“When you’re lying in bed at night, your parent comes in and tells you a story. You’re sitting round the campfire and you’re telling stories. There’s a primal need for that experience. I always want to connect to the beauty of that; that’s the primal need and I want to address that in everything I do.”
An excerpt from an interview with JAN ELIASBERG in the book, “The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks: How to Get What you Want from Writers and Actors” by Mark Travis.
MT: Jan, let’s start with writers. Do you have any specific thoughts about working with writers?
JE: Yes, of course, I have a lot of thoughts about working with writers and one of the things I always find is challenging is that I am a writer, myself, so when I go in as a director, I often will go in with a lot of my ideas about how I would write the script or change the script and the big trick for me is to figure out how to get the writer to think it’s his or her idea as opposed to my idea and actually I should say that’s not always the case. Sometimes I will form a bond with the writer so that I will quickly . . . you know, as a director, particularly working in television, my feeling is that you have to assess things very, very quickly whether it’s with the writer, with the crew or with an actor and so I will try very quickly to have my radar out and I will always try to have a very candid, very frank conversation about usually nothing . . . your kids, where they went to school . . .so I can find out is this a writer who’s going to be hanging on to every word which means it’s going to necessitate one kind of approach or is this a writer who really is open to collaboration? I’ve worked with both. There was one case where I had a writer who was very open to collaboration and I literally walked in with Post-Its hanging off every single page of the script and he was like, “uh-oh, let’s get to work!” But I knew already that he’d be open. Would never do that with a writer who I sense is going to be resistant.
So, with the writers who are going to be resistant, there are a couple of things I’ll do. One is I will actually use the demands of the process. So for instance, if I feel there are too many actors in a scene, that the scene is getting diluted because it’s been divided up between too many characters and I’m sitting there thinking I’m going to have to direct this thing and if I’m going to have to do five pieces of coverage because there are five actors in the scene when there really only need to be two or three, how can I basically say, ‘Hey, I think we’re diluting the power of the scene by having a lot of characters that are serving the same function.” And then I’ll try to become sort of an ally – I am an ally – because we have to make it work, so I’ll say, “Have you put these characters in the scene because the network wants to see these actors?” and that sort of gives the writer an out, maybe to say, “Well, that really wasn’t my idea to have five characters in the scene, but the network keeps telling us they want to see X actor.” So, I’ll say, “Okay, let’s just go through the script and let’s see because I get that. We’re all serving the network master. Let’s make sure that when we have an actor in a scene the actor has something really powerful to do and maybe we’ll take these five actors that have to be served and instead of having them all in five scenes, let’s give them each one scene in which they really get to do something meaty.” And then I’ll also say, for example, “No one wants to be on the set with an actor who feels like they’re there to say two lines and go home and they could be with their kids or out shopping. They want to do something meaningful, so, we don’t want to be there.” And the writer will say, “Of course we don’t. I don’t want to hear so and so complaining about being in the scene for no reason.” So that’s a way to sort of use the other forces to . . .
MT: This is episodic television.
MT: And you’re looking at the possibility that ‘the writer wrote it this way because of requirements from either the network or the production or the studio . . . outside forces that you have to serve.’ But you, Jan, looking at it dramatically, are thinking ‘this thing is diluted because there are so many people in it.’
JE: Right. Well, there are usually two things – usually the practicality of the scene which is when you’ve got conflict diluted among five people, you’re not getting an interesting scene because you’re sort of ‘this one says this and that one says that’, but then there’s also the practical aspect of making your day, if you’ve got to cover five people in a scene instead of two. If it’s two people I know I can do a really interesting walk-n-talk. With five people, what? .. I’m going to have five people walking across the town square? You know it’s going to end up being a scene around a table which will take forever and they’re really boring and you can’t get those wonderful actor moments where they’re stopping and they pick up something and it’s going to become a very static and dull scene.
MT: So you’ll go back to the writer . . . the first thing you’ll say is “Have you written it this way because of the requirements?” But what if the writer says, “No, I wrote it this way because I think this is the way it should be. It should be all five people.”
JE: And then I’ll say, because I’ve had these conversations many times, “Okay, fair enough. But then, can we sharpen what each character is doing in the scene? Because right now (and I’ll try to say this in a nicer way), it feels like these are all interchangeable.”
Some of it is exposition which I understand is necessary, but who’s the character who could really carry this in the most interesting way? I’ve had a lot of success with this because it’s just basically saying to the writer, “Justify what you’ve done.” But, it’s not saying it in that confrontational way.
