The California Sunday Magazine

MAY 2015 | Starlee Kine

Scenes with Joan Scheckel - Teaching directors to direct

On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, a movie director was having trouble accessing her inner life. She was rehearsing a scene from her first feature film. 

In the scene, a man has gone missing and a teenage girl knows more about it than she is letting on. But that was just the mechanics of the scene, not what it was actually about. Her directing teacher, Joan Scheckel, had taught her that in order to make a great film, a film that felt real and true, she had to connect with her most authentic self. She had to bring her inner life out. Her actors waited patiently for the director to do this.

“Just tell me anything,” coaxed Joan. The director opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t think of any words. She was filled with self-doubt. Joan saw what was happening and, considering how it was getting late in the day, decided to hurry the process along by plucking the scene out of the director’s head and flinging it across the room.

Which is to say, she directed one of the two actors, a dark-haired gentleman, to curl up under a table as though he were lying in a ditch, and the other actor, a tall young woman, to grab a backpack and make as though she were on her way to school. As the woman started to walk forward, Joan yelled, “Hold!” The actor froze. Joan beckoned for the director to come closer. “Look inside her bag,” Joan suggested. “What do those papers say? Maybe they’re clues to who this girl is?”

The director thumbed through the papers, inspecting them with great care. The backpack hadn’t been brought in as a prop. It had just been grabbed off a chair. It’s possible that the backpack belonged to the director herself and was filled with all the usual things she carried around with her. It didn’t matter. The point of the exercise was to keep the director engaged with the physical world instead of lost inside her thoughts.

The director thought she was making a movie about a teenage girl and a missing man. But now, asks Joan, can the director see how it is really the girl who is the missing one? Every young girl has a secret she is trying to hide. It’s true that secret might occasionally involve a missing man, but more often it’s some variation on this: Everyone else in the whole world knows how to be a girl except for me.

The director has the least filmmaking experience of anyone in the class and has often felt unseen in the Lab. Her eyes fill with tears. She is the missing girl. And with that, something is dislodged inside her. A director has been found.

II.

Joan is 46. She’s quite pretty, with the kind of well-defined bone structure that makes you think about bone structure. She talks with her whole body and wears clothes that allow her to do so — shorts, Footloose-style sweatshirts. Her hair is brown with an abundance of soft, wild curls, as though her life force has twisted its way to the very tips. Throughout class she will often pin the front strands back, and it is then when I best picture how she must have looked during her theater-acting days, sweeping across the stage in a long dress with a high collar.

Every few months a new crop of directors enrolls in Joan’s Filmmaking Lab to learn the Technique she created. The capital T is intentional, like the capital M in Method. The directors’ backgrounds and experience vary. One traveled from Mexico, with his wife and children, to work on his second feature film. Another came from the art world. Another stars on a reality television show.

They meet in the Space, which from the outside is just a red door set into a windowless building in Hollywood. Inside, it’s a huge open room whose main feature is a low wooden stage. Dozens of Chinese paper globes hang from the ceiling. There’s an enclosed veranda in back adorned with giant ferns. Aside from a stack of art books and an easel set up with a painting of a landscape, everything is either a seat or a surface, a source of light or of life.

Framed posters of the films Joan’s worked on hang on the entry wall from floor to ceiling. Together they form an Advent calendar, each one a little door to a future the aspiring directors hope to be counting down to. Whale Rider. Jesus’ Son. Beginners. Little Miss Sunshine. Mark Ruffalo enlisted her to help him cross over from actor to director. Miranda July took the Lab before making The Future. In the bathroom is a poster for the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, with a note from the film’s director stuck inside, behind the glass: love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, To You Joan: for everything you are. From behind the scenes, Joan has worked on hundreds of mostly independent films. Her students have gone on to win dozens of major awards, from Oscars to baftas to Golden Globes.

