Q&A with writer-director DOUG ATCHISON
(AKEELAH AND THE BEE)
Before making AKEELAH AND THE BEE, Doug took classes with Judith - the Acting for Directors workshop, and the Actor-Director Laboratory, where he workshopped scenes from AKEELAH. The performances Doug directed in AKEELAH won numerous awards and nominations, for eleven-year-old Keke Palmer’s breakthrough performance in the title role – as well as for A-list veterans Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. Doug took time out from casting and pre-production for his second film, THE THROWBACK, to come to the studio for a Q&A.
Doug was so generous with advice, and clear with examples, enormously practical and inspiring for both directors and actors. His openness and passion were themselves a priceless lesson and gift.
For these next three highlighted paragraphs I am indebted to John Beck, who took notes:
Doug talked to the actors about auditioning, saying “Auditions are almost created to be purposely awkward, I don’t know why, but they are.” He spoke about the trap that actors can fall into of going into a casting situation expecting to give a performance. That’s the wrong approach, he says. He said when you audition, even if you're reading with someone who has a monotone voice, it’s always about the other person. It’s about what happens between you and them. It’s not about you performing – you're not there to give a performance. You're there for something to occur between you and someone else. Even if your character has a long speech, he says, there's no such thing as a monologue – everything is an interaction. He said actors must get out of the mindset of “I hope they like me – I hope this is the one.” You're there to interact with someone who you're reading with - and you make a choice and be available to that person. Even if you must read the part with a person who is the equivalent of a potted plant, whatever the other person is doing, respond to that and if they're not doing anything, respond to that too.
And, Doug said, if you're reading with a director, the director may give you an adjustment. The actors that get called back are the ones who respond to the adjustment and are able to change and go in a different direction. Where it’s not happening is with the actors that say they understand the direction and then do it the same way they rehearsed it at home.
For directors, Doug emphasized preparation. In auditions, director should have ideas ahead of time for adjustments to ask the actors. A director must have the whole movie in mind when working on a scene, he said. Ask yourself, what has the character been trying to do for the whole movie? – that should inform you as to what intentions and adjustments to give the actors.
I (Judith) was pretty thrilled that all the examples Doug gave of audition issues for actors had to do with things I’m always telling actors in my classes – like surrendering to your partner no matter what. And preparing deeply enough that when you get a direction that’s different from your own idea, you can find its truth, and surrender to it.
It was massively helpful for actors – and directors – to hear how these principles apply to practical, professional situations.
For directors – all the examples Doug gave of “adjustments” were based in the process-oriented tools – emotional history, objectives, intentions, “opposites,” “as if’s.” Again, invaluable for directors to hear proof that these tools bring success and confidence on a professional set.
Doug also selected two scenes from AKEELAH in which there was an evolution in the choices because of discussion in rehearsal or on the set with the actors. He brought with him sides of those scenes, and a DVD of AKEELAH. Actors from the audience cold-read the scene, then Doug talked about his process when directing the scene, and then he screened the finished scene.
Doug’s trust and respect for the actors was so manifest in these examples! He was completely committed to his vision and equally committed to his openness and appreciation of actors’ intelligence and creativity. He spoke about how directors need to be clear in their ideas, and the importance of preparation in order to find clarity. All his examples of “clear” ideas were subtext ideas – never facile, result-oriented clichés. The clarity and strength of his ideas did not hinder but enhanced his ability to listen to the actors.
He also spoke of the ten years it took to get AKEELAH made, and his personal investment in the film’s themes. The lesson: Don’t stop caring. Don’t stop believing.
If you haven’t yet seen AKEELAH AND THE BEE, you should. A film with a positive message and commercial viability – told sensitively and honestly, without cliché, manipulation or preachiness. I highly recommend it!!!!
Doug wrote to me after the event, “As you can probably tell there’s a part of me that enjoys ‘teaching.’ That’s why if I’m available I usually accept offers to speak on panels. But usually it’s about writing — and it was actually more fun to talk about acting and directing, particularly with folks who were so eager to learn. The questions were excellent. And you create a wonderful environment for sharing.” He promised to return when he has finished THE THROWBACK, to share more stories with us.
Thank you to everyone who attended, and Glenn Ripps who took photos for the studio Facebook page, and John Beck who shared his notes with me, and the students who came early to help us set up – and especially to Doug!