'The Rehearsal': Alison Maclean on What a Film Can Do That a Book Can't

It’s one thing for a book to be fascinated by acting, but it's another thing to use actors to make that book come to life.

When an author is eager to be a part of the filmmaking process, then adapting a screenplay from a novel or other source material can be a breeze. Such was the case for Alison Maclean and The Rehearsal, a film detailing the times and tribulations of a group of first year theater students in New Zealand. 

The author of the novel, Eleanor Catton, wrote the book when she was 21 years old. Now, five years removed from the work, Maclean claims that she is "so talented and precocious that she’s already disowned her first book as a youthful work." However youthful it may be, the source material translates to the screen perfectly. Part of that was due to Catton's involvement on set and in re-writes, but most of it comes from the performances Maclean was able to get out of the young actors at her story's core.

Following a screening of her film at this year's New York Film Festival, Maclean sat down for a brief Q&A. Here are some of the highlights of her talk where she discussed everything from how to film actors playing actors to establishing trust within a group.

Filming actors playing actors

“That was something that drew me to the film," said Maclean. "The idea that you were watching actors train but you’re also watching acting. The film is made of acting. That governed some of my choices in the casting." She went on to describe why she was drawn to actor James Rolleston, "I think he doesn’t overtly act, he’s a little more inward. And because his circumstances were so close to Stanley’s, you know he comes from a small town, he’s not a verbal guy, he’s someone who had never been in a situation like that before, he’d never been to drama school. He was having those experiences for the first time."

"He was just being what he was authentically experiencing in that moment: a deer in the headlights."

"There’s this scene in the beginning," she continued, "where they’re doing a simple text over and over and over as part of an acting exercise. We did that the second day of the shoot.  It was sort of terrifying to do that so early on, but he was just being what he was authentically experiencing in that moment: a deer in the headlights. I guess thats the kind of acting I like. Something more invisible and subtle. That would govern the way I worked with them to strip away the acting.”

The importance of rehearsal

When asked how long she had to rehearse with her actors, Maclean responded, "We had a week with the two leads and then we had another week which was sort of like this mini drama school/boot camp thing." She enlisted the assistance of a drama coach to help her design and run the camp.  "We did all the things you do at drama school, games, trust exercises, telling the most embarrassing moments of your life, you know, all those things that make me feel completely squeamish."

"Everything we did, it just felt like we could turn the camera on and we could turn it on anybody and they would be alive and responding truthfully."

At the end of the week, the results spoke for themselves. "I felt that the group had relationships, they were solid in their characters. Some of those characters were a little close to where they were and some of those were a little bit further out, but we felt as if we were a real group," she said. "Everything we did, it just felt like we could turn the camera on and we could turn it on anybody and they would be alive and responding truthfully."

How to establish trust with your actors

A member of the audience wanted to know how Maclean was so successful in gaining the trust of her cast. "I think the key with actors is creating an environment where they feel very safe and they trust me and they trust each other," she responded. "That’s why this week of rehearsal where they all risked things together in front of each other and supported each other kind of created a foundation for that. That’s always a central part of working with actors. Pushing and challenging them from that place of believing in them."

"I feel like I’m able to support them more, trust them more, and then ask for more as a result."

She also stressed the importance of letting your actors know it’s not possible for them to fail. "In a way, whatever they do is fine and I have to be relaxed around that. I mean, that for me is part of my growth as a director I suppose. To find a place where I feel relaxed enough to not let my own nervousness about their performances get in the way. So, then I feel like I’m able to support them more, trust them more, and then ask for more as a result."

"The Rehearsal"

The ideal author collaboration

The source material was based off of Eleanor Catton's first novel. Ms. Catton later went on to win a book prize for her novel The Luminaries, which she’s now writing as a six part series for the BBC. Maclean says, "She was just starting to enter the world of screenwriting herself so she was curious about the process."

This ended up benefitting the production in a major way. "Eleanor was the ideal author to work with," Maclean exalted. "She was very very hands off. I approached her about the option, she checked out my work. We had a very nice meeting but she didn’t ask me one question about the kind of film I imagined it being or how we’d adapt the book. She just kind of trusted me and trusted us and let us get on with it."

Catton even helped in the re-write process. Maclean remembered, "When we were about three or four drafts in, we sent it to her and she was just very open. She was very curious about what film could do that’s different than what a book does and gave us several very helpful very generous notes, visited set a few times. I think she’s just very fascinated in the filmmaking process."

Things a film can do that a book can't

"It’s so much in the body, it’s so much about behavior, its so much between what people say. It’s image obviously, but it’s what’s embodied by the actors," she considered. "So it’s one thing for a book to be fascinated by acting and ideas, and write about performance and acting. It's another thing to see those things embodied in different people."

"They’re just utterly different process and different mediums," she observed. "Also it’s durational, so it’s something you sit down from beginning to end and something changes over time. So that’s obviously very different from a book where you dip in and out of the narrative."


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