s Life.’ We had to wait for it to grow so it would match from scenes we’d done previously.

I had some problems with cinematographer Robby Müller, I found him to be not a nice man. On set, everything they wheeled the dolly out, this was a signal that Robby Müller was about to enter for the day’s shoot.

We didn’t use Robby to do the re-shoot, and as I was setting up, in my peripheral vision I saw that dolly wheel up. My mind was on a thousand different things, and immediately my stomach went into knots. I then realized that it was a reaction from when Robby was on the set, because we got along so poorly.

HollywoodChicago.com: Was there any film that you honored a director you’ve admired with a shot or scene, that nobody can necessarily catch but you knew was there?

McNaughton: It’s a small thing, but in Mad Dog and Glory there’s a shot where Bill Murray and Robert De Niro toast each other with a couple of snifters of cognac, and we did what is called a speed wrap, which is an adjustment on the camera that changes the speed while the camera is rolling. That was a little homage to Marty Scorsese, who was the producer of the film, and used to use that speed trap technique a lot.

HollywoodChicago.com: Did you have any weird moments with Scorsese?

McNaughton: We were going up to his apartment in Trump Tower in New York, he was going to screen something for me. We were talking, and Marty was talking very rapidly, because that’s how his mind works. He was talking, talking, talking, and the elevator was just about to stop. He said ‘excuse me,’ went silent and tense, and when the doors opened he leapt out of elevator, because he has a phobia that when the elevator stops it’s going to fall. [laughs]

Star Elizabeth Laidlaw, Chicago Actress and Director

Elizabeth Laidlaw is an actress that participates in one of the great perks of the Midwest Independent Film Festival – networking and meeting fellow performers and filmmakers. She is known primarily through her stage work in Chicago, including the Strawdog Theatre Company, the Court Theatre, the Goodman and Steppenwolf. She also has appeared in Chicago-based feature films like “Dimension” and “Eastern College.” In 2003, she founded Lakeside Shakespeare Company, which brings Chicago-based talent to northern Michigan to perform free Shakespeare in the summer months, and has directed many of their productions.

Elizabeth Laidlaw at the Best of the Midwest Awards, Chicago, December 7th, 2010
Elizabeth Laidlaw at the Best of the Midwest Awards, Chicago, December 7th, 2010
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

HollywoodChicago.com: What is the best tip that anyone ever gave you about how to act in film, and what on-screen moment in what film did you practice that advice?

Elizabeth Laidlaw: The best tip I ever got is that if you have to look at an object in a film you actually have to look through it, because if you look at it you’ll go cross-eyed. It was the commentary on ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ when one of the actors pointed out that he was looking a at sword and mentioned that you actually have to look through it. And I was like, ‘oh, I get it.’ It’s been invaluable because before I had a couple of takes cut because I went cross-eyed. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: When in your life was that particular moment that you knew, that despite all good advice against it, that you were going to relentlessly pursue to the best of your ability, the profession of acting?

Laidlaw: This is a very sincere answer. I knew I wanted to be an actress since I was a little kid and I had pursued it all along and my parents never inhibited it. When I told my Dad, who is a very conservatively educated lawyer, that after high school I was going to go to Los Angeles to continue pursuing acting, he said first to go to college. Then I said I’m going to college to be an actor, and he said that’s fine, you’re a wonderful actor. But he wanted me to finish college. I said that was a deal.

HollywoodChicago.com: How do you handle direction that is contrary to how you would interpret a scene?

Laidlaw: If you’d asked me that question 12 years ago I would have said that I would have fought it in the rehearsal room. What I have learned over the years is that the best thing to do is to try what the director suggests. Try it once and try it again. Trust that it will work out.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is the best advice you have as to how to evolve as an actor, given the pitfalls and rejection along the way?

Laidlaw: Man, do it because you love it, and when you stop loving it, stop doing it. You have to love it, you have to love doing it, and if you don’t, stop and do something else.

Star Erica Lynn Schmeck, Chicago Actress and Producer

Erica Lynn Schmeck has moved from actor training at Illinois State University to the Chicago theater and independent film scene. Besides being featured in local productions “Great Heights” and “Never Have I Ever,” she was named Artistic Director fro CNGM Pictures in 2010.

Erica Lynn Schmeck at the Best of the Midwest Awards, Chicago, December 7th, 2010
Erica Lynn Schmeck at the Best of the Midwest Awards, Chicago, December 7th, 2010
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

HollywoodChicago.com: What is the best tip that anyone ever gave you about how to act in film, and what on-screen moment in what film did you practice that advice?

Erica Lynn Schmeck: I can think of the moment. I was working on a film called Great Heights, and I had to do my first love scene. Of course I was nervous, and the director played music throughout doing the film in general to inspire us, and there was one song that was really hitting home to me in regards to the love scene, this was the breaking point and why the scene happens. So the other actor suggested I listen to that music specifically to get through it, take it and use it to react to the situation. It sounds like the most basic advice there is, but really acting is reacting. Take the emotion, take the scenario and react like you would react.

HollywoodChicago.com: When in your life was that particular moment that you knew, that despite all good advice against it, that you were going to relentlessly pursue to the best of your ability, the profession of acting?

Schmeck: It was my sophomore year at college. We had to audition to stay in the department, and mine was tougher than I expected. That’s when I realized if I want this I have to work my butt off for it, and I did. I passed the audition, I stayed in the department, graduated and never looked back.

HollywoodChicago.com: How do you handle direction that is contrary to how you would interpret a scene?

Schmeck: It’s usually just figuring out how two people communicate. Sometimes directors don’t communicate in the same way that actors work and sometimes they do. It’s about understanding why they view the world that you’re in the way they do, and translating it into your own personal work.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is the best advice you have as to how to evolve as an actor, given the pitfalls and rejection along the way?

Schmeck: You have to always want to learn. If you’re willing to learn, you’re willing to evolve and you get better at your craft.

The Midwest Independent Film Festival resumes its monthly film showcase on February 1st, 2011. Click here for more details. Click here for a list of winners at the 2010 Best of the Midwest Awards.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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