Over the weekend I watched the movie Mask for the first time since it was released in 1985. It’s a terrific film. Mask is not to be confused with the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask (1994), it’s more in line with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).
Mask is based on the life of Rocky Dennis who suffered from craniodiaphyseal disease which gave him a severe skull deformity. In the film, Eric Stoltz is Rocky and Cher is his mother and both of them are 100% believable. Part of what’s so amazing about that is they both had limited feature film acting experience.
Cher won the Best Actress Awards at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. She would later win an Academy Award for her role in Moonstruck, but when Peter Bogdanovich cast her in Mask it was a gamble. Though she had solid performances in Silkwood (1983) and the Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), she was still best know for the TV show Sonny & Cher (71-74) and her hit songs. Against Bogdonovich’s wishes, the studios made Cher test for the part.
Though Stoltz was around 24-years-old when he made Mask, he had been acting for ten years in theater, TV, and in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life. Bogdonovich cast him out of 300 people he saw for the part of Rocky.
So all that leads us to the first tip we can learn from Peter Bogdonovich.
Tip #1: Cast the right actors in the right parts.
Bogdanovich seems to follow the old Hollywood axiom, “casting is 90% of directing.” (I’ve seen that quote attributed to everyone from John Ford, to John Huston, to Elia Kazan, to Hitchcock, but don’t if any of them actually said that—only that it’s often repeated. (On the director’s commedtary on Mask, Bogdanovich says that of all of the actresses being consider for the role, Cher was the only one he thought would be believable as a druggie/biker chick.)
Watch Bogdonvich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and you’ll also see a wonderful cast.
Tip #2: “If you have two good actors there’s no reason to cut around a lot. Just let the audiences get into the story.”
Cast the right actors for the part and let them act. Simple, right? Bogdanovich was an actor first—he studied with Stella Adler—so it would make sense that he would be concerned with performances. One trick that he used frequently in the past is to not complicate the production with lots of set-ups. Here’s how he explains a shot in Mask where two character have a conversation on a picnic bench with the scene staring with a close up of some baseball trading cards before settling on a two shot:
“This close-up pulls back into a two shot and then the whole scene plays in one piece. I’ll point that out a number of times in this picture where you had a whole scene play without any cutting, it’s a way of giving the actors a tremendous amount of fluidity. Good actors always love that if you can do.”
Mask director’s commentary
Tip #3: Forget about shallow depth of field.
“I like everything in focus because that’s the way the eye sees. Orson Welles had that done in Citizen Kane and other films.”
Paper Moon Director’s commentary
Bogdanovich has been a long time fan of the films of John Ford and Orson Welles. And while today shallow depth of field is all the rage with many filmmakers where the background is out of focus, both Ford and Welles were notorious for shots where everything is in focus. (Watch Citizen Kane and The Searchers.) Bogdanovich seems follow their lead. Bogdanovich describes one scene in Mask where two actors walk and talk on a long tracking shot with horses riding and jumping in the background and a freeway with cars beyond that;
“We have the horses behind them and the traffic way in the distance. That’s my idea of a good scene. Two good actors, no cutting, and a lot of movement in the background. It isn’t distracting. It gives you the feeling of life going on. This therefore becomes more real.”
Every actor knows the frustration of what it’s like having to do a good take over because an assistant didn’t nail a focus pull. Having a large depth of field allows a greater chance of having technical problems. Every great performance is captured. Bogdonovich and his crew tended to favor wide angle lens and fast film to achive that look. These days because digital cameras can really jack up the ISO without adding too much grain that’s easier to achive than ever. Though most shy away from it because it’s too remincicent of the smaller senor video cameras which made everything look it focus. Shallow depth-of-field is now considered the “film look,” yet film history is full of other kinds of styles.
Tip #4: “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”
Great acting isn’t just saying words.
There’s a scene in Mask where Cher’s father playfully tosses a baseball to Cher. She playfully tosses it back to him. There seems to be a connection made, and he tosses it back to her. Then Cher’s countenance changes and she fires it back to her father. He catches it but seems stunned. He puts the ball down, and walks out of the house. Not a word is spoken, but so much is conveyed. In fact, you can read into it their entire relationship. Silence is powerful stuff. (I should mention that Mask screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan received a WGA for the script.)
Tip #5: “The best kind of movie acting is with the eyes.”
This is more of an extension of tip #4, showing how to maximize silent looks. In The Last Picture Show where the Timothy Bottom’s character is in the back of a movie theater making out with his girlfriend yet at the same time is glancing up at actress Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen, and then glancing down in front of him at Cybill Shepard who is kissing Jeff Bridges. His eyes say everything about his relationship with his girlfriend.
P.S. In case Bogdanovich is off your radar, or you only know him as an actor on The Spranos, his film The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Oscars including two for him for Best Director and Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (shared with Larry McMurty). (He also edited The Last Picture Show, though didn’t take a credit for it since he thought his name would be on screen too much.) The documentary he directed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, won a Grammy. And if that’s not enough clout, Quentin Tarantino once said that They All Laughed (a 1981 film directed and co-written by Bogdanovich) was one of the top ten films ever made. Wes Anderson called it a “masterpiece.”