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March 13, 2017

Jason Reitman Leads SCA Student Directing Workshop

By Matt Meier

On Wednesday night, March 8, acclaimed filmmaker and USC alumnus Jason Reitman joined Professor Barnet Kellman for an unforgettable directing workshop with two of Kellman’s classes, “Directing the Comedic Scene” and “Intermediate Directing.” Currently nearing the midpoint of the semester, both classes aim to teach students how to work with actors and analyze a scene as directors. Students work with professional actors directing scenes from a known screenplay—in this case, Sideways—which they workshop throughout the semester until filming at its conclusion. For many students, this is their first experience directing someone else’s writing. As Kellman puts it, the class asks, “How do you take something that’s intended to be funny on the page and make it so?” Or how, as a director, do you work in the service of someone else’s material? 

During an opening conversation with Reitman, Kellman recalls two specific pieces of advice that Reitman has mentioned during previous visits to campus, advice that Kellman frequently reiterates to his own students. First, “as a director, you’re a tailor. It’s not the actor’s job to fit the clothes; the clothes have to fit the actor.” This is, in part, why Reitman always tells his actors not to prepare anything in terms of their performance. “I casted you because you already know it,” he commonly assures them. “Just learn your lines and we’ll figure out the rest together.” 

The most authentic moments—and often the funniest—will arise organically, particularly when they’re unexpected. And those authentic moments are at the core of Reitman’s second, and perhaps most important, principle for all comedy directors: “It’s not your job to be funny. Your barometer for comedy will never be as strong as your barometer for truth. Do not ask, ‘Is this funny?’ Your sense of that will be skewed, but your sense of truth will be spot on. The most important question is, ‘Do I believe this is honest?’”

After setting the tone with these key lessons and a few other colorful anecdotes, the class officially transitions into workshopping its first of three student-directed scenes. The actors play out the scene once in full, receive some notes from their director, and work through various components while Kellman and Reitman watch from their seats, silent and thoughtful. When Reitman offers his first note of the night, it’s a surprisingly simple one.

“I think you should move the furniture,” he says. “With the table in the corner, there’s nothing they can do but stand there with a wall around them. They can’t play with that relationship.” Reitman goes on to explain, “If you bring that table forward, immediately, you leave him stranded in a way where he’s trying to make himself more comfortable.”

He’s right, of course, and the opening of the scene quickly finds new life. Through all three scenes, Reitman and Kellman offer notes that fluidly move between the most minute physical details—like moving a table to force awkwardness and distance—to sweeping comments on character motivations and the games playing out within a scene.

“If they’re both nervous, it’s a flatline,” says Kellman at one point when discussing the characters’ exchange in the first scene. Reitman echoes the sentiment: “The great dynamic of this scene is someone who’s completely comfortable doesn’t care where the evening goes with another person who completely hates himself and not only feels like this night is going to be horrible, but so will every night after. That’s something I’d like to see more of.” 

“And try not to make eye contact,” Reitman adds to the actor before moving the table downstage and walking away. 

Of course every director incorporates his or her own unique style, and through all three scenes, Reitman never once tells one of the students they’re approaching their job incorrectly. But with every scene, all the students—not just those directing the scene, but the class as a whole—get to see how this acclaimed director works with his talent, with blocking, with delivery and physical nuance, in order to capture the “truth” of the scene at hand. It’s an incredible learning experience for this group of young directors, because with every note Reitman and Kellman offer, these students learn a little more about the questions they should constantly be asking of every story they encounter. As Reitman states in the closing discussion, “Your story is going to reveal itself to you. All the time, you can find finished works where the film said to the person, ‘This is what I am,” and the filmmaker ignored it. You’ll miss [that moment] if you’re focused on other things all day.”

Like most things, the instincts for directing that Reitman and Kellman both so seemingly effortlessly and intuitively display when working with these scenes and describing their own creative process are products of decades of experience. With time, you start to more instinctively grasp some of the finer details about utilizing blocking and physical space, finding character motivations, and understanding “the psychology of acting,” as Reitman calls it. For example, “If someone is better on later takes, then cover the other person first. If someone can’t get the fourth line of a scene, give them too many notes on the third line so they’re no longer thinking about the fourth. Do a take where you don’t do any dialogue, where the actors do every line as just action.” 

The goal of Kellman’s class is to teach his students proven techniques and strategies such as these which, if implemented into their own work, will help them continue to grow and mature throughout their careers as directors. Nothing can replicate true first–hand experience—only time, patience, and tireless practice can achieve that. But to work directly with one of today’s most accomplished comedy directors, to learn from his experiences and watch him work in real time—for this group of students, that alone is a directing experience they’ll never forget.