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Directing Improv: Discarding the Words; Finding a Voice

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.  

Martie Ashworth and Sue Gaetzman in White Knuckles

The Screenplay: Discarding the Words for Dramatic Improvisation in Interdependent Films.

Freeing oneself from the confines of the words on the page sometimes makes for a more authentic route for the actor that seeks to explore and refine his/her craft.  Often actors feel this process is more artistic, more “experiential”, and ultimately, more fulfilling when executed well, with a director that nurtures the kind of atmosphere necessary for good dramatic improvisation to occur.  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 original locked script, end up on screen anyway – but filtered through the heart and soul of the actor/artist.   And most of the scenes that never rang completely true – now do.  I wonder what it would be like to reverse-write White Knuckles or Heart of Now (which was a terrific script written by Zak Forsman all on it’s own) – just to see how the words have changed and/or stayed the same.  I’ve never gotten around to doing something like this, but someday maybe a huge Sabi fan will transcribe our films.  It would be interesting at the most – the final film is the ultimate tale:  what happens on set, and what is carved in the edit – is the truest story.

However, back to writing a screenplay to discard it:  in discussing problems that might happen during Directing Improvisation by asking your actors to discard their words, there are instances in directing improvisation in interdependent films where an honest performance is given and the emotions and words shared are true — but the beat is not honest for the character at that particular point in the story.

EARLY EMOTION

With improvisation, actors tend to courageously dive into the conflict head on – floodgates tend to open early on for an actor once they get the hang of it (and a lot comes out in particular scenes at the top of the production schedule where critical emotions that are to be explored later are felt “too early”).  That is ok.  Everything is useful.  Chemistry that will be explored later is sometimes put down here as a ground-work, or a foundation.   And I believe this happens generally, if the scenes’ intentions & objectives are not structured properly.  Again, that is ok.  Every production is rusty at the start, particularly on feature films heavy with dramatic improvisation.  There are ways to prepare for this.  Rehearsals, meetings, and call back-auditions are a way to kick start everything (if each are done as if we were shooting the scene).

With White Knuckles we had a full rehearsal with the actors doing character exercises – and it happened a) on set, b) in the scene, c) with lights, d) with camera and sound — i.e. full on.  And still we called it a rehearsal (though we were prepared to use it somewhere if it was needed – it wasn’t).  The idea was to get moving, slowly – pushing the train the first few inches…  

With Heart of Now, we got things rolling with what we called “Pre-Shoots” – 5 days of shooting with a bare-bones crew – which I think helped us ease into production (Note: there was also a million other things the core team – Jamie, Zak, Kester & Sam did to help the actors transition into this feature that would last 30 amazing and memorable days of everyone’s life – like White Knuckles).  

HONEST BUT NOT TRUE OVERALL

But when discarding the words (which takes some time at the start) there are times — fascinating moments where the actors have a legitimate feeling about something and go with it – but it is incongruent to the journey of the character in a way that would alter the story to its detriment.   I.e. change the direction of the story too far in an unrecoverable direction.   Sometimes it’s compelling, real, honest, and exciting – but just not right for the overall arc of the story (which the director and producer and editor carries).  Sometimes it is right, even though it was totally unplanned – and we must adjust the story around the moment accordingly.  But again – if it is not honest for the overall journey of the story – or if the new material doesn’t excite and challenge the director to explore a new direction with everyone & the entire production schedule – then it must be lost immediately.   Cut, clear our minds, re-set, move on.*  

WHEN TO CUT, KEEP ROLLING

*It is important for the director here to be as quick and decisive as possible about where to stop an actor during improv, i.e. when to re-set rather than give a note and keep rolling, trying something different.  On one hand all the previous takes are explorations of the take/moments that will be used (and should be allowed to play out) – on the other hand, a director doesn’t want to exhaust an actor (and acting for dramatic improvisation for all actors involved is physically exhausting).   Also, too many different options without clear direction leads to confusion (for the actor on set, and the editor in the bay).

Of course, this happens (exhaustion, confusion) – and there is no way of avoiding it.  8-10 hour days max for the actors I believe is a great help to heavily improvised shooting – to stave off the exhaustion factor.  But I say this to say, it’s important for a director to be fully aware of what will and will not be used in the final edit – on set – as best as possible.  And rather than cutting these moments off too soon – in directing improvisation, it helps to let them play out, let the emotions rise and fall again naturally.  Especially when discarding the words of the screenplay.   There are awkward silences in these moments that are real and could otherwise never have been staged. There are glances of a deeper understand, and the struggling to find the right words.  All of this is real.  And conversely, there are often beats that happen just after an intense improvisation scene where the actor may say the perfect line — out of real exhaustion — long after a conventional filmmaker would call ‘cut’.  A glance often says everything without all the words before it, and to help ensure we get these kinds of looks when directing improv – we often do what we call a “silent take” after all the other takes are completed.  We did this quite a bit with White Knuckles and it helped us tremendously in the edit (though it’s not necessary if you’re actors don’t rush through improv – as in comedic improv).  

Often, that little tiny silent beat where the camera kept rolling might end up being the only part used in the final edit, if that is what is honest in that moment – and right for the overall story.

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