Judith Weston

Studio For Actors And Directors

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Doug Atchison

8/12/09
Q&A with writer-director DOUG ATCHISON
(AKEELAH AND THE BEE)

Before making AKEELAH AND THE BEE, writer-director Doug Atchison took classes with Judith - the Acting for Directors workshop, and the Actor-Director Laboratory, where he workshopped scenes from AKEELAH. The performances Doug directed in AKEELAH won numerous awards and nominations - for eleven-year-old Keke Palmer’s breakthrough performance in the title role – as well as for A-list veterans Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. Doug took time out from casting and pre-production for his second film, THE THROWBACK, to come to the studio for a Q&A. 

Doug was so generous with advice, and clear with examples, enormously practical and inspiring for both directors and actors. His openness and passion were themselves a priceless lesson and gift.

Here are some notes from the Q&A. 

Doug talked to the actors about auditioning, saying “Auditions are almost created to be purposely awkward, I don’t know why, but they are.”

He spoke about the trap that actors can fall into of going into a casting situation expecting to give a performance. That’s the wrong approach, he says. He said when you audition, even if you're reading with someone who has a monotone voice, it’s always about the other person. It’s about what happens between you and them. It’s not about you performing – you're not there to give a performance. You're there for something to occur between you and someone else. Even if your character has a long speech, he says, there's no such thing as a monologue – everything is an interaction. He said actors must get out of the mindset of “I hope they like me – I hope this is the one.” You're there to interact with someone who you're reading with - and you make a choice and be available to that person. Even if you must read the part with a person who is the equivalent of a potted plant, whatever the other person is doing, respond to that and if they're not doing anything, respond to that too.

Doug said, If you're reading with a director, the director may give you an adjustment. The actors that get called back are the ones who respond to the adjustment and are able to change and go in a different direction. When actors say they understand the direction and then do it the same way they rehearsed it at home - it’s not happening.

[JW: I loved hearing the examples Doug gave of audition issues for actors - they all had to do with things I’m always telling actors in my classes – like surrendering to your partner no matter what. And preparing deeply enough that when you get a direction that’s different from your own idea, you can find its truth, and surrender to it.] 

For directors, Doug emphasized preparation.

In auditions, director should have ideas ahead of time for adjustments to ask the actors.

A director must have the whole movie in mind when working on a scene, he said. Ask yourself, what has the character been trying to do for the whole movie? – that should inform you as to what intentions and adjustments to give the actors.

[JW: For directors – all the examples Doug gave of “adjustments” were based in the process-oriented tools – emotional history, objectives, intentions, “opposites,” “as ifs.” Again, invaluable for directors to hear proof that these tools bring success and confidence on a professional set.]

Doug also selected two scenes from AKEELAH in which there was an evolution in the choices because of discussion in rehearsal or on the set with the actors. He brought with him sides of those scenes, and a DVD of AKEELAH. Actors from the audience cold-read the scene, then Doug talked about his process when directing the scene, and then he screened the finished scene.

Doug’s trust and respect for the actors was so manifest in these examples! He was completely committed to his vision and equally committed to his openness and appreciation of actors’ intelligence and creativity. He spoke about how directors need to be clear in their ideas, and the importance of preparation in order to find clarity. All his examples of “clear” ideas were subtext ideas – never facile, result-oriented clichés. The clarity and strength of his ideas did not hinder but enhanced his ability to listen to the actors.

He also spoke of the ten years it took to get AKEELAH made, and his personal investment in the film’s themes. The lesson: Don’t stop caring. Don’t stop believing.

If you haven’t yet seen AKEELAH AND THE BEE, you should. A film with a positive message and commercial viability – told sensitively and honestly, without cliché, manipulation or preachiness. I highly recommend it!!!!

It was massively helpful for actors – and directors – to hear how these principles apply to practical, professional situations.

Doug wrote to me after the event, “As you can probably tell there’s a part of me that enjoys ‘teaching.’ That’s why if I’m available I usually accept offers to speak on panels. But usually it’s about writing — and it was actually more fun to talk about acting and directing, particularly with folks who were so eager to learn. The questions were excellent. And you create a wonderful environment for sharing.” He promised to return when he has finished THE THROWBACK, to share more stories with us.

Thank you to everyone who attended, and Glenn Ripps who took photos for the studio Facebook page, and John Beck who shared his notes with me, and the students who came early to help us set up – and especially to Doug!

  • "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