MT: Okay, let’s say you have five characters and you’d like to get it down to three or two . . . and I understand that even five sharpened characters is still diluted.
JE: Unless it’s a family drama . . .
MT: But then there’s one main character which is the family itself and it’s a family confrontation. But your scenario there are five people working at CSI and one of them is doing the investigation and one of them is the secretary and you’re asking, “What’s the dynamic here?”
JE: Yeah, I call those gang bang scenes.
MT: Gang bang scenes. That’s good.
JE: Everybody gets together and they’re all . . .
MT: Throwing things around and we all stop watching. We’re just looking for the information and that’s all we’re getting. Do you ever use this argument with the writer: “If this was three characters instead of five, do realize how much more time I’d be able to spend with each of them and get better performances?”
JE: Yes, absolutely.
MT: In other words: “I will make your writing look better. Give me the time to do this because you’re stretching my time”.
JE: And, because I’ve watched a lot of episodes as part of my prep, I will say things like: “This actor really can’t handle this . . .my experience of him is that he can’t handle exposition. He can’t handle props. Where this actor really can.” Or, there was a scene in a police station and there was one actress who just had that thing that cops have (and certain actors have, too) where they can memorize a load of dialogue and just make it sound important and urgent and they can drive a scene forward. I call those my engines. In different kinds of shows I’ll be asking myself: “Who’s the engine of the scene?” And you know, too, as an actor, when you have a dynamic, usually there’s one actor who has the stronger action in the scene, so I just say, “That’s going to be my engine for the scene.” And I’ll say, “This actor can really deliver the scene. This other actor, I don’t know . . . we’re going to end up cutting around him because he’s not going to match, so let’s give him stuff he can do and let’s give the powerhouse the work of the scene because I know we’ll be able to get the performance.”
MT: And why do you think, Jan, that some writers don’t know what you know? Why aren’t they in tune with the strengths and weaknesses of the characters? Because the writer is writing for these set characters, they’re not creating characters.
JE: It actually astonishes me the scope of writers who work on series. I went into a meeting for a show, which, in my opinion, is one of the better shows on television, and the producer/director said to me, “We don’t have writers on the set.” And I was like, really?
MT: They don’t allow them on the set?
JE: They’re available for questions. My point is, I’ve been on some shows where there are writers on the set who literally have the script in front of their nose. They’re not watching the actors, they’re not watching the monitor, and when the take is finished, they’ve got their head phones in and the script in front of their face and their like, ‘that was great’. And you’re like, “That fucking sucked.” And they’re just going, was every word uttered? Because that’s what they care about. They don’t care about the reality or the emotional vulnerability. Or, ‘of course she skipped that line because she was in the moment and it didn’t come out perfectly’, but that’s what’s going to end up in the cut if you have an editor with half a brain.
MT: In fact, it might be the skipped line, because she was so in the moment, she organically . . .
JE: Made a better line.
MT: Or, we don’t need that line. If you watched her, you’d see that the line, the idea, the impulse of the line was there and she actually did a re-write that worked. I was on a set, years ago, the director was watching the monitor and after a take he said to the script supervisor, “Did she say all the words? Yep? Okay, print.” And I remember that. That was the only criteria .
JE: Well, that is sad. When it’s the writer, I still think it’s sad because you would hope they’re looking for some life and vitality. But, when I went on this show and they said we don’t have the writer on the set, I was so grateful because they were saying, “We want the directors to do what they do and we don’t want the actors to feel so hamstrung about saying every word.” I mean, they have a great ensemble and he did say that it’s the director’s job to make sure the actors don’t get off the rails because sometimes they’ll get into the improv of the moment and sometimes the scene will get submerged. But, I guess my point was the writers are so different in terms of their sensitivity or their sense of what they’re looking for and some writers really do feel that every word is precious and some writers are good enough that every word is precious. They’ve really thought it through that way. So, as a director, I try to sense that pretty early, too. Because some writers do really think things through on that level. I guess if you’re doing a David Mamet play you don’t want to do too much improvisation because there’s a rhythm to it.
MT: I would think not. There’s a poetry to it.
JE: But, in TV in particular, because the assembly line quality of this, you’re working so fast that a lot of times that script that you get as a director is really a first draft. And sometimes the writer hasn’t had time and may not have time to think it through. So, I’ve found that the more I can sort of let the writer know early on that I’m there to make the best show possible and I’m not doing it at their expense, that we’re on the same team, the more they’ll say, “These are really good notes.” Because they can see they’re going to make the script better and they haven’t had time to think all of this through.
