Directing Improvisation in Interdependent Films.

With excerpts from: “Interdependent Filmmaking: Dramatic Improvisation in White Knuckles – a film by sabi”

“In a lot of ways the director and the actor when working with improvisation have to form a relationship like a family.  This is why there is such a stress on the word “Interdependent” in our filmmaking process.   There has to be a mutual respect, and a whole-hearted trust that the director in fact truly knows (or is exploring to discover) what needs to take place (and along with the producer, will keep everyone safe while doing so).”

In a thread in the Sabi Forum, Larry Strauss (star of White Knuckles) talks a little about what it’s like working on a film that is improvisation-heavy, and specifically, what it’s like collaborating with a director on a dramatic improvisation.  His experience with Sabi Pictures is noted in the video called “A Conversation with Larry Strauss.”

  Directing improvisation is different for every interdependent director, and different still on every picture – but what Larry describes quite simply here is very true.

Quote:

Originally Posted by larry

“NOT ALL [IMPROV] IMPROVES THE WORK. [THE SCRIPT] IS SOMEWHAT LIKE A BACKSTORY IN THAT YOU HAVE THE IMPORTANT STORY PARTS IN THE BACK OF YOUR MIND BUT THEN WHEN THE CAMERA ROLLS, YOU LET IT GO. HOPEFULLY, IT WILL BE THERE FOR YOU.”

 This is really the most important ingredient in my opinion:  It’s preparing, mentally, reading the script a few times, learning some of the lines, studying motivations and intentions, asking questions… and then ultimately, when the camera rolls TRULY letting go.*

ACTOR – DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP

Everyone has their own way of achieving this.  But I think a relationship between the Actor and Director should be established where the Actor can feel he or she can in fact fully, and comfortably let go.  This means that a director and his/her team should be aware of every concern the actor has.  It doesn’t mean necessarily solving every single item of concern – but just being aware of it, listening to the actor, and being a true friend.  The greatest collaborations are born of friendships, not ‘for-hire.’

*Note that the relationship goes both ways – in dramatic improvisation films such as those that Sabi Pictures creates, the director is also memorizing lines, studying motivations and intentions, asking questions — and ultimately, letting go when the cameras roll.

In a lot of ways the director and the actor when working with improvisation have to form a relationship like a family.  This is why there is such a stress on the word “Interdependent”

in our filmmaking process.   There has to be a mutual respect, and a whole-hearted trust that the director in fact truly knows (or is exploring to discover) what needs to take place (and along with the producer, will keep everyone safe while doing so).

The actor and the director thus have to meet on a common ground of understanding for the character as quickly as possible from the first audition, through production – and the interdependent director can’t get lazy once cameras are rolling.  The burden of digging at the mystery of the character is always to be shared between the director and the actor.  Each will contribute a piece, give direction, try something new, and reset without judgement (ideally).  

THE QUESTIONS

Probably the healthiest sign the improvisation is going well is when the director and the actor continue to ask each other questions – particularly as the film is coming to a close.  It’s important also, for the actor and the director to not be settled with the answers – so as to leave room for exploration.  And if everything seems perfectly clear, that’s ok too – something will come up that changes everything – and the director, actor and the rest of the cast and crew have to be ready for this point of divergence, they have to embrace it, work with it – and explore its possibilities both on set and in the edit.

This is a nutshell of how directing improvisation in interdependent films like those of Sabi Pictures works.  The entire point is to plan for the unplanned surprise – an honest moment, a truthful beautiful shot, gesture, glance – whatever it is.  It doesn’t have to be pretty or poetic, just in the context of the film and the world created – truthful. Dramatic Improvisation strives for that truth.

FIRST WEEKS

Practically speaking, often this means for the director to keep his mouth closed for the beginning phases of the experience of rehearsal and shooting.  The director still has to guide, but gently & simply.  The complexities of the character should begin to emerge naturally (and problems should iron themselves out with collaborative listening).  A lot is revealed in the first week of shooting, and it is probably the most intense week of production (besides the last week) for a director, producer and their actors (not to mention the tireless crew).

