Film Independent

MARCH 2015 | Jennifer Kushner

"Conflict is not our only dance step." - Joan Scheckel explains The Technique

I’ve known about Joan Scheckel for years. Or so I thought. But I had never actually experienced her Technique until this month.

Let me just explain that I have been very fortunate to have received a lot of incredible artistic training in my life, and have studied with some phenomenal teachers: I studied acting at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco as a kid. I studied theater, dance, and performance studies at Northwestern University with a year abroad at a London drama conservatory, followed by an MFA in Production from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I’ve also been privileged to see and discuss the work of probably hundreds of filmmakers during my seven years with Film Independent. I love talking about craft, but I wasn’t actively seeking anything new. But after hearing Jill Soloway (whose work on Transparent just completely rocked my world) in her keynote address at the Film Independent Forum last October, speak to how Joan Scheckel’s Technique gave her the map and the tools to say what she wanted to say as a storyteller and filmmaker, I started thinking, OK, I have got to find out more about this Joan Scheckel.

So, I invited her to lead a one-evening workshop in the Film Independent Directing Lab. In Scheckel’s beautiful Hollywood space, surrounded by her art show, Feel This–large scale photographs of performers in states of raw feeling, what I experienced was nothing short of profound: professional intimacy, presence, unbridled creativity! To experience The Technique, as she calls it, one must also experience the persona that is Joan Scheckel. She’s intense, demanding, and at times theatrical. Yet, there is a tangible feeling that The Technique and the work that it is inspiring, are at the heart of an authentic storytelling revolution happening right now.

Transparent aside, Scheckel’s work has influenced some of the filmmakers I most admire and impacted many extraordinary films this century: Whale Rider, Little Miss Sunshine, Beginners, to name just a few. I wanted to learn more about her work and share what it is about with the Film Independent community. Here’s what she had to say about how and why she created The Technique and what happens in her Lab.

Following the success of Transparent there has been a spotlight on your work, but you have been developing your Technique for a long time and have influenced many artists.

There have been a lot of hits that have gone through the Lab. And I think that that’s important because one of the things that’s interesting is that I always wanted to create a Technique that would allow for 21st century stories to be created. That’s why it’s a non-conflict based model that looks at contrasting actions, that looks at the actions and feelings inherent to theme or meaning, so that you can structure outside of the “I want this, you want that, we fight. I want this, you want that, we fuck” paradigm. And to tell stories that are meaningful to us.

Why do you think there is a need for a different kind of storytelling now?

Stories always need to be responsive to their time. That is what a story is. A story is a context for meaning. Ever since I was a little girl I didn’t want to tell stories that had already been told. I wanted to tell stories that helped me understand the world I was living in—am living in—in a very present way. I’m not saying anything is wrong with history, but I have to be able to step out into my life today as a human being, as a woman in the 21st century, as a person, and engage with what’s going on on the planet, right now.

A story is an ordeal, people are in the middle of ordeals everyday, and what those ordeals are are constantly changing along with the meaning that we derive from them. The evolution of the human mind, of consciousness is held in story. In our own lives, if we tell ourselves the same story over and over and over again, then that’s pretty much it. We have to tell new stories as we engage more profoundly with meaning. That’s the function of art, as I perceive it.

If I want to fly to the moon, if I want to fly to Saturn, if I want to engage with outer space, I cannot get there in a car. I have to come up with a new technology to get me from here to there. And so, we can’t continue, just as in Stanislavski’s time he couldn’t get on with the stories that they were creating in Russia at that time—with Chekhov and Moscow Art Theater—with the tools of Delsarte or the tools of Commedia dell’arte or the tools of whatever came before. You have to come up with a tool that represents your time.

And at a certain point, because I was an opera singer first, and I was always engaging with the structure of music and how it reflected its time, I started to feel like the technical tools I had to make my own work, to tell my own stories, direct, act, to sing—all the art I was engaged with—were failing me, really because they were leading me to things that could only exist where there was conflict.

Do you mean that the kind of storytelling we need now has moved past a conflict-based model?