MT: In your work with story and script and writers, how much do you think your theatre background has helped you?
JE: Oh, immensely. My theatre background, and specifically my training at Yale, is actually the template for everything I still do. In those three years at Yale, I directed over 60 plays in different stages: cabaret, workshop reading, full reading, and some of those were the great plays of the canon and some were fresh off some writer’s typewriter or computer. But, doing that and doing so much of it so quickly with actors of a very high caliber, whether it was Francis McDormand or John Turturro or Angela Bassett, actors who were going to ask the hard questions. It just threw me into the swimming pool so many times that there isn’t really any situation that I don’t, in some instinctive way, know how to deal with. It’s like if you’re a journalist working on the metro desk. “Here’s a dog story, here’s a rat story, here’s a suicide – go write it. Make it interesting.” So, I feel like I’ve had pretty much everything thrown at me and had to make it work.
MT: And there’s purity in theatre. No cameras, no editing, no cutting.
JE: Right. No tricks.
MT: This play is going to sit on the stage for two hours, it better work or the audience . . .
JE: Will be walking out.
MT: Even before the intermission. So you have to be able to generate performances that are credible, believable and compelling. It’s not film where I can fool you.
JE: You can piece it together.
MT: Right. I can keep shooting until I get little moments that I can cut together and create a performance that never really happened. But it’ll look good. You can’t do that in theatre.
So, that boot camp that you were talking about – where you were thrown into so many theatre challenges has become a valuable tool, because you develop survive tools. I keep telling film students, “Theatre is harder.” And they don’t get it.
JE: Film is much easier because of the technology. You also have a whole crew that knows what they’re doing, that knows those machines inside and out, that knows all the tricks, that can help you if you understand what story you’re telling. You can talk about what the moments are and why you’re interested in dollying in on this moment. They’ll make it work, better than you ever could probably.
But, the other thing I always remember is that when you’re in a rehearsal room for a month with those kinds of actors, then they’re asking you hard questions and they’re trying to piece together what they need to make the performance work. So when you talk about motivation or objectives or given circumstances, it’s not technique to me. It’s the way you figure out what’s going on in the scene. And then, a thing like blocking, I will always go into a scene, even a badly written scene, trying to figure out how to block it in a way that gets the emotional arc of the scene across. So, then I think, okay, now that I’ve got the blocking in this organic way, how do I integrate the camera into that so that the camera is seeing what I want the audience to see? So, I don’t think I would be a good director without that training.
MT: I wish more directors had that training. And, Jan – the sequence of steps you go through, very important. In both of my books I have what I call The 9 Basic Steps. What’s the whole story about? What’s the scene about? Why is it in the movie? What do I need to achieve with this scene? What are the objectives, needs, what are the dynamics between the characters in the scene? And then comes the staging (blockin). Then, finally, after all that, how do I shoot it? My complaint with a lot of film schools and with the teaching of film in general is that the camera comes first. “Okay, you want to be a filmmaker, you need a camera.” And I say “don’t even think about the camera until you have something worth shooting.” So, I appreciate that you’re saying I’ll figure out how to shoot it after I have it blocked or staged.
Mark Rydell once said: “Filmmaking is easy. You create an event. You record the event. And then you reorganize the recording of the event to create a third event. But if the first event isn’t worth recording, then I don’t know what you’re doing.”
JE: And I would only add one thing: I don’t want to record the event. I want the camera in some way to participate in the event. Because I think recording the event can be a very distant thing. In my mind, the event will usually tell me how it needs to be recorded.
JE: And that sounds very new-agey and artsy-fartsy, like Michelangelo, you know – ‘the stone tells me what it wants to be’, but that has been my experience.
MT: I think you’re absolutely right. I have had producers or writers show me a scene (in a script) and say how would you shoot this? And I say, “I have no idea. I haven’t seen it yet.” And I don’t. I might have impulses but my experience is once the scene is up and running suddenly it starts to become clear. I know in this moment exactly where I need the camera to be, but it’s only because I saw the moment, not because I read it off the page.
JE: And I experience auditions in that way very much and we’ll go back to your tricks question. I will always use the audition to show the writer what’s working and what’s not working.
MT: And how do you do that?
JE: Well, I will see maybe three actors and I’ll see the same moment not working and I’ll be able to say, “Gee, that moment isn’t resonating. And now we’ve seen three wonderful actors do it and they’ve hit all these other moments. I wonder if that maybe is a moment that isn’t quite there.” You can blame an actor once, twice, but if you’ve got three actors and they’re all missing the same beat, then maybe it’s not the actors. Maybe it’s a problem in the script.