The idea during the beginning of a production that employs heavy dramatic improvisation is that the actor needs to (as fast and as naturally as possible) get into the skin of the character on their own – so that then the director and actor can guide the character through their journey without too much internal resistance.  This means what Larry mentioned about casting is absolutely critical. The casting sessions and the callbacks exist to ultimately ensure that the right person that’s sitting in the casting chair will be the right person in front of the cameras. 

HONESTY

Thus, an interdependent director should discuss the character at length with each of their prospective actors, and together they should rehearse and camera test to make sure the actor is comfortable with the process of improvisation.  Note I didn’t say make sure the actor is “good” at improv.  There is no standard for good or bad improv, just honest and not quite honest.  And it may take careful study to find the right actors sometimes – and often a “polished” actor performs dishonestly when asked to improvise.  Understandably, many actors are simply uncomfortable with the idea of using your own words for the character, but what should be happening is that the director and the actor are together finding the character’s voice.  Freeing oneself from the confines of the words on the page sometimes makes for a more authentic route.  Often actors feel this process is more artistic, more “experiential”, and ultimately, more fulfilling.  What’s fascinating, is that often when it’s all said and done and the film is put together, most of the beats and the words that were true in the script, end up on screen anyway – but filtered through the heart and soul of the actor/artist.

CALL BACKS

Directing for improvisation also means that we regularly have call-backs and more call-backs at the outset of a production, with the director working intimately with the actor in meetings and rehearsals –

and the most important component of our call backs is incorporating improvisation in the auditions.

A lot was revealed about Larry Strauss who went on to play William in White Knuckles, through his improvisation in the call-back.  Sure, it’s may be the hardest thing to do in a casting session – but we are often looking just as closely as the awkward gestures, the uncomfortable silences – as we are the content of the scene.

USEFUL QUESTIONS

Here are some questions for a Improvisational Director to ideally ask themselves (and seek the answers to) before a production begins (and just after the actors have met in the call-backs):

Was there chemistry?

Could I watch them for 2 hours?

Can they talk to each other? Can they have a conversation?

Can they have a clear objective and go after it?

What are their fears?

Are they willing to explore? Are they comfortable in silence?

Do they make eye contact?

Simple things.

It often helps to get the feedback of a locked actor who might be working with the prospective candidate. The actor has an incredible amount of insight into whether or not improvisation will work.  Most of the time, it is intuition – an actor’s feeling that the can simply get along with their co-star.  Again, friendships forged on sets are critical to the success of creating an atmosphere on set that is conducive to successful improvisation.**  

Hope this sheds more light on Directing Improvisation, and the process for a Director and an Actor in collaboration.  This has only been my experience, I’m completely open to hearing other experiences with directing improvisation.

MEMORIES

**Side note:  Successful Improvisation on set is truly an out of body experience for both parties involved.  When it’s working, from what I understand – actors seldom remember the moments depicted (because they were “in the moment” and the performance was honest).  A director has this same experience when moving into the edit – and while finding these moments again on set for shaping into the final film. 

It’s hard to argue against the fact that the process of making a worthwhile interdependent art film begins in the audition.  When it comes to the actors that will ultimately play the part for a film by Sabi – we hope that not a moment is wasted for either the filmmaker or the cast, and we hope that the casting process is creative and insightful, and useful to all parties involved.  

posted by Christopher Sowers (“Moments”, a film by Sabi) in the Sabi Forum:

Christopher: “I found the audition process at Sabi very intriguing. Auditions can be very uncomfortable experiences but that wasn’t the case here. It was a very warm and welcoming environment. There was no vicious casting assistant staring at me with daggers and I got the sense that I was more than valid as a human being. Ahhhhh…. back to the real world.”

