Rehearsal TechniquesRehearsing with actors before shooting begins can be difficult.  Despite having the best intentions, directors often find their time consumed by other pre-production demands.  Some directors find no purpose to rehearsal, believing that it is better and more efficient to work out choices during takes.  However, rehearsals can always prove beneficial and should be used whenever possible.

The modern tendency to skip rehearsals can be attributed to a lack of understanding among many film directors about their nature and purpose.  Originally, the rehearsal process for film production closely mirrored that of the theatre; rehearsals were a given.  Now, rehearsals occur rarely, if at all, which means that many film directors lack the knowledge and experience necessary to run rehearsals.

The rehearsal process is often thought to be repetitive and a waste of time.  If a person assumes that the purpose of a rehearsal is to practice doing a scene over and over again, in the same exact way, then they will naturally assume that the entire process is simply a  waste of time.  On the contrary, a rehearsal should be thought of as a good way to begin opening a portal into the production at hand.  The director and the actors will start learning how to work with one another, find truths in the material, and generate an excitement about the filming process.

A well-rehearsed scene eventually stops looking rehearsed.  Allowing the actors to practice their scenes enables them to open themselves up to the story so that the final product looks like the result of something, rather than the effort it has taken to get there.  Within each individual scene, the actors must move beyond saying their lines and moving from one place to another.  Each scene becomes more about communicating in an honest way.

Actors use the rehearsal process in three ways.  First, the rehearsal process allows them to delve into “discovery mode,” searching for personal connections in the material.  As the actor becomes more proficient in their craft, they will unlock their instincts and begin to bring something to the material that wasn’t there before.  Second, they will connect with the other actors, both as people and as fellow artists.

 This connection enables another level of learning for the actors, in which they learn how to move together, how to appear familiar, and how to create a history behind their interactions.  As this happens, the actors behind to form a cohesive unit; they become a cast.   Finally, the rehearsal process allows the actors to immerse themselves in the film’s world . The choices that they experiment with, the creativity that they cultivate, and the vision that starts becoming a reality will ultimately shape the final product in a positive way.

Directors should view the rehearsal process as a positive place in which to make discoveries about the film.  In a large-budget production, there may be ample time to film each scene a number of ways.  However, most productions will only be able to film a scene one or two different ways.  Accordingly, the choices made during rehearsals must serve the original vision of the director.  Overall, the rehearsal process is a great opportunity to experiment with these choices, especially without the distraction of demanding crew members, each with their own individual needs.

The script provides an excellent starting place for the overall vision of the film.  Although the script is essentially a well-planned road map, it requires  the collaboration of directors, designers, and actors in order to be brought to life.  Breathing life into a script begins with the first read-through and continues through the rehearsal process.  Many discoveries can and should be made during the process that will ultimately shape the outcome of the production.

The rehearsal process allows individual actors to meld together and form an ensemble, in spite of their varying skill levels and individual expertise.  Veteran actors may resist the idea of rehearsing, preferring to work through the script at their own pace and in their own way.  This attitude should always be discouraged, if possible, as the chance for all of the cast members to rehearse together can be a phenomenal equalizer, enabling them to appear more familiar with one another on the big screen.

The discoveries that are made during each rehearsal should ultimately lead to consistent and connected on-camera work.  A good scene should never be an accident; rather, it should be the result of hard work and the committed, creative energy of the actors.  It will always be possible, then, to recreate the truth of the moment for additional takes of a particular scene.

Even in an abbreviated rehearsal process, the director should accomplish a couple of basic tasks.  The blocking, or movement, of the scene should be given by the director and internalized by the actor.  The pacing, or tempo, of the scene should also become apparent fairly early in the rehearsal process.  Although certain pacing elements can and will be altered in the editing room, the energy of a scene comes from the internal tempo of the actors, which should be well established during the rehearsal process.

Rehearsals are a serious business, but should never be looked at as a chore.  The rehearsals need to run efficiently, by someone who knows what they are doing, in order to be beneficial for all.

Blocking

 Decisions regarding the movement and activity of the characters have a direct impact on the emotional content of the scene.  In an emotional encounter, having one character maintain his physical standing while the other paces frantically from one side of the room to the other can provide a visual demonstration regarding the power dynamic of the argument.  Generally speaking, a person standing still looks more powerful.

Having a character engage in a trivial activity, such as clipping their fingernails, can communicate a strong level of disinterest to the viewer; this is especially true when contrasted with the physical actions of a more emotional character.  For example, picture a woman revealing to her lover that she is pregnant.  In response, he continues to clip his toenails.  Whatever her lover’s verbal response may be, his actions alone shape the emotional content of that moment.

All scene blocking should be logical and come from real life.  For example, a lawyer in a courtroom will not suddenly begin practicing yoga in the middle of her opening statement. Blocking should be a natural movement highlighting the emotional truth that the actors are already playing.  Working with the actors to figure out what their instincts are telling them is an important step.  Sometimes, actors will resist a movement because it feels uncomfortable.  At times, it may be that the current blocking is pushing them to an emotional level that frightens them.

