Cyrus and I have been friends for years and I have had the distinct privilege of working with him on several of his film projects including The Day Reagan Was Shot and The Stoning of Soraya M. For the better part of an hour, we discussed his process for preparing to shoot a film, including our workshop process of staging scenes even before the production team has been determined. Here’s what he had to say …
Mark Travis: Different directors have different methods for prepping their films. What’s one thing you like to do?
Cyrus Nowrasteh: It’s not really one thing, but rather a combination of things. Perhaps, most importantly, I feel like I have to get inside the script I’ve written. One thing I’ve learned through this whole process is you can write a script and not really dig out of it everything that’s there. Sometimes you need to sort of re-imagine or re-think it and that happens in the process of workshopping, like you and I have done: re-examining the material and the characters by getting the scenes up on their feet before any casting’s been done, before the production crew’s been assembled, before any of that.
Early in my career, as a first-time director, my preparation focused primarily on camera. It was a beautifully shot movie, nicely lit … and nobody gave a damn, least of all me. That’s the worst feeling, to sit in a screening room and realize you blew it. I told myself never again. So, I took a bunch of workshops – including yours – and decided I needed to focus more on performance and script analysis – I call it ‘live script analysis’ because there are actors there – you’re there, I’m there and we’re all peppering each other with questions and ideas. I call this my ‘pre-prep’. I want to have a pretty clear idea of how these scenes play and what new discoveries there are to be had in the material. The scenes will usually organically become something else, usually something better, but we have to find it. So, I workshop the entire movie, the scenes as written up to that point. We play around with them and I record it all. I start very loose, have the actors read the scene, stage it loosely, see how it all plays out. Then, we ask questions – What does the character want? What’s getting in his way? What’s he doing to get what he wants? We shape it and maybe an hour later it actually starts to play like a scene. Sometimes we’ll find little things that need clarification or tightening in the script, little re-writes. I record all of it, number the discs, and before shooting, I’ll watch the process again. I want to see how we got to where we did.
MT: During the process of workshopping the scenes, what is your experience regarding the effects of staging on a scene, whether in terms of the physical environment or the way the characters relate to one another?
CN: We’re in a visual medium and visual medium doesn’t mean just what you see through camera. It’s how people are interacting within a space. Let’s say we’re shooting a scene, the interior of a kitchen, exterior desert, it doesn’t matter. We’re watching people interacting within a space and how they interact tells a story. How they interact also affects performance. I find that literally putting someone in a particular position, with their back to a person, being approached from the side, or whether there is a one-foot or fifteen-foot distance between characters affects how we interpret the scene. It also affects how the actors interpret the scene and then how they play it. This is something one probably learns in working in theatre, which I have not done, but the principle is the same for film. Staging, coupled with how you decide to shoot the event, basically tells your story to your audience.
MT: Preparing the scene ahead of time creates an authenticity in a scene and actually helps the actors better understand the scene.
CN: Sure. I don’t think we realize how much of visual storytelling is about staging and people interacting. I don’t think that’s even been mined yet. And the thing is, knowing how an event will play out makes determining the camera shots easier, allows you to see how to use the camera to tell the story in a way that we feel like we’re inside the scene, passionately inside the scene, totally engaged.
One of the most gratifying experiences on the whole Stoning of Soraya M. journey was this film festival that very much wanted to show the film. We sent them an advance copy, but a mistake was made: we sent them a version without subtitles. They watched the whole thing, not understanding a word that was said. Later they told me, “We got it. Just by the way they talked to each other and the way they interacted, by their performances.” I workshopped that entire movie including the stoning scene itself. I worked with how people were entering and leaving and facing off with each other. It was all very carefully done in pre-prep. The movie ended up 80-90% as we did it in the workshop. Any changes that were made were usually because of location or those that came from actors’ suggestions that did make the scene work better. If a scene can stand on its feet in pre-prep, imagine how it’s going to be during production – it’s got a real chance to fly.
MT: When you get into production, how do the actors and crew respond to your level of preparation?
CN: I’ll give you an example. On The Day Reagan Was Shot, I had workshopped a scene which is at the front of the movie, takes place in the Oval Office. The President is seated behind his desk, his cabinet members are seated in chairs around the room and in the process of the workshop, we had the main character of the drama, Alexander Haig, standing and pacing. In the workshop we had determined that in his mind, Haig was more capable, more experienced, and smarter than everyone else in the room, so, in his own mind, he was running the meeting. On set in Toronto, I’m shooting this scene with Academy-Award winning actor, Richard Dreyfuss. It’s his first day of work. I’ve started to stage the scene, knowing where I want it to go, where to nudge it because we’ve done all this in pre-prep. I still want to leave it open for talent to make suggestions from their perspective, but it’s pretty much the way we ran it in workshop with Haig pacing. Then Richard asks the question, “Why am I standing and pacing and everyone else is seated?” Remember, it’s the first day I’m working with this actor, this is the first scene we’re doing. I say to him, “Because in Haig’s mind, he’s running this meeting and they’re all seated and looking at him.” From that moment on, I had Richard’s complete trust. He was a gem to work with and he delivered a great performance. I think it’s because I had done the pre-prep, done the workshop, asked the questions and when those questions came up in production, I was in the position to answer them.
Here’s the thing – Directors have to be able to answer those questions whether they’ve written the script or not. What putting a scene on its feet does is mine it out, dig it out further, bring up those questions in a way regular script analysis can’t. In workshop, characters are no longer just letters and names on a page. They’re real people interacting with one another in a room.
MT: In pre-prep, you’re experiencing the scene, the scene is telling you what it’s about.
CN: Yes. The scene is telling me, the actors are telling me, whoever I’m workshopping with is telling me. We’re discovering together that there’s more here than meets the page. I have found it of immense benefit. It also gives me more confidence as a director. My senses are sharper as a result of workshopping. I hope I never make a movie without it. It immeasurably enhances performance. Let’s face it, making a movie is about time management. We’d all like to have 2-3 days to do a scene, but we don’t have that kind of time. This process really helps that.
MT: You and I collaborate a lot. We’ve workshopped 3 or 4 projects together. Not all directors are open to collaborating with other directors. What’s your experience with being open to other opinions or interpretations of scenes during the workshopping process?
CN: Well, look. It’s about sharing ideas and I’m the beneficiary. I get to take all the good ones and use them. If you’re working on a project and you’re open, you’re going to get some good ideas. I’m careful who I select, though. Collaboration of this nature requires people who are fully engaged, generous, and won’t get upset if I don’t go with their ideas. I’ve spent more of my career as a screenwriter-for-hire. You don’t survive as a screenwriter-for-hire if you’re not willing to incorporate other people’s ideas or at least be willing to consider them. What I’ve found is that other people have really good ideas, which make you look better. It’s part of the process. At all stages of production, including pre- and post-, your film is going to change because it’s being shaped by all these people and ideas. I teach young filmmakers at Chapman University this: Your film isn’t going to be what you started out to make, how you pictured it in your head. You have to allow this process to happen. One of those ways is to keep your eyes and ears open to what the actors, cameramen and production designers bring.
MT: What final words of wisdom or advice do you have for someone reading this interview?
CN: Bring actors in and stage the scene, put it up on its feet, go through the workshopping process. If you don’t know any actors, get your friends. It is so beneficial and will so enhance your film. I do this with my Chapman students. I hand them some pages, set the stage, and we’ll find the scene together. The energy is palpable. It’s great. Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing as filmmakers – bringing scenes to life.