Article By: Maria Shamkalian
Tony Savant, Director of Playhouse West-Philadelphia, Acting School and Theater, is one of the foremost respected acting teachers in the country. During the last 30 years, Mr. Savant has been integral to Playhouse West achieving its top reputation throughout the industry and being considered one of the finest acting schools in the world. Mr. Savant helped train some of the most successful actors in film and television, including Ashley Judd, James Franco, Scott Caan, Scott Wolf, Scott Haze, Tessa Thompson, Jim Parrack, Alain Uy, Wentworth Miller, Heather Morris, Kathryn Morris, Charisma Carpenter and hundreds of other working actors. He has directed five films, and is also a producer, writer and actor.
1) What is your most recent success and how did you accomplish it?Most recent success as far as filmmaking is concerned? I guess that would be my short film titled, Red, which ended up winning around 16 film festival awards. It’s tough to get a 39 minute short into festivals, but we managed to get into some good ones. I’m very proud of that film, it’s definitely the best film I made to date. It was about two young musicians who try to escape their dysfunctional home-lives by playing music together. It’s a little love story starring Evangeline Young, who’s got a recurring role on the ABC show “Emergence”, Luke Eddy, and Jim Parrack, from “True Blood” fame. Jim was shooting Suicide Squad in Toronto at the time and flew down for a weekend from that $200 million movie to shoot our $10,000 film. He was terrific, it’s one of the best things he’s done, I really believe that. Vange and Luke were students of mine at the time, and Jim had studied with me in L.A., that’s how I cast the actors. I knew their work and wrote it with them in mind. We raised the money threw IndieGogo, and the campaign went really well. We met our budget in thirty days. Lots of old students of mine in L.A. contributed, which I was grateful for. To succeed with any film you’ve got to begin with a good, well-constructed script. So, I worked very hard on the outline, I like to outline everything in great detail before writing the script. I had been thinking about the story for almost a year, taking notes here and there, before getting down to the real work on it. Then, the outline and designing the characters took about eight months, and then the script pretty much wrote itself within a matter of weeks. Re-writes were minimal, but I kept tinkering for the next seven months during pre-production and rehearsing it. Early on, before I even gave them a script, I told Vange and Luke to begin writing songs together, which we were to use in the film. All the music is original, and Vange’s mother, Wendy Young, she wrote some songs and arranged all the music, which was vital to the film. We had some excellent musicians play on the soundtrack, which I think is terrific, high quality for a short film. I also told the actors to work on specific southern accents, because the film is set in the rural south, even though we filmed it all in PA, mostly in the Pottstown area, northern Chester County. So, you work on the script till it’s solid and constructed well, you cast it well, you get the right actors, that is so important. This was easy because, again, I was writing it with these actors in mind. Thank God they loved the script and wanted to do it, or I wouldn’t have done the film. I was also able to get other great technical people on board. My producer, ShaunPaul Costello introduced me to a terrific DP, Charlie Anderson, who was working on the HBO show, “Vinyl”, at the time. Charlie and I hit it off and he was just terrific to work with. The whole shoot, we did 10 days, I think, was just a wonderful experience. We were well prepared, had great weather, all the locations worked out. We were blessed. On the last day or shooting, the cast and crew didn’t want leave, they didn’t want it to end.
2) How did you get started in the film industry?I was in L.A, training to be an actor, studying at Playhouse West. While doing that I began directing and writing plays, eventually was asked to teach, which led to me directing more and more. I had been in a few films, small parts, here and there. But was becoming more interested in directing. In 1999 I decided I needed to make a film, I wanted to direct one so I could speak and teach with more authority about the whole process. My wife and I wrote a film called Letter From Home, a feature, which we shot mostly back here in PA. We shot a 90 page script, on 16mm film, in 15 days, 12 days here in PA, 3 in L.A. We flew the actors and some crew from LA, but got most of our crew through leads from the PA Film Office, the DP, AC’s, gaffer, grips, script supervisor… they were all from the Philly area. I love making films. I always say that every day on a set is like Christmas morning for a kid to me. I wish I could make more, but my teaching obligations and running an acting school make it difficult. So, I mentor a lot of filmmakers. I’ve also been the director of the Playhouse West Film Festival, for 19 years in LA and now for 6 years in Philly. And I’ve helped all my sons make films, so I get my fill. I’m on sets a lot. And I will make more myself.
