Dying are the days of stilted dialogue. You can no longer sit in an art house movie theater and hear aggravated mumblings such as, “Nobody actually talks like that!” Across the landscape of cinema, the writing process is shifting in favor of verisimilitude.
In fact, for some directors, the writing process as we know it has completely ceased to exist. Hannah Fidell’s “6 Years,” now available to stream on Netflix, is part of a new wave of radical improv filmmaking. In this process, the writer is folded into the on-set experience; the director works with the actors to shape the emotional trajectory of each scene and the dialogue gets written in real-time. The Duplass brothers (also the producers of “6 Years”), Joe Swanberg and Drake Doremus are well-known purveyors of this free-wheeling method. Because they operate in the realm of realism, their films are conspicuously free of strained tête-à-têtes and awkward one-liners.
This unrestrained quality is exactly what Fidell was going for when she decided to make “6 Years.” The film, which follows a young couple through the dissolution of their troubled first love, needed to evoke a sense of authenticity atypical to the genre. In the films of the Duplass brothers and Swanberg, Fidell saw a sense of heightened realism that she knew would be integral to realizing her vision. “Those guys have perfected the method,” she said, “so I did it as an homage to them.” Plus, Fidell wanted to challenge herself; she’d only ever worked directly from a script, and the prospect of going on set without one scared and invigorated her. “I wanted to do something different and test my own limits as an artist,” she said.
Mark and Jay Duplass informed Fidell of two key ingredients to their process. In lieu of a script, the Duplasses create a “script-ment,” which serves to communicate the tone and general narrative trajectory of the film through images, references, musical cues and some inchoate scenes. Fidell described her script-ment as forty pages that gave “atmospheric inspiration for scenes, in terms of the sensory experience.” She included some important plot points, but mostly her scenes were written as open-ended set-ups. This script-ment is what Fidell used to lure her actors, Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield, onto the project. “It got them excited about working in a completely different way,” she said. Farmiga, who was filming “American Horror Story: Coven” at the time, received what she described as the “half-script, half-treatment” from her manager. The story and the process resonated with her deeply: “Immediately, I wanted to do it.”
Along with the script-ment, the Duplasses suggested a fast track to intimacy. “They said everyone should live together in a house before shooting,” said Fidell. The director and co-stars headed to Fidell’s parents’ house in the Berkshires, where they lived together for a few days. It went over so well that Fidell decided the three of them would live in the production house for the entirety of the shoot — Fidell’s own abode in Austin, Texas. “Being so close and intimate with people like that for three weeks, you just figure out how to relate to each other,” said Farmiga. “It felt like a summer camp,” added Fidell. “It created this bubble where everyone was forced to bond.”
And so, armed with the script-ment, two actors and her own house as a set, Fidell set out to write her film as she was making it.
On set, the improvisation process requires the director to cede an almost unprecedented amount of control to the actors. Fidell wasn’t too concerned about this prospect; after living with and establishing a rapport with the actors, she felt confident in their grasp of the characters. “I had a team who loved the story and wanted to make the best movie, and I think it shows [in the final product],” she said.
Meanwhile, Farmiga went in blind — and very nervous. “I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “I’d never taken an improv class. I was like, ‘What do I do? What if I don’t know what to say? I hope it just comes out of me.'” Thankfully, her co-star Rosenfield was well-versed in the improv technique and able to impart some wisdom. “I relied on him a lot at first,” admitted Farmiga. Rosenfield told Farmiga that the basic tenets of improv were twofold: Never shut the other person down, and keep the conversation going.
Fidell would approach each scene with a primary concern for blocking. “I was looking for what felt most comfortable and real to the actors and to me,” she said. “Then we would bring in the rest of the crew.” Once everyone was on set and a general blocking infrastructure had been established, Fidell talked through the emotions that needed to be expressed through the scene. Then she gave the actors carte blanche. “She would let us go free and say whatever we wanted,” said Farmiga. “We could say the words however they came out. We just had to say what was honest. We just had to go from our experiences — conscious and unconscious — and just dive in and express ourselves.”
Diving in was largely possible because the actors had such intimate conceptions of their characters. “I realized it wasn’t too difficult because I knew the character, so I just had to kind of trust myself,” said Farmiga. “The thing about improv is that it stems from yourself. It stems from something that’s so real, that you already know. Mel [my character] is quite a bit of me.”
