Written by Edit Jakab
Directing is often about collaboration – the production, the costuming, and the script. Most importantly, it’s about collaborating with the actors. Because a director who isn't directing actors is simply directing cameras. And that’s not even half as interesting. Below, Rafal Sokolowski, assistant professor at Ohio University Film Division and director of 22 Chaser, talks about his experiences in working with actors and what the next generation of directors need to know.
What is the essence of directing actors for you?
I want to emphasize that it is a job that has no formulas attached to it. I would be very careful not to set up principles. In my experience, all the principles that I have leaned on have found a context in which they failed me. It is a job that has no prescriptions; I endearingly refer to it as landing a spaceship on Mars, where there is no precedent for it.
You are looking at a text as a director; you understand what that job may entice, and you reach out for what you think the most appropriate tools are. But then comes this variable: a talent, which comes with all shapes and forms. And they will dictate what the final set of tools that you will be using. Very often you make these decisions instinctively on set while you discover what the challenges are standing between you and them. Having said that, your directorial preparation is very much a part of this. You can’t just go in kind of cowboy style, shooting from the hip. You need to understand what this material demands; you need to have a very good understanding what your vision for this is. The goal needs to be very clear for you, as a director. Then you can deal with the variables vis-à-vis. So not everything is open. The material itself and the talent are the variables that you negotiate on a day when you are trying to put this together.
So how does it specifically apply to your method, to your technique?
I need to start with my strong personal connection to the material. This liberates me in the room, whether it’s a rehearsal room, or whether it’s a set. If I feel engaged on a personal level, I go beyond just interest, just curiosity, things that I talk about, what really upset me, or entertains me, or bring me to tears or laughter, regardless of which direction. Then this allows me to communicate it in a way that hopefully will inspire the actors. So I need to develop my own very strong connections and find a language to talk about it.
What do you mean by finding the language?
What I mean by this is the trial and error method. Whenever I am trying to articulate the concepts that I feel viscerally, I try to convey that to the actor and see that the actor understands it at an intellectual level. But that does not translate into the visceral.
So, to me, part of the language that I am talking about is that it may send it to an intellectual territory instead of the visceral territory I am aiming for. So, it is the visceral connection that I always look for.
How do you find the appropriate language or vehicle to convey that?
So, I start with a language that I think is the appropriate language to talk about it. But I need to adjust. In the first parts of the rehearsal, in the table work, I start addressing these things. You feel it in the room whether the things you are saying are actually landing and affecting people. It is about being able to affect people, your talent. To get to know your actors is an incredible tool for the director to have.
If I understand this actor that I am working with and am able to predict how to choose the language to talk about this, that brings me closer to adjusting this language. Whether it is the question of landing it in one sentence or coming up with a very elaborate back story, whether it is a question of me getting involved with the material or just kind of provoking them, I don’t know. It happens, really, on an instinctive level. Every director needs to play with this idea of how effective is the narrative that they are loading on the actors.
I have observed a lot of directors and asked myself, would I be influenced by the way they are talking about this. And they may be talking about really important things and, yet, in some cases they land and, in some cases, it kind of goes over and it feels not as important. And that’s what I mean by calibrating the language. Finding the way to relate to the actor, to find a language that would be most effective for them.
Now, you are meeting these people for the first time. So how do you quickly asses this? It happens with practice. But the directorial job goes beyond the craft: it becomes a very interdisciplinary discipline.
Just to make it clear, this is the first time you are meeting all the actors. So this is before the table reading; you just have your spiel about your vision and the piece.
But the same thing applies to notes between takes. By then, hopefully, you know that person a little bit more, that allows you to tap into something that is personally theirs. No longer theoretical.
Do you meet them individually? I find that very useful, especially for the main roles.
I try to. But again, in these meetings, this is the question of language. In some cases, one sentence suffices. If it is not enough, I approach it from a different direction.
Almodóvar said that for the actor, the director is the psychiatrist, the lover, the father.
Absolutely. I could not agree with this more. And playing these roles is a part of this. So the finding of the language is actually role playing as well. Language is not only communicating an idea; so here is when my acting skills come in very handy. But it is not about me showing how it is supposed to be done. Enactment is only an advanced part of narrative. It is a way, a dramatic language for me, to communicate more complex ideas. But I want them to do it their way as it is not about mimicry.
So when I evoked Almodóvar, what he said, he put it into the context that the director is ultimately a power figure, power. How do you relate to that and how do you avoid abusing that power?
I am not comfortable in a power position, so abusing the power is not a problem for me. I do not see myself as a powerful personality. Having said that, I do feel that there is a power and I do need to tap into it. I tap into the responsibility for the story and that becomes the ultimate power. The story has its needs and demands. I place myself as a direct servant for those needs and demands; that is what empowers me. Pushing people to the limits is never an easy thing for me, but it is dictated by the needs of the story.
It is interesting. So the inherent power role, figure of a director, you deal with it by reducing it to the level of servant?
Essentially it is kind of a power that comes from a Steward that does not operate from his ego but from a sense of duty to serve a higher need, the need of the story.
I am actually really humbled by the story, so there is no institution attached to it. I am in need of a higher organization that gives me liberty to push people to the limits. This gives me a great deal of energy on set. This gives me a sense of power that otherwise I do not know how to tap into.
So you do have a sense of power.
Yes. But it is plugged into something. It is not driven by my ego, but by the purpose of the story. It just helps me empower myself, to become a central driving force on set.
Medium is much closer in describing my own sense of the role of the director and my relationship to the story. I see my function as someone who channels the story and its needs down to all involved in interpreting it (on all levels: actors, designers, writers, cine, and producers).
