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Film rehearsing

Film preproduction - Rehearsing the actors

Why bother with rehearsals?

In the expensive, high-pressure world of filmmaking it frequently happens that rehearsal time is the last thing to get scheduled and often doesn't happen. Actors are booked, directors are going crazy with preproduction and the trend has been to spend less and less time on rehearsals, trusting that the actors will have learned their lines and there will be time while lights are being set to run through the scene.

The previous generations of film directors were mostly from the stage world where two months or more of rehearsals is the norm. More and more of the newest generation of directors in Hollywood come from doing music videos and commercials where rehearsing actors is not an issue. Frankly, they probably don't even know how to rehearse actors.

So everyone goes onto the set the first day with no shared understanding of the director's vision and every setup becomes a 15+ take marathon with an exhausted director trying to explain the objectives of the characters to increasingly frustrated actors.

Eventually they give up and just do their 15 takes with the actors doing a slightly different slant on how they play the scene each take, and everyone hopes the editor can piece something that makes sense when they are done.

Many of the youngest actors are buying into the belief that rehearsing destroys spontaneity. Indeed, some of the finest actors, such as Sir Ben Kingsley, have added to the idea by avoiding rehearsals. The fact is that actors of this caliber have already done such extensive preparation for understanding the story and their character that they find the typical film rehearsal period to be to little, to late and to amateur for their tastes.

The fact is that rehearsals do not prevent getting a fresh performance and spontaneity from actors. Frustration and exhaustion are the cause of lackluster acting in otherwise good actors. Some of the finest and most spontaneous acting performances have come in films where the actors had already put in hundreds of performances of the work as a stage play. Streetcar Named Desire comes to mind.

Turns out that when an actor has spend a lot of time "living in the shoes" of their character they are much more able to be spontaneous and still stay in character than when they are still trying to fit into the shoes.

And who says you always want a fresh and spontaneous performance from your actors. If the scene calls for the character to be exhausted then why not shoot the scene at the end of a long, hard day? If they should be angry then help them by getting them pissed off. The best directors frequently manipulate and take advantage of the actor's moods and emotions to get the best performances. Good actors expect and appreciate it.

Additionally, as a low-budget independent filmmaker, you can't afford to do 15 takes of every setup. Your time is much too precious. Your actors have to be able to "hit it" on the first or second try, every setup.

If the actors have properly prepared by learning their lines and doing necessary research then two to four days of rehearsal for a short film and two weeks of rehearsal for a feature film should be sufficient. You will still have time to refine the performances during production.

The rehearsal schedule

If you allow for a two week rehearsal then schedule two weeks of Monday through Friday for about four hours a day. More than four hours of intense rehearsals (and all rehearsals should be intense) is just too exhausting and the actors need time to absorb what they have learned.

Before the first rehearsal go back to your screenplay notes (you did create a set of notes, didn't you?) and review the following:

  • What is the story about?
  • For each scene ask yourself: what is this scene about, why is it in the screenplay and what do I need to achieve to maximize the emotional impact of the scene.
  • What are the objectives of each character, the obstacles, actions, means, etc?
  • What do I need to be sure the actors do to clarify and maximize the impact of each scene?
  • What is the best, most effective and appropriate way to visually present the scene?

Your goals during the rehearsals are:

  • Bring the cast and crew into a collaborative unity.
  • Give everyone your vision for the telling of this story including the style, rhythm and pacing.
  • Develop the relationship between you and the actors, between the actors and their characters, and between each of the actors for each other.
  • Fix any problem scenes by working with the actors or perhaps even rewriting the scene.
  • Make sure the most important scenes, the turning points of the story, work extremely well.

Monday - Day 1 - First rehearsal

Bring the entire cast and crew together. I like to rehearse in my home so everyone feels they are part of a family. Provide bottled water, snacks and soft drinks. Also provide pencils and yellow felt-tipped markers along with copies of the screenplay so the actors can take notes and highlight their lines.

Allow a little time for everyone to socialize and start to get to know each other. You want a feeling of friends working together. When everyone is there, get them together in one large circle, preferably standing, and do introductions.

A good way to do this is by playing a game of tossing a toy ball from person to person where the thrower has to give the first name of the person they are throwing to as well as the character they are playing or the crew position they are working. At first few people will know anyone else so the receiver has to introduce them self and give their character or job.

After 20 minutes everyone will be on a first name basis and feeling a sense of excitement, commitment and belonging to the group. The filmmaker's job is to keep the excitement and commitment going.

Everyone can sit down now but try to have the actors mix with the rest of the crew and not sit in a group to encourage the sense of family.

The filmmaker should now talk for 20 minutes or so about his/her vision for the story, what excites him/her about it, why s/he believes this will be an important artistic effort, then ask everyone for their commitment to the project. Look everyone in the eyes as you make this request.

Take a short break so people can get something to eat/drink and go to the bathroom When everyone is comfortably seated again do a first cold reading. Assure the actors that this is just a reading and you are not expecting polished performances. Pick an actor who doesn't have many lines to read the action paragraphs.

Watch everyone's reactions to see if the story is working. Take notes of any dead spots where people start to fidget or get distracted. They will need work.

After the reading tell the actors what a great job they did and how excited you are. Tell everyone about how you emotionally connect to the story and this reading in particular. Get responses from the actors as to how they feel about their characters.

Everyone is probably pretty tired by now, you especially, so let everyone go home after establishing the time for the actors to assemble the next day. The crew is no longer invited to the rehearsals unless you personally ask them. You want to be building your own special relationship with the actors from now on.

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Second rehearsal

Today you are going to work on scenes in depth. Go through each scene, one at a time, with the actors reading the lines then stop to explain and discuss what is going on. The meaning behind the words, the backstory and subtext, whatever is important about the story needs to be discussed and understood.

Additional rehearsals

After one or two rehearsals the actors responsible for the minor roles should be ready to perform. It is now up to the director to establish what additional rehearsals are required for the principle actors on a case by case and actor by actor basis.

The best plan is usually to work with the actors in small groups and working on individual difficult scenes. Two to four hours is generally the longest you should ever rehearse any individual actor or small group of actors. The intensity of emotion and mental effort become so taxing on the actors (and the director) after a couple or hours that very little will be accomplished by continuing without a good night's rest.

Continue examining the scenes until you are confident the actors understand your intent and have worked to come up with motivations and objectives that work. Unless you have a need for your actors being able to give perfect performances on the first take don't over rehearse your actors. You want to leave some time for experimentation and improvisation on the set. Actors get bored and their performance can get flat after too many rehearsals. It has to be fun for the actors, too.

How much time you spend in rehearsals is entirely up to you. You are the filmmaker.

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