In Hollywood, the sidewalks are literally paved with actors, and their mentors are often well-known, even famous. The idea of a directing coach, though, is somewhat unusual. Joan is hired for different reasons. Sometimes she will work with a director from the very beginning of a film. She worked with Transparent creator Jill Soloway on her feature-film debut, Afternoon Delight, and Soloway credits Joan with giving her the tools to be a director. For Transparent, she was brought in for all stages of the directing process — script analysis, blocking, read-throughs, scene rehearsal. Other times she’s brought in later. Jeffrey Blitz, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, worked with Joan on his first narrative feature,Rocket Science. The film’s distributor, hbo Films, enlisted Joan to work with the actors, but “the experience turned out to be bigger than that,” says Blitz. “The cast bonded more strongly over Joan’s exercises, and I discovered some weighty emotional moments in the material I hadn’t fully explored. Joan is all about deepening connections — whether it’s a director’s connection to his cast, or the cast’s connections to one another, or a writer finding new ways to dig into the script.” A couple producers paid to have the director Brent Hoff sit on a couch with Joan and work with her one-on-one a few times a week for three months. Directors can hire her themselves, too, although it can get expensive fast. The Lab’s “core directing workshop” costs about $6,500 for 17 classes.

No matter at which point Joan and a director’s path intersect, she sees her fundamental task as the same: to teach them how to create meaning out of the series of events, feelings, and impulses that are their lives. “I can honestly say,” says Hoff, “Joan made me a better man.”

III.

The directors are doing an exercise where they choose four words and act them out over and over again until their bodies make the movements instinctually. One director keeps getting all knotted up. He’s choosing words that are too complicated, that can’t be performed. A Labmate smiles encouragingly, and Joan tells her that by helping him, she is acting like his enemy, not his friend. The next time someone stumbles, the class is to fall to the ground, flat on their backs, as if they perished from boredom, she says. That is how friends act.

The exercise resumes and now another director falters. “If you expect me to pity you, you’re with the wrong teacher,” she says. “You’re lazy. You’re lazy. You’re lazy. Everybody die die die die.” The class drops to the ground.

Scheckel has worked with directors on hundreds of films and television shows.

IV.

“Has she gotten mad at you yet?” Jill Soloway asks when I first tell her I’m writing about Joan. I’m surprised. Not by the question, but that we were talking about it openly. In fact, within the first minute of the first scene that I watched being rehearsed at the Space, I was nearly thrown out.

It was on a Sunday. Weekends are when rehearsals happen. Weekdays are for classes. Although I use both those words — rehearsal, classes — loosely, or at least not in the way that I’ve always understood them. For instance, during a rehearsal, I never saw a scene play out from start to finish. Often not even a line from the original script is spoken.

On that first day, the scene being rehearsed involved two people in a relationship. One of them had just learned something shocking about the other. The scene as it was written felt heavy-handed. It was too obviously a movie with a message. Joan was helping the director get her ideas across in a more natural way. The two actors were immersed in their characters. Both were crying. I slunk in, conscious of being the intruder that I was, and sat down in a folding chair. Almost immediately, Joan turned to me and said that if I was going to be allowed to stay I needed to get present. Which meant straightening up in my chair. “Softening” my jaw. No fidgeting.

I felt called out, embarrassed. Joan was staring right at me and it was too intense so I looked at everyone but her. I noticed how straight the actors were sitting up, how still they were. It’s possible their jaws also looked softened, if I understood what that even meant. A foreign thought occurred to me. What if instead of resisting, I went along? I straightened my back. I placed my hands in my lap and held them there until the scene was done.

Later, I was sitting beside Joan on the floor, legs crossed, dividing my focus between a scene — two actors teetering on the edge of the stage, trying not to fall — and on not bouncing my knees like I normally would. I couldn’t remember ever having sat this still for so long. I thought I was doing a really good job and wished someone would notice. Surely I’d earned a break. Like a girl in a horror film unable to hear the audience scream out in warning, I pressed my fingertips together and flexed. In a flash, Joan was on me. What did she tell me about fidgeting? A moment later, a director interrupted her while she was instructing his actors and she stopped the scene to tell him not to do that again. The director’s cheeks flushed red. He stammered out an apology. She turned to me and said that happened partly because of my fidgeting.

