The following is a guest blog by Cameron Laventure. Cameron is an independent screenwriter, film director, and editor, working under the banner of his own production company, Airship Cinema. He has created short films, music videos and feature film, the latest of which – a sci-fi drama titled >1 - is currently in post-production and set to be released in 2015.
Here’s the scenario. I’m about to direct a production, and I’m nervous about giving directions to the actors between takes, when the pressure is at its highest. What can I do to keep myself from freezing up?
This was one of my greatest fears when I started directing. I was certain, somehow, that I would fail to give a direction at a crucial moment. The gears of production would halt around me. Even the crickets would stop chirping. The cast and crew would desert me and forget my name. And I would deserve it.
This doesn’t happen. Even if you do freeze up a little – and, paradoxically, it becomes more likely the more you worry about it – it really won’t be the end of the world. Unless your set is a House of Cards-style labyrinth of betrayal (in which case, freezing up is the least of your worries), your cast will want you to succeed. They’ll want to give their best performance just as much as you want to bring it out of them. And if you do stall out for a moment, most performers will at least try to help you fill in the blanks. Knowing this will make you more comfortable on set, so your creative energy can flow through you without obstruction.
That being said, you can take a few decisive steps to become absolutely prepared for these moments. The first is rehearsal. Of course, it’s not always possible to squeeze rehearsal into a hectic production schedule, but I recommend you place it on a high priority. Even a single, average day of rehearsal can help you develop a much smoother, more comfortable rapport with your performers, so directing becomes less of a high-pressure managerial commandment and more of a casual, creative chat between movie buddies.
Rehearsal can also help you understand what’s functioning beneath the written words of the script (even if you think you already know it). This is crucial knowledge that you can take to set with you, and easily call upon when directing. For my first feature, the college comedy Apocalypse Theory, we actually ended up replacing several jokes through our experimentation in rehearsal. As we substituted dialogue, we became more keenly aware of what each character was really trying to say, which helped myself and the cast to zero in on the essentials when we were touching base between takes, trying to find the way forward.
The next step I’d recommend – and it’s fine to start here, if you can’t find time for rehearsal – is note-taking. Between rehearsals and shooting for my latest feature, the sci-fi drama >1, I sat down with a copy of the script, and started to scrawl notes in the margins. You should make the notes that work best for you, but I tried to keep mine to a few distinct categories:
- Goals/action verbs for an actor to carry through a scene, or at least a beat. This tends to be the most reliable kind of direction to give.
- Subtext notes. This involved writing the character’s implied line beside the written one; what the character really wants to say.
- Micromanaging notes. This would involve pointing out which specific words ought to be stressed by the actors, ideas for mannerisms, etc. It can be irritating to give too many of these notes on set, but as a director, you ought to at least know them, and keep them in your back pocket.
- Miscellaneous, experimental kinds of direction, such as asking an actor to focus on a specific image, or having an earnest conversation about the relatable emotions at play in a scene.
When I wrote these notes, they were for my eyes only. My scraggly writing looks like it belongs in a Tim Burton movie, and I ended up writing so many that they were all tangled together like headphone cords. Getting them onto the page was much more important than making them presentable.
Which brings me to the final step in this process. Once I got to set, I kept that annotated script copy in a folder. I kept that folder nearby at all times like the Nuclear Football. And, most importantly, I kept it closed.
Directing requires you to exist in the present moment. If I had kept my head buried in those notes on set, I would’ve been locked into yesterday’s ideas, missing the needs of today. Notekeeping is useful because the act of writing about your scenes trains you to automatically consider them on a deeper level, creating handy, mental shortcuts that make on-the-spot directing as natural as breathing. They also give you an emergency backup plan. On the rare occasion that, after you pay close attention to an actor’s performance, you find that you have no idea what to say to them, those notes still exist, close by, for your reference and benefit. I did end up having to refer back to my old notes on a few occasions, but most of the time, the very knowledge that they existed kept my on-set anxiety in check, allowing me the safety and freedom to guide the actors from where they were, not from where I expected them to be.
Every director and every cast has different needs. You may find that certain parts of this notekeeping process don’t mesh well with your style. The major takeaway I’d recommend is this: The best way to prevent creative paralysis is to prepare as much as humanly possible, then keep those preparations firmly in the back of your mind, where they belong. Keep the front open.