While I'm a writer-director, I feel the most important thing in a film is the energy or "chemistry" that's actually happening in front of the camera—not what I planned or what I wrote. So I'm always inviting the actors to find the overlap between the character and themselves and live the character's problems as much as possible.
One day in rehearsal for "Beginners," Christopher Plummer said something like, "I need to tell him more in this scene"—"him" being his son, played by Ewan McGregor. I loved that he was saying "I" and that he was upset, which means he was invested. "What do you need to tell him?" I asked. "That I loved her," he answered. I don't know how Christopher knew that this character, based on my real dad, who came out of the closet at age 75, also really loved my mother, who he was married to for 44 years.
I followed Chris' instincts and added a page of dialogue about how my parents honestly cared for each other, how the marriage wasn't just a fiction. It's one of the most important scenes in the film, and I think one of Christopher's best moments, partially because this message was so real to him. In Christopher's heart and mind, it was vital to us really understanding him. What we're all after are those little moments that go beyond what you expected or could have planned, nuggets that can only come out of the heat of playing and experiencing and being alive in the scene.
Paul Feig, New York and Los Angeles; 'Bridesmaids,' 'The Office,' 'Nurse Jackie'
Without chemistry between your cast members, there is no point in shooting your script. In comedy, if your principal cast doesn't gel and aren't funny together, the audience will reject the movie. In order to guarantee the chemistry is there, we look to discover it in the casting process.
Early in our prep period (once we have a script we're happy with), we first have each actor read using extended sides that allow him or her to do more than what's in the actual script. It's usually a conversation between two people in which the actor's character says the lion's share of the lines. This allows us to really see the actor's take on the character. Then from those auditions, we bring in the actors we feel might be right together and have them perform in different combinations, mixing and matching to see how they play off each other and if there is chemistry between them. From that, we then choose our cast.
Once we've done that, we begin rehearsals and improv sessions with the actors, which we use to really explore their characters' personalities and relationships. We then use what we learn to rewrite the script to take full advantage of the strengths and chemistry of the cast. Only by doing this do we know we're going into production with a script that allows us to take full advantage of our cast's talents and chemistry. Which makes my job as director a little easier!
Jordan Bayne, New York; 'The Sea Is All I Know,' 'Argo'
As a director, I am always open to what my actors bring. It's their life experience that informs the character and brings it from the page into a living, breathing human being.
One moment in my latest film, "The Sea Is All I Know," I imagined would be more sexual from the beginning, but in the exploration of the scene, Peter Gerety and Melissa Leo found the prodigal son/husband/little boy forgiveness moment, and its intimacy led to the sexual intimacy of the scene.
For me, that was always a part of what was written, but it was the connection and trust the actors have with one another that found the humanity of the moment. It was a deep understanding of the frailty of the broken relationship between the parents and how powerfully their choice right then with one another could affect the entire future of the family. Part of the story line in the film turns on this moment. Even though it is true to the script, for me the
story was richer, more human, because of how Melissa and Peter found and lived those moments so beautifully.
Drake Doremus, Los Angeles; 'Like Crazy,' 'Douchebag,' 'Spooner'
Because of the unknown chemistry between actors, I write a 50-page story outline instead of a "normal" script per se, but I include the subtext, the relationships between the characters, and every specific story point in the writing process. I use the actors to elevate it and bring it to life. We find the truth together. That's why there is no dialogue written. It is all improvised. The outline is very factual; the scenes evolve in the rehearsal process, and it's very important to me that I don't
get in the way of the natural dynamic between the actors. Instead, I aim to nurture and expose it onscreen.
The actors become giddy with each other, and their shared sense of humor can sometimes change a scene. Every day is a surprise. My goal is for the actors to feel so comfortable that spontaneous things will happen. The characters live from the inside out, not the outside in, like most films.
In "Like Crazy," we had written about specific areas where the two characters would walk on the beach in Santa Monica and specific things that would happen while they were there in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. But as a result of the chemistry that Anton [Yelchin] and Felicity [Jones] had with each other, they brought a whole new dimension to the scene. In this case, my actors had a ritual of strangling each other in this very playful fashion, which we incorporated into the scene, as well as many others. That's where the truth is.
Nick Hamm, Los Angeles; 'Killing Bono,' 'Godsend,' 'The Hole'
If there is no chemistry, there is no scene. The ability of the performers to play off one another and deliver a moment of emotional truth is the building block of any film. It's a cliché, but as is the case with most clichés, it's true: Actors bring words to life.
Often an actor in rehearsal will do something that takes the scene in a different direction. I like to set up a working situation that allows me to respond to this. No matter how much you prepare, it's always interesting to conduct the rehearsal as part experiment and part preparation. Sometimes a scene doesn't deliver what you imagined it would. Either the writing falls short, the actor can't "get it," or the technicality of filming destroys any spontaneity. It's in these moments that you dig deep.
In one of the final scenes in "Killing Bono," the young Ivan sits in the back of a limo with a young Bono. As they journey to the event, they both talk about their childhoods, their dreams, their lives. They are at ease with each other, and the scene requires a certain intimacy to work. We shot it on a late January night in Ireland. It was freezing, even in the car. This had a massive effect on Martin McCann. He couldn't deliver his speech. So we gave him a warm water bottle, he
relaxed, and they started to play the lines in different ways. They traded words for gestures and turned emotion into comedy. They built the moment together.
So a hot water bottle saved the scene. Remember, keep your actors warm!