Directing for Drama and Working with Actors – A Few Notes

We just finished the Directing Actors workshop, run by Film Nation. It was an intense day, running from 10 am till 4 pm. We had the chance to work with a professional camera operator and two actors, taking us through the process and giving us tips and advise.

The workshop started with a few icebreaking games which I thought was a brilliant idea – it really improved the energy in the room, and made everyone feel more relaxed and open. We were then given the script for our exercise – a three page scene called ‘The Double Blind Date’, about a girl and a guy meeting each other on a blind date, but both expecting someone else. First the actors just read through the script, but of course there was no real performance – they needed more. So we started inventing the back story of this scene, thinking about their ‘wants’, ‘needs’, their ‘objectives’ and ‘obstacles’.

I didn’t quite realise how different a scene would look if you just change one fact in the character’s life – and it doesn’t even have to be in the script. So I learned that it’s not about what you want people to ‘do’ in a scene – this scene is just a brief moment in the context of their lives and relationships with each other or themselves. You can have someone quite confident losing their nerve because of a small insecurity that a particular event unlocks for them, or you can have an insecure person acting confidently to prove a point. But you only get that result if you’ve done your homework and know what the characters’ background is, what is the context of the scene and why they are doing what they are doing.

I think the single most important point about working with actors (at least from what we discussed today) is to be prepared. Do your homework, plan the shoot, get to know the people and the locations, organise the set and crew, and most importantly – have a good story to tell and a good relationship to show to the audience. And you do that by putting the actors in a space where they don’t just ‘act out’ a scene – they put on the character’s shoes and become the person.

You can even say that it’s more important for the actor to know their character than to know their lines. Lines can always be added or changed, or reminded on set – but if the actor doesn’t know who the character is they will have trouble acting, and even more trouble interacting with one another in the film.

I’m also starting to think that a big part of the directing is done in pre-production. That is when decisions need to be made, stories and characters developed. If you don’t do your preparation in pre-production, you’ll just need to do it anyway, but on set – where there is much more pressure for time and resources, so you need to have sorted out a lot before you go on set.

What I also noticed was how you can work with the same script, stage direction and dialogue, and you can end up with a completely different interpretation depending who’s directing the scene and what background story you invent for the characters. We had three groups working with the same basic three page script, and the three run throughs we did were absolutely different – because the intentions, the wants and the needs of the characters were different in each of the versions.

I guess that’s where it starts to make a difference who is directing a film. I didn’t quite realise until recently why so much emphasis is put on ‘who directed the film’. But more and more, I’m starting to grasp.

If you’re just reading text, you’re imagining the story in your head – so book readers work with their imagination and interpret the story their own way. And then when you are telling the story in a more tangible way (I like to think film is where the filmmakers materialise their vision), less of the elements are open to interpretation. Of course, there is still a lot for the audience to figure out, and that’s why we respond differently and connect differently with a film – because the emotional part of the story is open to interpretations. If you’re in a relationship and watching a scene about a blind date, you will get one reaction – whereas if you’re single, you’ll be able to relate to the characters’ interactions in a very different way. We put a lot of our own selves in everything we see – so watching a film (or making one) is not just about the visuals or the dialogue – it is about our relationship to the story, being able to understand, connect with a character, and add to them something from ourselves.

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Here is an interesting recording I found while I was preparing myself for the workshop, and for the concept of working with actors. Patsy Rodenburg talks about the importance of being present, both in acting, and in real life.

Also, one of the most helpful resources I’ve found so far, introducing the concept of acting in film (more from the actors’ perspective, but I’d argue this is also extremely helpful for the crew), is Michael Caine’s Acting in Film workshop. This is Part 1, and if you click through on YouTube, the whole series is in the related videos.

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