Turn Off Your Automatic PilotBob Dylan said that by stripping away your art, you’d find its true core.  There is a fine line, however, between probing a concept to find its essence and over-analyzing it to the point of blocking creativity. So, to avoid second-guessing yourself, you need to develop the correct techniques of “stripping away.”

In stripping away, we need to avoid falling into automatic pilot mode.  Automatic pilot refers to zoning out.  It is revision without clear thought.  It is check it off the task list.  A number of circumstances contribute to this state:

  • Lack of knowledge or training in the proper techniques
  • Fear of failure
  • Plane laziness

Every day, a slew of images, messages, advertisements, and multi media bombard us, essentially telling us what to think.  If we are not careful, we will let others think for us.  However, creative analysis requires original thought.  And original thought can only take place when we separate ourselves from the every day and look at the world with fresh eyes.

Ask questions

Thinking is a process.  It starts with an idea but expands through questioning.  How does it work? What does it really say? Does it communicate well? Will others experience it the way I do? What medium conveys it best?

By asking questions you take your idea to the next level. You create a concept.  To strengthen it even further, try to see it from the opposite point of view.  What would your critic ask? Those questions may spark more ideas.

Suppose a couple is arguing at a restaurant.  An imaginative person may hear them and start to plot their relationship.   He may wonder where they met?  Were they planning to get married? How well does she get along with his family? Has he been cheating on her with someone she knows? Has their passion died?

The concept of questioning also applies to your target audience.  You would need to learn much more than just the statistics to be able to connect with them.  What makes your audience tick?  Have they ever been in love? Have they been to prison? Have they ever been violent? What is the best/worst memory from their childhood? Would they rather get drunk on a Friday night or watch a movie? Any question you ask will be valuable but always try to uncover what you wouldn’t find during a general survey.

This process is like peeling an onion.   With each layer you gain new insight.

Inner permission

Give yourself permission to become immersed in your concept, idea, or character.  You are the only one who can connect to your creativity through the truth of your emotions.  Everyone else falls short.

Tennessee Williams demonstrated this notion beautifully.  When Gerald McRaney asked him for advice on how to play the part of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, he replied: “I wouldn’t know.  I’m not playing the part.”  With his answer, the playwright gave McRaney permission to make the character his own.

Be obsessed with observing people

Sean Penn believes that an actor is a spectator of humanity. When it comes to developing or playing a character, the best way to make the role your own or give it depth, is to simply spend time watching people.

Interact where you can, however, let others do most of the talking. This is how you will be able to dissect their social masks and hidden attributes.

Observe people carefully, both psychologically and physiologically, and you will be able to give your character an undeniable realness. For instance, how might someone react to direct conversation? Does he fidget? Does she make eye contact? What does he talk about? Does she change the topic of conversation away from herself or indulge in the attention? How does he speak about others?

Through these observations you will start developing a plot around the character. Think about whether your character has any family secrets.  Perhaps he is shy because low self-esteem.  Alternatively, his shyness may be a façade? Stay open to different possibilities.  Keep peeling back the layers and soon ideas and original storylines emerge.  But it is not enough to just observe.  You must also document your observations in detail.

Although, it may seem that the prescribed exercises blend into one another, each is designed to make the next level easier.  They all have a common goal: allow your mind to roam and think freely without external influence.

Radical remembering

“That’s what acting is – you take from your personal experiences and put them on screen.” – Neve Campbell

Actors arrive on the set with a rich palette of life experiences, both positive and negative.  As such, their personal circumstances influence how they react to contents and situations.  Yet allowing those conscious and unconscious responses to merge with the script creates characters with much more depth.

Mike Nichols made the perfect choice by casting Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.  Hoffman related so much to the character that he did not feel he was acting. Through his own personal experience, he brought the character to life. This was not a rational or logical choice, but an  emotional and deeply personal one.

Another example is The Godfather.  In the movie, Michael Corleone’s character spine was to “please his father.”  Interestingly, sources quote that Francis Coppola stated that a motivating force in many of his creative choices was to “make my father proud of me.”

Much like a mother relives her own childhood through her children, during recapitulation (a script analysis technique), directors and actors relate events in the script to their own life.  By doing so, they make the script more personal, and, therefore more powerful, in the end.

Remember, no life experience is bad. Every heartbreak, frustration, and boring event creates more personal insight into future characters and concepts. The trick is to remember all of these feelings in detail and apply them at the right time.

Know yourself

Jack Nicholson has stated that you have to be very honest with yourself to be a good actor.

There is a difference between knowing yourself and being self-centered or self-indulgent. By learning your flaws and strengths well, you can understand the human condition better.

No one is absolutely “good” or “bad.” The bad guys tend to surprise us with their sensitive sides, as do good guys with their dark habits.  Human beings are complicated creatures. Becoming aware of your own complexities will allow you to play someone else’s with sincerity and ease.