MAKE YOUR SHOW: theCreators
Actor/Filmmaker Eric Whitten

Eric is an actor and filmmaker based out of New York.  As an actor, he’s a veteran of the stage, film and television having been on shows such as “The Jim Gaffigan Show” and “The Tick”. As a filmmaker, his short film “Chalk” is part of the Big Apple Film Festival, New York Short International Film Festival, and LA Shorts International Film Fest.  He was awarded a film grant by FilmInk Magazine for “Chalk”’s post-production process. 
www.ericwhitten.net

www.ericwhitten.net/reel
imdb.me/ericwhitten
www.thechalkmovie.com
www.daybreakthemovie.com

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John Cramer:

it's a surprise when you look at somebody's resume and they have directed, written, produced, edited, filmed seven things in two years?  So how did you get started making your own work?

Eric Whitten:

Well I guess it actually kind of started with a script. A friend of mine was in Afghanistan and when he came back, we had a long conversation about it and he said, “Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm messed up in my head for the rest of my life.” He was being very honest and genuine about it and I didn't know anything about post-traumatic stress at all. Because he was a dear friend of mine, I wanted to learn more, so I spent a year researching post-traumatic stress. In that time, I was like, ‘it would be really interesting to write a film about this’.  So that was my first venture.  I started by writing a feature film.  Never written a script before in my life…writing a feature film about this guy who was dealing with post-traumatic stress after the war.  I got about 60, almost 70 pages through it and realized it wasn't coming, the things that I wanted to say. But that was kind of my first foray into this whole process.  I had written little small things.  A buddy of mine ran a one-act theater, so every month they would have one act plays where they would have writers, directors and actors, and they would have a theme or a topic.  That's actually where my first film came out of.  They had a theme or a topic and mine was film noir. And, and they had a film noir package, which was la trench coat and a gun.  Those were your only constraints and they were like, “go!”.  You had two weeks to write it and they had a week to rehearse it.   We put it up on the fourth week and they did that every single month.

Jason Cicci:

Sometimes constraints are liberating.  They can give you a great idea.

EW:

I actually live on constraints.  They're way better.

Jason:

That's filmmaking on a budget.

John:

So, a lot of actors hear that you’ve got to create your own work to showcase yourself as an actor.  It doesn't sound like that was what drove you to create that first project.

EW:

No, not at all.  In fact, I've yet to put myself in anything that I've written.  It's my eventual goal. When I decided to make my first film, "Chalk", I wanted to remove myself as an actor because I wanted to completely be on that side to experience it.  Also, now looking back, there's just no way when you're wearing director/producer hats and we’re shooting it all in one, 16-hour day on a green screen. It's crazy.  There's no way I could have been an actor in that. But yeah, that's, that's valid.  Most actors want to create something for themselves.  I always say that's the best thing you could do right now, especially.   It's so saturated that as an artist, you need to create your own stories.

John:

There are all these roles that are necessary to create TV or film.  If you're coming at it first from the position of being an actor, it can be tricky to figure out how to balance it.  Writing seems like a first, most obvious thing as opposed to directing or being behind the camera.  But again, it kind of looks like you've done it all.  So, if your goal wasn't to showcase yourself as an actor, what was your goal?  Obviously, that first project was to understand your friend's story, but then you continue to make stuff.  How did your goals change and why did you take on these other roles and not act?

EW:

I still continue to do it all.  I think for me it was kinda like they say: you get bit by the bug, so to speak.  I'd been an actor for 10 years when I made my first film.  The business is tough, right?  Sometimes we need to create things in our lives to kind of refresh us, then make us feel whole again.  And I think this was bringing a whole different side of myself to it, which made me a better actor.  When you do your first project, I'd say you're accountable for yourself.  Most of the backend work is going to follow you. It's not gonna happen unless you do it.  And I had help.  I was fortunate in my first project to have good friends to help me.  And I think that's also the most important thing.  On your first project, don't be shy about asking for help, never be shy about it.  I've learned as a filmmaker and a creator that if you have a project and you say, “it's written, I've got a little bit of money for it, I've got my locations, I'm taking care of X, Y, and Z, all you gotta do is fill in, do this little thing for me”.  People were like, “heck yeah, of course I'll do that”, because people are hungry to create all the time.  Most people don't have nearly as many opportunities to create as they want so if you set it up and say, “Here it is!”, people are like, “yeah, I'll do that”.

