I've recently taught workshops on working with actors, and students always seem very wary or even fearful about the actor/director relationship.
Hopefully by the end of the workshop those same students feel a lot better about the collaborative process between filmmaker and actor.
Having just shot Learning to Breathe, I find myself reflecting on the collaboration that I had with my two lead actors Natalia Warner and Sam Hazeldine.
I met Natalia during a long casting process where I promised myself to exhaust every possibility and have no prejudice about particular look.
My only brief, was that whoever I cast had to have a powerful effect on me as soon as I looked them in the eye.
That indescribable charisma or lightbulb.
It was vital for the part, because the audience have to fall in love with the character as much as the lead male character.
I saw lots of fabulous people for the role, but in truth it was difficult to put Natalia out of my mind. She sat down opposite me and there was my character. Completely different to how I pictured her, but there, nonetheless.
The next step was casting the male lead.
I met Sam Hazeldine a few weeks later.
I had looked at photos of him online, had sneaky looks at clips of him in films and TV shows, and one part in particular I was bowled over by. An American show called Resurrection. Sam had this deep haunted look in the show that made me pause the image and keep staring. I hoped he would be as cool in real life!
When Sam sat down his eyes flicked up to mine and I felt my stomach flip over. Sam has the most extraordinary eyes. They are so powerful and suggest such complexity.
The weeks that followed, the meetings, the discussions, the ideas... All convinced me that these two actors were the only choice.
There was even a moment where a draft of the script I wrote provoked a strong response from the actors, but I quickly came to realise that they were so invested in the material, and it had touched them so deeply, that they were quite simply being protective.
After all. As a writer/director, what would you prefer? Two actors going through the motions or two people who will fight for the integrity of your work!!
The film was shot with the script as a template. A basis for us to explore the characters.
Some scenes could be improvised, some scenes as written. Sometimes we even made a couple of scenes up on the day.
What really struck me about Sam and Natalia, was that whenever I had a lens on them, I could only ever see the characters.
There was no process, no mechanics. Just the truth of the characters and the situation.
The two principle characters in Learning to Breathe are very complex parts to play.
To portray a relationship break-up you have to invest in both characters and sympathise with them completely. It is absolutely vital, or the audience will simply not care. And then you don't have a film.
I was blessed to have two actors who are both naturally very likeable, but also bring all the complexity needed to the screen.
The trick is that you don't always have to agree with the characters choices in their story, but you have to feel for them.
To all aspiring filmmakers, I urge you to strive to find these kind of actors. Actors that will become the characters. Trust me... it makes your life considerably better. To know that every decision thats made. Every moment thats brought to life, is borne from an instinct that is rooted in the truth.
Its been an exhausting film to make on so many levels. Having to wear a lot more hats than usual has been very gruelling indeed.
But when I look at the footage now, I have the comfort of knowing that no matter how hard a scene was to shoot, Sam and Natalia always delivered.