MT: So you have the writer there during casting?
MT: And you are consciously, although not openly, using . . . I’m going to put it this way, Jan . . . failures to make a point about a moment in a scene that never worked in the first place and my guess is . . . I’m speaking for you . . . ‘I don’t know how to make it work and I’ve seen it not work three times and now there’s my ammunition to go back to the writer and say we’ve got to help these actors because no one is able to make this work.’ This would be my trick – “Could you help us here?” Which is my way of saying, “Give me a re-write”. Because, in other words, you haven’t succeeded here, but I’m not putting it as your failure.
JE: I’m putting it as, “These are actors. And I’ve worked with that one. And I know he’s going to be able to make it work.” That often does work.
MT: Are you selecting specific scenes for casting for this reason?
JE: Usually for the casting on television, they’ve chosen the scene. But I’ll talk to the casting director. But I can’t choose a scene that really isn’t working to audition because then I’m not going to be able to evaluate the actors, which I have to do.
MT: That’s understandable.
JE: It’s more like when there’s a beat or a lot of exposition that I think is unnecessary. Also I think that it’s also a moment in casting when I get to understand how sophisticated a writer is, because if a writer is going for what I think is the most obvious casting choice then I know I’ve got my work cut out for me in terms of getting more nuance and more layers. That’s when I really get nervous about the work, but it’s just more of a challenge, that’s all.
MT: In terms of the casting process, what tricks do you use with the actors?
JE: Well, I always say that casting is my first opportunity to rehearse. Especially with episodic because it’s happening so quickly . . . I may not even have gotten the script very far in advance. So, casting is my first chance to hear something read aloud. And, a lot of times, through seeing actors, I’m finding the strengths and weaknesses in the scene. So, a lot of times when I give direction in casting, which I always do . . . if I don’t see anything that’s interesting, I say “thank you very much”. If I see something interesting in an actor I will always give them some kind of adjustment. Sometimes because I really want to see the actor work with something but sometimes just because I want to see what’s in the scene and the actor’s given me something I didn’t know was there and I just want to explore that a little bit and see well, if I take the scene in that direction in performance, how far can I go with that? So, I always feel like the audition is part of my rehearsal process, part of my discovery of what the scene is really about and the actors are guinea pigs for me, to some extent, because that’s part of my process.
MT: In my books I talk about the three different phases of the actors which are: the casting process, the rehearsal process and production. The same actor is a totally different person in each phase. In other words, the actor you cast may show up for rehearsal and you realize you have a different personality just because you’re in a different phase of the process. In the casting they’re trying to get a job. In rehearsal they’ve got a job to do and that is develop and discover a character, relationships, connect with the director’s vision. And in production they have to deliver.
And a lot of the tricks I talk about have to do with being aware of these phases and the mind set of the actors. In other words, I’ve got an actress in front of me reading and I know she wants the job, she wants the job so much she’d probably do almost anything I ask her to. The same actress probably won’t be so compliant in rehearsal as she slowly becomes the characters. And in production she is the character and she has a job to do.
In casting, I can ask her to do the scene in a totally inappropriate way just to see is she skilled enough and courageous enough to pull it off? I may say something like, “This argument scene with your husband is really a seduction and I need to see it now.” If she gives me the same reading she gave before, then I don’t have much to work with.
So, Jan, in the casting, putting aside the material, are you testing them?
JE: That’s interesting. It really depends on what the situation is for me. If I’m proving myself as a director and I’ve got producers who are thinking ‘is she going to be able to give us what we need?’ I probably don’t have as much room to do that stuff because they’ll go ‘what is she thinking? She’s got this argument scene and she’s asking them to do it as a seduction. Uh-oh, she’s really off base and we’ve got to talk to her and get her in a tone meeting.’ If I have more freedom on shows that I create or on shows where they’ve worked with me a lot and they know that I do deliver, then absolutely. In fact, the more I can treat everything as play, the better.
MT: By play you mean . . .
JE: By play I mean, “Let’s try it and have fun. Let’s try it and see if it works. There aren’t any mistakes here. You know, I just had a great idea . . .I know this sounds crazy, but let’s play.” That’s what I mean by play, because the more I get that feeling, of like, we can go to these places that might be scary . . . you know, let’s just take the anxiety out of the process as much as possible. Let’s forget that we have to get to this goal. Let’s just play. The more there’s that spirit, the better the work is in my experience. And the more the actors lose that self-consciousness, which is the thing that gets in the way of a really fresh performance.