“Most actors want to create something for themselves.  That's the best thing you could do right now.   As an artist, you need to create your own stories.”

Jason:

A lot of people are asking about budget right now because there's just no money for a lot of artists to create, but during that time did you use online campaigns?

EW:

I did.  I've actually crowdfunded two campaigns and I've actually consulted a few people on crowd funding, as well.  I did a lot of research.  So, my first [campaign] was like the same thing with directing, the same thing with producing.  It's the same thing with any of this is I went, “okay, who do I know that does this, or has done this?  Let me just, just go pick their brain, take them to lunch.”  People are so nice about just sitting down and, and just letting you pick their brain on stuff. I think that's the most important thing you could possibly do.  Crowd funding is a beast.  I mean, it's a 24-7 job.  And what most people don't realize is that that job starts about three months before your actual campaign, if you want it to be successful. There's a lot that goes into it. Also, to just go into it with the mindset of you have a goal, but it's okay if don't get there because as artists, it's about the journey, not about the end game. That's the most important thing, because if you're always looking at the end game, you're going to set yourself up for disappointment.

Eric Whitten on the Set of "Chalk"

John:

Obviously we started creating our own work to showcase ourselves as actors, but I think we were both lucky that we somehow were open enough to other possibilities that once we did start to see, “Oh, I enjoy producing” or, “Oh, I'm good at directing” - seeing other ways that you can be valuable and help tell your story or other people's stories.  It sounds like you started making your own work and your goal was just to tell the story.  It wasn't to further your career as an actor, necessarily, but it inevitably led to new relationships and new roles.  Would you say that's true?

EW:

Yeah, absolutely.  It led to other people being like, “Hey, I heard you did this thing”. Or “my friend told me so much about working with you.  I'd love to like sit down and talk to you about that.”  That actually happened.  A friend of mine - actually now he's a great friend of mine, but we loosely knew each other from an acting group - he reached out to me about doing a short film, how to even do it.  We sat down over coffee, like two years ago, and he told me the story and I thought it was a great story.  We talked about it more and started hashing out.  Less than a year later, we were filming it.  I love telling other people's stories as much as I love telling my own stuff.  There's a unique challenge to it.  I think a lot of people give directors a lot of flack that don't write their own stuff.  You know, you think of like Ridley Scott - like he only does other people's scripts versus like Tarantino or Nolan who write their own stuff. There are unique challenges to both.  I think they're both valid.  

“I was putting so much pressure on myself, so many different ways of getting down on myself because I wasn't where I wanted to be.  I think having a different side of creative work gave me that more worldly perspective to say, ‘This is not about me’.”

Jason:

You know, I noticed you continuously talk about yourself as an artist. And I think that's so important for people to make that distinction.  When people ask me for advice, I always encourage them to try to think of themselves as an artist and not just an actor waiting for an opportunity.  I think acting is such a hard business that we forget that there's a greater purpose involved in what we're trying to do.  Did you always thought of yourself as that artist, or did making work on your own sort of inform how you think about yourself?

EW:

That's a good question. I mean, it's weird, right? I don't know if it was ever, I don't know if that was ever in my brain.  For me, acting always interested me, whether consciously or subconsciously. People always ask you if you always wanted to be an actor.  And I was like, yeah, I think subconsciously.  I look back when I was a kid with my Dad and VHS recorder, always running around, setting it up and recording myself doing stupid stuff.  And then also the filmmaker side makes sense because I was always running around with that same VHS recorder, recording my friends doing stupid stuff.  I was never making epic movies, like Steven Spielberg, you know, when I was a kid.  It was always sketch comedy, stupid stuff. But I never wanted to be like a star.  I always wanted to be a consistent working actor.  I always wanted to have those opportunities.  And I think for me it was when those opportunities weren't coming up as often that I knew I deserved or I'd worked for that I was like, “well, maybe that's not where the universe is calling me in this moment…and that's okay.”  I know my actor road, I know what that road looks like. As you said, John, you gotta allow yourself, when another door opens, to see what's in this room.  Cause you always know how to get back to the hallway.  So, you can go in this room and you can dabble a little bit and then you can come back to that hallway and eventually you realize it's just one big lobby and everybody's just like mingling around.

