8 Tips From Ken Loach to Capture Spontaneous Performances
Iconic British filmmaker Ken Loach has developed a very particular talent throughout his 20+ films: capturing performances that ring so true that it always feels like Loach has simply put on a invisible coat and shot real people living their life without asking them permission. If you’ve seen any of his films, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
But how does he do it? How does Ken Loach manages to create fiction that looks so real? It turns out the filmmaker wasn’t born with an invisible coat or a talent to direct actors but rather learned from his first experiences in TV and took actions to fine tune his method:
“There are many kind of films but for my kind of films, it should seem spontaneous, as though it just happened. I realized the important of [feeling spontaneous] when I began working in television. I did a police series and in the series there was a format: you casted it, and you rehearsed for two weeks, and then you did it. We would cast it, we would have a read through, and the actors were quite good. And then I would direct them for two weeks, and they were terrible. And they were wooden, and it was all rehearsed, and there was no spontaneity. And it was shocking, and I realized how bad I was at doing it. So when we came to do films, we started doing a number of things [differently].”
Fortunately, Ken Loach shared his formula to get the best out of his actors during a conversation at the 2013 Berlinale, and here are 8 things he follows:
#1. SHOOT IN SEQUENCE
“Often in films you shoot the last bit first, we start at the beginning, in the order the events would have happened. Not necessarily in the order you cut them together but the order the events would have happened. Start on the first day at the beginning and finish on the last day at the end. And the accountants keep complaining about this: “well, you’ll have to keep going back to the same locations” but I’d rather have a simpler location and shoot in sequence than have an expensive location and shoot the end of the film at the beginning. So it’s a question of priorities.”
#2. NO READ THROUGH
Instead of doing a read though and rehearse, Loach considers each shooting day as a rehearse day for the actors. “That way, you take the actors through the story, and they can develop. And what we film today is then a rehearsal for what we’re going to film tomorrow. And you don’t have to talk a lot about the state of mind you’ll be in when you do a particular scene, because you’ve done the preparation, which is the scene we’ve done yesterday. And the scene we do today is a preparation for the scene we’ll do tomorrow. So you don’t have to intellectualize it, it’s simply an emotional memory, and it doesn’t have to go through the brain.”
#3. NURTURE YOUR ACTORS’ INSTINCT
“I think the best weapon you have s a director is the actor’s instinct, and the actor can be detached from his instinct as I found out doing my bad rehearsals. The actor’s instinct is the strongest element you have, and the instinct should just come without going through the brain, because then it’s not instinctive. Personally I rely a lot on the actors’ instinct, absolutely.”
#4. HAVE YOUR ACTORS PLAY EACH SCENE FOR THE VALUE OF THAT SCENE, AT THAT MOMENT
“Don’t play thinking ‘Oh God, I can’t respond fully out here because I got to save my tears ’til week 5.’ You have to play each scene right for that time.
#5. DON’T GIVE OUT THE WHOLE SCRIPT AT THE BEGINNING
“We’ve developed a method of not giving the full script at the beginning. The important thing is that the performer has to know everything about the past of the character, so you can’t surprise them with something from their past because that’s not helpful. But for something they have no control over in the future, then, if it’s a surprise, then you have to shoot the surprise. You have to shoot the shock. Because even the most talented actor will have trouble being shocked twice. Because the timing of that is so instinctive, to reproduce it is almost impossible. I’ve worked with fantastic actors, and that’s the hardest thing, surprise. So if there is a surprise, you’ve got to shoot the surprise, which means you can’t show them the whole script before you start.”
#6. TAKE SOCIAL CLASS AND ORIGINAL PLACE INTO ACCOUNT DURING CASTING
“Casting is a long process. I think there are various things that are very difficult to act, it is very difficult to act a different social class from your own, because upper class people have things that they just get accustomed to, that they do without thinking. It’s not instinctive, it’s not born in, but it’s learned from a very early age. Just a way of dealing with people, they’ve been rehearsing this all their life. Same for working class people, same for middle class people, it’s very hard to transcend class. You can put on a different voice, but it’s not true. I think you have to cast respecting social class.
Also the place. It’s very hard to reproduce an accent or a dialect. you could do it phonetically, so it sounds ok. But it’s the choice of words, it’s the humor, it’s the rhythm of speech, it’s the attitudes that are contained within the language. You can do it phonetically, but absorbing that whole attitude is, I think, difficult if not impossible. So I’d always chose people from the place, and I’d always chose people from the social class. ”
#7. CAST ACTORS WILLING TO BE VULNERABLE AND OPEN
“And then finding the people who, when they reveal themselves, they reveal something about the character. So you want them to be vulnerable, and that is very brave. You discover that when you are improvising with people when you cast them. Find actors who are vulnerable and open and don’t have strong defenses to defend themselves emotionally so they’re prepared to be open, and then take them through it stage by stage.”
#8. NEVER SETTLE IN REPEATING THE SAME PATTERN WHILE SHOOTING A SCENE
Try to add an element of surprise for the actors in each scene, so the rhythm of the scene changes each as the actors’ reaction changes.[thanks to @LaFamiliaFilm]
For more Berlinale Talent Campus’ Talks check
- Working With Wong Kar Wai: Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd Describes the Experience of Shooting Grand Master
- Speaking in Images: Matthew Libatique on Building a Cinematic Language and the Future of Film
check the archives for a taste of it.