MT: One thing you just mentioned is my ‘insanity trick’, where I say to an actor . . . and this could be in any phase: casting, rehearsal, or production. . . “Listen, I’ve got this idea. I’m sure it’s totally insane. I’m sure it’s not going to work, but . . .” Which means I’m going to take all the blame. All I’m asking them to do is think about it and if it doesn’t work, well, I was right, it was insane, or it was impossible.
JE: Yep. I do that, too.
MT: It’s the same thing you’re talking about –that self-consciousness. As opposed to ‘I got this great idea. I think you should play it this way.’ Now the pressure is on them . . .
JE: I always put the pressure on me. Always. Because I feel like that’s my job. I’m the parent and when I say, “play”, I feel like the set is a sandbox. And if everybody feels like there’s a parent in charge who’s going to make sure sand doesn’t get in the eyes or if it does then it’s flushed out, but there’s a parent in charge then everyone can play and those moments of fear are short and brief. So, my job is to let people know that I’m a parent, I’m a good parent and I’m going to protect them. So, if they look stupid – my fault. If I ask them to try something and it works, great, they get all the credit. If it doesn’t work, it was a really stupid idea. And I’ll say sometimes, “You know, that really sucked. Whose stupid idea was that?” And everybody will laugh and then the next take will be great because I’ve sort of taken the onus of responsibility on me and I’ve made it okay to do something really dumb. It’s generally out of those risky things that the really great moments come. When everyone’s playing, it’s safe. And sort of hitting all their marks and hitting all the beats. It can get lifeless. And my job in those moments is to do something to mix it up. Doesn’t even have to be the right thing. I’ll say, it’s just like your trick of counting to five before saying the line, I’ll say, “I just want to drive this scene. I don’t want any pauses, I don’t want any air, I just want you to barrel through this.” “Why?” “Just because.”Things happen. So, that’s one trick I’ll use. Or, a lot of times I’ll take actors aside and tell them do something that I won’t share with the other actor that is sometimes very intense. I’ll say, if it’s a goodbye scene, for instance, “Just find a moment in this scene to touch her cheek. Or just find something you just love about her and touch her there.” The other actor is usually shocked . . . and that reaction is usually a great moment.
MT: Yep. Exactly. I have a similar thing I’ve done. I take someone aside and say, “On every speech she does (not on yours), find that one word that somehow captures your imagination or hits you in a way and find that one word and just repeat it to yourself before you respond.” It’s the same as the touch. Now you watch the actor and he is totally focused deep inside the scene and the other actor’s going ‘where is he?’ If I was doing the scene with you, you’d see “I don’t know what Mark’s doing, but he’s here, but his focus is somewhere else.” The camera will see something when I find that word and even if I’m repeating that word in my head before I speak, the whole look changes and what I like about this one is that actor has no idea what he’s done. He’s just done a simple task. It’s a mechanical task. It’s not asking for an emotion. It’s asking, ‘Can you do this? Can you pick up the paper on this line?’ It’s all left-brain stuff.
JE: Can you find a place to brush the hair off her face?
MT: Yes. And suddenly the whole focus of the character has changed and the scene changes and a magical moment may happen during the looking for the moment.
JE: Or, to the other actor when it happens. It’s like, ‘what? What was going on there?’
MT: And these are perfect, Jan, because these get the actors past their barriers and sometimes the barrier is the fact that we’ve been shooting the scene all day and they’ve got nothing new. And now it’s their close up. I need them to shift what’s going on internally, to get them on a track without saying ‘get back on track.’
JE: And that’s why I think objectives are really important and action words. Because, if I can shift the objective, even to something that makes no sense, then the scene is going to be fresh. That I know. And, a lot of times . . . I worked with Rutger Hauer who was wonderful at this. He would nail a scene and then he’d say, “Give me something else to do with it.” And I would and he would and that’s where I sort of get this idea of play because what I ended up with in the editing room . . . he was a character that you were never supposed to be quite sure about . . . and so I ended up with all of these takes that were really different and I could actually use moments from one, moments from the other where he would go from being very, very sort of compassionate and intent and sweet to being really quite dangerous. He really showed me, because a lot of times, if I come with an odd objective to an actor and he’ll be like, “Well, I thought that last take was really good,” and I’m like, “Yeah, it was, it was really good. But let’s see if there’s something else in the scene that we haven’t found yet.”
