William Dickerson is a writer and director whose debut feature film, “Detour,” was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner and “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, “The Mirror,” which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, “Don’t Look Back.” His first book, “No Alternative,” was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ’90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, “DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter),” is available now on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @WDFilmmaker and visit his website.
I’ve been told that my auditions run long, but I don’t see the harm in that. These are the people who are going to bring your characters to life on screen. In many ways, the actors hold the key to the film’s success. Spend the time to cast the film properly; you’ll thank yourself for it when you’re in the editing room.
I also think it’s important to film the auditions, whether the actors are performing to the camera or not. Sometimes actors read better on film than they do in person. When it comes down to it, this isn’t theatre, this is cinema, and the actor’s performance must be right for the screen. You can certainly get a sense of whether an actor is adequate or not for a role in person, but you’re not looking for adequate, you’re looking for a spark of magic, magic that can only be captured through a lens and projected out onto a screen.
In the case of the “Detour” auditions, I narrowed it down to two actresses for the role of Laurie. I was leaning one way, only to completely reverse my opinion when I reviewed the two auditions later that evening on video. It’s the performance on screen that matters. I auditioned Brea Grant, an up-and-coming actress who had just completed a successful run on the NBC show “Heroes,” and she knocked the audition out of the park. There were subtleties in her performance that I had not fully detected during the audition but that I noticed later on the video.
The delineations of the character that Brea exhibited in her audition were right on the money. She also had tangible chemistry with [lead actor] Neil [Hopkins] and was able to take my suggestions and run with them. I hired her the next day.
This was a SAG low-budget production, which meant we were only required to pay the actors $100 a day. Basically, they were doing the film because they wanted to. As I mentioned earlier, pitch actors on the role, and if they see themselves in the part, they will usually want to do it—pay or no pay. Actors want to work, and they want to do good work, because good work leads to more work. I scheduled one day of rehearsal for the scenes with Neil and Brea. I had been talking through the script with Neil for a couple of months, but the script was new to Brea, and once I cast her in the part, the scenes became new to Neil. Before, Laurie was just a name on a page, but now she was inhabited by a living, breathing person who brought pieces of herself to the part. Neil had to get to know her, and vice versa.
Budget often determines whether or not there will be rehearsals; it can get expensive since these are considered work days for actors and you’re required to pay them. Actors’ schedules can also be exceedingly tight, so they may not have much time outside the shoot dates to dedicate to rehearsal. Rehearsals typically take place in the days directly prior to the shoot. I recommend that you fight for a week of rehearsal, but if you can only get one day, take it.
Some directors think rehearsing ruins the spontaneity of the performance. Some think a scene can never be over-rehearsed. My opinion resides somewhere between these two points of view. I like to rehearse the scenes, but I don’t want the actors to act, or at least not much. What I mean by that is, I think rehearsals are important in the same way that dribbling drills in a soccer practice are beneficial to the team come the game on Sunday. I like the actors to exercise their muscles in the same way that athletes do.
If you’re the coach of a sports team, you don’t want your athletes to wear themselves out before the big game. Practices build up the strength of the players so that they’ll be at their top level of performance when they need to be. Practices are typically divided into sections of drills and routines, which are meant to focus on different skills—skills that when combined later on game day exhibit the pinnacle of the player’s potential.
The first thing you must do in rehearsal, and the most important thing to do in rehearsal, is a read-through of the script. The key to acting is listening, and the more the actor is allowed to simply listen to the dialogue spoken by the actor(s) in the scenes, the better his or her performance will be.
This should be a read-through of the entire script with the director and the actors, no one else. I ask the actors to read through the script once, uninterrupted and without any acting. Then I have them read it once again. As they read through it a second time, I tell the actors to stop the reading if they have a question to ask or a point to make. Then we talk about it.
Discussing the script in this fashion is crucial; actors are intrinsic storytellers just like you, and discussions about motivations are good to delve into while going over the script. Your cast might want to know why a character does certain things, the dynamics between characters, the backstory of these relationships, how these backstories contribute to the obstacles standing in the way of the character getting what he or she wants.
There is a slight danger of over-intellectualizing the story, but I feel that there is room for some analysis of the themes and the vision that you’re going after as a director in this initial stage of the rehearsal process. Over-intellectualizing is more of a problem on set, when it’s time to act, time to play objectives and let a character’s behavior reveal the subtext. The set is not the place for a profound exploration of the script, since it is often unhelpful for the actor to think too cerebrally about the scene.