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The rehearsal process for DON’T. STOP. RUNNING was, without doubt, what got us through the shoot actual. If you’re making a low-budget film – and particularly if you’re taking on more than one role yourself (i.e. director/cameraman), I think there’s no time better spent than on thorough rehearsals.
For 3 or so months before the shoot began, I met with my actors each week for anywhere between 3 and 5 hours. Each rehearsal session cost on average around £50/60, and we used around 10 different venues (rehearsal space books up quickly – particularly if it’s cheap).
One week, we rehearsed in the studio of my old university film society. The next week we were in a small theatre space in the backroom of a bookshop opposite the Young Vic theatre. In the final weeks we rehearsed on Hampstead Heath to mimic the actual environments for the shoot (95% of which takes place outdoors).
I went through the script and identified the key scenes that would benefit most from rehearsals. DON’T. STOP. RUNNING. is an adventure movie, and as such there’s quite a bit of running around / dangling off cliffs / being swept downriver… Standard stuff for a microbudget feature… But there are also quite a few key ‘character’ scenes – relatively dialogue heavy, with real character development and emotional punch. These are the scenes I chose for the rehearsals – if we could get to the heart of these, we’d be ahead by the time we came to the shoot.
I’d made a number of changes to the script based on the initial readthrough (see article on auditions), and this process continued throughout the auditions. If a line didn’t work, it went. If a scene didn’t work or wasn’t clear, we’d develop the script and bring out the essence of what the scene was about. This is easy enough if you’re the writer/director (which is often the case on a microbudget), but if not I recommend that you make lots of notes to feed back to your writer after each session.
Our format for each rehearsal was vaguely as follows:
1) Chat for ages. Probably not about the script.
2) Realise we’ve spent an hour chatting, decide to get down to work.
3) Talk about the scene. Where does it fit in the story. What and who is it actually about?
4) Get up on our feet and read through the scene.
It’s good to hear the words out loud as soon as possible, and unless your scene takes place sat down it’s a good idea to get everyone up on their feet. This gives everyone a bit of energy, and it’s my feeling that it also helps remove a certain level of discomfort/embarrassment which is natural at the start of any rehearsal. That’s my feeling anyway – we sit down for job interviews, exams, lectures… Standing up immediately makes things more casual and friendly.
We might read it through a couple of times like this, and talk more about what the scene is doing, and clear up any confusion about the meaning of lines and so on. At this stage I might also be thinking about some basic blocking. I tend to write scenes in quite a visually descriptive way – with some sense of blocking/shots at the script stage. I find this helpful – and will usually give a few simple directions based on this… Leading us to:
5) Give some simple direction that gets to the heart of the dynamic in the scene. I.e. ‘Character A: You’re trying to get away from this conversation throughout. Character B: You’re determined to get an answer’.
6) Back this up with some basic blocking, aimed at supporting whatever character dynamic you’re setting up. I.e. ‘Character A: Try to create space/distance between the two of you. Turn your back, move away.. Use this corner of the room to cut yourself off. Character B: You need to be close enough to make him feel uncomfortable’.
7) Go again.
8) Pause the scene as regularly as you feel the need. If you see something isn’t working (or there’s a missed opportunity), go back a few lines and go through it again with a new bit of blocking direction. (‘Maybe you should go around the back of the desk…’). Don’t feel that you’re disturbing their concentration by doing this – it’s a rehearsal, and it’s what the actors want you to do.
9) Give lots of encouragement.
10) Repeat 7-9 until you’ve reached something that works and is repeatable.
I think you can stop at this point. There’s no point in getting a scene absolutely perfect in rehearsal, and I don’t think that’s the point of it anyway. You’re looking to get the actors familiar with the lines, the dynamic and the blocking. You’re aiming to remove those barriers when it comes to the shoot, so that on the day when it matters their concentration is entirely within the scene – rather than looking on as a spectator, thinking – ‘should I go over there..?’.
The rehearsal process had a huge impact on successive drafts of the script. It’s very easy as a writer to get hooked on lines/actions and the way you imagine them playing out… but in the rehearsal process you’ve got nowhere to hide – you’re hearing these things out loud, and if they don’t work they stand out like a sore thumb. To help me with this, I videoed the last pass of each scene. When writing the next draft I’d go back and watch the video and see the changes we made, and update the script accordingly. Also, in the days before the shoot I sent the actors a link to the rehearsals, so they could re-familiarise themselves with the blocking and general sense of things.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this rehearsal process saved the film. Each time we reached a key scene, the actors would arrive on set with a fair knowledge of how things would pan out. We could then have a few rehearsals on location, and incorporate that environment into the blocking (alternatively, we could tweak or rearrange things entirely – but we only had that freedom because there was something planned beforehand). Several times, I realized that we hadn’t even rehearsed on set – or at least, I hadn’t. It’s a microbudget feature, which necessitates quite a bit of doubling up on roles for the crew. In that environment, the director might have 50 things to sort out (not least, getting the camera set up) which take his attention away from the actors. It’s definitely not a good thing, but it happens and is almost unavoidable. A few times I found myself suddenly realizing that I’d spent almost no time talking with the actors during prep – but looked up from whatever I was doing and saw them walking through our pre-rehearsed setup. I might have let things slip – but they didn’t, and that made all the difference.
So - to recap:
- Schedule rehearsals as far in advance as possible. Every hour in rehearsal is easily 2 saved on set.
- Get everybody up on their feet and reading things out as soon as possible.
- Approach each scene with some basic questions: What happened just before this? Who is the focus of this scene? What is this scene really about?
- Stop the actors whenever you feel the need. Don't worry about interrupting their flow - rehearsals are about figuring things out, rather than giving perfect performances.
- You can figure out a lot of blocking in rehearsal. Do it - Even if you discard it on set, the process will get you asking the right questions.
- Film the final pass through a scene. You can review it later, and it will help with the next draft of the script.