Does it come across well with the actors?
Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. In the end it doesn’t matter because it pushes me to get what I want. And they react positively to it. We come to an agreement that the story itself is the organizing principle.
To me, this seems to be along the lines of Stanislavsky’s art of representation as opposed to what he became famous for, the art of experiencing. I don’t know if you have been influenced by him, probably since you come from the theater world, but at the first meeting, do you do the table reading?
Yes, but often they have already read the script when they come to the first meeting. It becomes a dialogue. I need to rely on the inspiration that is injected in the process into the actors. Sometimes they come in with their own ideas and then there is the painful process of having to crush their ideas.
Do you always have to crush their ideas?
It depends on how compatible they are with my bigger vision for it.
Has it happened that an actor altered your vision?
Absolutely. It is a living, breathing thing and this is where one has to be very careful where clarity of the vision ends and where ego begins. An actor can come in with a vision that is much stronger than my initial idea, in which case, I really have to expose myself and admit that I had made the wrong choice.
And that has happened?
Yes. The only organizing principle is the story. And if I, as a Steward, made a mistake, I have to listen to the other person’s idea and it leads to stretching time on the set because you need to re-block the scene. Your vision has to be really firm, yet flexible.
So, going back to the actor who comes prepared, has read the script and all so that there is no table reading. Do you follow Stanislavsky here and go for the art of experiencing? What is the next step?
The next step is to start with them. First of all, you need to clarify anything that is not clear in the text and fill in the gaps and connect the dots. And in the process, you start giving directions by emphasizing the important moments.
So you are talking only. You don’t send them out to improvise. So, in that sense, you don’t follow Stanislavsky’s method.
No, I do a lot of talking about it so that we experience the text in a similar way so that we can follow the same thread.
So where does Stanislavsky come in for you? At what point?
At the point of tools. How I structure the actual performance. His work with objectives and motivation is hugely important because they are the most tangible tools for me to shape a narrative within the scene. And I tend to use his tools without tapping into technicalities. But it varies: Some actors like to be very technical. They don’t like the hocus-pocus of taking about their personal life connecting them to the role, whereas others do.
Do you let your actors first interpret the text as they want, thereby allowing you to mobilize their conscious?
Definitely. There needs to be an entry point. If I dictate what we are doing, it can become too intellectual. I want this to be a dialogue. But I am the Steward of the story.
Have you developed a technique that is specifically yours?
There are certain fixed elements that I teach in class. But it often depends on the group what material I teach. Directing is accumulative: You discover what does not work in certain situations and you are forced to find alternative ways. The directorial job is instinctive, but hugely informed by experience. It is something that you can learn.
I believe that the importance of casting is hugely underrated. How do you choose the ideal actors? How do you prepare for an audition?
There are several components to it. First of all, I agree with you about the importance of casting. Your work as a director is going to be so much easier if the casting is correct. But my comprehension for the material is the starting point. Then comes the second step, choosing the vehicle for the audition. It is very important to correctly choose which sides you will send in to an agent. It is really looking for moments in that script where I can anticipate that a particular quality is going to pop, that there is a reason for that quality. During the casting of my last film, I saw six hundred people. It took two months, just the casting.
Léo Carras said that the greatest privilege of a filmmaker is working with actors.
I have to say that for me it is one of the most rewarding experiences. To see the work lifted from the page, becoming alive, it is just an incredible feeling. And actors also bring comfort as opposed to tech, by which I can be intimidated. Actors bring a sense of comfort to me.
I mean it is an unnerving comfort. There can be an amazingly warm feeling with your actors, but it is unpredictable.
Unpredictable in different ways as technology, but they both can be unpredictable.
They have more power to expose you in ways that are embarrassing.
Do you feel gratitude to them? When they realize your vision?
Oh yes. But again, it is a shared thing. I want them to always know that it is not just me they are serving. It is the story. We are really working on this together. I am excited by materials that push people to the limits. Filmmaking to me is a probe of human behavior, and what fascinates me is these boundaries, where it is undefined. But in the end, it is about the final product.
To conclude this interview, what is your message or advice to student filmmakers, who are at the beginning of their career, like us?
Know yourself and know the material you want to do. You should be able to convey your intentions in an inspiring way. It is hard because at the beginning, often you don’t see what the potential is. You have to be clear on how you define your vision. Collect tools.
What do you mean by tools?
Methods and approaches to situations. I don’t want to define it more than that. They become an arsenal of your tools, which you need to expand all the time. And you play with it. You have to tap into your own creative euphoria; that’s when you reach your full potential.
When you mentioned “play,” I was becoming very happy; do you also mean playfulness and a sense of humor? To me, that is the most important thing.
Yes, but to me play translates into playing dangerously, for example. When I engage with actors, we drop pretense. We become honest, dangerous with each other. And with this thing comes lightness and fun and laughter. Because, in the end, you can’t take yourself all that seriously.
It goes for myself, too. It is very easy to get overwhelmed by the seriousness of a huge production. It’s very easy to lose a smile.
So how do you avoid taking yourself way too seriously?
Story. It’s all about the story and absolute commitment to the story. The story is larger than all of us: me, my producers, and the networks that provide the money.
Who has influenced you the most? Which director giants or less than giants?
It’s accumulative experiences. But I must mention Christina Lupa, László Márton, a real craftsperson at work, Carol Rosenfeld, Allan MacInnis, and filmmakers like Kieślowski, the Dardenne brothers, Kurosawa, and Almodóvar.