Rehearsals; a chance for you to make all of the mistakes you could have made on the actual shoot.
Last week, I had the opportunity to do an on-set rehearsal with three talented young actors for an upcoming short film production: ‘Boredom’. Scene by scene, we ran through the script, introducing blocking, props and other physical actions to each performance. Until now, the only run-throughs we’d done had been over video call, and although the performances were 90% there, having the actors on set and physically interacting with each other could only improve the rhythm and the flow.
On the shoot day, the director’s mind is a noisy place; it’s filled with such persistent, worrying thoughts as: Are we on schedule? Are we getting the coverage we need? Is it about to start raining? For the love of God, when are we going to break for lunch? The more you can do to quell some of these intrusive voices, the better, and you can do that by treating the rehearsal like the shoot day itself. Find out what you have to do to stay on schedule, what coverage you actually need, what you will do if the weather changes, and make sure that you agree on a time to break for lunch, or the only thing to drown out these voices will be the rumbling bellies of your entire cast and crew.
For example, blocking is something that you can rehearse so thoroughly that, by the time the actual shoot comes around, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes closed. Blocking is the way in which the actors are positioned in relation to the camera and each other. It can be the difference between a scene that flatlines, and a scene with a build-up and release in tension. It’s an element of the film that you can pretty much perfect before the camera even starts rolling. It’s also where timing becomes crucial. Ensure that the cues for certain line deliveries and physical actions are understood by your cast; any confusion can have a negative impact on the performances.

Rehearsing on the set of 'Boredom', overlooking Redmire in the Yorkshire Dales.

Once the actors have a thorough understanding of the blocking and the scene is beginning to flow smoothly and with a noticeable rhythm, it comes time for the director to get out of the way. Trust your actors to develop the scene their way from this point on as they continue to familiarise themselves with the beats of the scene, and find ways to make those emotional transitions smoother. In some cases, this may be some actors’ first time on-screen together, so let them get to know each other; let them improvise and workshop together and without an overseer. Pay attention and listen as the actors continue to rehearse, only stepping in when any members of the cast appear to need some direction. For example, a quick fix can be to quickly step in and re-establish the context of the scene and the intentions of the characters (e.g. Character A is trying to convince Character B to lend them some money). Focus on intention and obstacle; don’t judge or psychoanalyse the character. At this point, the cast probably know them far better than you do.
By the time you wrap up your rehearsal, you should have a good understanding of what you need to do before the production begins; what aspects of the script need developing, which actors need further direction, etc.
If you’ve done everything right so far - if you’ve picked the right script, cast the right actors and given the most constructive direction - the rehearsal has gone so well that all you want to do is recapture those very same performances but, this time, with the camera rolling...
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