3) Why do you choose to work in PA and what do you love the most about working in Pennsylvania?It’s not entirely by choice now, as I live in PA now, but my preference would be to shoot here in the state as much as I can in the future. I’ve made several films in Los Angeles, and it’s expensive and can be a hassle. There’s certainly more resources available, but it’s not easy. Making films in PA is wonderful because everywhere you go most people are so helpful and willing to pitch in, lend locations, whatever. In L.A. everyone has a hand out and they want something; a part in the film, a part for their girlfriend, or lots of money. Hollywood is the film capital, but a lot of people there, perhaps, are so used to it, it’s not a novelty, and unless there are stars around I guess it’s just a pain to have a film crew around. In PA, in my experiences, people are so willing to help and they are happy you are filming something. I’ve had strangers volunteer to direct traffic, offer food, offer their vehicles, homes and ask to help. And many places in PA you don’t need permits. It’s just so filmmaker friendly. And there are so many great locations in eastern PA, plus the architecture, the history, we’ve got a great city and also very rural areas all within an hour’s drive. PA, especially the Philly area, has everything a filmmaker needs.
4) What are some of your favorite shooting locations in Pennsylvania?Oh, boy… that’s hard to answer. Again, I think the city of Philadelphia has a lot to offer. You’ve got so much history and great architecture, wonderful old buildings with so much character, combined with a modern skyline. You’ve got two large, beautiful rivers, parks, lots of rural areas and woods… I love shooting in the woods and outdoors, even though there’s a chance you’ll get rained on. PA is so scenic. I love it.
5) What do you love the most about your job?
The job of director? I like being the captain of the ship. I love telling stories, and I guess what drew me to directing from acting is that I like to tell it my way. I think all directors have to think they know the best way to tell the story. It’s not arrogance, it’s that you have to find what’s personal to you about the story and it kind of demands that you have a vision and idea of how it should be told, from your point of view. I also love bringing creative people together, collaborating and setting up an arena for them to play and creatively express themselves. It gives me great pleasure to be a part of that. But to me, it’s about loving to tell stories, wanting to move people. Making movies is a very noble endeavor.
6) What is your most memorable, most awkward, or funniest on set story?
Hard to say. I guess if you’re asking about any on set story, my most memorable overall would be getting to be on set all week with Eli Wallach and Martin Landau many years ago, on a movie called Mistress. I had a small part, was mostly completely cut out of the film, but being on set with them for five days, picking their brains, listening to them tell stories and talk about acting. They were legends and worked with the best of the best, had amazing careers and a million stories. And they were great story tellers. What a special treat to be around them. There were other big stars in the film too, and it was very instructive to watch them work. But getting to know Eli and Martin, being in scenes with them was great, but the off screen part was what I treasured and will never forget. And they were just lovely and giving people.
As a director, I think the best moment for me was on the set of Red, watching Jim Parrack and Evangeline Young do a scene, and have it turn out so different than what I had imagined, yet so much better. There was a scene where Jim, as Vange’s dad, is drunk and she puts him to bed. And we rehearsed it and it was very, very good. But when we shot the scene, on the first take, it just organically and instinctively came out so different. Perhaps intuitively it was the way it was meant to be all along, but we didn’t see it before. I was just beautiful and better than what any of us imagined. It was one take. I just knew it would never be better than that. I ended up doing no coverage, that first and only take is what’s in the film. Jim’s work is so deep and sensitively and vulnerable, and so full of pain, and Vange just works off him so beautifully. It was magical to watch it happen in that moment. I think, as a director, and as an actor, I live for moments when you can be surprised like that.
7) Do you have any upcoming Pennsylvania-based projects?
I do. I have several I’ve been mulling around and working on, in my mind, for several years now. I will make one of them in the next year or two. I’m slow. Because of my other obligations I don’t get to do it as often as I want, so when I do I have to make it count.
8) PAFIA has been working hard on increasing the film tax credit in Pennsylvania and bringing more film work to our local crew and talent, but we must all unite to really make a difference. What can you tell our elected officials about the importance of PA film industry and the difference it has made in your life?
