Q&A with Film and Television Director John Badham
JOHN BADHAM, legendary film and television director, came to our Studio, and charmed and enlightened everyone who attended. He was so generous and open. Everything he said was both immediately practical but also profound and inspiring. My students, both directors and actors, were energized and re-committed to their work and their creativity. A number of the actors present were especially moved by his loving recollection of working with Sir Lawrence Olivier (on DRACULA). He even quoted Shakespeare! Thank you, John!!
Scroll down past this next impressive paragraph of John’s credits, for the notes from the evening.
John’s career – and the list of movie stars he has worked with – are stunning. He directed SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, WARGAMES, BLUE THUNDER, NICK OF TIME, STAKEOUT, DRACULA, BIRD ON A WIRE, and many other feature films. Then there’s his television resume, which includes directing multiple episodes of CRIMINAL MINDS, PSYCH, THE BEAST, IN PLAIN SIGHT, HEROES, CROSSING JORDAN, THE SHIELD, and many others including the classic Rod Serling NIGHT GALLERY, as well as serving as producer (with Steven Bochco) and director on BLIND JUSTICE. John is also a Professor at Chapman University, where he leads the Directing Program in the Graduate Conservatory of Motion Pictures. And – he is the author of I’LL BE IN MY TRAILER: the Creative Wars Between Directors & Actors, which was published by my publisher, Michael Wiese Productions, in 2006. John and I met at an MWP panel – and became kind of a mutual admiration society. He has always been very complimentary about my book, and I always recommend his.
Here are some rough notes from the evening (thank you to Jay Lewis for sharing his notes with me!).
John had a theater background at Yale Drama School, that’s where he learned to work with and appreciate actors.
There is always time to rehearse, maybe only 15 minutes, but at least that, if not more. At least time to discuss, what are your objectives, what are the beats. Film directors have had scripts for months or more, but actors maybe only a day before. So directors can help actors to learn it themselves, not to tell them, not lecture them, not tell them play it this way or that.
The worst kind of direction: Be sad. Or be angry. But it’s also a waste of time to explain the script with intellectualizations, that’s death for what we do.
Blocking. For dialogue scene, JB allows actors to discover the blocking themselves, although he always has a sketch prepared (an aerial view), in case the actors don’t have ideas. He says, “I’ve tested it – it takes the same amount of time to tell actors what the blocking is, as to allow actors to discover it themselves.” Storyboards are really important for action scenes, not so much with dialogue scenes.
Responding to actors’ ideas: some ideas are wonderful, some terrible, that’s ok. He always says, “Let’s do it” – that way bad ideas quickly fade and great ideas are allowed to be discovered. “Let’s try it” is an open field to play, otherwise creativity begins to shut down. Directors should try to stay open and try things, and should allow cast and crew to do so also.
TV. On a successful established show, one actress wouldn’t even look up from her phone to talk to the director. A director coming in to an established show needs to try to find something to excite the regulars, to get their heart started. It’s almost easier if an actor says, “I don’t like this scene” than if they are uninterested. If an actor says, “I don’t like this scene,” he replies, “What would you like to try instead?”
Listening to a problem often makes it go away. If you can keep your head, you’ll find it’s often easy to solve.
Question: What if an actor is pleased but you [director] don’t like it? JB: If they’re way off, I still try to discuss it, never reject it outright (even if I know it’s dead wrong). I always take them seriously. “Would you do me the favor of trying it the other way also?” Sometimes they’ll say, “No I won’t, because then you’ll use that one.” I say, “I won’t, you can come to the edit room, make the decision.”
Respect, take people seriously, treat them like adults.
Question: Would you speak about your process? JB: I look for the beats, the objectives. You can be very methodical, very thorough. It’s okay to say to an actor, I don’t know, but you don’t want to be caught flat-footed if you can help it.
You’re the leader on the set. In the absence of that someone else will fill the void.
Question: Do you have a shot list every day? JB: Absolutely.
Actors auditioning. “One of the worst things we do to actors is to have all these stage directions.” JB often tries to take those out for auditions. When actors try to play the stage directions it’s very boring and general. Later he said regarding stage directions – cross all those out!
In auditions he wants to find out how adaptable an actor is, so he gives them adjustments.
Directors should be present at casting sessions. It's not good to cast from tape, because you don’t know what the casting director may have told the actors. TV is a Kafkaesque environment. Layers and layers of involvement with casting, sometimes you don’t know about actor replacements until they arrive on set.
Acting is about playing, we’re trying to capture that playfulness, Richard Pryor was just so playful. Playfulness is critical to success, because it creates relaxation.
If it’s not organic, it’s worthless. When you are brought in as a director on an established series, you need to, “bring something new to CSI but still be CSI.” But when someone asked him whether that means that he always puts in “John Badhamisms,” he replied that he tries not to repeat himself (except perhaps on purpose to spoof himself).
Question: If an actor won’t come to rehearsal, is it okay to rehearse without that actor? JB: You’re dead without that actor at rehearsal. Just don’t do it. Go to the trailer/dressing room and talk to the actor, get them to come to rehearsal. He said, "I go to see actors in trailer, and ask them 'What are your concerns about today?'" Smart actors are often initially hesitant, too often burned by directors that are intimidated by actors.
He tries to do a little bit of acting when he can, he always learns something. He makes all his non-actor students at Chapman University do some acting; they need to know what it’s like. The greatest directors, Kazan, Redford, Eastwood, were all actors.
Shooting out of sequence. Even a couple of days of rehearsal will help when you have to shoot out of sequence. I try to stay on top of scheduling – production managers et al are not appreciative of actors when they are scheduling (budget, location, etc is what is on their mind). He directed two films that were shot in sequence – WHOSE L IFE IS IT ANYWAY? And NICK OF TIME. He says about those experiences, “What a treat that was!”
What the story is about. WARGAMES to him was not about politics, it’s about a boy who is in over his head. Otherwise it gets preachy. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is a story about a young man with enormous potential, who doesn’t have a place to fulfill it. It’s not a musical.
Dancers. Lester Wilson, choreographer on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, told the dancers to look like they learned from each other, not to look like pro dancers. JB let Wilson choreograph first, then set up the shots to follow the choreography.
"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