Making The Most of Rehearsal Time

At first glance, rehearsing for film makes no sense – you’re shooting out of order, and you have the ‘luxury’ of doing retakes, moving the camera, and cutting it all together in post. It’s just money spent that you can’t put on screen. Right? WRONG.

Even if you’ve storyboarded the entire film and basically just need your actors to move a certain way, you’ll make a better film if you give your cast some time to explore different options.

But I’ve also seen rehearsals go horribly awry. No one is communicating very well, the actors and director are getting demoralized, and the producer is just rolling his or her eyes at the expense. So how do you make the most out of whatever rehearsal time you have?

DEFINE YOUR GOALS:

Firstly, figure out why you’re bringing in your actors in the first place. Here’s a few reasons:

1. To practice your craft. If it’s your first or second feature, chances are you haven’t had a chance to really develop your skills directing actors yet, so now’s a good time to exersize those skills without having the entire crew and the producer breathing down your neck to hurry up.

2. To fine-tune the script. Actors can communicate a lot with a few looks, eliminating the need for excessive dialog. On the other hand, if they’re having trouble with a scene, you may need to add a line or two to help them out, or change a difficult line. Or the actors will have a more elegant way of blocking a scene, again eliminating needless directions in the script.

3. To bond with your actors. This is obvious, but it bears mentioning. On set, you may have very little time to spend with your team (especially if you’re also producing). If they feel they can trust you, and get a sense of what you’re looking for now, then they’ll be more willing to “go there” during the shoot.

4. To understand the script better. Subtext is your best friend. You want scenes that are about more than what they appear to be; you want characters that come alive; you want each scene to build on what came before and set up what comes after. The way to achieve this is by discovering the subtext within each scene – what’s really motivating the characters and what really makes the world of the film turn around. Your script analysis (which you should be doing anyway) is a good start but it can only take you so far. It’s only when you bring in your cast that you can really test out your theories – and accept new ideas as they come along.

TIME AND MONEY

So, these are all good reasons, but what about time? What about money?

In terms of time, it’s probably better to either schedule a LOT of rehearsal time or very little. Kubrick, for Eyes Wide Shut, put Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise through their paces for a LONG time. This paid off – they delivered career-capping performances. But to get there they had to really break down and rebuild their work, and suffer through long periods where everything just sucked. A more recent example would be Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, where the Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams lived together for several weeks. You probably can’t afford to get to that point. Assuming you cast well to begin with (if you didn’t, you’re in real trouble), your actors are somewhere in the ballpark of where you want them to be. Your job is to get them to the 90-95% mark. If you try for a 100% perfect performance, you’ll have to suffer through points of failure that you, probably can’t afford either time-or-budget wise.

What you can do is pick out the most important turning points in the script – where key elements of the relationships between characters are revealed or change – and rehearse those. Note that these are not always the “climactic” scenes in the script.

Money-wise: yes, you have to pay actors for rehearsal time. And you should; they are working. But you can also get together with them informally over the phone, via email, taking them out to dinner. You can give them books, movies, music, introduce them to people in the field that they’re supposed to be a part of. You should do these things anyway, since your time together is limited. If I can’t rehearse with everyone I at least meet with all of the cast members individually to go over their role, get comfortable with me, and talk about the script. I also advocate a full-cast readthrough as well, but this isn’t always practical.

MAKING THE MOST OF THE TIME

Another fear that directors have about rehearsal is that it’ll be very unproductive. You’re rarely able to rehearse on location, so you can’t really finalize the blocking. This is a legitimate concern. I tend to rehearse at the table, unless the actors want to move around. The main thing is to explore the script and get comfortable working together, rather than “nail” anything down. I keep the sessions short – we’ll rehearse for 90 to 120 minutes and then take a break. The breaks are important, because that’s when everyone starts digesting and integrating what they’ve learned. Often the really great ideas occur after the rehearsal period. That’s normal.

If you have actors with different methods of working, it’s your job as the director to be fluent enough to communicate what you want. Professional actors do have training in how to interpret direction, but it’s better of course if you can meet them halfway.

Try to keep things simple. If you give them an entire thesis of what the film is about and how everyone should work together, you’ll probably get glazed stares after two sentences. Try to focus on the scene at hand, and not go off on tangents unless it’s helpful to the work.

Keep the rehearsal time about the work – don’t get caught up in too much chit-chat. Some is unavoidable and can be a good ice-breaker, but save it for the breaks.

Keep everyone else out of the room if at all possible. The crew will sometimes try to glom onto your rehearsal time: the line producer will want them to sign their deal memos, the AD may have some SAG/payroll paperwork for them, the costume designer will want to fit them, the HMU will want to talk to them about makeup, the EPK crew will want to interview them. Some folks advocate bringing the DP and the camera into the room to rehearse the blocking.

Sometimes it helps to bring in the crew to observe or answer questions, but often it’s better to keep the door closed, and the phone off. This is the time for making mistakes and learning. You can’t do those things if your attention is constantly being broken up or if you have an audience.

Lastly, listen first, and talk less. Genuine listening is a hard skill, one that takes a lifetime to master (I’m definitely not there yet). But it’s essential to rehearsing effectively.

Good luck!

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