When I made my first feature, 19 Revolutions, I used Jean-Luc Godard as my guiding influence, shooting youthful idealism with reckless handheld and frenetic editing. With Lilith I embraced Andrei Tarkovsky, using long, stabilized, languid and almost spiritual takes in a widescreen landscape.
Of course it’s one thing to ape or simply copy these filmmakers, but it’s an entirely different thing to let them be your guides. They did something right, and they fit their worldview perfectly, we’d be remiss not to visit their work and buttress it upon our own. When I look at a Godard or Tarkovsky, I’m not asking myself how they did it, I’m always asking why, of how their technique served the narrative and if those tools are something I can use to tell my story. Godard himself quoted the work of Howard Hawkes, and Tarkovsky’s films always carry the fingerprints of Eisenstein and Vertov.
From Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, Un film comme les autres, 1968.
With Six Angry Women I knew I had an ensemble piece that required absolute emotional honesty and real characters. I wanted to avoid the cliched archetypes that infect so much of American independent cinema today, like the screechy malaise-ridden families of August: Osage County, which was an amazing play but I absolutely abhorred as a film. I don’t want my actors playing characters that fulfill a role, I want them to play real women who are in a volatile and unpredictable situation.
Tarkovsky and Godard are not the right reference for material like this. Nor is Kieslowski, Roeg, Bergman, Ray, Fincher or Kurosawa. They all have that balance of dynamic realism with surreal images, and it populates their entire body of work. Likewise I didn’t want to go to the crushing reality of filmmakers like Ken Loach and John Cassavettes, because I’m portraying a world that we can only imagine the reality of (the jury room, which none of us have access to), so I needed to look elsewhere. This is what brought me to Mike Leigh.
I’d seen Leigh’s films - Naked being one of my all-time favorite films - but I can’t say I’d ever really studied Leigh’s technique. Turthfully because his technique terrified me, as he regularly goes into a film without a formal script, building the screenplay in rehearsals. Because of my scientific background and my inherent desire to plan, and because I lack any experience directing theater, going about a film like Leigh does seems counter intuitive and unproductive. I was terrified of the prospect of working that way, but I knew it required consideration.
I started watching Leigh’s films and picked up a copy of Amy Raphael’s excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (also check out her book on Danny Boyle, it will change your life). I was accustomed to seeing powerful and impossibly authentic performances in Leigh’s films, but in rewatching and studying his work, it also dawned on me that his movies are quite visually beautiful. I’d never noticed that before, and it turns out he had a background in visual arts before going into theater and film. It became abundantly clear to me that I needed to study his technique, and that despite my fear, this was the technique that would best serve Six Angry Women.
Leigh, who is famously cryptic about the details of his method, gives out hints as to how he goes about things. I’d done training in improv at The Second City here in Chicago, so I was familiar with a lot of the rehearsal techniques that Leigh mentions in the book. Trust building exercises, hot associations, actors giving each other “gifts” of “yes, and” in improv sessions. I could do that, yes. But I was far more curious about how Leigh built his screenplays. The misnomer is that he films without a script, which is not true and only applies to Godard and Wong Kar-Wai. There is no waiting-for-inspiration-making-it-up-as-we-go with Mike Leigh. He builds his screenplays in rehearsals, and by the time the shoot date arrives, he has a screenplay in hand, one which his cast and crew can use to make a film efficiently. I loved this about him, and wanted to know how it’s done. Since there is no official document about this technique (at least one I know of), I basically had to create my own version of it based on my own skillset and whatever little information I could glean from writings and documentaries about Leigh, and DVD commentaries from his films.
I know that Leigh assembles his cast early and doesn’t even tell them what the film is about. A lot of times even he doesn’t know what the film is fully about but he has a nascent idea that he’s fleshed out a little. He spends a considerable amount of time only building characters with his actors. I don’t have a clue how he does this, but I’ve created my own version.
I’d tried writing a Six Angry Women screenplay many many months ago, and found that my own politics and desire for justice were getting in the way of the narrative being fluid and honest. The downside was that I was stuck, but the upside is that I had a very clear idea of what the film was about in my head. This helped me as I approached my actors about the project. I’d give them the basics and no details, and told them we’d be building the screenplay in rehearsals, that they will be part of the writing process. It intrigued all of them immensely.
Given that I only have a month to put this all together, I couldn’t afford to be as reserved as Leigh in his productions, so I had to spill some beans about the story, but I only provided a few sentences about what I thought each character would be. Based on that seed, I asked my actresses to find someone in their own lives, or multiple people, who might fit that description. I asked them to simply observe and put together a composite of a character. We were only focusing on character - there’s no mention of the jury or the trial, nor did I want my actresses doing research on race relations or the justice system. I just wanted them to build someone who is real. I asked them to put together a physical description, to come up with a career for them, a family history, and a daily routine that they go through.
The physical description is very important here, and by physical description I mean only quantitative analysis. It’s important to connect a visual to these ideas, and by obsessively writing down every detail, we form a bridge between the visual and the idea. Once the visual is established, then we build the qualitative and emotional aspects of the character. In director’s parlance this is called hot objects and is something I picked up from actress / University of Southern California professor Nina Foch.
Nina Foch. A brilliant teacher and a foxy lady til her last day.
So far we’ve only been talking about character, testing them in different everyday situations that have nothing and everything to do with the trial. But only I know that, and I’m taking notes. After two weeks, I feel like we have a group of very real women who are walking into this jury room. The next step I gleaned from Leigh is to now engage in group rehearsals, where the actors will meet each other for the very first time. Leigh maintains a very strict policy here - all characters must be spoken of in the third person, and no one is allowed to be in character until I say ‘action.’ At this point I am going to present the case to them in detail, and we’ll start collectively figuring out the natural flow of conversation and events. This is based on an outline that I have.
At this time I’m also going to have my cinematographer sit in the room, and we will be recording the rehearsals. I’ve hired an assistant (paid, of course) and at the end of each day, my assistant, DP and I will review the footage and come up with pages of script and a shot list. Hopefully by the end of the rehearsal period we will emerge with a screenplay and and full shot list. Performance, story and visuals all in one exercise
This may not be Leigh’s exact technique but rather it is a modified version of it that suits my own technique and temperament. As much as I was terrified by it, with each passing day of rehearsals I’m amazed with how it’s all coming together. I’m seeing the film clearer and clearer with each new idea. I’m feeling more confident and I know this technique can work because Mike Leigh has proven it works.
My film will not look, sound or feel like a Mike Leigh film because I’m not Mike Leigh. But he’s given me a new set of tools to work with, and my cast, crew and I will figure out how to use these tools to accomplish our goals. It’s like being in school again, and because we are independents we don’t have to please anybody except ourselves. It’s a wonderful and liberating way to work.