Director, Robert Marchand runs a highly popular workshop called Character-based Improvisation Process (based on the Mike Leigh Method). His workshops are for actors and directors which encourages a closer working relationship whilst adopting improvisation as the primary acting technique. It sounds scary and thrilling at the same time. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than creating a character entirely from scratch using improvisation as my exploration basis. I look forward to utisiling this method one day in my own acting career.
How long have you been in the industry?
Over 20 years – but it feels like yesterday I got started!
Where did you train? For how long?
I did the 3 year BA course at AFTRS in the late 80′s. That was a fantastic experience, we got to make lot’s of short films, worked on other people’s films, got terrific hands-on experience.
Describe your directing technique?
Renoir says there are 2 kinds of directors: the one’s who bring the actors to the camera, and the one’s who bring the camera to the actors. I’m in the second group. I want to shape performance first – for me it’s the characters and performances that draw me into a film. The work I’m doing now with Character-based Improvisation Process is an extension of this principle.
What exactly is Character-based Improvisation Process?
This is a way of making a film by engaging the actors directly in creating characters – there is no script. The Director starts with a theme or an idea and develops it by working with the actors in carefully set up improvisations. Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’ and ‘Vera Drake’ were made this way. But it’s not just a stand-alone process – many of the tools used are great in conventional scripted drama.
What attracted you to learn it?
Film and TV drama – especially TV – can get in a groove. I’m attracted to a process which allows you to explore the unexpected, to give a fresh twist to your work. You have a great group of talented actors constantly offering character and story possibilities you might not have considered if you’d written a script. And even if there is a script, this process can lead to performances of greater depth and complexity. It reinvigorates director and actor. You don’t get that classic problem on set where the actor tells the director “I don’t understand what your asking me to do” because you reached understanding about the character, the relationships and the scene weeks ago in rehearsal.
How did you get your break?
Directly after film school my short films won 3 AFI’s in the one night – I was offered a mini-series soon afterwards.
What specifically is your role in a project? Is it more than the average screen director?
With a scripted project, I will often get involved with the writer before final script lock-off, so that we’re on the same page. I always want to understand why the writer has chosen something, specially if at first I don’t think it works.
How do you approach the script?
With respect, but an open mind. Film-making is a collaborative medium and it’s up to the director to listen to everyone else and recognise the ideas that support the film.
Are you heavily involved in the casting process?
I could write pages about casting – and occasionally run weekend workshops for actors and directors to improve the casting process from both ends. My guiding principle runs something like this: you’re going to have a working relationship with the actor you cast, they may well make the difference as to how well your film engages with an audience, so why not treat each auditioning actor – as they come through the door – with the kind of respect and attention they’d get once they’re cast?
How do you cast? Do you have people already in mind for parts based on a look, talent, who they know, etc?
I want to keep an open mind, let the actors surprise me with what they do. This includes actors who auditioned before for a previous project and didn’t get cast – might’ve been a not good day for them then.
Do you require more of them than a standard (non Mike Leigh Method) production?
I try to create an environment where the actors feel they can deliver their best and be totally appreciated.
How crucial is the rehearsal process for you? How long is it or does it vary project to project?
If we’re talking about a scripted project, the rehearsal time may be very limited. Normally you get a week, the production office might begrudgingly give you two! But it’s up to the director to use it to the max. In addition to going over key scenes, I will use some improvisation techniques to explore character and relationships. Typically, we will look at moments in the character’s lives which are not on-screen, but which might be influencing on-screen behaviour. This is more than just filling in the back story; the character’s emotional and psychological make-up will be investigated.
Is it viable having your directing career in Australia? Have you had to pursue other revenue streams for survival?
In a continually evolving filmmaking environment, you have to adapt. It has never been easy to make films in Australia. Involving myself in the CBI process, showing others how it can enhance their films, has actually meant I am much more involved with creative work than ever before. The workshops I run are an alternative revenue stream, I guess, though only a heartbeat away from filmmaking, so I’ve sort of got the best of both worlds.
What’s coming up on your agenda?
I have a film I am developing in South Australia which will be created from scratch by the actors and myself with no script. Very exciting! And just in case I feel at a loose end, I have another – conventionally scripted – project in development. Meanwhile I am off to the US to run a workshop over there…
Any advice for other directors wishing to pursue this technique?
Come and do one of my workshops, I will arm you with tools you will be able to use for the rest of your career, even if you never see another improvisation!
Some actors you’d love to work with one day?
The ones I’ve just cast. As you will have gathered, I have great respect for actors and enjoy working with them.
Favourite project ever worked on?
For it’s audience appeal, ‘Come In Spinner’; for the joy of working with a huge cast and crew, all the toys and hundreds of extras, ‘The Potato Factory’; for the sheer thrill of writing and directing something that worked first time out ‘The Cellist’. First films remain special experiences.