This fall, I’ve been working with actors Lisa Every, Jenn Ruzumna, Carter Rodriquez, Sara Rucker Thiessen and Eric Jordan to develop the story of a new film through improvisation, just like we did with Phoebe’s Father. The kinds of movies I love, and love to make, are about believable characters in familiar conflicts – a friendship dissolving, a family rift, a breach of trust. They capture something truthful about our struggles in everyday life.
How can we best tell these kinds of stories? I believe that working with actors early on is one very good way. Taking inspiration from Mike Leigh (whose movie Secrets and Lies I adore), the Brown’s Canyon actors and I are building the characters lives over time. We start on an individual level – every actor creates the details of their character (their family members, friends, childhood memories, favorite objects, talents, schooling, etc). Then, we put the characters together, in situation after situation, being very specific about when and where we are in their individual lives. Each improvisation builds upon the last. It’s extremely exciting – the story evolves in front of us, and we have no idea what’s going to happen next! It can be confusing and complicated, too – for the actors, to be clear about whether it’s the character or the actor making choices; and for me as director and writer, to observe and listen and choose when to make an adjustment and when to push the action forward.
Typically, a movie is written and rewritten many times by a screenwriter, often with producer and director input, long before the actors come on board. With this improvisation process, we try to uncover a deep understanding of the characters before scripting. There are loves, lies, jealousies, and secrets. When Jenn, Sara, Carter, Eric and Lisa come on set to shoot the film, they will know better than anyone how their character thinks and behaves. If we’ve done our work well, we’ll make a movie that is as believable and as real as can be, a story that moves and entertains while being true to life.
(Above, Carter Rodriquez and Jenn Ruzumna in an improvisation)