V.

“She broke us on the first day,” says Lena Khan, one of the directors in the Lab. “She yells at you right away. … Everybody was shellshocked beyond belief. I’ve never seen anything like it. One person threw up.”

“It’s not exactly militant, but it kind of reminds me of that, the discipline part,” explains Jim Frohna, Soloway’s director of photography on Transparent and another former student. “You stand up straight. Your uniform is crisp. You’re looking straight ahead. You feel a fairly extreme obligation or responsibility to be totally present for yourself and for each other.”

For the first three weeks that Soloway was in the Lab, she couldn’t get over how mean Joan was. “I couldn’t believe I was there,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I was giving her money. I would come home every day and tell my husband I was going to quit.”

Then one day the class took a quick break. In theory, the sessions adhere to a time schedule, but a single exercise can last hours. Soloway headed to the bathroom, shut the door, and “It just hit me. I thought, In the future, people are going to talk about her the way they talk about Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. I’m in the presence of a master and I’m going to fucking soak up every second.”

When Soloway recommends Joan to filmmaker friends, she tells them “to expect to feel like she hates them and to be prepared for it.” The trick, she says, is to “100 percent submit. I tell them, ‘If you have to pretend like you’re being sexually submissive to understand what it means to submit to somebody, just do that. Pretend like she’s your dom.’”

VI.

So now that you know that, fold in this: One of the guiding beliefs behind Joan’s Technique is that films have become too much about conflict. When one of the directors asks her how she feels about Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey, Joan pulls her sweater over her head. She tells the class she wants them to understand that conflict is one of the cards in their decks, not all of them.

She makes a compelling argument. How many movies can you name that don’t dissolve into conflict halfway through? How many times have you watched a bad-guy character who exists for no other reason than to serve as a counterbalance to the good guy?

She does a demonstration with the class. She asks the directors to suggest a type of relationship. “Mother and daughter” is shouted out. And now a word that describes that relationship. What do mothers and daughters do? “Criticize,” offers a director. “Ignore!” “Compete!” Joan suggests they try something simpler, less fraught. How about husband and wife? What’s a word that describes that relationship? A similar pattern follows. Resent,unhappy, deceit. Joan sits there, her point proven without anyone realizing it. What’s a word that describes a relationship? Not a single person in the room had suggested love.

Joan asks the directors for loving actions. Now the words are gentle, pastel colored. Listen, communicate, understand. “Aren’t listen and understand the same thing?” asks a director. “Not at all,” says Joan, and then she asks them to show her listen. The directors all make the same gesture, an ear cocked forward, eyes looking up, in thought. They seem surprised. They weren’t aware they knew the answer to this. “Now show me understand,” says Joan. The directors stare hard at the floor.

VII.

Joan shows me a video of a director from another Lab. He is making an action movie but in the video he’s working with the feeling of need. For each moment, says Joan, a director has to be able to pick a feeling out of the air. He has to be able to choose it as surely as a painter mixes up a color or a singer hits a note.

So the director runs around the stage shouting, “Neeeeeeeeeeeeed! Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed!” That’s what it feels like to need something, an emptiness that starts in your core and claws its way to your lungs.

In the video, Joan has him scream until it no longer sounds like a word, but a wail. Until his voice resembles a baby’s more than a man’s. “That’s how he’s going to know how to cut the movie to 80 pages instead of 105,” she says. “That feeling of need becomes the driving rhythm of the whole movie.” She hits pause. The director is in the foreground of the screen, his mouth open so wide it blots the rest of him out. I peer into that black, desperate void and realize that I’m struggling not to cry.

VIII.

When Joan first arrived in Los Angeles, she found whatever work she could to pay the bills. She waitressed. She P.A.ed. In her free time, she worked on the Technique. She would drive to a river and choose a leaf floating in the water. She’d tell herself that she had to move at the same pace as that leaf for the rest of the day. Sometimes the leaf would catch a current and Joan would have to race down the riverbank to keep up. Other times the leaf would get caught on a rock and Joan would have to stand still for hours until she and the leaf got unstuck. A river was a natural unmediated experience of pace, and she wanted to think about what pacing meant, to understand it with her body, to merge “the inner life and flesh and blood.”