MT: This is very important in terms of shooting film or rehearsing a play, not the performance of a play. Where this idea of layering. In film we can cut together bits and pieces from different takes and consequently the performance you see was a performance that was never given. The actor never did it quite like that. The rehearsals in theatre will explore all of those levels and letting the actor be the ‘editor’ in each performance. Instinctive choices will be make by the actor depending on what the other actors are doing. Theater is much more interactive than film.
JE: Although I think the shooting of film is extremely interactive. Because one of my big tricks is actually not talking to the actor who’s on camera, but talking to the actor who’s off camera.
MT: About what?
JE: Changing the objective. Or asking that actor to do something different because I’m trying to elicit a reaction from the actor who’s on camera but I don’t want to make that actor self-conscious by asking him to do something specific, so I use my off camera actor to make it happen. If you keep giving adjustments to the actor who’s on camera, s/he starts to feel like ‘I must not be getting it because the director keeps coming up and talking to me’ and sometimes that can be very anxiety producing. It’s like ‘what am I doing wrong?’ Where I’m just looking for a little bit of a different approach or a little bit of a different moment. But if I’m talking to the actors off camera, somehow the actors on camera are just reacting, the honest genuine reaction, which is what you want.
MT: Do you ever have the actor off camera say something different than their lines?
MT: And what has your experience been with that?
JE: It depends on how good the actor who’s on camera is. If the actor is really green, they’ll get totally thrown and you might get a great moment in the instant, but then it all falls apart. But if the actor’s really there, then a lot of times that can be great and the scene can go in completely different directions. I’ll also do things with physicality or sometimes I’ll do even it myself if a scene seems to be falling into a rut, I’ll start saying things from off camera. “Say it again! I don’t believe you!” Things like that.
MT: Just to stimulate them.
JE: Yes. “I don’t believe you. Go back to something and convince me!” Again, there’s got to be a trust there.
MT: Yes, and your knowledge of the actor’s ability to handle that.
JE: Yes, and an actor who’s done theatre, will take that and run with it.
MT: Two things I want to ask: First, the rehearsal process, if you have any. And second, how much you can you get to know about the actors and how they work.
I know it’s different than casting a feature film where you can get to know a lot about the actor and spend more time in rehearsal. While in television, you’re thrown in and you’re not meeting some of those actors until the first day you’re shooting.
JE: Yeah, that’s why, first of all, I try to glean as much information as I can and one of my greatest sources is the first AD, because my first AD is with me in the prep process and usually I will engage pretty early on in the conversation, “Who’s going to give me problems on the set and why?” “Tell me about the actors, who’s prepared, who knows their lines, who stays in their trailer?” Then I’ll go to the set and I never go announced. I always let the other director who’s directing know that I’m there, but I’ll usually stand in the back and I’ll watch for a while, before I get introduced. Because once I’m introduced, actors are usually putting their best foot forward. I think a lot of times actors are labeled difficult because they really care about the work. And that drives me crazy because those are the actors I love to work with, but they ask questions and a lot of times directors, especially in episodic, don’t know how to answer them or don’t want to answer them. They don’t want to be bothered. Or they come out of film school and they’re thinking about the camera, they’re not thinking about the actor.
If I hear an actor’s difficult, I want to know, ‘is it about the work or is it about anxiety or is it about they’re getting old and they’re nervous about it?’ There are all different reasons for actors to be difficult. If it’s about the work, then I’m like, “Oh, great.” So, when I did Miami Vice, Don Johnson was . . . difficult. Everybody said it. But what I found was that nobody talked to Don like an actor; everyone talked to him like a star. And so I just decided I was going to go and I made an appointment to spend some time in his trailer over lunch and I talked to him about the challenges of this particular episode and what I had seen in watching his work on previous episodes and where I thought this gave him and opportunity to show some different sides to the character and all of a sudden we were an actor and a director working together instead of the star and the hired hand coming in. And by engaging him as an actor he did wonderful work, which I knew he was capable of because I’d seen him do it. Matthew Fox was another one. He really could not say a line that didn’t make sense to him. He just had that wonderful bullshit meter and so he would give directors a hard time if they didn’t know what they were doing, if they didn’t know what the moment in the scene was about. He would say, “This line doesn’t make sense.” If you couldn’t come up with a reason, he would really resist, but I never felt with him that it was coming from a place other than I want to make work that makes sense.
Particularly in episodic directing, you’re a host at somebody else’s party. So, they’re guests you didn’t invite. They’re guests who were invited by the person whose house it is. There’s a little bit of triage to that. You don’t necessarily want to waste time trying to get a performance out of somebody who really is going to give you what they give you and they do that well. So you say, ‘great’, and be very grateful for it. A lot of times those actors are actors who have careers that are very successful because people really like them; they have something that they do, some quality that people are going to tune into week after week after week. And you just say, ‘you know what, they don’t have to do Hamlet here.’ People tune in to watch this. There’s a likeability, there’s a charm . . .
