China Diary

Day 123: Shoeleather


One two three, here’s how not to stage a scene.

I thought I was being very clever yesterday, and plotted out my way around my actors in today’s scene. The setup was as follows: two characters with very dissimilar interests talk with each other in a room. There’s nobody else there, and the scene itself is some two-and-a-half script pages long; that translates to about two to two and a half minutes of screen time. So, a relatively long scene to cover two men talking to each other.

The actors are Andy and mr. Duan. Andy is always pretty easy: as long as you are clear with what you want and give him the space to work his scene, he can do magic. Mr. Duan is a very different kind of an actor. He wants to understand and internalize the scene in depth before playing it out. He needs to understand why and where he comes to the scene and what kind of an internal struggles he is going through before he’s able to play it.

My general strategy in the beginning of the day is to go and talk with mr. Duan through the scene and hear his thoughts and ideas for it. He’s one of the greatest actors in China, and has a deep understanding on not only his character, but our story and the intricacies in it, so he has usually loads of valuable ideas on how to make the scene resonate deeper.

But this scene was the first scene these two actors play heavily together, and my method wasn’t very good for us today. I went to mr. Duan’s trailer and spend a long time talking with him about the scene and spent a good hour there in the morning, and then went to talk with Andy to hear his thoughts. Turns out both of them had a bit of a different approach to the scene, and both wanted to work a bit on their lines, so by the time I had gone through both of their notes and discussed with both of them, a lot of details in the scene had changed, but the actors who are actually playing it had never spoke of it together.

So then I go to the set and invite my actors there. I explain to them in great length what I want to happen, work the big set like a crazy person and try to get everyone excited about the staging, but there’s something that just doesn’t work. First, Andy notes that the staging has a lot of shoeleather in it. Meaning, the actors walk around the room needlessly. So we kill the walking: Andy suggest he just sits in front of Duan and they talk. Then, let’s see what happens, organically.

Sounds great. So we do that. They start then going through the lines, and we hit wall almost after every small bit: it just doesn’t go together with what I had devised. I try to talk them around, but both actors just don’t feel natural, so I decide it’s time for me to also forget my directions and just let the actors work their way around the scene.

And only then, after few hours of talking and staging the scene starts to unwrap itself, when I actually give the actors the stage, only tell what I want as an outcome of the scene and what’s my final image there (them watching through a window together). Then, together they start going through each bit and I stand back and watch them work together, like professional actors do, finding their beats, their turns, their slight adjustments to the text and eventually their staging, too.

In the end, the scene turns out to work quite a lot in the way I originally described it, with most of the shoeleather in it but instead of feeling staged, it felt really natural. And this day taught me an important lesson: don’t overthink the scenes and let your actors find the rhythm, organically. Instead of talking with each of them individually for hours, get them together in a room and tell them where you want to start and where you want to end and let them find the natural way to go about it. Directing is not necessarily telling them what to do, but tugging them to right direction, and the art comes in finding together with the actors the rhythm, listening to their ideas and eventually, repeating it over and over again, giving them free takes every now and then to keep it fresh until you’ve got it nailed.

I guess the trick in director’s work is that every actor works different way, and every actor combo works in a different way, and finding what works for whom is the challenge.

After the day, another dinner with Andy and Udo, this time downstairs of Andy’s hotel. Was fun!

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“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go…” -The Beatles

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