Feb 26, 2013

Werner Schumann on Directing Features

Category: Making Movies Acting
Werner Schumann is completing his latest feature film, Absolution, and he talks about the practical work of a director - how he casts, works with actors, and deals with problems, including when actors quit to take another movie or become allergic to makeup. [see full transcript]

Transcription [edited] of Interview with Werner Schumann [WS] and Julian Darley [JD]  (2013-02-05)

JD: Welcome to the Ruthless Guide. I’m Julian Darley and my guest today is Werner Schumann, a movie director with twenty five years experience and the topic for ruthless dissection today is making feature films.

JD Q1: Werner, what are some of the surprising problems you’ve had to overcome when making your most recent movie? [0:20]

WS: I think that every movie is a challenge and probably that's why I like to make movies because it is very challenging. In every film I make I learn something new: like never, ever take anything for granted! Be prepared for anything.

It is like the Boy Scouts have a motto that is very appropriate for moviemaking and that is be prepared for anything and they are right. I can give you some examples from my new film, like the actor you have chosen gets a better offer in the last minute before signing the contract with you so you are going to have a second option - you have to be prepared for this.

Or your main actor may injure himself during the rehearsal of the fight choreography or the same actor has a strong allergy reaction to the special make-up. This kind of thing.

Or even more, the location owner that says yes, but when confronted with a 10 page contract decides to say no sorry, no, I don’t want any crew in my property.

Another thing is getting extras is always a problem. Don't take for granted that your friends say yes, I will be there to be part of your movie. From my experience if you need 50 people, invite 150. Then eventually you have 30 extras for the shooting.

Like in this film that I'm shooting now, doing the post, we had a chess-boxing fight, and we needed around 100 people. We end up working with 40 extras only and I was really concerned because it's one of the first films that is that is working with real chess boxing, which is something really unusual for a film. And then it was very important to have the right people, the right extras. 

JD Q2: How did you deal with the injured actor and the other problems? [2:21] 

WS: Oh yes, this is something that you never expect but it happens twice in my film. Of course, then we have to have a meeting with the fight choreographer in order to tell him, well we need to be more careful with this or it seems that it's too risky. I think it is really worth the investment to put in a stuntman, because otherwise if in the middle of your film your main actor gets injured, it's going to be a great disaster, even even if you have insurance. [Even with insurance, by] the time that you have all the papers the insurance [is] covering, then your movie’s gone. It's something very, very important.

JD Q3: So, do you think that having a stuntman for almost anything dangerous is simply the most sensible idea? [3:10]

WS: It is totally sensible. You cannot have any risk, because because the main actor of my film, he just injured his finger, but when you have a problem with your finger, you cannot fight, you cannot act properly - is just a finger.

JD Q4: And what did you do about the makeup allergy? [3:30]

WS: Well I didn't expect that the actor would have that reaction to that material. And then I almost had a fight with the make up artist, because the make-up artist, very German, she said no, I refuse to keep going on, he cannot make it. [I said] listen, let's try to to put it on very quickly and shoot only the scenes for the close-ups and the rest we can handle it. It was really painful, really stressful to to handle. But, at the very end it worked.

JD Q5: You were speaking of casting. It sounds like you had an alternative lead in place - is that what happened, or did you lose your first choice and then had to find a new lead really fast? [4:15]

WS: Usually I have the first and the second, but the problem is when you're already shooting a film with the first so you cannot [switch] to the second, so you so you have to start all over again. But with the cast, usually I have at least the second best, let's put it that way.

JD Q6: How do you handle that psychologically: no actor wants to be told, “well actually, you're second best, you're not the guy we really want, but we’ve got you on tap just in case the other chap pulls out. [4:46]

WS: I would never say that, you know, I say, well, I'm going to work with the actor that I've chosen I would not say that the other actor. I would never say you’re the second, I would never say that.

JD Q7: But what do you say? [5:02]

WS: well, I don't say anything. The actors that I've decided for it is all right and the ones that I didn't. I just send a letter saying thank you very much, but we've already opted for another factor. We hope to get. We hope to work together very soon, something like that.

JD Q8: Do you keep the number two actor on standby until number one actor actually starts shooting on the first day of principal photography? [5:27]

WS: If I think that I could have any problem, yes.