MT: And the actor knows this. He knows that this is his strength. This is what people tune into every week to see.
JE: And that’s a gift, too, is my point. There’s the chameleon actor, there’s the theatre actor who can do anything and then there’s the actor like George Clooney who is a wonderful example. I worked with him on Sisters. Everything he has now that has made him a movie star, he had then. He’s refined it over the years, but the boyish charm, the twinkle in the eye, he had that and you didn’t want to mess with it . . . that’s what it was.
MT: And that is his legacy.
JE: He is Cary Grant. He’s our contemporary Cary Grant. He’s deeper, certainly in Michael Clayton or Out of Sight. He was able to give a deeper performance because the material demanded it. That’s what you get when you have George Clooney in your movie. And I’d argue that Tom Cruise is the same. .. But that’s when you get Emma Thompson, you can get anything.
MT: And that’s what we expect from her. We don’t expect to see the same thing again and again.
JE: Let her surprise me.
MT: Getting back television rehearsal for a moment. How much rehearsal do you get?
JE: Almost none.
MT: So, you’re rehearsing on the set, in production?
JE: Pretty much.
MT: So, how do you get what you want?
JE: I always ground the scene. I always have a rehearsal with the actors without the crew. Pretty much for every scene unless the scene is a total throwaway because I always want the actors to feel they are the priority. You talk about creating an event; I don’t want the event to be about the crew. I mean an action sequence, yes, the event is about the stunts and the crew. I’ve thought it through and I’ve storyboarded it, but if it’s a scene about the actors, I want the event to be about the actors and that starts with let’s just read through this, let’s not even block it right now, let’s just read through it because that’s when the questions come up. When I can ask questions like, ‘you talk about this in the scene. What was that? Was it a big fight? A little fight? When did you guys meet?’ That’s when I can ground the scene in the given circumstances. And again, I’ll say this is sort of my theory of play – ‘let’s sketch something in’ and usually, my blocking, I try to keep as organic as possible, which is hard, but when I sit in my meetings with the prop department I’ll throw out a bunch of props that I think might animate the scene or might give me some motivation for blocking and staging.
So, I’ll try to have a certain number of props there that I’m thinking I can probably use. I’ve got a shape of the scene in my head. Then I’ll talk to the actors after we’ve read it and grounded the scene in the circumstances and done some work on motivation, not character work. I assume they’ve done the character work on their own, and certainly if there’s anything major about character I’ve talked with them or met with them or gone to their fitting. A lot of times that’ll come out in wardrobe, which is interesting. A lot of directors shortchange that because they don’t think about costumes. I don’t know if that’s because I’m a woman, but I think about what people wear and I have ideas about it because it says a lot about character. So I will go to wardrobe fittings and I will have ideas and I will have conveyed things to the costume director about that.
Then I’ll shape a scene like molding clay. I don’t want it to get too stuck, but I want to start to give it a shape. Then I’ll have the DP there and we’ll be watching what the actors are doing and I’ll be suggesting, ‘Oh, you know. It feels like you want to move away from her. Why don’t you go and get this piece of paper that I’ve cleverly placed in the desk over here. And here it is!’ Usually actors will respond to that. Some actors are like ‘just tell me what to do’ and then I’ll tell them what to do. But I’d rather a scene evolve organically if it can. Then as I’m watching with the DP, I usually have thoughts about how I’m going to cover it and which moments are important, but I’ll also watch how things are flowing. And then we do a marking rehearsal for the crew and then I’ll refine it with the second team. Usually not with first team because first team has a lot of other things to do – they’re learning their lines and getting make-up on and also I don’t want the actor to be too much a part of that technical process because they’re starting to think, ‘I’ve got to hit my mark’.
MT: One line you said, “Looks like you want to move away from her.” This is a trick. At least by my definition. You’re planting an idea in the mind of the actor that may never have been there. But you are saying that you are getting that impulse from him, giving him credit. He may be thinking: “Oh, it looked the way? Really? Okay, I guess I do.”
MT: Sometimes inferring that the actor is doing something or has the impulse to do something is much more powerful and effective than asking the actor to do that very same thing.
JE: A lot of times the actor is reacting in a specific way but they are stifling the impulse. Perhaps the impulse that I see is that moment is ‘oh, I don’t like that’ and then I’ll respond with, “Oh, it looks like you want to move away from her in that moment.”
