On directing

Robbie vs the VolcanoI used to do a fair amount of mountain climbing. When Robbie was born, Lesa and I lived in Denver, which is a good place to live for that kind of thing. By the time we moved from Colorado, I’d bagged 12 of the 14,000 ft peaks (called “fourteeners”… Colorado has 53 of them). And last year, about the time that the seeds of an idea to make our first feature-length movie were taking root, I hiked 16,000 ft Mt Kenya with Robbie.

It was about 3 months later that the OFM team, and Ted Rurup (producer) in particular, tasked me with directing it. And we were about to leave on furlough for 2 months. While being up for the challenge, I realized I was woefully unprepared for what lay ahead. I wasn’t even sure what it was that lay ahead, but only that it was big. Too big to wrap my mind around. Like standing on the Colorado plains, looking west toward the mountains, it’s very hard to judge scale. I’ve done it enough times to know that something that looks from a distance like a quick scurry up a hill is actually an arduous, strenuous, lengthy climb up a huge pile of rocks. It takes preparation and forethought, planning and training.

_DSC0141.jpgOnce you start climbing, you realize how slowly the peak seems to grow, and often disappears behind smaller peaks in the foreground. You feel light headed as you pass the tree-line. A headache, or nausea might follow. Half-way up the final stretch of mountain you wonder if this will really be worth it.

From the top, after you’ve had a chance to catch your breath, you can really appreciate the view and how much work it took to get there, but you’re only halfway done. You still need to descend, and although descending is easier than ascending, it still takes a long time and can be tedious.

As I write this, Jan 2013, I am on the descent. I think the monumental task of production (filming) was the ascent, the peak was when we completed principle photography last month, and we are just beginning the long and tedious descent which is post-production.

Like climbing a mountain, at this stage I can feel some sense of accomplishment, but realize the end is still a long way in the distance. Like climbing a mountain, at this stage I no longer feel I need to puke my guts out, but I can’t imagine wanting to do it again anytime soon. And like climbing a mountain, I think it will take some time and distance from the event before I can look back on this experience objectively, and before a touch of temptation to ever try it again crosses my mind.

Movie production roles

Our team started by studying movie production roles, which is very different than the typical 3-person teams we usually travel with when shooting documentaries around the African continent. Our initial reactions were things like “What’s an art director for?” and “We don’t need makeup, we’ll go for the ‘natural’ look” and “How hard can continuity be? Why does there have to be a director for that?“. Looking back on that, I can see how we hadn’t grasped the scale of that mountain, and how you need all the help you can get (or can afford, more likely).

So, from our team, with Ted as the Producer, myself as the director, we started looking at the rest of our team (about 5 people at the time) and assigning appropriate roles. Starting with the Director of Photography/Cinematographer, which is the most important role (in my view) after the Director. Ted, as Producer, didn’t look like he would have much of a role during production, and had done lots of camera work on our other production, so it seemed natural to put him in the DoP role. Taylor, the only OFM member with movie production experience, and a sense for the organizational structure of a movie production team, was assigned Production Manager and 1st Assistant Director (which is largely an organizational and support role to the director). Mike, a founding member of OFM, and the most detailed and organized among us, was given the crucial role of Script Supervisor (and data wrangler). Bess, another photographer/videographer, would need to be Art Director. The rest of the myriad positions would need to be hired, or filled by new team-members arriving later in the year.


Realizing our impending furlough would take me out of a huge amount of pre-production planning (location scouting, storyboarding especially), I realized the one big task I needed to accomplish before leaving for 2 months was casting. And I had already planned a 2 week trip to Egypt and Iraq with another organization right about the time I needed to begin casting. I worked with a Kenyan friend of mine, Paddy Mwangi, who has acted in and worked in many Kenyan and continent-wide TV series, commercials, and movies. I tasked him with getting posters into all the Nairobi-area churches with drama ministries (we were largely looking for Christian actors, as this is a Christian film, but weren’t limiting ourselves to only Christian cast or crew). We picked a date, secured the Kenya National Theatre for 2 days of casting, spread the word around town, and prayed that a couple hundred people would show up.

