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No Secrets To Good Film Directing


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 05 October 2006

The Vancouver International Film Festival annual Film and Television Forum wrapped on Saturday with the popular New Filmmaker's Day. The last event I caught at the forum, and probably the highlight of NFD, was a morning workshop, "the Actor/Director Relationship", with Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Away from Her), actor/director Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys, My Name is Earl) and Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). The 175-seater cinema was filled to capacity, with standing room only.

Canadian actor Sarah Polley is making her directorial debut with already critically well-received Away From Her. It's a love story about a man who loses his wife to Alzheimer's starring Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.

Polley is a top rank actor. There's depth to her performances, and she can have a gripping screen presence. So it was a little surprising that she played down the importance of the actor-director relationship. It seems, often the best thing a director can do is stand back and let the actors get on with it.

All three panellists talked at length about the tricks that they use for getting themselves or their cast into character. They spoke about the need to be constantly creative and adapting quickly to situations in order to wring the best performances out of a scene.

"Sometimes the scene will fall flat," said Polley. "You have to find ways to construct a scene later. There are days - I have them too - where you can't create that scene without the help of the editor."

Getting good coverage on those occasions, so that the editor has plenty to work with is important.

Polley suggested rehearsals are a good way to hone performances, but that some great directors don't believe in rehearsals at all. Each director has their own style. "The best directors are constantly reinventing the process," said Polley.

She went further suggesting that as an actor she'd like to argue that directors should know more about the craft of acting so that they can talk more easily with the cast about their performances, but she remains "ambiguous" on the subject. "The truth is... it's not theatre." Michael Winterbottom and Steven Soderbergh, she pointed out, are laconic in their directorial style, often giving one word instructions ("faster", "louder", "slower"), but they still make good movies.

Polley pointed out pitfalls for new directors. You need to recognise that doing an audition and giving a performance are different skills. You can be good at one and lousy at the other and vice versa. As a first-time director, you should also "be honest about your limitations" suggested Polley, rather than faking it. "Everyone knows that you're a first timer."

Sook-Yin Lee talked about her role in Shortbus, which has created controversy with its orgiastic scenes of unsimulated sex. Not surprisingly, safety - both physical and emotional safety - was a big issue here. Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell encouraged a non-hierachical approach on set, unlike the often militaristic hierachy of most movies sets. "Everyone looked after everyone," says Lee.

One day in rehearsal, Lee was feeling shy about taking her clothes off. So she asked everyone else to take their clothes off. It made her feel better.

If a scene is falling flat Lee suggested that the director "throw in a zinger." Letting the actor in on a secret at an opportune moment, or creating something that they hadn't anticipated, can bring a scene to life. Lee cited one intimate scene between herself and another actor during the shoot in Shortbus, which was repeatedly falling flat. Lee says they knew what the director wanted, but the scene just wasn't working. So Cameron Mitchell took the two actors aside and told them to do the whole scene without using one word from the script or else they'd "be fired." They used that take in the film.

Respect comes first

Polley and Lee emphasised the importance of treating your cast and crew well. If you treat someone disrespectfully, Polley said, "that permeates everything."

Beau Bridges told a few anecdotes to illustrate how a director is like the coach of a sports team. Bridges suggested the director needs to ensure the cast and crew work together as a team, respecting both each other and the director, even if it means firing your star player for being a prima donna.

It's all about relationships, the right chemistry, off-screen and on-screen. Bridges recalled how having been cast as romantic lead for a Norman Jewison film he had to strip to his underpants and get into a double bed on a sound stage for auditions with a string of potential female romantic leads. At the end of the highly enjoyable auditions, Jewison took him for lunch and told him to choose his favourite actor and that would be the one that would get the part. When Bridges said that he wanted Margot Kidder, Jewison said that would have been his choice as well. (Bridges didn't mention the film, although it was probably the unfortunately named Gaily, Gaily released in 1969.)

Bridges talked about the director-actor relationship with another surprising analogy - he tells his actor that the director is "a gun on the hip". He as director gives the actor an idea and it's up to the actor whether he uses it or not.

Bridges talked about a more nebulous concept - the Pyramid of Success - as a tool for weighing up a project. "Industriousness" and "Enthusiasm" are the corner stones of the Pyramid of Success at the base, he told us, with Faith/Patience at the top.

All in all, the panel succeeded in showing us that there are no strict rules for how a director should direct, but if you make sure that you maintain a good working relationship with the rest of the cast and crew you're off to a good start.

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