Q&A with Writer-Director Mark Fergus
MARK FERGUS came to our Studio to speak and answer questions, at a free event on Thursday November 12 at 7:30 PM. Mark has been honored with many awards and nominations for his screenwriting, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for CHILDREN OF MEN, and he was a writer on IRON MAN. He is currently working on the screenplays for COWBOYS AND ALIENS (again working with Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau) – and is involved in development of the intensely anticipated live-action re-make of Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA. Mark appears as himself in the documentary TALES FROM THE SCRIPT, which is often described as a “must-see movie for screenwriters,” but is not yet widely available on DVD, and won’t come out in book form until 2010.
As a director, Mark premiered his first film at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival – FIRST SNOW (which he also co-wrote) starring Guy Pearce. He is currently prepping to direct his second feature, psychological thriller THE BOTTOMLAND, again co-written with his writing partner Hawk Ostby, which will go into production in the Spring of 2010. Mark has taken a number of workshops with me, including workshopping scenes from FIRST SNOW in the Actor-Director Lab, and he cast in FIRST SNOW two Lab actors - Julie Gawkowski and John Burton, Jr.
Mark is a sweetheart of a guy, warm, down-to-earth, with a sly humor and off-beat sensibility, open and unpretentious, and really, really intelligent. I believe that his candor and openness are part of the DNA of his talent. He talked a lot about LISTENING – here are a few notes from the many enlightening and helpful things he said. I’ve broken them down to a few categories: for WRITERS, for DIRECTORS, and for ACTORS – plus his remarks – useful for everyone – on WHAT THE SCRIPT IS ABOUT, and his BAR STOOL THEORY. I am indebted to Craig Ouellette for sharing his notes with me. (thanks, Craigo!)
He talked about his unusual co-writing process with Hawk Otsby. They live on opposite coasts, and never work in the same room. Mark writes the outline (which Hawk hates to do), then Hawk writes the first draft (which Mark hates to do), which he sends to Mark. Then Mark can do anything he wants to the draft, sends it to Hawk, then Hawk can do whatever he wants – back and forth, until it coalesces. They never argue – Mark says, “Arguing intellectualizes things.” He advises writers: “Read a script without the pen the first time so that you can really see what they did. LISTEN before you respond.”
Mark says deadlines are a gift.
Studio Notes, no matter how bad they are, are also a gift. He recommends, when you get bad notes, ask yourself, "What prompted them to give me such a sucky note?" The worse the notes, the bigger the opportunity to find something new. Read their notes without judgment; see patterns; it’s a decoding process. Don’t dismiss anyone as not intelligent – every response has a valuable nugget behind it – it might be hidden – the person just might not have been able to express it. Everything is fair game and you can always ignore BS notes, but before you do, see what you can get out of them. When you consider people’s notes, it makes them want to work with you.
In the beginning of his career, he and Hawk wrote 10 specs. All sucked. He was just copying other films. He had to find his voice. After the 10 specs that no one wanted, they finally decided to go out and shoot their own movie. That was FIRST SNOW. They wrote what they cared about and finally got an agent the next week. Writing to sell and not writing to write is what they’d been doing. Still, nothing is wasted. All those scripts and ideas can come back and be used at some point. Your own voice is the only way in. Tap your own magic. Write about that.
WHAT THE FILM IS ABOUT
CHILDREN OF MEN: What happens when the person who hurts you the most ask you for more. (CASABLANCA has the same premise.)
IRON MAN: “Put a mask on and be yourself and do right, vs. keep the mask off and do wrong.” Mark calls this "the Superhero Dilemma."
While working on the IRON MAN script he realized the central theme has to be boiled down its very simplest – the best way to know you have structure is when you reach a point and can’t keep going. “Get it to an atom that can’t be split.” What he realized finally was that IRON MAN was about a man who finds his heart. When you get to The Hallmark Card version, then you know you understand your story.
Mark said, “Always end up going back to 4 or 5 themes that resonate with you,” as writers, filmmakers. Your issues. Trust this, go inside you. For instance, Mark finds that a theme that resonates with him is self sacrifice - doing something that doesn’t benefit you.
Mark’s BAR STOOL THEORY.
“If you can’t tell ‘em at a bar, 'Here’s my story' - if you can’t do that, you don’t have a good story structure.”
The flip side of the Bar Stool Theory is that your best resource as a writer, director, actor, is to get people to tell you their stories. If you get people drunk, they will tell you their deepest, darkest secrets. People are honest with strangers. “Give a man a mask and he’ll be truthful.”
Laughter is a good choice for dark material. Any situation can be funny.
Listen to the story through the actors. BEFORE you say a damn thing. It might be different. Let them be free. Put the writer’s hat away and let actors give you the characters.
Sometimes in drafts he’ll overwrite, capitalize, underline, so that people who read lots of scripts won’t miss it. Then, for the actor draft, they don’t need that and you can trim everything down.
Often the actors don’t need all the dialogue that’s been written. On some FIRST SNOW scenes he ended up cutting 2/3 of the dialogue.
Have a rehearsal plan even if you can’t do it all. Have many ideas, simple enough that you can try them in 5 minutes. Take chances. Professional actors come PREPARED. BE READY. A quick talk and let it go.
Casting is often done last minute. When a new actor arrives on set, you need to spend time to catch them up to the other actors. Find in-between moments to do rehearsal with actors on set.
Mark chose a scene from FIRST SNOW to screen for us, and talked about how the actors’ ideas and choices influenced his direction.
Each actor is different. Try different choices and techniques; some work and some don’t so ADJUST.
Get up close, not behind monitor. Get in close. “There is plenty of time to watch dailies on screen, so watch live faces in person.”
“Fearlessness is more possible than confidence.” “If a director is not committed to the scene, why should the actors be?” You have to believe in the scene to get actors to take a risk. Guy Pearce, for instance, was so committed to his belief in the reality of MEMENTO that he’s not even aware that some viewers find that film mysterious.
Actors need to know you’re protecting them, and their well being, so be out there with them, don’t be a control freak. Don’t get confused between having the confidence to ask for what you want – which is good – but it’s different from being a control freak. Everyone is out on a limb together. So you’re less scared if you realize this. It’s not like a normal job. Filmmaking is so consuming, you'd better love it.
ACTORS – when AUDITIONING
Look for different facets of scene, as many ways as you can to play it – 5 or 6 different ways to play it, not just the obvious, but also unusual ways. It doesn’t have to be “right.” Don’t try to “nail” it. Nobody knows how it works so they are all scared – everyone is scared and unsure. Be truthful. Dive in, have fun, try stuff. Make a committed truthful choice.
One of the people attending said afterwards, “Everything that Mark said was something I needed to hear!” Thank you, Mark!!!
"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
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“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.
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“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
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