For instance, they may not want to look directly into another character’s eyes while revealing a painful truth.  In these cases, they should be pushed to try the action until it becomes less frightening, until they are able to surrender to the moment at hand.  At other times, the actor’s resistance may come from a more organic place; the actor knows that it doesn’t feel right and believes that their choice could be better served in a different manner.  The action must fit the character, the situation, and the emotional truth.  The rehearsal process helps to establish the connection between these elements.

Every action that an actor takes- especially the actions they are directed to take- should support an emotional reality.  Subtle movements, such as locking eyes with someone across the table while pouring a glass of liquid, can instantly intensify the moment.  In terms of blocking and character actions, nothing should happen without deeper consideration.

Planned blocking has the additional purpose of giving crew members marks, or indications as to where the actors will be moving and where they can be located at any given moment during a scene.  This allows everyone to plan and execute the efficient shooting of a scene.

Blocking, when done well, can and should support the structure of a scene.   As a scene intensifies, the blocking will need to support that level of intensity.  During a beat change- a change of tactic- the blocking will also change.  Take, for example, a scene involving a salary negotiation between a boss and their employee.  The scene may begin with each character sitting; the boss leans back in their chair while the employee leans forward in their seat.  As the employee continues to bargain, they stand up.  Now, the boss leans forward.

The employee walks towards the door, pauses, and then returns to their previous location at the desk.  The boss stands and places their hands on the desk, staring directly into the employee’s eyes.  As the audience, we have no idea what is being said in this scene.  In fact, the scene itself is not written realistically.  However, a description of the actors’ physical movements  provides clues regarding the increasing emotional tension and  power dynamics between the characters.  In theory, the tension rises along with the moment itself.

Many directors hope to allow their actors to develop a scene’s blocking naturally; they begin the rehearsal process by encouraging the actors to move in a way that feels natural. Although many happy discoveries can be made using this approach, actors more frequently opt to perform within their individual comfort zone.  They will avoid conflict when they should face it, sit down when they should stand, or simply not move at all.  A director’s clear thoughts about beats, tactics, and emotional patterns should inform the movement of the scene while still allowing for individual creativity among the actors involved.

Adapt

Whether the production is a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster or an independent film, a light-hearted comedy or a controversial political drama, there are going to be many surprises along the way.  However well-planned the process, the production is guaranteed to encounter some unexpected speed bumps along the way.  A good director will take these obstacles in stride; a great director will use the obstacles to fuel their creative process.

If you are at the beginning of the process and trying to raise the money necessary to bring a script to life, then you will benefit greatly from having a well-known personality associated with the film.  Actors who are familiar to producers and studios can often help to convince a producer to take a risk on a little-known director and their production. Veteran or well-known actors also boost box office numbers, as they come equipped with a plethora of fans that will support the project when it debuts on the big screen.  This helps to off-set the financial risk associated with an artistic investment.

In the absence of a large budget, the best way to attract a well-known person is to make the project fit with their schedule.  Actors often have a myriad of responsibilities that take them all over the world.  If you can arrange the filming schedule so they are only needed on set for a few days, they will be more willing to take the project on, especially for a smaller salary.

Sometimes, a well-known personality will be attracted to a project because it is an opportunity to showcase a different skill set.  A famous singer who wants to break into acting, for example, will often jump at the chance to test her skills on an independent film.  An actor who is known for his comedic chops but wants to prove his dramatic capability might be willing to take a smaller salary in order to play a part that a larger film wouldn’t risk on him.

Occasionally- especially on a project where they are earning a smaller salary than usual- these famous actors might start making unreasonable demands.  They might want to cast family members or friends in order to populate the cast with familiar faces or as a means of paying back a favor to an individual who otherwise cannot land a role on their own.  They might need trays of food, specific cosmetic help that must be paid for using the production budget, or other strange requests that can come from any manner of need.  Productions can be crippled by these kinds of requests.  It is helpful to be honest with the people you bring on board about the salary you can provide and the environment in which you will be shooting.  Be polite but firm when faced with unreasonable requests.

These demands and interruptions to the production schedule can come at the last minute, or sometimes right in the middle of shooting the film.  The director will need to handle these interruptions in stride, managing the egos of the actors involved and doing their best to ensure that the production moves forward as planned.  If the schedule is compromised, the production will almost surely go over budget.

 Disasters happen: actors drop out and/or make demands, schedules are compromised because of technical problems, permits are denied by the government, etc.  Films have a way of subscribing to the familiar rule that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.  It’s always a good idea to prepare yourself as much as possible for these unexpected events.  The challenges may seem insurmountable, but they are not; there is always a solution, and creative and determined minds can find it.  Come what may, never be discouraged by the process.