20130127-131649.jpgThen I left for that 2 week trip. The day after returning, I got up early to make my way to KNT for casting. By the time I arrived, an hour before casting was to begin, there were already 100 people in line, some who had traveled from the previous day just to get a good spot in line. Again, having never done this before, I organized casting how I thought would be efficient and effective. I’ve never seen this done (but I have been in lots of casting sessions for theater productions I was cast in), so I probably didn’t do things the “industry” way. I probably offended a few casting directors (who I found out later had auditioned for roles in our movie). I probably offended a few seasoned veteran actors who are used to walking in and getting the role. All because I didn’t know anybody ahead of time and didn’t care what they’d acted in before.

20130127-131754.jpgRound 1: People would enter the theatre in groups of 10. Each person would have 30 seconds on stage to give me their name and a short story. I told them I wouldn’t judge them on the content or quality of their story, just needed to hear them talk. If I liked them, I sent them to Taylor, who took their photo and contact info into a Bento database I made on my iPad (yes, I know I am a geek) and handed them a number and a script. If I didn’t like them… there’s the door. Didn’t mean to be harsh, but I had 500 people I needed to see in a few hours. I figured during this round I would throw out between a third and half, based on either demographics or communication ability. I was way wrong. I was easily able to throw out 90%, largely because I knew I had so many people to choose from, and largely because asking the actors to speak for 30 seconds in English disqualified more people than I expected (the movie was being shot in English as it’s for a very broad audience). About 2 hours after casting began, people were still arriving, and the line had grown to about 500 people long. We quickly went through the line and put a sticker on everyone who was in line at the time. We figured being “only” 2 hours late was acceptable, and we guaranteed they’d be seen, but anybody arriving after this point would not be seen. Maybe another 500 showed up throughout the day that got turned away!

Round 2: After a quick lunch, using the iPad database we’d just developed, we started calling in people by number to act in the scene they’d been handed earlier. The iPad database came in really handy, allowing us to see who we hadn’t seen in round 2, grouping them by character they were auditioning for, and allowing Paddy, Ted, and I to individually grade each actor’s performance in various categories. I was mostly looking for who could take direction… the sign of a good actor. In other words, I let the 1-minute scene play out as they had prepared it, without giving them much context of the scene. Then I gave them a very different context, and asked them to repeat the scene, not changing the words, but the delivery and meaning behind them. At the end of the day, I was exhausted, but happy. I’d seen over 500 strangers, and in about 8 hours was able to query my database to determine the top 5 in the running for each role, and texted them, inviting them to round 3 the next day back at the theatre.

Round 3: I divided the day by characters. I knew I needed a a significant amount of time to look at young adults, which our lead roles come from. So I gave the morning to young adults, and the afternoon to other groups (parent aged, grandparent aged, coastal ethnicities). We had cameras and lights running, and used the opportunity to see who could be natural. I had several scenes prepared per part, and spent probably 5 or 10 minutes per scene, trying to form the scene with genuine contexts and looking for the best results. I was able to finish this day having cast all the parts but my main young adults, who I needed another day with the top choices to evaluate, mainly because I needed to get out of the large theater context and into a more intimate space. I emailed each of the round 4 contacts with script excerpts to prepare before going to bed.

Round 4: Was the final round for our young adult leads. I was looking at chemistry with the other actors and believability. Again we ran each scene with lights and camera, but did it at our office instead. I took the screen test home on a hard drive to show my wife, because she’s the one that does this for a living! The following day I shared my thoughts with Ted (as Producer, and the guy in charge of the budget) and give my top choice and 2nd choice for each part.

A Summer of Pre-production

A few weeks later and my family and I were back in the US, raising money to return for another term as missionaries. Meanwhile, Ted and Taylor were busy meeting with my top choices for each part, interviewing them and beginning contract negotiations. Ted (as DoP) was also busy beginning to storyboard/shot list the movie while Taylor was working on locations. We partnered heavily with a great Kenyan production house, Good News Productions, and we really formed a great partnership, and ultimately friendship, with these Kenyan brothers. Ted and Taylor were especially busy starting the fund-raising stage, which aimed to raise about $100,000 by August.

