The power of workshopping

During the workshop in the photographic studio at uni yesterday I felt chaotic. Matthew had hired an actress (Sarah Saeed) to help us workshop parts of our films. I had previously emailed him the first page of my script, as he requested. The night before, I filmed a scene for my film with Chris Read, who played the role of Howard, psychotherapist to Ali, who I played. We read the parts over and over, with the camera in a fixed position trained on me. This was Chris’ suggestion and, while it was uncomfortable for me to be the central focal point, I could see that it could be a powerful way to represent the story. In the workshop, as the time approached for my film to be worked on, a maelstrom of emotions whipped up inside me. At the time I didn’t understand the emotions but, retrospectively, I can see I felt vulnerable exposing this story to my classmates because it’s based on autobiographical truth, which they might laugh at or belittle (a fear based on a hangup from childhood which may or may not have any basis in present reality). I tried to contain the emotions by ignoring them and focused on the question, “what do I want to know from this workshop?”

To begin with, I played Ali and Sarah played Howard. I arranged two chairs in the space and stated I wanted us to workshop the piece I’d selected to work on to see what actions arose from reading the script through several times. This meant I wasn’t bothered about lighting the set or working out camera angles. I wanted to jump into it and get on with it because I was feeling self conscious and very exposed. Surely now, everyone would see how incompetent I was? After reading through it once, Matthew stopped us and asked which bits we were reading. He only had the first page and I had decided, that morning, to work on a part that started on page one and finished on page two, but I had omitted to let Matthew know this. Matthew requested the rest of the script so that he could photocopy it and suggested that someone else play Ali so that I could film. Perhaps by observing from a distance I might get more out of it. I agreed. Sarah would play Ali and Edmund would play Howard.

While Matthew photocopied the script I talked to Sarah and Edmund about their roles, gave them the background and what I was looking for in their interactions. I took the camera off the tripod and set it up for the lighting conditions. Feeling very nervous, I wandered around the set, looking through the camera to see what worked. I realise now I was trying to do too many things: watch the actors and work out camera angles at the same time. I got on the floor, postioned the camera and said, “action!” The floor position didn’t seem to work so I moved in closer and we ran through the script a few more times before Matthew called a halt. He said, because this was a workshop environment we needed to include the other people and get them involved; what was currently happening was I was working stuff out with Sarah and Edmund and the others were either watching or looking at their mobile phones (surely it’s down to them to become engaged rather than making me responsible for engaging them?), so I suggested we light it and have a sound-person. I don’t fully understand the settings on a digital SLR but I know that if I press certain buttons, in such a way, I get a certain result. For example, ISO: the lower the number the less bright (indoors) and less noise on the image. I had begun turning down the ISO for the new lighting conditions when Matthew came over and instructed me not to have a high ISO and talked about metering. I was already feeling incompetent but this reduced me further and I felt embarrassed because I was already turning the ISO down. I felt that everyone in the room except me knew what they were doing. This is probably not true, and even if it is, so what? But it served to create a sense of alienation in me and I felt criticised by Matthew, who was now representing, in my mind, any authority figure who has, in the past, hurt me. These thoughts made me react with a defensive tone, rather than respond, to anything Matthew said.

Matthew suggested it would be more powerful if the camera focused on Ali and her reactions to Howard’s words. As with the suggestion made by Chris the previous night, I could see this could work but felt an inner conflict – I’m playing Ali and that means it will be my face on the screen; my face is not classically beautiful, or even beautiful at all (it’s weird-looking and non-symmetrical), and whilst I often despise the media’s representation of beautiful I guess part of me aspires to it (if you receive the same message over and over and over again you’re going to internalise it, surely? It would take an incredible amount of energy to challenge it every time it’s in your face). However, my desire to make good art is stronger than my desire to avoid having people laugh at my weird face, so I moved into position behind Edmund, received his permission to rest the lens on his shoulder since the camera was feeling very heavy now, and trained my focus on Sarah’s face.

After filming from this angle, Matthew asked me if I had feedback for Sarah. I did. I asked her to put more movement into the line “like I want to fall into your arms and hold on forever.” [The following is my reflection on the script today, not what I said yesterday] A couple of lines before this, Ali has really noticed how much Howard looks like her uncle, and she feels sexual desire towards him because this was a feeling she associated with her uncle and with feeling loved. As she delivers this line she reaches out to touch Howard and her eyes shine with intensity of longing. She wants to re-create those intense moments with her uncle. Howard feels this intensity of desire coming from Ali and it is alluring and inviting. It takes all his psychic strength to remain boundaried in these moments and it is this strength that allows Ali to begin to accept herself. Howard doesn’t dismiss her invitation and, similarly, he doesn’t collude with her – instead he responds without judgment of her. A beautiful dance is created through these subtle interactions.

Matthew also had feedback for Sarah. He stated Ali would feel triggered by some of Howard’s questions and remarks; could she show more emotional reactions to Howard’s interjections? When Matthew said this I felt a mix of emotions. His understanding of Ali was spot on and, already hyper-sensitive, I wanted to cry. Also, I was feeling slightly triggered. I had, already, told Matthew I’d zoned out when he was showing me something on the camera and asked him to repeat what he’d said. Not only had Matthew clearly seen into Ali, I felt he’d seen into me and I felt naked and exposed. I’m pretty certain there’s a fair amount of transference going on for me with Matthew. I also believe that the nature of the film that is being made shows up in the process of filmmaking. In this sense, Matthew is like Howard, if I am like Ali. Despite my often defensive tone, Matthew stays calm and continues to ask me questions and treats me with respect. I feel very honoured by his treatment of me.

With more movement from Sarah, I realised there would be an issue with the focus on the camera. Matthew stated that as Sarah came closer to the camera, I would need to adjust the focus in shot. While shooting my last film I’d made a rule for myself not to touch the focus while shooting because I tended to ruin the shots. Matthew said it was a matter of practicing and knowing which way to move the focus ring; he took over the camera for the next shot and I stood nearby and watched Sarah. This was incredibly powerful. For the first time, my only role was director. It gave me the opportunity to focus solely on the action. Rees was incited to take over the camera and we did a couple more takes and then stopped in order to work on Ezra’s film.

After sitting at the back of the room, feeling very highly strung, I escaped to the toilet and cried. When I came back I still felt out of sorts. I guess this is a natural reaction in response to the stuff I’m dealing with while making this film. I learnt a lot about myself as a filmmaker at the workshop. It’s been incredibly important to me to keep control of all areas of my films but it’s much more powerful to let go of control and allow others to help so that I can focus my attention where it needs to go.

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