John:

In what way has taken on these other roles of writer, producer, director everything you've done, how have those roles helped inform your work as an actor?

EW:

I think a thousand-fold.  First as a writer, it makes you respect the word of the writer.  I was fortunate enough in the school that I went to, that they graded us on word perfect.  Our teacher that taught us in our scene study class was adamant about word perfect.

Jason:

Where'd you go to school, Eric?

EW:

New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.  You don't realize until you do start writing how important that is.  You write it a certain way with a certain punctuation to bring out a certain idea or a certain flavor in your head.  And if the actor is not honoring those punctuations in that regard, it's not going to sound the same, especially in comedy.  You don't have the same resonance, you don't have the same tempo.  You don't have all those things are in place.  It's not going to hit, it's not going to land the same. First and foremost, you start to respect those positions and see that while you are an important piece, you are a very small piece in a giant machine and how interconnected everything is.  As an actor, you want to be prepared.  You want to show up and do your thing.  Know when to ask questions and know your place.  If you're on set for a television show and you have five lines, come in prepared.  If you want to ask one little small question, that's fine but don't drag it out.  You learn the importance of that when you're put under those constraints yourself. It's just like with the casting process, when you're sitting on the other side, you all of a sudden have immense respect for what these people do.  They're watching hundreds of people a day.  It's crazy what they do.  To be able to catalog who did what and why certain people tend to book more because I know from my own process, you watch somebody and as soon as somebody does something incredible, that bar is set and anybody that drops below that you're just like, “okay, okay, okay”. You're nice about it and you give them the time because it is their time. But a lot of people aren't hitting that bar once it's set.

Jason:

And then it informs you as the actor, the next time you go into a room and say, “Wow, I know now how I have to be prepared in order to be considered.

EW:

To understand that as the actor you're not going to be right for every role.  In fact, you're not going to be right for most roles and don't put that pressure on yourself.  You go in, you do your job, you have a little bit of fun in that room and then you leave and forget it because there's so many variables.  As actors, we hear it ad nauseam that it's out of your hands, yada, yada, yada. But it is true.  I had people come in and do a great audition, but they just weren't right.  Their headshot looked one way and they seemed like they would have been a fit but once they came in the room, their energy wasn't right.  Even though they gave a good performance, their energy wasn't right.  I can just feel this is not the right person.  And it's nothing to do with that person.

John:

We did a casting session and I had such a wide variety of actors come in and read for this one role, because it was very open in terms of who could play the role.  You see people with great credentials, you see people with great schooling on their resume.  Everybody comes in, they're beautiful.  They do a great job.  And then one person walks in - no credentials, no resume - but the moment they walk in the door, I saw it was just an essence thing and just who, how they were.  This actor couldn't remember the lines and I said, “It’s fine, don't worry about the lines.  Just put the script down.”  He kept getting caught up on the lines. I said, “It's fine.  Just try to do this thing. You don't need the lines.”  And it was funny.  I was going to cast him because he was just perfect.  You know, the essence such a surprise and a revelation for me as an actor.

Jason:

Did he get the part?

John:

No, the next day, somebody else sent in a self-tape that was just something different and even more right.  Eric, what would you say has been the number one benefit for you of creating your own work?

EW:

Uh, peace of mind, maybe.  If you're solely an actor, and I can only speak to me personally, but I know for myself, I was putting so much pressure on myself, so many different ways of getting down on myself because I wasn't where I wanted to be.  Making excuses as to why I wasn't where I wanted to be.  I was putting blame on others and the industry and everywhere else but myself. And I think having a different side of creative work gave me that more worldly perspective to say, “This is not about me.  It's not.  It's not that I'm a bad actor, it just hasn't happened in that way.  And that's okay.  And that's not what it's about. It's not about me becoming a series regular or being in a ton of movies or whatever. It's really about letting those doors in that hallway keep opening and just experiencing the journey.  If when I'm 78 and if I've only made a few short films and I act here and there but I have a happy, fulfilling life because I chose to do that journey…at the end of the day, very few people get to choose their dream journey.  The dream journey is hard and it's never going to be exactly what you imagined in any field.  Some people are fortunate, but I think for most of us, it's not going to be this grand thing that we think it's going to be.