I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to be prescriptive, because you can never be prescriptive or dogmatic about art. Conflict is not going anywhere. I just don’t think it’s our only dance step. It’s not the only card in the human deck. An artist needs to collaborate—with themselves, with all the different aspects within ourselves—and tell stories about that with other people, to other people.

So in creating The Technique you were responding to a feeling that there wasn’t something supporting the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?

Stanislavski is a genius. He’s like Shakespeare, right? But, Stanislavski, he was from the late 1800s. Meisner, and Strasberg, Adler and Hagen too, they were all born in the early 1900s. I kept going, ‘I need more tools.’ Because I worked in the avant-garde. I like to push form. It’s very important about my work. Ever since I was a little kid, what I wanted to do was push form. I want to say, what is storytelling now?

What’s relevant now? And how can we tell stories about that.

Do you have answers to those questions?

Well, I have questions that address those questions. Because the key to The Technique is investigation. And the second that I say that anything is this or that way, I become another irrelevant technique. This is not earth shattering. Technique is all about access to yourself and the evolution of your self-expression. That’s all technique is for. At a certain point, I worked in the avant-garde, I was very interested in fusion blend, blending dance and film and creating more complete experiences, that were created outside the traditional three act structure, that were not built in a model that has peaks on certain page counts. There’s a very strict formula we’ve been working within: the Hero’s Journey, conflicting wants and creating dramatic tension through conflict.

And it doesn’t necessarily lead to authentic storytelling.

It can’t. Anymore than it would in your own life to follow the script that somebody else gave you to live your life by. Authenticity means the authority of its creator. So when you’re trying to tell your story, it’s an art form. It’s not random, so there are certain things that you need to at least think about: What’s the thing about? How are you structuring it so it’s actually about that rather than dialogue that talks about it? How does it have rhythm? How are we connecting to the feeling? And how does this come across in an individual visceral way that’s true to any particular artist?

Let’s talk about the three-day Lab.

I created this Technique. It has 34 different aspects that relate to all the different levels of the mise-en-scene, i.e. scene, action, character, all that stuff. And what I’m doing is taking The Technique and making it episodic, what I do is basically create chapters so that you can come for a weekend and be inside of a chapter. Rather than having the whole multi-week immersive ride, I’m now giving weekend episodes. You can binge on them if you want to and take them all together, or you can take them separately. But it’s a way to engage with The Technique, to get some of the tools and apply them if you have content. Or if you don’t, they might inspire content.

And the first chapter of that is about the motor of the movie. Of the project, really. It doesn’t have to be a movie. It could be a song or a book. It crosses all platforms. That is something unique about it. It’s for directors, it’s for actors, it’s for DPs, it’s for producers,… writers. Very different than Lee Strasberg who was creating something actor-specific.

So, each weekend of the three-day Labs explores a different chapter of The Technique.

Yes, Chapter One is about the motor of the movie and the “nugget,” which is really a combination of actions and feelings that speak to your theme. But I want you to think about how the theme is not just something you say, it has to be done through the actions of the movie itself, or the episodic itself.

We tend to separate theme and plot in our heads and we think that theme is something that’s cerebral—it’s a logline or a slogan, it’s a metaphor or something like that. Or it’s a debate—this versus that. We kind of come up with some intellectual idea of what the thing is about and then some cool ideas for stories, some story points. And then at some point in the movie people get together and talk about…

The theme.

Yeah: ‘this is why we just did all that.’ Theme means to put and drama means to do. Put them together and the theme of the drama is what you put in the drama for people to do. And right now, we’re getting a lot of dialogue and we’re getting a lot of moment-based or behavior-based, something we call character-driven but the storylines are…

There is no motor.

Well, I just want you to think about how theme and story are connected. They are each other. The actions of the movie are embedded in the meaning.

Just like in life, there’s a big difference between talking about it and doing it. So, let’s sayyou want to be with the love of your life in a committed, monogamous way. If you want that kind of marriage, what’s an action verb that has to happen for that to take place? What do two committed partners have to do in order to be committed to one another?