We could have a thriving and fruitful film community here, not that we don’t now, but I mean it could be more fruitful and even more thriving, bringing bigger films and TV shows, if we could compete with some of the tax-friendly states like Georgia and Louisiana, or North Carolina. The politicians and officials of those states seem to recognize that. The local crew, the hotels, locations, merchants and other vendors, would all win out if we had more film shoots here, which will off-set the tax breaks to the production companies and studios because the local people would make more money and pay more in taxes. It would contribute to the economy in the long run. So, it would be a win-win for everyone. Entertainment is such an important part of our lives. Imagine a world without movies, without plays… it would be a bleak world. It enriches all our lives.
9) What is your advice for the aspiring actors and filmmakers? Some steps to take? Some mistakes to avoid?
For actors, please, please learn your craft, study it, work at it daily like musicians and dancers and the artists. Work to become the kind of actor everyone would be dying to work with. This means not only being great at your craft, but being a complete professional in every sense of the word. It takes years of continual study and work to be excellent at it. Take it seriously, become excellent at it so you can contribute effectively on any project you are a part of. It’s hard work, but it should be joyful work if you love it. If you don’t love it and want to be great at it, then disqualify yourself and do something else. As a filmmaker, producer or technical person, learn through doing. Get on as many sets as possible to do it a lot. And, for both actors and behind the scenes folks, read, continue to educate yourselves, watch and study films, study all the best films, understand what works, then go and do it. Begin with short films, five minutes. If you can tell a great five minute story, then make a ten minute, then fifteen, and so on. Actors, make your own films, don’t wait to get hired. But, perhaps before that, educate yourself. Everyone should read “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri, so you understand the anatomy of a story and it’s proper construction. It’s the best book on writing ever. And it all begins with the script. If you don’t understand story construction or what makes a good script, forget it. Read “Making Movies” by Sidney Lumet. Read “On Directing” by Elia Kazan, and “Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films”, with Jeff Young. It’s a series of interviews with the greatest director of all time. Read every book by and about Kazan. Watch YouTube interviews with all the finest directors and filmmakers and actors. Directors, study some acting so you understand that process and so you can help actors and speak to them intelligently. For everyone, help out on sets. Get on as many sets as you can and learn as many jobs on set as you can so you are knowledgeable and also appreciate that making a film is a collaborative effort and all jobs are to be valued.
10) What are some good strategies to find more gigs?
Help out on sets as many as you can. Again, become the kind of person that everyone would die to work with. Show up early, do more than what is required of you. Go above and beyond the call of duty. Be nice, courteous and dependable. These things go such a long way. And while doing this, learn and become excellent at what you do. Man, it’s all about working hard and being dependable. That’s the ticket. And be nice. No one wants to work with a self-indulgent jerk.
11) What are some of the most valuable lessons that you have learned about this industry and wish you knew earlier?
Hmm… I think the value of studying movies and knowing them. I mean really knowing them, knowing about the people who made them. I wish I’d been told early on that it’s important to become an expert on the literature of your profession, which in this case is movies. Read, watch and study all the great films, film directors, etc. It seems so obvious.
12) What is your favorite film shot in Pennsylvania?
Oh, so many of them. My God, there’s Philadelphia. There’s Rocky, of course. Witness. The Deer Hunter… it was set in PA, don’t know if was shot out in western PA or not. The Sixth Sense. But, I guess I’ll go with Rocky! Who doesn’t love Rocky?
13) What is your favorite project that you worked on?
I’d have to say my film, Red. It was a special experience.
14) What is your biggest aspiration in this industry?
Oh, just to keep helping young filmmakers, and get to keep learning and making films every few years. It’s such a joy to be in this industry and do what you love.
15) What would be the best way for our local PA cast and crew to submit to your upcoming projects?
Best way is to keep working, build up contacts. If someone sees that I’m doing a project they can message me. Like most filmmakers, you mostly work with people through contacts with others. Go to film festival and screenings, meet filmmakers and exchange emails. You can’t get hired from someone who doesn’t know you exist. And be the kind of person everyone would die to work with. If you do, you will have more work than you can imagine. With me, come to events we have at Playhouse West, like our annual film festival in June, and introduce yourself.
Pennsylvania Film Industry Association (PAFIA)461 Cochran Road, Box 246Pittsburgh, PA 15228(717) 833-4561 firstname.lastname@example.org