Q&A with Television Director Michael Nankin
Television director Michael Nankin (CAPRICA, LIE TO ME, CSI, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, HEROES, MONK, PICKET FENCES, LIFE GOES ON) came to our Studio for a free event on April 12. Michael has been an enthusiastic supporter of my books and workshops, and a mentor to new television directors.
A wonderful night! He was so generous, so open – smart and positive and full of important advice both for directors and for actors. He brought clips from scenes he had directed, and really brought us into his process. Practical and inspiring and truly energizing.
Here are some notes – some of his advice was specific to directors and some advice specific to actors.
Directors are always concerned with how they can get actors to do what they want. But the most important thing is to KNOW what you want – to know what you have to say to the world. For this you need to take everything you know about life and you need to expand your knowledge by being a student of humanity. Read everything, watch everything – watch old movies, new movies, television, web series, comic strips; go to museums, art exhibits. You have to know life, because that’s what we’re trying to do – create something that looks like what we experience in life.
3 pieces of advice he tries to convey to actors all the time:
1) Actors come to act - scenes tend to warp towards the most emotional character – the actors who are not playing the most emotional character need to keep from playing the same emotional level as the most emotional character. Do not try to be that person unless you are cast as it - do your job and play the "boring" role if that's what you were cast in.
2) Beware of any tendency to get to the Emotional Event of the scene too early.
3) Simpler. In real life people don’t show their feelings: “We are creatures of great feelings that are hiding what we’re feeling.” People in real life show 10% of what they’re feeling, but actors want to give 100%. The art is in knowing how much to show - even when you're feeling everything. You don’t have to be more - just you showing up is enough – actors need to have confidence and trust in that - trust the moment.
He treats every love scene like a fight and every fight like a love scene.
During shooting of one episode of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, the only direction he gave to actors was to tell a personal story before every scene. He screened a scene with Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan, which illustrated how beautifully that worked.
If you know the set (like BSG, where the set was always the space ship), you can shoot your master last.
Coming in as director on an established TV show:
1) When I’m an outsider, I want to give them the benefit of my outsider viewpoint. But be sure to bring up new ideas in prep.
2) I don’t try to re-invent the wheel.
Directing series regulars: He doesn’t have problems with actors rejecting his ideas. “I’ve seen the show, I know their backstory, I have no desire to take their show away from them.”
The director’s job is to make the scenes work and have it come off honest. When the right actor is cast in the right role, the director’s main job is to make everything feel safe and let the actors know that now it’s play and there is no wrong way to do something and no need for any embarrassment ever.
All misbehavior (e.g., from an actor), comes from fear – so a director shouldn’t respond to the misbehavior, instead deal with the fear – find out what he is worried about, how do I make him not afraid?
Rehearsal time is first thing to get cut in production, it tends to be the lowest priority. On one show, the guest actress and series star asked him, can we rehearse? He said, Yes!! After wrap every night when everyone else had gone home, the three of them would rehearse for an hour or so the next day’s scenes.
Advice to television directors: Do a great job, make your days, be liked by everyone.
Casting is a group decision more than it ever was - very political – and often doesn’t get done until the last minute. Happens all the time that an actor meets the director the day you shoot.
He screened a beautiful BATTLESTAR GALACTICA scene with Mary McDonnell. The director’s job is to just give permission to let good actors do their thing - get out of their way and know when to keep mouth shut.
He was asked how he knows where to put the camera. “If you died and came in as a ghost and cared about their lives - where would you stand?”
Don’t say, Cut – let the actors keep going at the end of a scene.
Directing another language is fun because you’re not concentrating on the words, all you can concentrate on is image and emotion.
He has an acute allergy to sentimentality - because that's the audience’s job.
It’s important to keep actors in different “emotional sandboxes” – so they don’t pick up each other’s tone.
AUDITION: his “Three Gates” (advice for actors)
1) In the first 5 seconds. He is looking for the gene pool, attitude, first impression, and the thing that's them, their “self-ness.” A judgment is made in the first five seconds. So an actor might as well just bring themselves because you never know what they want.
2) Can they act? Did they do their homework? Can they find the transition and beats? Are they a pro? Do they take it seriously? Do they know how to read dramatic writing? And – he is impressed with a bold choice. Here’s why: the director might not know what he wants, so a bold choice is good – he wants actor to not worry if it's right or not because that’s unknowable. He wants actors to bring thoughts to the table.
3) He throws a change at the actor, and they do it again – to see, can they respond to him, do we communicate? Do you click with the director - do we speak the same language? That’s what he's looking to see when he throws changes. Also to see if, after he throws a change, does the performance change?
He doesn’t like to chat at the beginning of auditions - just come in and do the work.
He wants another brain. Do you seem like the character, did you do your homework, and are you adaptable and a pro? He doesn’t necessarily know what he wants until he sees what you bring, he’s learning about the character during auditions.
The people behind the table want you to be fantastic and be great, they are rooting for you.
Actors should be fearless.
Thank you, Michael, for coming!! And thank you, Alexa-Sascha Lewin, for introducing me to Michael and knowing that he and I were so very, very much on the same wave-length!!
"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.
“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