What Can Directors Learn from Athletes?
Six points I learned about directing from doing exactly what athletes do.
My nephew Ben, who just finished high school, got back from Prague after participating in an international tournament. He is a part of the Israeli National Judo team, and he practices twice a day, devoting around nine hours daily.
I’ve never seen anyone like him: He started playing soccer and judo when he was six and participating in triathlons since he was eleven. He graduated at the top of his class in academics while practicing every day of the week. His entire life is focused on and built around his love for judo. When we talk, I’m always blown away by his devotion, determination, and love for the sport.
If you are a writer, it’s easy to practice. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and start writing. But what if you want to practice directing?
When I finished directing my first feature film, Landing Up, I realized that I had learned so much in the past few months, but If I waited until I had another opportunity to direct, I could forget everything I’d learned. Writing notes is great, but my nephew doesn’t take notes—he practices every single day. Just like Ben, I have to practice more to become better. But, how?
If you are a writer, it’s really easy to practice (at least from a logistical point of view). Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and start writing. Share it with your friends, get feedback, become a better writer. You’re a cinematographer? Not a problem! Take your smartphone and go try some new compositions. But if you are a director, it can be pretty expensive and time-consuming to practice. Even if you are going to direct a one-minute film, you might have to get crew and a cast, pay for equipment, pay for people’s lunch, transportation, post-production, etc. Sure, there are efficient and cost-effective ways to do this, but it's almost always more complicated than you expect. I don’t know any director who practices or directs as often as they want.
Enter the Sandbox
As I was trying to figure out a way to stay in directorial shape and out of post-filming-depression, I went to my weekly meeting at Filmshop. Filmshop is a collective centered around filmmakers who are working on a project, be it a short script, animated webseries or a feature film. I knew that there were enough people there that felt like I did and would want to practice directing more often, so it was just a question of how. Enter The Sandbox.
The Sandbox began as (and continues to be) a safe place where directors could practice and get constructive criticism. Two and a half years later, we’ve become a specialized chapter of Filmshop. Although there are countless areas that we as directors can practice in, we decided to focus solely on directing actors.
Here’s what our meetings look like: Every week we bring a new two-page script (original work by our members or an excerpt from a known film) and two actors who are cast. Then, four different directors get about thirty minutes each to direct and share their vision of the scene with the actors. After all the directors present, we sit for a quick round of feedback (both from other directors and the actors). We usually cap off the meeting in the bar next door and continue the conversation.
When working with actors, it’s always better to explain the situation, circumstances and actions than to just tell them that they "should be sad".
Lessons on directing actors
Leading The Sandbox over the past few years taught me a lot about directing, the main things being improved communication skills and confidence while directing actors. Here are some more specific lessons I’ve learned while playing in The Sandbox :
1. Explaining a situation > telling actors how to feel
When working with actors, it’s always better to explain the situation, circumstances, and actions than to just tell them that they “should be sad” or saying something like “you are angry at him!” If you describe the situation, they can relate to it better and bring themselves into the emotional state by understanding the motivation behind their actions.
2. Set goals and be specific
There are so many aspects of directing and when you have only thirty minutes to direct you have to be specific about what you want to achieve. The first few times new members go up and direct, they try to do everything and get the scene to a place where it's ready to be filmed. That's almost impossible to do in just thirty minutes—especially with actors that you’ve just met. In order to make the best use of your time, you must be specific and set a goal for your time.
Before directing, I pick something I want to practice and improve upon. For instance, I will focus only on actors’ physicality. How do they walk? Talk? Do they limp? Is she pregnant? How does a gangster walk in '70s Brooklyn? Try anything to make the scene more interesting, unique and original.
For actors, warming up is opportunity to clean the slate before they get into a character.
3. Warm up
Another thing that directors can learn from athletes is to warm up. Warmups are extremely important, both for actors and directors. For actors, warming up is an opportunity to clean the slate before they get into a character, or stretch before a physical scene. For you, it’s a chance to see what the actors are comfortable with, what acting techniques they prefer (Meisner? Stanislavki?) and also to help create a mood. So, play a song and let them dance (or dance with them!). Play a little game or try a Meisner exercise to get them out of their heads. Whatever it is, on set or in a rehearsal—do not start working without a warmup!
4. When you have to talk, talk (but not too much)
We have some members who take two minutes with the actors before jumping into the first take, while others talk for ten minutes before starting. I don’t like to talk too much. In fact, I usually don’t talk at all at first and just let them play the scene. I want to see what comes without my interference. They know the script, now let them perform it and follow your instincts. There are always magic moments (a move, a line, a look) that I keep for the rest of the takes.
Then I like to give my actors details about the genre that we’re working in, specific circumstances of the scene, where they are coming from (what happened just before the scene) and sometimes their objective. Once they have all that, they go for another run, and we take it from there.
5. Experiment and take risks
The philosophy behind The Sandbox is that we’re here to play, experiment and take risks! You can’t get hurt playing in The Sandbox. This is your opportunity to try out new ideas and approaches. Talk to the actors in a new way. Approach the scene from a different angle. Get out of your comfort zone and warm up with the actors. Trying these kinds of things on your set might be too risky, but not here. When the stakes are low and so is the tuition, you are more relaxed and you learn more.
One of the most effective techniques we use often is to improvise with the actors. What if the scene is stuck, and you can’t find the emotional bit? Throw the characters into a new situation from the script or something original (their first date/meeting/visiting the zoo/what happened just before this scene starts, etc). It always brings something new and different and can open up new avenues for you as a director. Just make sure that your actors are comfortable with improvising before doing so.
So maybe I don’t spend nine hours a day practicing like my nephew (I wish I could pay rent with that), but practicing a few hours every week definitely improves my confidence and how I talk to and understand actors. It boosts my motivation and makes me a better director. The upside is that, unlike Ben, nobody (I hope) wants to hurt me during my practice.