Judith Weston

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David Jacobson

9/4/12
Q&A with Director DAVID JACOBSON

Writer-director DAVID JACOBSON is famous in the world of indie filmmaking, and not just because his first film DAHMER was Jeremy Renner’s first major film role. DAHMER was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards including the John Cassavetes Award. DOWN IN THE VALLEY, David’s second feature, was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and released theatrically by THINKFilm.

David has taken a number of workshops with me, and he did one-on-one consultation with me before directing both DAHMER and DOWN IN THE VALLEY (with Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood). He just completed post-production on his latest feature, TOMORROW YOU’RE GONE, starring Stephen Dorff, Michelle Monaghan, and Willem Dafoe.

David has a unique and off-beat sensibility, an amazing talent, true artistry, and the most generous nature. In the Q&A event on September 4th he was unguarded and open, and gave many gems of wisdom. The depth and seriousness of his vision and spirit shown through at every moment. Plus he was funny!

Following are a few notes from the evening. (Thank you, Craig Ouellette, who I count on for sharing your notes!) 

David says that these two early decisions are the most important: What is it about? Who are your actors?

When casting for DAHMER [where he discovered actor Jeremy Renner), David had lots of callbacks, he feels he continues learning about the script by hearing different actors give different interpretations. Jeremy Renner was then unknown, and David had him come in for many call backs. Jeremy created moments, subtext, in the audition – that’s what made him stand out. Cast the main character, then cast around that person.

After the success of DAHMER, his next movie had a budget, so there were no auditions.

He usually has a week of rehearsal. The problem is that it’s usually the last week before shooting, which is the hardest time to find time to rehearse. When rehearsing TOMORROW YOU’RE GONE, he spent a couple of hours with Michelle Monoghan and Steven Dorf together, then a couple hours with each one alone. He has always had generous, smart actors. The point of rehearsal is to get the actors together, have time together, be comfortable together. Focus on challenging scenes. Improvise scenes that are not in the script – that’s his main thing he does in rehearsal. Also discuss the script. Improvise what has/will go on before and after scenes (in DOWN IN THE VALLEY, he ended up putting some of these scenes that had been created in rehearsal into the movie). Most actors he has met liked working those other moments, improvising scenes that were not in the script, not so much rehearsal of the scripted scenes. Sometimes he will create an improvisation of a “metaphorical moment,” a situation analogous to the situation in the scene.

Day players usually have a lot of anxiety, because when they arrive the others already know each other. He tries to get day players to come to the set a day or more before so they feel comfortable, meet stars at lunch, hang out; it helps integrate them into the cast.

Blocking. On DAHMER, it was an 18-day shoot, so you go on adrenaline and instinct. If there is time, he likes to let the actors know what he is picturing, then try it, run a few times, see how the actors feel, see how the DP feels, then make changes. But when there is no time, you need to stick with a choice. For action scenes, you need to do a lot of work and planning beforehand.

Vision. The finished film is never anything like what he planned or imagined. It’s exciting and wonderful when the time comes to get to be with the cast and crew – because then he’s not alone anymore; writing is lonely. He finds it exciting to let the actors take it and run with it, he wants them to bring to him what they see in it. Sometimes he feels inarticulate on set, but does everything he can to let actors know it’s their character. Some actors want a lot of input; some don’t want anything.

It’s important to have a strong script. It’s a sculpture, then production is like taking a hammer to it, then it re-forms, but the better the script to begin with, the better the final re-form will be.

He liked shooting before video tap was a given. Shooting without a video tap was a more intimate experience with the DP – because it means the director has to give the DP trust, responsibility. “The DP is my favorite person.” Two weeks before film he spends 2 hours/day with the DP on the shot list. The more you can download yourself into the DP, so he/she understands what your vision is, the more you can focus on actors.

What it’s about - DAHMER. David had heard an interview with Jeffrey Dahmer’s father on NPR, and felt a connection with certain details of Dahmer’s background. David had seen an article which said Dahmer claimed he killed those guys because he was afraid of losing them. That’s what drove David’s interest – fear of losing, fear of separation. When he was sending out the script, many producers were offended, outraged by the script. So he wrote a 4-page Director’s Statement (in the form of an interview although he himself made up the questions) that he sent with the script, and in the Statement he spoke honestly of what he felt the script was about.

Shooting an 18-20 day shooting schedule. One thing for sure is that the actors’ time in make-up needs to be limited, no more than one hour. They can’t spend 2 hours in make-up, you can’t lose that time.

He lets himself think in front of people, think out loud. Trust in your own passion to think out loud.

This was a wonderful evening. The people who came asked smart questions and David knows so much and gave so much. Thank you David!!! Thank you everyone!!!

  • "Judith taught me how to communicate with actors in a completely new way, and what I learned from her has had a huge influence over both my work and my life. She is an incredible communicator, a gifted teacher, and a remarkable human being. I can't recommend her classes highly enough for directors and actors who want to bring more emotional truth to their craft."

    JULIUS RAMSAY, director, THE WALKING DEAD
  • "All the scary transformative moments I've had in your class really paid off. And I can never begin to thank you for all that you've done for me. I'm simply not the same person I was when I started my journey with you."

    ANDREA TOYIAS, Voice Director, Blizzard Entertainment, WORLD OF WARCRAFT / DIABLO / STARCRAFT
  • “I really wanted to thank you because I know that I could have not done it without the knowledge I got from you. You will always be one of the greatest teachers I've ever had and I'm truly proud to be one of your students. Thank you for teaching me to love my actors.”