JD Q9: Speaking of casting, this is a really vital area – people will say that so much of the director's job is to cast the right actor but they don't tell you how you achieve this, so I wondered if you had any ideas or tips for helping with casting and auditions? [5:46]

WS: When I am doing the audition, I see that within 5 minutes of conversation with that actor, I know that actor has potential for my film or not. And then if my intuition – it's a very intuitive process. I use my intuition a lot – if I feel that actor might be the right actor for the role we are looking for, then I start to work a little bit more with that actor during the audition, like to see to see if he accepts my direction, if he's able to change the concept of the character he was preparing for this audition.

This kind of thing is very, very important because it is a person that is going to work [with you] in the next 30 days, or even more, considering that we have to rehearse before and then you have to have a very good relationship with this actor, it goes beyond being professional.

JD Q10: When you're in a casting and you want to start to see whether you can work with an actor, are there any kinds of things that you often say to see whether they’re going to take your direction or not? [6:52]

WS: Yes. If the actor is going in one direction, I try making him go to another direction to see if the actor is able to improvise, if he's able to make something different.

JD Q11: Have you got any examples? [7:09]

WS: Well, the way he is saying his lines. Sometimes, he says in a very intensive way, and I approach the actor and say let's make a little adjustment and let's try to think about it that you don't hate her, but you say in a way that you don't care about that person and then you try in a different way to see if that person is able to be flexible because the actor has to be flexible. In the same way that the director has to be flexible sometimes. You have to respect the actor's view.

JD Q12: How do you feel about actors who want to change your lines? [7:46]

WS: I feel totally comfortable with that. I don't think the actor has to say exactly the line that is written there. If he's feeling more comfortable saying his lines with a little changes, I don't see any problem at all. I think it's a good thing. The most important thing is how he's incorporating into his character.

JD Q13: You mentioned rehearsal earlier on. How much rehearsal time do you think is ideal, and do you often get that? [8:14]

WS: There are some directors, and even some actors, they don't like to rehearse that much and they prefer to keep it let's say fresh for the shooting days. But I am a type of director that I like to work with the actors before. I like to discuss all the characters, all the motivations, the subtext and then when I go to the shooting, when I'm working in the shooting days, I just make a little adjustment, that's for me the best way. But not all the directors or the actors they like it.

Why do that? Because the actor might work his role in a way that is maybe too different than the vision that I'm having, so I always tell the actors do not work your character with some preconceptions.

Let's say that you work together with me and we can rearrange things. That doesn't mean that the actor has to work exactly the same way that I see it, but we can communicate, we can exchange, we can make it together, build the character together, for me, that's very, very important.

Then, when the actors, when we are on the set during the shooting, then you just make a little adjustment but all the actors they already know what I'm looking for, how we build it, and then you go faster.

JD Q14: How long do you like to have for rehearsals? [9:30]

WS: At least two weeks before the shooting, sometimes if it is very complex characters, three weeks.

JD Q15: And do you do any blocking during that time, or is it all working on the character arcs? [9:40]

WS: Yes, first when I am rehearsing with the actors I let them free, give the actor any motivation he wants to. If he wants to stand up and walk. I let him free. If I have any reason for the actor not to stand-up, the I say don’t stand-up try to say it seated.

And then only after that I will describe the blocking because blocking has to do not only with the acting, with the rehearsal but with what kind of location they're going to have. So if it’s a matter for  the location, the acting, what kind of light we can make it, so I try to make it together., but in the first moment and yet is free to stand up.

JD Q16: Do you use storyboards and if so, how do you go about that process? [10:20]

WS: The storyboard, we use only in the in the very most complex scenes, for shooting action, this kind of thing or special effects, then the user storyboard. But in a single conversation between two actors in a bar or in a car. I don't need any storyboard but usually when the scene is very, very complex and Winnie very complex coverage then I use the worker storyboard artist.

JD Q17: Do you work directly with the cameraman on the storyboard? [10:52]

WS: Yes, definitely. I have my vision, how I envision the scene and then we talk about it, then we have to go together and work with the storyboard artist together.

JD Q18: How do you like to work with the production designer? [11:08]

WS: I think not only with the production designer, but with the whole crew, I think directing is all about communication. So what your crew expects from you is they want to know your vision about the movie about the characters and it's the same with the casting director, the production designer, cinematographer – they want to see how do you envision the movie, how do you see the movie to see if they understand.

