DGA Workshop 2012

I recently participated in a directing workshop presented by the Director’s Guild of America. Yes, I have been directing theatre and film since the late 80’s, but I jumped at the chance to be a part of this amazing event. I had the opportunity to work with four very talented and well-respected directors, along with about 40 other guild members who participated. Like me, many of them have a great deal of experience. Some of the participants have major feature and television credits. It was a great group to work with.

In the seventy-six year history of the DGA, there have been other workshops and master classes by directors, for directors, but the last one was twenty years ago. This event was put on by the special events committee and led by director Jeremy Kagen. Other directors participating included Randal Kleiser, Jon Amiel, and Mark Travis.

The eight-week workshop was presented in two parts. Meeting Saturday mornings for three hours, the first four weeks consisted of lectures by each of the four directors. The last four weeks would be twelve scenes presented by some of us to be worked on and critiqued in class.

Jeremy Kagen started off week one with a talk about directing styles and techniques, and set the tone that this workshop would be focused on the director/actor relationship and getting truthful performances. The workshop wouldn’t be about what lens to choose or hand held versus dolly shots, but getting great performances from actors. Jeremy covered a lot of ground in three hours, from what an actor does (an actor speaks the thoughts of a character) to rehearsal techniques and why we should know about Jungian archetypes.

Week two was presented by Mark Travis.  Mark presented his Interrogator technique of directing.  It was a fascinating three hours that included two guest actors. The actors did a scene from American Beauty. Then Mark rehearsed with them, “jumped in the sandbox” with them, showing us how the technique works. The Interrogator is designed to create authentic characters and performances by shifting the focus to directing the character, not the actor. It was the first time I saw this technique and I really liked what I saw.

Randall Kleiser presented week three. He spoke mainly of his work at USC with famed actor and teacher Nina Foch. He shared clips from a documentary he made with George Lucas called The Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors. Nina had a lot to say about acting, and a very straightforward way of saying it. One quote I really liked is “…the camera is a machine that watches you think.”  Also, she had a lot to say about a theme that came up repeatedly, don’t direct for results. Directions like, ” be happy, get angry, feel sad” have no place in a director’s vocabulary. Longtime collaborator, actor Bruce Davison joined Randall for part of his presentation.

Week four was with Jon Amiel. He called his presentation, I Am A Camera. Jon had some wonderful things to say about auditioning actors and rehearsing. He spoke with great admiration about actors, and how hard he worked to make them comfortable and really connect with the actor at an audition, as opposed to just putting them in the hot seat, listening to a scene he’s heard too many times already, and judging their performance. Instead he prefers to just talk with actors, or improvise with them, and see how they “play”. He said “… performing and acting are two very different things.” About rehearsal he said, “…it is not about achieving the scene, but getting consensus about what we want to achieve in the scene.” And by moving around the actors during rehearsal, getting closer or farther from the actor, you become the camera, you get a sense of what the camera sees, and the actor instinctively knows if he is in a wide shot or a close up.

Part two, like I said earlier, was scene work. Twelve participants, from those who applied, were chosen to present a scene they worked on outside of the class. There would be three scenes a week and each week would be led by one of the four directors. The scenes would be presented and worked on in front of the group. I applied and was chosen to present a scene. I was assigned to work with Jon Amiel on week six, the second week of scene work. I know it wouldn’t have mattered, but I was really glad not to have to go on the first week of scenes.

Mark Travis facilitated the first week of scenes. He worked with each director and scene skillfully and patiently. I saw he had a keen eye for the little moments that make a scene sparkle, and an easy style. His Interrogator method was so easy to watch and produced spectacular results. He was able to really key in on the truth and relationships in the scenes.

For my scene, I chose to write an original short film that took place in one location. I knew it had to be 5 minutes or less, I knew I wanted it to be a comedy, and I knew I wanted to play with the idea of “status”. My scene was called The Interview, and it was about two shady producers interviewing directors for their next picture. Through a series of events, their young intern gets the job. I cast four really wonderful actors; Michael Coleman, Peter Hulne, Circus*Szalewski, and Erin Tudron. Unfortunately, being so busy, we only had one rehearsal before presenting our scene to the group. I say unfortunately because I find rehearsal so much fun.

My scene was very well received. The acting was outstanding. My directing wasn’t so bad either. But Jon showed me how to bring even more into it. His keen eye and ear heard where it didn’t work and had some great suggestions for improving it. My hour in the spotlight was a bit nerve racking, but so very fulfilling. I learned so much.

Maybe even more fun than presenting a scene, was watching the other eleven directors present their scenes.

Jeremy Kagen ran week seven. He has an easygoing laid back style. But his sharp questioning of both the actors and directors cut straight to the problems of each scene. Unique problems of each scene led to new ways to fix any scene. Some of Jeremy’s techniques I really liked and will use include relationship building exercises,  the idea of real age vs internal age, and pushing a character to an exaggerated emotional state, just to feel it, then bring them back again.

I was sad to see week eight arrive. I was really enjoying spending my Saturday mornings at the DGA in the company of other creative directors. Randal Kleiser led the scenes on the last week. Three very interesting scenes were presented and Randall, like the other directors before him, helped shape and shift and tweak and bring out the truth. Through a combination of staging and rehearsing, and blocking with a camera, every scene was better at the end than when we first saw it.

When asked by the DGA for feedback on this special event, all I could say was “this was great…please offer more”. One of the biggest problems I face as an independent director is the amount of time between projects when I am doing everything else but directing. I love the writing, and the producing, the editing and even find the challenging hunt for financing fun; but nothing beats actual directing and working on set with actors. This workshop made me think like a director. See like a director. Listen like a director. It was only three hours a week, but I carried it with me from week to week. I can’t wait till I get back on set and start directing again.


(Noel Olken is an actor and director in Los Angeles. His latest project is No Boundarys, a one-person show he wrote and directed. You can see it at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June 2012.)