51uT7EoYABL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I used our summer furlough to prep for my role as director. Being married to a theatre teacher and director is great, but unfortunately I can’t have her on set with me, so I needed a crash course in directing actors. Having studied acting in college, and having performed in dozens of shows, I knew the basics, but not what kind of prep a director needs to put into a production. So, I picked up a great textbook on the subject, Directing: Techniques & Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger, and read it cover-to-cover. I also reviewed acting techniques and exercises, specifically Meisner method acting.

African style acting

p1161611200-4My goal from the beginning, as a western director with western values and aesthetics, directing a Kenyan cast, in a movie for African distribution, was to make the characters as believable and genuine as possible. I realized I wouldn’t exactly be able to know when a performance was genuine, because I’m from a very different culture, so I wanted to spend a significant amount of time forming the characters with each actor, giving them the acting tools and training they needed to develop a character and performance that would be believable to our audience and satisfying to me as director.

There are a lot of productions that are shot every day in Kenya. Most of the local productions are low-budget TV dramas (soaps), with an occasional higher-budget international production thrown in. I haven’t seen much local acting that impressed me, so I was nervous from the beginning about how we could do it better. I had seen some local movies, like Nairobi Half Life, that showed me that good acting can be found here, and that it is the director’s job to not only find and cast that talent, but develop it.

There aren’t any acting schools here. There’s little opportunity for someone with natural talent to study and invest and grow that talent. I wanted our production to take the time to do that, so that our actors would be better for the experience of working on this movie. And to help raise the bar for local productions to see the value in investing in the actors and taking time to develop characters.

 Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal

DSC_5543I came back from furlough at the beginning of August, and immediately dived into pre-production decision making, especially hammering through the shot-lists with Ted and production schedule with Taylor. The money to start production hadn’t completely come in yet, but we had to move forward on faith that it would be there as we had a small window that we needed to shoot the film in, because Ted’s family had furlough scheduled to start in January. So, we signed contracts with actors, got our schedules aligned, and picked a date, Sept 18, as our beginning of production.

p1252644956-4I also booked a conference center for a 2-day rehearsal retreat for the week before production. Around the same time, I met Onyema, a Dutch-Nigerian lady whose kids go to our school, who had heard about our film and wanted to be involved. As we met, I discovered her experience in directing and coaching actors and her enthusiasm for our message and purpose were a perfect match, and I asked her to join me on the retreat as a Dramaturge, and to help lead some of the acting exercises.

Day 1 of the retreat consisted of team-building exercises, a first table-read of the script, handing out character bibliographies and homework assignments that Onyema and I had developed. Each character had 2 or 3 other characters they needed to get together with over the evening and a list of questions to answer that would help develop backstories and histories, like how does your mother feel about you dating someone outside your social class, and were you involved in your father’s decision to hire him? And a million other questions like that to get each actor to think deeply on their character, particularly what is at stake, moment-by-moment (beat-by-beat)? We concluded the day with watching a couple OFM films, and The First Grader, and having a lively discussion about the acting and production values displayed.

Day 2 started with a morning of acting and improvisational exercises, led by myself and by Onyema. Everything from movement to relaxation to listening and focus exercises, drawn largely from my wife’s repertoire she uses with her drama teams. I even tried some Meisner ping pong exercises, which we used throughout the production as a warm-up listening exercise. After lunch I led instruction in how to prep for their character, and homework for the next time I’d be rehearsing with them.

This included things like:

  • beat: what it is, and how to mark your script with your beat analysis
  • discovering your essential action (what your character wants another character to do) and what is at stake for your character if they fail in what they want to happen
  • preparation: finding the device that permits you to start a scene in a state of emotional aliveness
  • particularization: a moment-specific device you use which emotionally clarifies the text for you. (this beat is “as if” this certain thing happened to me)

That’s a highly condensed outline of my highly-condensed presentation on what many people spend years studying, but it was better than nothing and was way more exercise, instruction, thought, and guidance than any of our actors had ever had in any other production. They loved it, and close friendships were formed between them that really helped carry the believability of our production. The acting was important to me, more important than the camera lenses and angles, lights, location. If you want people to connect with your story and characters, you have to tear down the walls that keep actors from being truthful and real, tear down walls that keep your audiences from immersing in the story because something feels false.