They have to show up. They have to both want it. They have to work on it.

Yes. Right away, that takes you completely outside of the paradigm of conflict.

What I’m positing, what I’m saying, potentially, is that’s it’s not the only way to tell a story. If you want to tell a story about commitment you’re going to have to structure it differently. That’s possible, and that’s compelling, and that’s dynamic, and that’s visceral and that’s felt. And there’s an amazing roller coaster ride to be taken through the subject matter or theme of commitment. I’m not saying that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to run or bail or give up or fight with one another. Of course that happens. I’m just saying it’s not the only thing that happens. So by looking into the issue itself you’ll find the actions and the feelings that pertain to that issue.

So you’re saying that by investigating story outside of this conflict model, there are other kinds of stories to explore? You can investigate what other kinds of feelings and actions are living in that thematic universe.

Yeah, and structure. I think of structure as a rollercoaster ride through a truth. So, Chapter One in the three-day Lab is: What’s the truth in your story? What do you actually want to be talking about? And then how do actions become the motor?

It’s so interesting that actions become the motor.

You have to structure it. You have to move through the mountain of that theme, you can’t just go around it by talking about it and then at the end saying, ‘this is what we meant!’ [In a story about commitment, for instance], you have to show up. You have to wrestle with the fact that you want to flee. Another action of commitment might be you need to give something up.

I wanted a craft that would allow me and force me to ask myself these questions, so that I could structure something that was actually moving through—a rollercoaster ride through a truth—rather than reverting to conflict and dialogue and behavior alone.

And to really be able to reflect the truth of something.

Through action.

It’s got to walk the walk. It can’t just talk the talk. You can’t just say, “I want a committed relationship.” You have to show up. It’s pretty much, in the end, that simple. And The Technique’s function is that it’s simple, that it’s visceral, that its actable, that its gettable, that its felt. But, what’s tricky always is that what we’re trying to feel, to get and to do is something elusive, like meaning and our inner life. You have to have a foot in both worlds. You have to feel something in order to find the actions that pertain to it—and that’s structure. It’s not random, that’s why you need a theme. So, chapter one—or Nugget, Action, Beats—is about the motor of the movie: Putting together action, feeling and theme. That’s the motor.

What happens in Chapter Two?

The Transformative Journey: that’s about building the rollercoaster ride through the truth. Once you’ve got a motor, you can build the ride. It’s saying, ‘what is the experience my soul needs to have to live through a change?’ The writer always has to know more than the character in order to structure it. You have to know that the reason they’re pissed off, or why they’re not comfortable with whatever situation they’re in, is that their inner life is wrestling with self awareness, or wrestling with commitment, or wrestling with the fear of abandonment, or whatever has to be wrestled with to move through that mountain.

You know, your kid’s learning to tie her shoes. On a much deeper level, you’re teaching her how to manage frustration. The shoes are the shoes, but what she’s got to deal with for the rest of her life is frustration, for instance. There’s always something in front of us that we don’t know how to do. So, learning to tie your shoes, that’s nice, but the meaning comes from how you manage that feeling and keep moving forward.

So, The Transformative Journey is looking at character arc from the inside. I think of structure as a series of feelings moving us through change. But, by feelings I mean a deep and profound engagement with whatever your Nugget is. We tend to confuse feelings with how we feel about things: irritated, uncomfortable,…. You can feel anything from second to second. We’re talking about how do you go deep enough to structure something simple, Like Little Miss Sunshine orWhale Rider really.

Could you use one of them as an example of how The Technique supported the film?

Whale Rider is interesting because when that film came to me it was much more about the grandfather and how he felt about losing power. One of the reasons that I started to develop this Technique is that ever since I was a little girl I always had a sense that I was going to get to live through the rise of women, and not just necessarily women, but the feminine, the female. So when that story [Whale Rider] came around, I could right away go, ‘Oh, here we go. This is it. This is the first story that I’ll get to collaborate on, participate with, for the 21st century, and it will be about a little girl coming into her spiritual leadership.’ It’s not so much about her sexual awakening. It’s about her leadership awakening. Taking it outside of the struggle that the grandfather had to go through to let go of power, it became about a little girl’s dawning sense of leadership. So, it required going outside of the paradigms we have right now for storytelling, which tell us to ask who’s in charge, who’s in control, who’s driving the scene, when are the tables turning, what’s the central conflict? Are these things sounding familiar?