Chris, thanks for posting. It’s nice hearing about what an actor feels and thinks during our auditions at sabi.  We try to keep them warm and inviting (and creative) as often as possible – and also we try to keep them useful to both the filmmakers as well as the actors that graciously share their time with us.  There are times that this process doesn’t go as planned, and there have been people we have collaborated with that initially didn’t fully understand why auditions at sabi pictures are handled so delicately and carefully. 

THE ACTOR:

Often it is our duty to inform them immediately, that quite simply, the Actor is to be regarded as the star from the moment they walk through the door and should be treated with kindness.  We let them know that the actor that is ultimately cast — is the guide that holds the key to unlocking the deeper, inner workings of the character.

When Sabi sets out to make a film (and begins the casting process) we’re ultimately not looking for a pre-conceived notion of the character that already resides in our head (if we were satisfied with the depiction in our head, why make a movie?) Rather, I believe at this stage, sabi’s casting process tries to find the actor that can teach us more about the character we’re creating… real, human details and insights into fears, emotions, and hidden qualities that we couldn’t have otherwise known. 

These details, and what happens in the casting process (which is really the first rehearsal) often find their way into the film – and every moment during auditions and rehearsals help develop the chemistry of emotions that we will circle around for the duration of production. Most importantly, the audition begins the actor-director relationship. 

EXAMPLES:

It was amazing watching how Zak integrated things he saw, tried and learned from the audition process of “Heart of Now” right into the production phase of the film.  I too changed scenes to better fit who Julie and William were becoming when I had finally found Martie Ashworth and Larry Strauss for “White Knuckles”.  The insights that Kelly and Marion brought to Zak and vice versa during the auditions created a bridge.   And to see J. Erik Reese and gang do it once again in Moments with you, Aqua, Mark and Malcolm, was once more – a truly remarkable process to watch*. 

All three films were ultimately enhanced because of this attention to an otherwise mundane, and often cold, calculating experience (as you described).  

We learned a great deal from the process of a film called “Blue in Green”, which was a feature that Zak and I produced along with 5 others in a collaborative called Unica, and under the auspices of producer Ron Austin and Poet/Journalist Gabriel Meyer.   In “Blue in Green”, we didn’t even have auditions – we just staged group meetings where everyone discussed issues personal, social and spiritual – and then six weeks of rehearsals.  Both the group sessions and the rehearsals were critical to the telling of the deeply improvised film.

In the cast of “Blue in Green”, Unica had found the story of the film with the actors that stayed – and Unica developed these unique characters in complete collaboration with the actors that would play them.   In my opinion, it was a completely successful experiment.

*I want to reiterate that the processes described above may be unique, but are by no means new or original or exclusive to Sabi Pictures or Unica or otherwise. 

EXPLORATION:

Really, whenever a filmmaker casts for a project they are deeply passionate about, they intuitively settle on the final actors for the same reasons, using the same techniques involuntarily. 

The real fundamental difference lies in the amount of exploration that happens after the casting decisions are made.   And the extent to which Sabi intends to explore in our films sets us apart (in my humble opinion) from most projects that are made more ‘conventionally’. 

The exploration – going deeper – is something that we try to do from the very beginning.  The peeling away at the character, at their emotions, at their deepest source of suffering – is pretty much continuous (and necessary to the success of the experiment) from initial casting to the final edit. 

 When casting for our films, Sabi filmmakers are often looking for an actor that brings to life the heart and soul of the character by giving us insight (or creating the right questions) which we then filter and translate into the story/characters/dialogue.  It’s an organic (or ‘natural’) process in our estimation – and there is never a script that doesn’t change because of auditions and rehearsals.  Simply put, it’s about respect. 

Respect for one’s fellow artist.  Respect for what the actor brings to an art film, and lastly, respect for a process that seeks to uncover fundamental and transcendent truths about the character through a collaboration between the director, all of the rest of the crew, and most importantly – the heart, soul and mind of the artist/actor.

Of course, we sincerely hope that you (the actor/artist) can let us know what we can do better, as all of the above is a constantly evolving, refining process.

And we’re always learning…