The Technique as she teaches it today was born on the Warner Bros. film lot. A producer friend of hers, Mary Ann Marino, was making a feature at Warner Bros. that got put on hold. The studio had set aside a series of soundstages, and now they were vacant. Joan called the head of production at Warner Bros. and asked if she could use those stages to rehearse a play, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, until work resumed on Marino’s film. To Joan’s surprise, she was told yes. She rehearsed there every day. She slept there. She never knew when she’d show up and be told to go home. She thought she’d have access for a week at most but ended up being able to stay for ten months. She invited anyone who was interested to come and watch her rehearsals. Writers and directors, actors and producers would show up to watch. They’d ask how she got a certain performance, why she staged a scene a certain way, and she’d think about how to articulate what she did. When she couldn’t articulate it with words, she’d come up with exercises. She’d have them walk across the stage, slowly enough that it would take the entire day.

IX.

I don’t know where we, as a nation, stand on Karate Kid these days, but it is the reference that occurs to me the most often while watching Joan in the Lab. Every time Daniel shows up for a karate lesson, his teacher, Mr. Miyagi, puts him to work fixing up his house. He’s told to paint the fence, up-down, up-down. He’s shown how to sand the floor, side to side. The exercises don’t make sense and Daniel finally loses his cool. All he wants to do is defend himself against the bullies. Then Mr. Miyagi tells him, “Show me ‘sand the floor.’” Daniel tries to get down on his knees but Mr. Miyagi stops him. With a look of wonder, Daniel sands the floor in the air, his hands moving from side to side.

X.

Today the class is working on plot points. Joan explains that there are five plot points to every film. The directors are going to nail down their five today. This is going to be accomplished through a magic trick called first line, last line.

Joan has a director read aloud the first line of her film and then the last. Joan says she’s now going to act out the whole movie for them, based only on those two lines. She hasn’t read a single other word of the script. The class turns toward her to take in the show.

“Number one,” says Joan. “I’m going to go out, I’m going to do the things I can do.”

She tells the story from the vantage point of a protagonist who, even though he is loved dearly, doesn’t believe he’s worthy of that love. So he sets out on his own to make a name for himself, leaving that love behind. But the thing is, she communicates all this not through specifics, only feelings. Listening to her, I am no closer to understanding the movie’s plot or even what genre it is — it could take place in Iowa or on Mars — than when I started. What does emerge clearly, though, is how it feels to be the main character, how average he fears himself to be. I can sense his exhaustion in Joan’s body, how he feels like he has to keep moving, as though to outrun his own mediocrity. She spends the majority of the time on the first three plot points, but then when she gets to four she speeds up and rushes on through to five. The film ends with the protagonist realizing that the love he had all along is the thing that makes him worthy. Joan catches her breath, winded. The class breaks into applause. The director looks stunned. Joan just described her entire film.

Even the most sensible people will find truth in their horoscope depending on what’s happening in their lives when they read it. Which doesn’t make it any less true. First line, last line isn’t about the actual lines.It’s an exercise in misdirection, to distract from the real magic that is being done. It wasn’t the emotional logic of the director’s film that Joan was tapping into. It was the emotional logic of the director.

XI.

Our dynamic has shifted. The tension is gone. Each night, after the Lab is done, we stand on the sidewalk outside, recapping the session. We hug before parting ways. It’s almost comical, the degree of tenderness we regard each other with now, like old friends who’d had a falling-out and are so happy to have made up.

During class, I take notes but otherwise don’t move. I am a shell of my former self, but that’s OK. There’s something relaxing about yielding my will. One by one, I vanquish all temptation. An itch between my shoulder blades. A sock slouched down lower on my left ankle than my right. At one point a lash falls into my eye, and every time I blink there’s a faint crooked line across my vision, like the slash in a no-smoking sign. It reminds me of the rules. No fidgeting. Blink. No fidgeting. Blink.

