“If you give me a script, a challenge, I can do it.” Anne Marie Cummings tells me confidently over drinks in New York City. She’s visiting the East Coast to attend season 2 premiere screenings of her Emmy-nominated web series Conversations in LA. Next to her, Gustavo Velasquez, her co-star, nods enthusiastically. They’re partners in crime even off camera.
Velasquez and Cummings. Courtesy of the Conversations in LA website
Like many independent projects, Conversations in LA was conceived as something very different. Cummings, already an accomplished theater writer, producer, and actress, was interested in filming something for her film reel. She wrote a series of seemingly unconnected scenes designed to show off her now Emmy-award-nominated acting chops, and while talking over the project with a friend in a cafe, she saw Velasquez across the room and felt it was meant to be.
“I was about to put out a casting call for scene partners and I was having coffee with another actor,” Cummings remembers with a smile, “and Gus was sitting near me and I looked at him and he was reading a play and I thought, ‘he seems like somebody I should audition.’”
Velasquez nods, adding “I was rehearsing lines with a classmate for a play we were going to put up… [I had] no industry credits. Then I met Anne Marie and she took a chance on me… I think she saw some things my own managers didn’t see. She saw an actor even I didn’t see. It was really an incredible opportunity.”
After they’d filmed several scenes, it became clear that this was more than just a handful of independent vignettes- they had the beginnings of something truly groundbreaking. “I knew after shooting the third or the fourth scene,” Cummings says, “and then we reshot most of season one, because I realized that I was doing something very unique and I wanted to perfect it as best as I could. It was important to me to perfect it.”
And perfect it they did. Season one of Conversations in LA was nominated for three Digital Daytime Emmys- Outstanding Leading Actress in a Digital Daytime Drama Series (Cummings), Outstanding Leading Actor in a Digital Daytime Drama Series (Velasquez), and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Digital Daytime Drama Series (Vanita Harbour).
Conversations in LA is exactly what it sounds like; a series of uninterrupted tracking shot conversations between people in very different places in their lives struggling to navigate Los Angeles in their own ways. Cummings’ theatre background is clear in their format- the meat of most episodes is a single shot, capturing the raw and realistic entirety of conversations as if the viewer was an invisible observer. As you can imagine, while the simplicity of a single shot sounds appealing to other filmmakers without many resources, a fifteen-minute take without the benefit of cutting to other coverage presents serious challenges.
“It takes a year to film a season,” admits Cummings, “and it takes a month to rehearse each episode. We rehearse on location sometimes, like around a neighborhood we’d chosen for an episode in season 2. In that situation, I started the actors out in a park so they’re not daunted by the location first. It’s so much to take in. If we start in the park we can concentrate on the acting and blocking. It allows them that freedom to explore before we start to really set it.”
If all that isn’t impressive enough, try this fact on for size- Cummings, in addition to writing and starring in the series, directed both seasons as well. “I don’t see them as separate. I think that’s important,” she tells me, regarding how she balances all her on-set hats. “For a one-shot episode, to be the creator and the writer and the director, that’s all one. Because I’m creating it in my head, I’m writing it down, and then I’m blocking as I’m writing. It makes complete sense. For me it’s all [in here],” she gestures at her head, “then on the page.”
When it comes to acting and directing, things get tougher. “Why it’s difficult is because when I am directing and I’m in a scene, I come last. There are times when we [Cummings and Velasquez] have worked together and he doesn’t see my performance until the last week. I put 70% of my energy in the other actor, then I start to notch that off later on.”
Velasquez jumps in. “She expects excellence, as she should. Every line, every word, I need to know what’s going on, what the subtext is…Working with her as a director and an actor, I view her as a director first, and then once I find my own, I really work off of her as an actress.” They grin at each other, their chemistry just as strong away from the camera.
The pair has come a long way since their fateful coffee shop meeting, together and individually, and both had a lot to say to their Season 1 selves.
“Take your time!” Velasquez laughs, thinking of how green he was at the start. “It’s a process. Relax, there’s no rush. Anne Marie really had to calm me down and say- ‘it doesn’t matter where the destination is.’ I was always asking where the series was going, where were WE going with this. I always wanted to jump to step seven instead of focusing on what was going on in the moment.
“As an actor, you need to focus on the script. One scene at a time. Find as many layers as you can… Your duty as an actor is to make it beautiful and interesting. Take your time, take your time, take your time. Hone your craft. That’s what’ll give you longevity in this business. There are no shortcuts. Take your time and do the work.”
Cummings nods as he speaks, agreeing and thinking back to season 1 herself. “I would also say that it’s good to have a bigger crew, even if it’s technically small [by traditional film and TV standards]. Have your editor just be your editor, and so on. Definitely have backups for each crew member, and know their skills really well. Know which ones are better for the running scenes, or better for the quiet scenes. Last, I would say, really get to know the actors before you cast them. Don’t just depend on your casting director. Talk to the actors. See who they are outside of their work, their personal life. See if your sensibilities match up. [For example,] Gustavo and I have the same work ethic. If we didn’t, this project wouldn’t be where it is. He joined me on this ride, full force. All actors have egos- that’s what makes us all artists. Develop new skills to work with different kinds of people.”
Season 2 of Conversations with LA is now available to rent on their official website or on Amazon Prime and iTunes.