“Practice makes perfect.”
What does that even mean? Does it mean that no matter what, you’ll be perfect if you practice? What is the amount of “practice” needed to be “perfect”? What, is “perfect”?
When I was in high school, just realizing that film was where I wanted to be, I never once thought about having my actors rehearse for the camera. My friends and I would huddle around, and I would just hit record. It was usually only one or two takes after I had said something vague like, “Run that way!”
I didn’t want to put my actors out, but I never got the delivery I wanted. I wasn’t seeing on the screen what I had envisioned in my head. In fact, I remember on my first shoot as director a chant going around the room, “We need a new director.”
It was after those early experiences I realized my heart wasn’t in directing, and maybe that’s why I didn’t practice the craft. But even now as a producer, I know the incredible importance of rehearsals. What a key thing I missed out on as a kid! It certainly would have made the film go a lot smoother and maybe with a little less chanting.
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Without rehearsals, actors have two choices: they interpret the words and do their own thing, or they freeze up like a deer in headlights. Neither path does anyone any good.
Here are five reasons why it is imperative to rehearse.
1) Rehearsals open communication and leave little to ignorance.
The director must work in rehearsal time during pre-production. Actors are generally hired 4-6 weeks ahead of the shoot (more if you’re lucky), and the director must be in continuous communication with them. This not only helps the director know the actor’s strengths, but also allows the actor to get to know their character.
In this scene from Mulholland Drive, Betty interprets the words on her own. But you can see how working with a fellow actor in a rehearsal setting can completely change emotions and character traits.
2) Rehearsals save time.
Three weeks before principal photography, the entire cast is brought into a small room for a “table read.” This allows the director to see a mock run-through of how the actors play off each other and deliver their lines. If the director doesn’t like a certain voice inflection or style of delivery, the table read is where it gets changed.
There are many ways this sentence can be read: “It looks like rain today.”
As a director, I could say, “Say the line like it hasn’t rained in over 100 days and the heat index is off the charts.” The line would be read completely differently if I said, “Deliver the line as if it has rained for 100 days straight with no sun in sight.”
You can see how either direction will give the actor the “what” or intention behind the words. Suddenly, you have just saved time because now, in the weeks leading up to your shoot, your actor will know exactly what the character’s drive and emotion are.
3) Rehearsals save money.
On set, time is money. When the camera is rolling, so is payroll. You’re not just paying for people’s time, but also equipment rental, location rental, catering, etc.
There is no time once the lights are turned on to run lines over and over again. In low-budget filmmaking, you really can’t do more than 2-3 takes per set up. But if you have 2-3 set ups per scene, you’re potentially shooting the same lines anywhere between four and nine times. Things happen where “one more take” is called for and necessary. But the rehearsal will cut down the takes per scene significantly.
4) Rehearsals give actors confidence.
“Good actors, especially when they know their character, will come in and either tell you in advance that they have an idea, or in the middle of the rehearsal or scene they’ll let it loose and you go, ‘Ah, that’s great.'” — Denis Leary (Rescue Me)
I’ve heard actors described as needy children. They are looking for reassurance and praise. It builds their confidence and helps them nail their lines when they know they are doing it right. The actor has time to try out different techniques and bring something to the table the director may not have considered.
5) Rehearsals solidify the script.
“You need to make mistakes in rehearsal because that’s how you find out what works and what doesn’t.” — Clarke Peters (The Wire)
When a writer completes their script and hands it over to the director, rarely is it shoot-ready. What sounds good to the writer and reads well on the page may not have the same punch when read out loud.
You don’t know what you have in your script until you hear it. Actors humanize and pragmatize the script, and actors can contribute and collaborate making the process a team effort.
Call your actors. Email them. Ask them questions. Invite them to ask you questions. Always be an open door, and your shoot will go much smoother.