    TANEL TOOM, writer-director, THE CONFESSION (nominated for Academy Award, Live Action Short Film, 2011)
  • “I took a seminar with an acting teacher named Judith Weston. I learned a key insight to character. She believed that all well-drawn characters have a spine, and the idea is that the character has an inner motor, a dominant, unconscious goal that they’re striving for, an itch that they can’t scratch. I took to this like a duck to water.”

    ANDREW STANTON [from his Feb 2012 TED Talk] writer-director, WALL-E, FINDING NEMO, A BUG’S LIFE; writer, TOY STORY, TOY STORY 2, TOY STORY 3
  • "Directing my first movie would have been impossible without Judith's book, 'Directing Actors.' Her insights taught me how to audition actors, how to cast intelligently, how to rehearse. When production began, I cribbed a set of Weston reminders on to a 3-by-5 index card, and kept it in my shirt pocket every single day of shooting. She saved me."

    BILLY RAY, writer-director, SHATTERED GLASS, BREACH; writer, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, THE HUNGER GAMES, STATE OF PLAY, FLIGHTPLAN
  • "Judith, you're the one that gave me the tools for success with actors!"

    KAREN GAVIOLA, director, SONS OF ANARCHY, CRIMINAL MINDS, CSI, NCIS, BLUE BLOODS, CSI:MIAMI, CASTLE, PRIVATE PRACTICE, LOST, GHOST WHISPERER, PRISON BREAK, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, NYPD BLUE
  • “Judith Weston taught me how to listen – what she called ‘listening with your whole body.’ She taught me about the power and the magic of the subconscious world. She showed me doors and windows and portals into creative possibilities I scarcely knew existed. Her wisdom changed the way I write, the way I direct actors – and, with no exaggeration, the way I look at life.”

    MARK FERGUS, co-writer: CHILDREN OF MEN, IRON MAN; director: FIRST SNOW
  • "Judith Weston is a great teacher. She's inspired me to be interested in people more than concepts, behavior more than attitudes, process more than results. In her classes I've learned to ask more questions, to trust what is happening, and to always be willing to dig deeper. She is the kind of teacher who makes me excited about taking chances." 

    NORMAN BUCKLEY, director, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, RIZZOLI & ISLES, THE FOSTERS, THE CLIENT LIST, SWITCHED AT BIRTH, GOSSIP GIRL, CHUCK, MELROSE PLACE, 90210, THE O.C.
  • “You've taught me the essential tools so I could carry on with the visions that haunt me day and night and to embrace the process which I will continue to learn. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

    DEJA PREM, writer/producer/director/actor, at Green Coco Production
  • “Your workshop was wonderful in letting me know that many of the things I am already doing are the correct way of dealing with actors and taught me other things that add to that knowledge. And your patience and unbridled energy and passion for what you teach is more than admirable, it is inspiring. So thank you once again for this wonderful experience, one I will never forget and that will continue to help me on this path on which I am forever learning about new and wonderful things.”

    MICHAEL TRIM, director, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, WEEDS, PARKS AND RECREATION
  • "Judith Weston is not a drama teacher, she is an art teacher. She understands that at the heart of great drama is a powerful mystery. What she shows you in her workshops and her book are simple and effective tools that help you get deeper and deeper into that rich, complex and surprising place."

    DAVID JACOBSON, writer-director, DOWN IN THE VALLEY, DAHMER
  • “In your classes I learned to love actors and acting. The experience opened for me the secret door to the magic I witnessed when actor and material find each other in just the right way. What I once thought were 'happy accidents' and performance miracles are now the kernels of creativity I relentlessly pursue with an actor finding a performance. You helped me find that part I could play in the process and how to capture it.”

    FRED TOYE, director, THE GOOD WIFE, PERSON OF INTEREST, RIZZOLI & ISLES, FRINGE, CHUCK, CSI:NY, LOST, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, GHOST WHISPERER, CHUCK
  • “Judith Weston gave me the greatest gift you can give to a first-time director - she gave me confidence in my ability to work with actors. I will be forever grateful for her extremely hands on and applicable advice for directing actors and I know I will use it for the rest of my career. She has a contagious love of the process and an unbelievable understanding of human emotion. I would not be where I am today if it had not been for her.” 

    SHANA FESTE, writer-director, ENDLESS LOVE, COUNTRY STRONG, THE GREATEST
  • "Judith's method is wonderful because it is practical. She has given me numerous tools to solve problems on the set and to earn the trust of actors. Her classes and her book are invaluable resources to any director."

    LAWRENCE TRILLING, director, MASTERS OF SEX, PARENTHOOD, PUSHING DAISIES, DAMAGES, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, NIP/TUCK, MONK, SCRUBS, INVASION, ALIAS, FELICITY
  • "Every time I step on a set, I think of what Judith taught me. Every time I begin a project, I review a notebook I kept during the years I studied with her. Every time I'm in rehearsal, I'm using her techniques. Every time I'm in a bind within a scene, I go back to the foundation she gave me. I didn't go to film school. I sat in Judith Weston's workshops, took everything she said to heart, then went out and started telling my stories. I'm so grateful for that path - and for her."

    AVA DuVERNAY, director, SELMA (2015 Golden Globe nominee for Best Film, and Best Director), SCANDAL, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (winner of the Best Director Award at Sundance Film Festival and the I
  • "Judith's ideas and principles are incredibly useful when it comes to giving clear, actionable direction to actors. To anyone aspiring to direct, I would recommend making her classroom one of your first stops."

    LEV L. SPIRO, director, MODERN FAMILY, UGLY BETTY, WEEDS, EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, ARLI$$, THE O.C., EVERWOOD, GILMORE GIRLS
  • "Everything you taught me was more than useful. I am deeply grateful."

    ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU, director, BIRDMAN, BIUTIFUL, BABEL, 21 GRAMS, AMORES PERROS