XII.

We’re at Joan’s house, an airy bungalow at the end of a twisty street. She pulls up a video on her computer of when she had the actors from Transparent come into the Space to learn the Technique.

That day they were working on an exercise called “Happy Family Status Quo.” Jeffrey Tambor’s character has just told his ex-wife and children that all his life he’s been a woman pretending to be a man and now everyone’s grappling with the realization that the happy family they’d been claiming as their identity for their whole lives has all been pretend. They’d all been hiding who they really were from the ones they loved. “They were at the point,” says Joan, “when this kind of, like, baby ego starts to take over. … That primal, all-the-way-back-to-the-primitive-baby-that-never-got-heard inner life. The shitting. The crying. I was leading them through that. And it was so incredible what happened.”

She hits play. The entire primary cast is sprawled across the Space’s stage. In the center is Jeffrey Tambor, wearing nothing but a pair of tighty whities, straddling the actress Amy Landecker, who plays his eldest daughter on the show. He’s become the baby, she the parent. Somewhere in the distance, Judith Light howls.

“The soul of the show was cracked open in those sessions,” says Jim Frohna. He remembers the day that video was shot. “One of Joan’s things was don’t just talk about things, put it into your body,” he says, “make it a movement. And from that you get to a sense of the character or the story or the truth.” She told Jeffrey Tambor to go dance with each person in his character’s family. “I remember specifically when he went to dance with Gaby [Hoffmann] as Ali. They were mirroring each other and facing each other. And then when he and Judith as the ex-husband and ex-wife are dancing, you can just feel this dead space between them. Watching the cast find their way into this dynamic for sure brought out the family that you see on screen.”

One of the things that is most striking about watching Joan at work is how much she tailors the experience to the individual director she’s working with. I never once saw her repeat an exercise. Everybody may be broken by her, but the way they’re patched back together is personalized. The Scarecrow has no use for the Tin Man’s heart.

Soloway heard about an actor recently who was describing how Joan had changed his craft. “And it involved something I never even thought of for a second,” she says. “It in no way had anything to do with my Joan experience.I have a thing that I name that is the thing that I learned and it’s ‘What are you Doing to get what you want?’ Underlined. Capital D. Doing.”

Joan taught her that actions are dictated by feelings. In the Lab, Soloway recalls, Joan would say, “‘Walk. Do you feel it?’ I’d be like, ‘Uh, no.’ And she’d say, ‘Now it’s time for escape. You feel it. Escape! Do you feel it?’ Yeah, I can feel escape. ‘Walk’ isn’t an action. Escape is.”

Before shooting each scene in Transparent, Soloway went through the script and wrote down different options for what the actors could be feeling in the moment. Then she’d go up to, say, Gaby Hoffmann, and share a possible feeling, like the feeling of being frozen. “She’s turning all of her muscles in her body to ice,” says Soloway, “so that she can stop hearing things she doesn’t want to believe are true. And so Gaby will just start to feel the feeling of freezing. That feeling may make her curl up into a ball. That feeling may make her tighten her shoulders. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. All she has to do is feel that feeling. The feeling is the action. And then I say, ‘Action,’ and now the lines come out a different way.”

XIII.

Joan and I meet in the Space to talk about her life before the Technique. It’s the first time I see her have to feel around for the words. In the Lab, she never seems to doubt her instincts, but when talking about herself, she’s less sure of the interesting bits. What to keep, what to cut.

Of her personal life, everyone I ask repeats the same details. That she acted for years in the theater. That she was proposed to several times but always chose not to go through with it. That she used to be an opera singer. That she first knew she wanted to be an actress when she was 3 years old, during a production of The Sound of Music.

She was always drawn toward the experiential. In elementary school, when a book report was due, she’d do site-specific presentations instead of just reading aloud. She’d lead her class to different parts of the school, into coat closets, out to the playground. As a teenager, she moved to New York and started acting in plays there. She landed a consistent string of roles up until her late 20s, when suddenly something happened that, for her, changed everything.

It was while acting in a play whose name she wouldn’t tell me. Even though it was the turning point in her life, one that she doesn’t regret, she’s still bothered that she was unprofessional. She was in the middle of a scene when she found herself unable to say her next line. From the audience, she heard a group of restless teenagers. She assumed they had come to the play on a field trip and had grown bored and started talking and laughing. Instead of feeling annoyed, she felt panicked. Their chatter felt so much more alive than her own lines. And because of this, she could no longer say them. She walked right off the stage, mid-scene. She left New York, broke up with her boyfriend who wanted to get married, and moved to Los Angeles to start honing the Technique.

All of which is to say that it took an outbreak of fidgeting to help make Joan Scheckel who she is today.

XIV.

Lena Khan was in preproduction on her first feature film while in the Lab and started shooting it two weeks after the Lab was done. I called her after filming had wrapped to see how it had gone.

On set, Lena says, she spent time with her actors getting to know their characters. Each day, she made rewrites to the script. Scenes were created and re-created in the moment. She says she wouldn’t have done that without Joan. “The actors understood their characters so much,” she says. “It just came out a lot more natural than if we had stuck to the page.”

Her film stars Danny Pudi from Community and Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite. When Lena first started casting she thought she’d get “like, one recognizable guy.” Producers discouraged her from going only after better-known actors. But the majority of Lena’s actors ended up being “offer onlys,” meaning they were so well-known that she wasn’t allowed to audition them. “I think if it wasn’t for Joan, mine would be a smaller movie,” says Lena. “You have to feel like you’re capable of making that level of movie. Before I would’ve deferred and been like, ‘It’s a small budget, I’m a first-time director.’ But Joan was like, There’s nothing wrong with recognizing what talents you do or do not have, and if you have them, screw everyone else. If you’re sure about something, just do it.”

XV.

It’s the last day of rehearsal. The directors are working on blocking, placing actors on the stage and planning their movements. They tell their actors to stand in place at this line in the script, walk across the room at that one. They seem pleased with their choices. Joan weaves her way from scene to scene and at each one undoes everything that the directors have spent all morning doing.

Blocking comes as easily to her as breathing. With the directors, the blocking was clunky, a series of self-contained movements that didn’t connect to one another. With Joan, the blocking is fluid, a thread running through the whole scene. She’s met with no resistance, only reverence. The directors understand they had to put in the time getting it wrong in order for her to show them how to do it right. Up, down. Side to side.

XVI.

A director shares a story about his first film, how he feels he didn’t pay enough attention to the inner life of his characters. He says it’s the worst feeling, to fail. Joan leans forward, her voice serious. She tells him that he mustn’t dwell on that feeling of shame. “We will lose you as an artist,” she says. “The thing to do is not to stay in the shame but to do the work.”

XVII.

We’re alone in the Space. Joan has ordered us a pizza. I find some paper plates in the kitchen and hand one to her. She’s so appreciative of this small gesture. It’s hard not to want to take care of her, to make sure her basic needs are being met. I’m not alone in feeling this way. During her busiest times, like now, when she’s working on a Lab and also several films and TV shows, a friend prepares meals in Tupperware containers for Joan to eat before classes.

Why hasn’t she ever directed a film herself, I ask her. It’s the question I’ve wondered about the most while watching her. She stresses how collaborative her work with her directors is. She cowrote a film with the director of Whale Rider, Niki Caro. She’s a co-producer on Transparent. Fields have to go fallow for a period in order for the crops to grow, she says. The leaf has to take the time it needs to be plastered to that rock. Because once the current catches it, there’s no stopping.

Then she tells me she’s working on an original screenplay that she wants to direct. Before, she wasn’t sure of the story she wanted to tell, but now she knows. There’s been interest in the screenplay from studios, she says, and at this she breaks into a bright smile. I give her a high five and she holds on to my hand for a moment before letting go.

She’s late for a meeting and so we walk through the Space shutting off lights, straightening pillows, turning off fans. We talk the whole time, our stage business purposeful, connected, the meaning of the scene clear.