John:

Can you tell us what you're excited about working on now or, next?

EW:

I have a couple things floating around.  Over the last three and a half years, I'd written my first feature. I finally got to a place where I was like, “Okay, I can now send.  I'd been sending it out into the world, but not really out into the world to like competitions and stuff.  It’s about a young woman trying to become the next underground eating competition champion and redeeming her father's legacy in that world. It's this kind of like silly “Airplane!”, Mel Brooks-style comedy because that's what I grew up with and that's what I love. "Chalk", my short film, and also "Daybreak", which I directed and produced last year are both on the festival circuits right now.  I had never navigated the festival circuit as a filmmaker before so to have two films out there at the same time and to be in such an interesting time for festivals because a lot of them are going online, it's good that they're still doing it.  It's unfortunate, too, because the whole point of festivals is really for filmmakers to go and network.  Those are your future jobs.  Those are your future connections. You're not really going to get that in an online format, no matter how many Zoom seminars you do, it's just not going to be the same. You're not going to meet these people in person and shake hands with them and talk to them face to face.  You're not going to have that “in the room” connection, which is the other unfortunate part of like how our business is going, as actors.  As we go more virtual, you're taking that human element out of it.  While it makes things more convenient for the production companies, you don't get the sense - like you said, John - when that person walks in the room.  You don't get that feeling of “Oh, wow.  They have an energy about them.”  You know, you can't tell that through a screen for the most part.

We're supposed to be doing a reality show/documentary series, kind of in the vein of the Netflix show “Cheer”, about the cheerleading.  It’s a mixture of that and “Dark Tourist”, another Netflix show where this guy went around the world and did all these weird tourist things that were kind of on the macabre. I have a really good friend who is a long-time sideshow act and magician and former Hells Angel.  We are trying to set up this reality documentary show where he would be the host.  He has tons of really incredible sideshow circus acts, friends all over Vegas and all over the United States.  We essentially started picking apart certain acts and certain things about these people that have limitations in life.  In a normal side show, when people go look at - for lack of a better term – “freaks”, we want to take the freak out of those people and show a little bit of what they do but more about how they navigate normal everyday life.  How does a quadriplegic sideshow act navigate living by himself in an apartment alone, eating and going to the store and dating?  [We’re] humanizing these people.  It kind of got put on hold obviously because of COVID but that's one of the things that we're plowing around.

Eric at the SoHo International Film Festival

Jason:

And what is this new teaching opportunity that you have? Is it something that came from your film work?

EW:

Yes.  My good friend Paul contacted me and said, “I have this friend who has runs an acting school and they're looking to expand.  They're looking for a filmmaker.”  I was like, “Heck yeah, I've been waiting to get out of the restaurant industry.”  In addition to acting classes and coaching, they offer reels for students.  Kent, the owner, writes the scenes.  They do up to eight scenes a month for 2 to 16 actors total. I have two days to shoot all eight scenes, four on each day.  I direct them, I light them, I sound record them.  The rest of the time, I'm at home in the editing room.  I learned how to edit through my own stuff.  It is already starting to open up new worlds and make me learn new things, especially with audio engineering and coloring.  It's a great opportunity for me to really kind of flex different muscles in a different way, and also, in a very indie way, be very creative with the limitations that we have.

Jason:

So, is this all on hold at the moment?

EW:

We're still doing it!  We shot last month. We did SAG's standards, with all the rules and regulations with masks and sanitizers and temperatures as [actors] came in.  I was in mask and gloves the entire time. And so we shot that last month and then we're shooting the second one this month. So it's still ongoing. I think now is now is the best time to be making your own stuff because you can do it and be safe, but also still be able to thrive because you're going to be able to get into places cheaper and easier.  Check out your local restaurant.  Nobody's there [so ask], “Can I shoot here?” Those are your opportunities right now.

Jason:

Thank you so much for taking the time. We're hoping to inspire people continue to be creative during this time.

EW:

Absolutely.

John:

Thanks so much, Eric.

Jason:

Good luck with everything.

EW

Thank you, guys.