The Camera Reads Your Mind

Though auditions are supposed to start at 6 p.m., a few actors arrive early, check in, then wait in the hall. Inside High Key Studio on the West Side, director Natasha Straley has set up a camera and a couple of screens in preparation. Copies of the script sit nearby on a low table. When the time comes, the hopefuls walk in one by one, stand in front of the camera, state their names, and after only the briefest of pauses, get into their scenes with amazing ease. This is a callback audition, so some have had a chance to memorize their lines.

The brainchild of San Antonio scriptwriter Paulina Manseau, the short film the actors are hoping to be in — tentatively titled Consummation — deals with “two people trying to escape the life they have created for themselves,” explains the director. One of them, Leah, is an unhappy married woman, and the other, Adam, is a young priest at her church. The two develop an emotional bond that may lead to serious consequences.

The first actor to appear before the writer and director is trying out for the role of an older priest whose job is to convince his younger colleague not to walk away from his vows. The next one hopes to be cast as Adam, as does the guy after him. They are all pros, who have no problems following the director’s instructions regarding the mood and tone she would like to see. “No smiles and minimal eye contact in this scene. It’s supposed to be tense,” Straley states at one point. “Good, let’s do it again. Take all the risks you want,” she says to another actor. She compliments and thanks them all. Having been an actress herself, she knows how hard auditioning can be.

Straley discovered Manseau’s script through a social media group and loved it right away. “I was like, ‘What do I need to do to direct your film?’ Then Paulina and I met in person, and our creative visions aligned really well,” she explains. “I loved the tension in the story. Generally, I am attracted to stories that are honest, real and raw, but still respectful of the characters. In Paulina’s story Leah is questioning her relationship with her husband while Adam is questioning his relationship with the church. They kind of answer each other’s questions. But they may or may not end up together.”

The two women received a $5,000 grant from the San Antonio Film Commission for the project and are now looking for additional investors/donors to reach their goal of $25,000. As a San Antonio-based artist, Straley would like to create this film with “100 percent San Antonio crew and cast. I want to bring more filmmaking to San Antonio, and that’s what I am trying to do here, to show that we have the talent,” she says. To kick up the project’s visibility, however, she is also looking for “name actors” who grew up here and who may be induced to come back to help elevate their hometown’s cinematic profile. If everything works as planned, the film will be ready for public screening by September 30.

Then it will probably follow the path of other narrative shorts — screenings at festivals, followed by an online existence. Some become popular on YouTube, such as Cauliflower, a little comedic gem she recently directed, that brought her a great deal of attention. Her films have also won festival awards across the nation.

Both Straley and Manseau would like to see a more active filmmaking community in town, beyond the production of industrial/utilitarian videos. And both deplore the small number of women filmmakers in San Antonio, compared, for instance, to Austin. That’s something Straley is determined to change. “I am willing to have coffee with everyone and talk about what they would like to do and what we can do to support each other,” she notes emphatically. And there are encouraging developments “bubbling under the surface,” she says. “There’s potential here.”

The Road Led Through New York
Born in Washington, D.C., while her father was in the Navy, young Natasha lived in several different states and in Germany before arriving in Texas with her divorced mother and brother. Texas has been her home since she was 6, though the family moved around from city to city looking for a place that would not trigger her brother’s allergic reaction. (Both her mother and brother live in San Antonio now.) Straley attended Texas State University where she earned a BFA in acting and directing while also pursuing film acting opportunities, mostly in Austin. “I did a few plays, but the big complaint was that my performance wasn’t big enough for the stage. I prefer to act in a more intimate way,” she observes. “What I like about the camera is that the camera reads your mind, while in the theater the audience is reading your body. I am now teaching acting for film, and that’s what I tell students — you don’t have to exaggerate anything. I teach them how to stop acting. Just be natural.”

Soon after graduation, the young woman moved to New York, eager to explore what the Big Apple had to offer. Naturally, directors and producers wanted to see footage of previous work, which she did not have. To get around the problem, Straley wrote a bunch of scenes for herself and had them filmed. “That’s how I learned to produce,” she says with a laugh. During the 10 years Straley spent in New York, producing indie films and photography became her bread and butter. Though the environment was very competitive, jobs were plentiful and easy to find. Eventually, she learned to accept only projects that “made (her) heart sing.”

And what better way to accomplish that than by writing her own scripts. The first was titled Finished, a short drama that explores “the moment between holding on and letting go,” which premiered at the 2017 San Antonio Film Festival. She ended up directing it as well because the original director bailed out at the last moment. “I was scared at first, but as soon as I stepped on the set, it was like – ‘This is what I was supposed to be doing!’” she recalls. “That’s the moment I realized I wanted to direct, and I’ve been directing ever since.” So far, her directing credits include 11 short films, including Consummation. Directing allows her to tell the story in the best possible way, from choosing the right cast and crew to assembling all the other necessary elements. “It’s all about the story. As the director, I can shape it and make the story resonate.”

It was the shooting of yet another movie that brought her back to San Antonio a little over a year ago and ultimately “inspired” her to relocate here for good in 2017. Alamo City life suits her. There’s a little more time for fun things like going dancing or hiking. And the environment is more conducive to taking on longer projects. Straley is currently writing her first full-length feature, Sidestep, a narrative exploration of the conservative-meets-liberal theme and how the two protagonists learn “to bridge that gap.” Most of the action will happen on the dance floor. “I am toying with the idea of making it more experimental, maybe have the characters communicate largely without words,” muses Straley, clearly excited about the possibilities. The hope is that Sidestep will be her first entry into the big game.

So, is her goal to get to Hollywood some day?

She considers for a moment before replying: “I would like to be in and out of L.A. But I want to be based here. I like San Antonio.”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff