Small film's power rooted in its performances

Indie directors don’t rely on special effects or exotic locations to grab an audience. Predominantly, their most effective tool is the actor. As this year’s Spirit nominees demonstrate, it’s a human face or telling gesture — Melissa Leo’s dampened eyes in “Frozen River,” Richard Jenkins’ expression of utter helplessness in “The Visitor,” Michelle Williams’ cathartic bathroom breakdown in “Wendy and Lucy” — that has the power to transfix.

While every good movie relies on acting, of course, it’s in the small film where “you can’t have a false note in the performance,” as “The Visitor’s” writer-director Tom McCarthy says. “If something does ring false, you lose the audience and it’s hard to get them back. With more intimate films, you really have to play a perfect game.”

Striving for such excellence, McCarthy set aside a two-week rehearsal period, not only to develop a rapport with his cast, but also to polish character and script. “It was amazing,” Jenkins says. “He figured out what we all needed as actors.”

Then, during the shoot, McCarthy, who is also a thesp, left the work mostly in his actors’ hands. “That’s why I rehearse,” he says, “because by the time we got to the set, Richard was this guy. If he did something that was slightly out of character, it was as simple as saying catchwords, like ‘Tighten it up.’ It was really just about modulating that performance.”

Likewise, Courtney Hunt, writer-director of “Frozen River,” relied, in part, on the short film she made with Leo three years prior to keep directing on set to a minimum. “We got to know each other, and I learned that every actor works in totally different ways,” Hunt says. “Missy doesn’t need much, and shows up engines on, so I was responsible for making sure that energy didn’t overwhelm the story.” On set, Hunt says she simply “contoured” Leo’s intensity. “Instead of yelling, I’d say, ‘Confess it,’ ” Hunt says.

Leo praises Hunt for giving her creative freedom as well as subtle bits of advice: “‘Never look at each other,’ was one specific direction,” Leo recalls. Right before lensing, Hunt also slipped into a conversation that Leo might watch “Rio Bravo” and “The Searchers” in preparation. “I saw immediately what she wanted me to look for,” Leo says. “John Wayne, with generally large acting, has a reserve and a surety of beliefs.”

Old movies were a touchstone for others as well. Jenkins remembers conversations he had with McCarthy about another solitary character, the protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” while helmer Kelly Reichardt suggested Williams watch Mike Leigh’s “Bleak Moments” and Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” for her portrait of the lost Wendy.

Because low-budget films by definition lack money, there’s little time for extended discussion and repeated takes. In such an atmosphere of scarcity, many of this year’s nominees say creating a congenial and nurturing environment was crucial.

“People say director A got a great performance out of actor B,” says Jonathan Demme, whose latest, “Rachel Getting Married,” is suffused with the celebratory spirit of a lively wedding party. “But there’s no ‘getting’ anything. The actor is god, and all we can do is to help create an environment for them to do their magic, and do our best to capture it.”

“Rachel Getting Married” star Anne Hathaway says she was emboldened by Demme’s openness and nonjudgmental nature. “There were a lot of moments like, ‘Trust me, this feels right,’ ” she recalls. “When a director says that, it’s always a pleasure. But as an actor, to be able to say that and have the director reciprocate, I felt indulged.”

Hathaway also welcomed the film’s we’re-all-in-this-

together spirit, regardless of the smaller paycheck. “I definitely gave the sign that this was a project that I wanted to do no matter what,” she says, “and we shouldn’t make anyone jump through hoops. We’re part of the team, and there’s no ‘I’ in this movie.”

Then again, when an actor is getting paid just $100 a day, there may be other, less collaborative motivations. “I had a very selfish involvement,” admits Leo about “Frozen River.” “This was a particularly good leading character and I wanted the project to be realized.”

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