Thursday, March 19, 2009

10 tools

So last night I went to a directing workshop at Film Independent. Whenever I go to these things I always feel like a big loser for the first thirty minutes. Like here I am, leaning hard on forty, trying to reinvent myself as a director. Oh god, the shame. And inevitably there are freaky people in the room just reinforcing the idea that "I'm too old/lazy to go back to school for real so I'll waste time and money at these little workshops in a vain attempts to convince myself that all my dreams are in fact not dead... when really they are." I dunno, there was this lady in her sixties with severe plastic surgery face, some LA-Ground-Zero guys with "that hair" and $300 "lady-jeans." Plus a mouth breather who knocked over three glasses of water on three separate occasions. I was like, just get a sippie cup and be done with it, dude. But there were also about 40 other perfectly normal people so the freak to normal ratio was fairly low. But enough about my neurosis. The workshop was great. I can always tell when a workshop is going well because I start thinking about my project and I get ideas that I have to write down that instant. Two sets of notes; the notes on the workshop and the notes on what I have to change in my script.
Without further ado, Adrienne Weiss' Ten Essential Tools for Getting Great Performances.
  1. Create Trust. Adrienne said that this tool was a recent addition because it never occured to her that she needed to teach it. In her experience a lot of directors fail to form a bond with their actors. You have to love your actors and go into the process of working with them fully trusting that they can get the performance you want. She says, always relate to your actor like a loving parent with the attitude, "they can do it." In addition to this you want to ask them lots of questions. Get to know them personally if they're open like that. Or, if not, talk to them about their process. When reviewing their performance she says diagnose before you prescribe. That is to say, approach the adjustments to their performance as a conversation. "What were you going for here?" or "I notice you've made a choice to do X here. Tell me about that." or "At this point in the story your character needs to be doing X and here's why..." Communication with your actor needs to be as clean and misunderstanding free as possible. Give them space to explain their position. If you love something that they've done in a scene, be general about your praise. Don't point out specific body movements, gestures, etc. They'll try to keep hitting that mark and it will make the moment less organic. Where you want to be specific is about trouble spots. When talking about "trouble" remember, you're the captain and your authority allows the actors to relax and do their job- they know you're steering the ship.
  2. Compelling given circumstances. These are the facts that are pressing on a character and pushing them into action. What this means is you may need to remind your actors of the backstory. You're there as that extra bit of memory just in case the actor hasn't fully connected with the character's circumstances. Simple adjustments here can yeild big results. For example, an actor may play a scene completely different if they understand that their character is coming from a place of sympathy rather than frustration. If you explain the given circumstances "they've been in this guys shoes before and know what he's going through" it changes the outcome. When going over the given circumstances it's important that you express it in a way that connects to the emotion of what you're saying. Don't give a flat bullet point list of the circumstances, be their "bad friend" encouraging them to take action and jump into that conflict; "Yeah, he did all this to you and you're not going to take it! You're better than that! Go kick his ass!"
  3. Personalization. Seems fairly straight forward. The simplest way to do this is ask the actor, "have you ever been in a situation like this?" If they say yes, great. If they say nothen you're going to have to work more to remove the block that's keeping them from connecting emotionally to the text. Start by doing a character interview. Ask them, as the character, how they feel about the situation. See if you can't help them find a connection.
  4. Contrary Expectations. I love this idea. As the "bad friend" lie to them about the expected outcome of a scene. You've both read it. You both know that at the end of this scene she is going to dump him, but you lie to him. Tell him that he's fixed the damage she can't stand about him. He's chased after her and prooven himself to her. She's totally going to take you back and you'll be great. Give your actor that pep talk and then send him into the scene where he gets dumped. His response will come from a place of contrary expectations and as a result be that much more alive.
  5. Objective. Simple stuff here. What is the actor's goal in the scene. What do I want the other person to say or do? It has to be concrete and observable in the room. I want them to say "yes." I want them to leave me alone. I want them to come with me. That sort of thing. When your actor has a clear objective all of their actions come from that objective. Even when they're listening to the other character they're listening with an agenda.
  6. So that... This is the character thinking about the future. Their objective "I want him to come with me" so that... This is why your character is doing what they're doing in a larger sense. It should be something that they are conscience of. For example: I want him to come with me (objective) so that I can show him the evidence that will solve the case.
  7. Emotional Action. Your actor may need to know what emotional actions they are taking to make the other character feel a certain way in order to get what they want. For example, your actor may be trying to make the other person feel guilty, or sad, or angry so that X results. The actor may need to try several emotional actions in order to get the result they are looking for. This is manipulation at its best. Adrienne suggests taking time to look at how much emotional manipulation you engage in on a day to day basis as a way of understanding how this works.
  8. Pinch and Ouch. This is a simple cause and effect relationship. If your actor isn't giving you the response you want, the trouble may not lie with them- it may be with their scene partner or partners. For example; the break up scene... your actor's being dumped by his girlfriend. He seems really flat about it. Or maybe he's angry when he should be happy. He might have a set of notions about the scene that you can't talk him out of. Adjust the other actor. You want a bigger reaction out of him? Get her to really lay into him. She needs to give him a bigger pinch to get that bigger ouch you're looking for.
  9. Thought Bridge. It sounds like Scientology, doesn't it? I walked my body-thetans across the thought bridge of my tone scale. Actually what this is about is helping your actor make a connection to the turning point in a scene. Maybe they're rushing past the big emotional A-ha moment. You could simply tell them to take their time with it. But if that's not working then you need to walk them across the bridge. Examine the subtext, "she's telling you that you've never acted like a man, you're still a child and in your heart you know this is true. You also know at this moment exactly what you have to do." Whenever the subtext of the movie comes to the surface you have a turning point, a moment of greatest truth. Don't rush past these moments of truth, underline them to make sure they are seen.
  10. Details. The novice director gives only details when directing. "When she says this to you, you've always hoped someone would say this." Now you can give details for sure, but only if you're sure you have the strong foundations underneath. You don't want to over do it with details, otherwise your actor is spinning plates, trying to hit all these specific things. Details should just be little bits that come from the organic facts of the story.
Afterward she did a scene from Moonstruck with two actors and put these principals into use. She got the scene to go from zero to 60 in a reasonable amount of time. It wasn't the performance of a lifetime but it was enough to see how they worked in a practical setting.

I'm probably going to take Adrienne's workshop in May. It's $725 and limited to ten people and requires an interview to get in. My hope is that at that price it will limit the number of freaks sort of like how the $14 ticket price and assigned seating at the Arclight keeps out the riff-raff. Yes, little bundles of money burnt up to keep my dreams alive.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting how 5/6 are buried in the middle of a list of ten, but in screenwriting courses and discussions with AFI directors, they dominate the conversation. Partly it's because 2 is (hopefully) already buried in there, I think, but still surprising.

    I could see how 1 could have disappeared. There are so many stories about directors violating that trust or fostering bad relationships with their actors, and the films turning out commercially and artistically viable, that people may question the simplicity of trusting those you work with. But I think that trust is what separates a great director (at least to work with) from a mediocre or bad one. Direction is just the nudge that other person needs to get their job done.

    For a great interview with a director in a completely trust-based system, take a look at the The Believer interview with Mike Leigh: