Today in class we observed our professor direct some professional (!) actors. As in, SAG Member, IMDB credits actors. Yeah!
Very instructively, he went through his entire process: having the actors read the scene, discuss it, rehearse it, and then block the shots. Clearly he knew what he was doing, and for a bonus the writing was great.
Once the camera was turned on, the scene played terribly. It played... like two people playing a scene. Our instructor made some adjustments ( by encouraging them to actually look at each other every now and then when they talk) and that was a huge improvement.
But still... to me it was kinda off.
I thought about what I would have done differently.
This wasn't an action sequence or clever chit-chat. The characters are retired ex-lovers being forced to catch up in a gorgeous mountain setting, even though neither of them really wants to do it. However, the man has something important to tell the woman, which has brought him to this point in the first place.
I didn't know the context when I first read the scene-- It seemed like a Woody Allen/Diane Keaton moment: a neurotic dude and a cool (albeit slightly wonky) chick discuss their past and skim the surface of their future.
I think what was missing from the performances was a true sense of tension. Neither character wants to be in this position, but they must. Hateful memories and mountain scenery are an incredible clash. Heck, talking about ancient, buried conflicts anywhere is tough enough!
I wanted the characters to just sit there. Sit. There. Until the tension is so unbearable that one of them must speak. Each response in return occurs because it must happen in order to break the tension.
When I write and read scripts, I envision scenes from the big to the small picture: I have to find a sense of the mood and contextual scenario before I would pinpoint the actors in terms of their character's business.
Nobody goes through life planning their next emotion, fulfilling an arc of their identity as they progress through each moment. (Unless they are a manipulative psychopath, and in that case they're missing a big chunk of their humanity.)
Instead, we as agents are thrust into milieus. There is no script. We act according to our nature/experience (our character) and the "rules" of the scenario: cultural, social, spatial, emotional.
Why should film/theater/fiction be any different?
Why shouldn't an actor interpolate their character into the scenario, instead of "interrogating" that character to see what they'd do at a specific moment?
What's easier: explaining to a stranger what you did all day, or explaining which emotion you felt on the top of each hour?
Just my take. But I'm still learning.