I’m not saying there anything wrong with those questions. I’m just saying they’re not the only questions. But if they’re the only ones that you ask, you can never let the little girl be the center of the story, in this case. Inside of that storyline, little girls were not allowed to be the chiefs, only boys. What was this little girl going to do when she felt like she had something to contribute to her community? So, that’s an example of using the Nugget to transform where the draft was to what the movie is.

The Technique seems like such an amazing process to support female and underrepresented filmmakers because there aren’t many models of storytelling out there for us to tell our stories.

For guys too! Because men can be imprisoned by this Hero’s Journey too.

Again, I’m not saying that any other technique is bad. That’s definitely not, it was never my feeling. It’s just that as I used these gorgeous crafts, I thought, ‘how come I’m not getting to what I want to say?’

I’m a musician, so I understand rhythm—how this is created through rhythm—and then I started to go, ‘Oh this is how you structure a rollercoaster rode through a truth.’ You can just take a ride, you can be on the ride, and if you want to think about it later, great, at least there’s something there to think about, like with Whale Rider. You have to think very rigorously and very deeply in order to structure something that feels simple and feels true.

I feel very close to Aaron Copland as an artist myself. I’m an artist, I’m an actress, I’m a writer, I’m a director, I’m a photographer. I make work. So The Technique arose out of that. I’m writing my own screenplay now for the next film I’m going to make. I direct theater. I just did my first photography show. And I collaborate; I collaborated on Transparent. I collaborated on Whale Rider. Those aren’t things I taught somebody to do. I used the principles of The Technique in order to make work.

I very badly wanted to connect to my time, to the storytellers of my time, the other artists that I love and treasure to work with, so that we can speak about whatever’s meaningful to us individually and as a collaborative group.

I work in many cultures all over the world. I work with every type of story genre from action movies to obscure cell phone videos, to Oculus. I like to create experience. So I teach through experience. I think of structure in terms of an experience of a truth, and then because of that the audience has a higher chance of experiencing something themselves.

What were you going to say about Aaron Copland?

Aaron Copland said that he thinks about making the most beautiful music he can for the most amount of people. He wanted to do that in his own, completely new way. He innovated with the times. Just as Martha Graham did when she shifted paradigms with her choreography for his piece, Appalachian Spring. Copland was an incredible composer, or Tchaikovsky also! In other words, I want to reach people! I want to reach myself, and hopefully, as a result of that reach other people too. I like to play, and I like to share. And these are tools that help us to do that. That’s what art creates an opening for as well, but what we’re playing through is truth – like a kid does. We’re not playing to escape, we’re playing to connect, during whatever brief window we have in our lives to do so, and art is a terrific context for that endeavor.

Well, you are speaking to my soul.

Yeah, I can definitely see that. But to get to work like that with you and then to see that on film and to see you expose that part of yourself and express that part of yourself, I find it so beautiful. And it’s the most beautiful thing in the world to share it with you. I didn’t grow up in such a way that I could see what I find most beautiful around me all the time.

I don’t know that many of us grow up that way.

I think in the time we live in now we are much more open about that craving. It’s showing up in our art. I was very involved in post-modernism, which was amazing, but I like raw feeling, I’m an opera singer. I like Tchaikovsky, I like Aaron Copland, I like to feel something. But I don’t want to feel it like they did. I want to touch and express what I find beautiful about being alive and tell stories from that place. What I find beautiful is truth. What I find beautiful is anything that’s real. Anything—whether it’s tenderness or rage or desire, whether it’s commitment or escaping; whether it’s attack or connect—anything that’s real to being a human being is what I find beautiful. Because, it’s real. Because it’s felt. And The Technique is a tool to get at that more quickly.