MT: On top of that you have that mechanical move (blocking) that they can do to fulfill that impulse, which is ‘why don’t you go over there and get that piece of paper which is important for your character’. Now you’ve given them a mechanical move but the actor also knows why he’s making that move. ‘Because I don’t want to be near her’. So what’s been inserted in the scene is an emotional response and you’ve given a mechanical expression of that response.
JE: And that’s why I always say props animate it, props make a scene. A well chosen prop, if there’s a conflict, will become the source of the conflict. There are keys. Who’s got the keys? She’s got them in her hand. She throws them at him. He puts them down. She takes them away. He grabs them back. And suddenly the scene is about keys, but I’ve just found the source of the conflict that you then hopefully see on film.
MT: Any last brilliant words to these aspiring directors who, for whatever reason, bought this book? What would you suggest?
JE: Act, yourself. Even if it’s just in a little showcase or a scene. Or take an acting class because if you’ve acted yourself, you know how vulnerable an actor is and you know what kind of direction helps and what kind of direction doesn’t help. So, that’s one thing.
Second, do your homework as much as you can because things like having those props there require you to have thought about what is really going on in this scene. Those props don’t get there by accident. You have to ask for them. And where does that come from? It comes from really analyzing what’s going on in the scene. What are the character’s objectives. Where are they coming from? Where are they going?
And then trust your intuition. If you think something’s not working . . . I mean some of the best moments for me are when I can see an actor struggling and I know they are going for something and I don’t even know what it was. I just feel like there’s something there, and I walk over because I felt like ‘they need me. They need me to say something.’ And I will literally walk over not even knowing what I am going to say. Just knowing I have to say something and whatever comes out of my mouth, usually produces a great result. But it’s not because I planned it . . . I guess if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had (directing theater), I might not have all those instincts.
MT: Experiences being, directing experiences?
JE: Theatre, directing, directing all kinds of material. One of the tricks I learned as a director was every single job I got I saw as a learning opportunity. Early in my career I was offered things that weren’t that good, they really weren’t great. Television, film, anything. So I would challenge myself to find something to learn from the experience. I don’t know if this fits into your book at all, but it may be tricks for directors, certainly a trick for me, was ‘I’m going to give myself a parameter. This show is going to be about moving camera. Every single shot is going to move. This show is going to be about lenses. I’m not going to use a zoom. I’m going to determine lens size for every single shot because I want to give myself this spine and in a way that’s like saying to the actor ‘go get that piece of paper’ or ‘touch her’. How am I going to challenge myself to keep this fresh for me so that everything I’m doing is fresh. And I hope, I really hope that if I ever get bored that I leave the business because I don’t ever want it to be boring.
MT: So you’ve given yourself these boundaries, these restrictions that most likely nobody else understands or even appreciates. Do you think you discover something within the material that you hadn’t even seen before because of the boundaries that you set?
JE: Usually I would say that I probably come up with the boundaries because of something I sense in the material. Usually they’re not arbitrary.
MT: It’s an instinct.
JE: It’s an instinct. For instance, something in the script reminds me of a specific film. I go and watch that film and I look at the director’s work and I think ‘Oh, it’s the director’s style, lot of steadicam. Or, this is almost a documentary style.’ The task isn’t imposed in some arbitrary way. It’s coming out of the story because the story is everything. Telling that story in the best way possible, that is the goal.
MT: Right. We’re storytellers. And that’s the primary reason we’re doing all this work – to tell a story. We happened to have selected the medium of film (or theater) through which to tell the story. We could have written the story. You could have done ballet, opera, performance art. There are a lot of ways to tell a story – but we’ve decided to tell is through film. So I think we should stop saying we’re filmmakers and start saying we’re storytellers.
The primary reason people go to films is not because of the star, the genre or the director. It’s because of the story.
JE: People go to films for the same reason they go to theatre, I think, and theatre is good at different things than film so I believe there are certain stories that are better suited to film and other stories that are better suited to theatre and other stories that are better suited to novels. So, you’re telling the story and trying to find the best way to tell it which also includes ‘where does it belong?’ In the theatre? On tv? Tv is a very different medium than film. It’s small, it’s in your home. Versus film which happens in a darkened theater. I think it goes back to when you’re lying in bed at night and your parent comes in and tells you a story. You’re sitting round the campfire and you’re telling stories. There’s a primal need for that experience. And if you can get back to the beauty of that (which is why I say, if I ever get bored, I have to quit) that’s the primal need and you want to address that in everything you do.