And as a director what I'm expecting from them, that they can as artists, I see them as another artist, collaborators, I expect them to contribute artistically, you know to improve this vision or try to make something different but we have to decide together. In that sense I'm very, very democratic.

JD Q19: How do you like to work with the actors and crew during an average shooting day? [12:04]

WS: once we have the actors, we have the location and we are ready to shoot that day, the first thing that I do very early in the morning with my assistant director, considering that I already rehearsed with the actors before I go to the location with the actors and I make a little rehearsal with them, then with the second rehearsal I call the whole team after the breakfast, I call everyone involved and I show them how I'm going going to make the scene.

Then the director of photography is there, the production designer to make to make little adjustments, costume, everyone involved. Then I show to make room, so we're going to make the scene that way. This way. That way, and then after that we leave and the cinematography crew, they start work with the proper light and this kind of thing.

So I try to rehearse a little bit before and then the second one or a few minutes later I rehearsal the whole crew. Communication is the base for everything that you do in a film. So these morning meetings, I think they are essential. And also, it's a very good way to give motivation to your crew, it is important that important what they are going to shoot and how they are going to shoot.

JD Q20: And is it just the next scene you go over?  [13:24] 

WS: No, I go step by step. That scene in that room, in that location, I show them all the scenes that we’re going to do. I explain how it’s going to be our working day. If our working day is going to be in that living room, I try to show them all scenes - or the first part, then the second, because then I leave with the actors and the cinematographer and his crew and his team, they are doing the light, and then I can in another room rehearse a little bit more with the actors.

JD Q21: Do you leave the actors on their own after that? [13:54]

WS: At that stage nobody has lots of time, because the actors they need to go to costume, they have to have a costume ready make up a lot of things, and as a director and answering thousands of questions it is not something that we can relax from every second.

It comes someone, do you want this guy, that gun, do you want this colour or that colour; can I change this, can I change that and then I leave the actors alone, in the make-up room or with the costume people.

JD Q22: How many hours a day do you think is a good length to shoot for? [14:31]

WS: that's a good question. Usually when I'm working my production manager comes to me and says, listen today no more than 10 hours or 11 hours otherwise it's going to be a disaster tomorrow. I try to make it 10 or 11 hours. That's very good for me, no more than that.

JD Q23: Because people get tired? [14:52]

WS: they get tired. Of course there are some days and scenes are very complex and you end up finishing at three in the morning but then the next day, you don't have to work.

JD Q24:  Do you have any tips for getting through the stress of the shoot? [15:04]

WS: Well, when I'm working I am very focussed. Actually, I don't get that at tired, because really is a privilege to make a movie, so it's a great passion. So I'm all the time, 24 hours excited. So that's why at the end of the shooting day, I always serve and give beer to my crew who sit together and we have some beers or some soda and we talk and and make some jokes, because we have been working all day long, sometimes very, very stressful and then I always try to treat my crew in a very good way.

One of the best ways to – usually mostly our guys, or even girls - they love bee. So usually when we are about to finish the shooting day, one of the assistants is bringing beer in a box, very cold beer to everyone. Then we're making jokes.

JD Q25: That sounds like a great idea. [16:03]

Yes, it doesn't matter, the budget. But you have to treat your crew very very well. Good catering, and then I use this beer thing and they love it.

JD Q26: At the end of each day? [16:19]

WS: At the end of each day. But sometimes I stay with the crew only 30 minutes, 40 minutes. We are telling jokes. It's very, very relaxing. But honestly my brain is 24 hours working. It happens a lot when I'm shooting a scene, then I'm dreaming with that scene or sometimes I'm dreaming even with the solutions.

In my new film, the ending scene, I had it through a dream that I had - the final scene came through dream, I had a vision. And I thought, yes, that's a very good idea.

JD Q27: Did you have the vision while you were writing the script or while you were actually filming it? [16:58]

WS: When I was filming - I change it because I had this dream, so it seems that my brain will never ever stop.

JD Q28: Do you include the actors in the beer? [17:07]

WS: All the cast and crew. Everyone. And some sandwiches, even though we already had dinner or lunch or whatever. Because in the interaction with the whole crew I try to be a very nice guy and I treat everyone with respect.

JD: Thank you very much, Werner. That was Werner Schumann, movie director, discussing making feature films with me Julian Darley. Please sign up to ruthlessguide.com to hear news of more discussions and dissections.