When Farmiga and the actors hit rough patches, their only recourse was trial and error. Farmiga remembers a particularly difficult scene in which Mel and Ben navigate an emotionally heated situation. Mel is drunk and acting out, and Ben is experiencing conflicting emotions: Is he mad at her, or will the impulse to protect and comfort her prevail? “We were shooting it for a few hours and something just didn’t seem right,” said Farmiga. “We couldn’t pinpoint it. It’s so hard when you’re giving your all and you’re so emotional but you know something’s not working and you can’t figure it out. You’re physically depleted. It’s exhausting.”
Fidell had the two actors sit together for a few minutes in silence, trying to convey the emotional arc of the scene through facial expressions and subtle body language. Eventually, it came together, though no one was able to articulate how. “When you finally hit it and it feels right, you know,” continued Farmiga. “You get a sense of adrenaline. You can’t really say why something works or doesn’t…. You just have to feel it out.”
While Fidell knew kinks in scenes could be ironed out on set, she was less confident about the editing process. “I was scared that it wasn’t going to all fit together,” she said. To preempt problems in the editing room, Fidell brought her editor, Sophie Marshall, on set to cut scenes during production days. “If something wasn’t working, we could go back the next day and shoot it again. That didn’t really happen much, but it was nice knowing we had that option. If we were shooting on film, it would have been really terrifying.”
As Ben and Mel’s relationship deteriorates, their communication suffers a major breakdown. Mel resorts to acts of physical violence to express her pain. “She’s trying to figure out how to express herself and define what her feelings are to herself, let alone someone else,” said Farmiga. “You get confused like that, when there are so many feelings and emotions running through you. You want to say something and you don’t know how, so you act out.”
Sex and fights, acts that are least controlled in life, are often most controlled on standard film sets. Directors implement careful choreography to avoid discomfort, embarrassment, and/or physical injury. But on the set of “6 Years,” Fidell couldn’t rely on the luxuries of these shooting conventions — her improv process precluded it. Instead, she had to figure out a way to leverage the chaos. “It came down to working hand-in-hand with the cinematographer and our stunt guy to figure out how we could do the violent scenes in the safest way possible while still maintaining that sense of realism,” said Fidell. “Ben was willing to do whatever it took to get what I wanted. He’s a trooper.”
Among other things, the subversion of the female abusive relationship elevates “6 Years” from the expected young love fare. “I think this is a deeper love story than most,” said Fidell. “It’s not just dealing with cheating or breaking up. It brings up a discussion on what is domestic abuse, what is codependency. I’ve always felt that films should make audiences be participants by thinking about them after.”
“6 Years” is not the stuff of sketch improv. It’s the heavy subject matter of love and loss, and its success hinged upon the ability of the actors and director to give themselves over to the material. This meant that everyone had to be willing to mine painful past experiences. They had to be willing to be vulnerable with each other and to face things buried within themselves.
“I spoke about my experiences with first love, but I didn’t expect my actors to be as open as they were,” said Fidell. “It was pretty cathartic for all of us, and everyone on set, to make this film because we all worked through issues that had been lingering over us. It felt good to deal with the experiences that way.” For Fidell, the film was a chance to examine her own relationship problems objectively. “Mel has a lot of my worst traits in that character, and yet I found myself really relating to Dan more as we were shooting, which I found really fascinating,” she said. “That was kind of a mindfuck.”
Farmiga, who is 21-years-old, felt particularly close to the subject material. But it wasn’t until the shoot was over that its therapeutic effects became salient. “While it was happening, I was just in it,” she said. “I had to perform. I had to go with it. I didn’t really have time to think. But afterwards, when I finally had a minute to sit back and think about the last month, I just knew I’d grown so much on that movie, and I can’t even tell you why. Playing this character who’s going through something similar to me — similar age, similar situation — was like a therapy for me. Talking through troubles I didn’t even realize I had.”
Fidell hopes that audiences will have a similarly cathartic experience while watching her film. “I hope that audiences feel like they’re working through their own first love or whatever baggage they might have from it,” she said.
Looking back upon the improv process which once seemed so foreign and unmanageable, Fidell is confounded by the relative lack of setbacks she encountered. “I know it sounds scary, but there weren’t any real obstacles. Everything kind of fell into place. I wish I could have this story of, you know, I worked in sweat and cried tears of blood to make this movie happen, but I’m really, really lucky.”
“I was scared, but I did it and it’s very satisfying,” added Farmiga. “And I’m proud.”