I can’t say right now that I always achieved that on set. I think often times I was overwhelmed by smaller details, like trying to keep on schedule, losing our natural light, trying to keep on schedule, wondering if those 2 camera angles were going to cut together ok, trying to keep on schedule, etc… But, my goal was acting that was natural looking to an African audience, giving a lot of control to my actors to be able to form their characters and relationships.

After the 2 day rehearsal retreat, I generally planned 1 day of rehearsals with each scene, sprinkled throughout the production, but as close as possible to the days we would be filming those scenes. On those rehearsal days, Onyema (who had now been given the title of Acting Coach) and I would go through each actor’s beat-by-beat analysis and ask probing questions to force the actor to dig deeper for truthful responses and impulses, as we continued to work out the scene and give basic blocking instructions.

During production

1st night filmingThe 1st day of production I felt I was going to puke. I was nervous that all this money that was raised, all the people that had been recruited or hired, all the months of effort were all hinging on my ability to direct. Part of that nervousness was because of location availability, we had a hard scene to start with, that involved 6 people having an intense conversation over a meal, which means lots of camera setups (1 for each person or two, plus the “wide master” shot) and difficult continuity (having to constantly remove food from plates, refill glasses, between every take and setup). It was also a night-time shot, so we couldn’t begin filming till after 7pm. We filmed till about 2am, and then I had to call it a night as I felt I wasn’t able to get good performances out of our exhausted cast. We planned pick-ups for the next night, which ran till 1am.

p1322669050-5Each day on set I got a little more confidence in not only what my role is and isn’t, but throughout production I think the thing I stuggled most with was holding too much responsibility. Having never done this before, Ted and I (who work very well together) generally carried the most stress and workload of the rest of the crew. Taylor, who was my 1st AD, was often busy as Production Manager, so a lot of the organizing of labor on set fell to me. Sometimes when we’d get ready to shoot a scene, Ted and I would realize the setups we had planned weren’t going to work for one reason or another, and would have to improvise and think on our feet. Some days were much easier than we had expected, but most were much harder.

p1252647036-4The hardest time was probably our 2 weeks of production in a remote, coastal village. We’d wake and get dressed and eat breakfast by candelight (the hotel had no electricity, except by generator which only ran a few hours each evening) and be marching down the beach carrying all our gear before the sun would rise each day. Many days we’d film until 10 or 11 at night. It was hot, sunny, and exhausting. We were constantly battling time, worrying about continuity of the sun’s angle as we’d shoot for hours on a scene that takes place over just a few minutes of screen time. Fortunately we were never once rained out or had to change plans because of weather. Not once in our 47 days of production did we not have the weather we needed, which is a miracle from God.

Closing reflections

741175_4512407920550_1553905575_oI’ve taken the time to write all this down as a way I can remember what this experience was like, and to share it with others who are looking for what to expect during their first directing experience. I know there were a lot of things I could have done better, but during this whole production I had to learn to rest in God’s sovereignty, knowing that he wouldn’t bring all the money and people together to produce this story and allow it to fail because of me. In my weaknesses, He provided what was needed out of the abundance of His strength.

I think if I were to direct another feature, it would be a better experience as there are a few things I learned:

  • don’t double-cast your crew. You still need a producer during production. Your PM can’t be your AD most of the time. Surround yourself with as much help as you can afford.
  • simplify your camera setups. We had several days where we failed to film what we needed to film because we had too many ideas about what each single shot could contain (ex: a slider shot, followed by a dolly with a jib on it, that’s sounds cool!).
  • keep focused on the big vision of the scene, trust your DoP and AD and Art director and rest of the crew to do their jobs.

I’m sure I’ll have some more to add to this list at some point, as we’re only half-way done. At least now, our post-production phase, is mostly 9-5 Monday-Friday work. No more late nights, early mornings, weeks gone from home for a long time. I am thankful, though, for experience, and humbled by the privilege of directing this film.