Myna Joseph at the Sundance Directors Lab. Photo: Fred Hayes

Myna Joseph, one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces” in 2008, is attending the Sundance Directors Lab with her feature, My Favorite Nightmare. Here is how her project is described: ” A willful teenager, pregnant with her cousin’s child, travels to New York for an abortion, only to discover that her unpredictable father has followed her.” Below, she discusses working with advisors Joan Darling and Ed Harris as well as her actors at the Lab.

Actors can be elusive, magical creatures, and seem at times to harbor secrets from another universe. I don’t always understand how they do what they do—I just know I need them to do it. I coax, prod and poke until I get what I need. Understanding what makes a scene come alive, and lived in, is one the many things—too many to count—that I’m focusing on here at the Sundance Lab.

“Turn to the person on your left and address them as if they were the person you most want to see at this moment.” It was a simple enough task assigned to us in the first week of the Directors Lab by the aptly named Joan Darling, a.k.a., the actor whisperer. Her goal, of course, was for us to experience personalizing, a strategy for working with actors and—as she’d say—validating their choices. In the exercise, I turned to Lance Edmands, another directing fellow with a chilly, penetrating script called Bluebird set in rural Maine, and addressed him as if he were my grandmother, raised from the grave and standing before me in Utah (and, on the hunt for Robert Redford). In the smattering of other directing actors classes I’ve done, I’ve spent much of the time focused on surviving the exercises as gracefully and quickly as possible. The objective: get it over with, pretend you’ve made progress.

Maybe it was the gentle coaxing of Joan Darling’s voice, or the clear thin air, but for an instant, I was transported, and entirely involved in my interaction with Lance (as my grandmother). I’ve heard actors describe practicing their craft as “liberating” or “freeing,” and honestly I had little grasp of what that meant. But here, for a moment, as I addressed someone I knew little about as someone familiar, I had some glimmer, some inkling of the sensation of freedom associated with understanding the dynamic of two characters and fully inhabiting that relationship. I wasn’t inventing, or avoiding, I wasn’t performing, I was simply talking to someone I’d known my whole life: I knew how we communicated, I knew how we addressed conflict, and expressed affection.

Joan’s next exercise was even more liberating, “Think of someone who wronged you that you never had a chance to tell. Turn to the person on your left and address them as that person.” I got a lot off my chest, and, from what I could tell, so did the other fellows. Instead of being directors struggling through an exercise, we saw each other transformed into animated, unpredictable beings. It was an electrifying and simple lesson: when in doubt, make it personal. I’m not sure if I’ve successfully applied this tip to working with my intrepid actors—Arija Bareikas, David Warshofsky and Louisa Krause—in the past two weeks. However, experiencing some hint of what they need to do their job, makes the process a little less mysterious. A few other Darlingisms I found particularly useful: if a scene isn’t working, figure out which is lying, the material or the performance, and fix it; in rehearsal, create a physical space for your actors, then, let them run the scene and allow them to find the blocking for you (then make adjustments); understand the difference between your most dramatic, and most important scenes.

Advisors Michael Hoffman and Ed Harris at the Sundance Director's Lab. Photo: Fred Hayes

After my first day on set, I collected a few more notes about performance. One of my actors reminded me that it’s useful for them to know ahead of time that you may be dropping, changing and moving lines around during the work. His point: knowing the parameters makes it safer to play. Actors will likely assume that lines are dropped or changed because their performance failed to express your intent properly. Alternatively, removing a line may take away a character’s intent in a given moment, which can be confusing or disconcerting for the performer. From my time here at the labs it’s clear that confusion, lack of clarity and frustration can—even though we don’t enjoy it— be a good thing, sometimes. A few more running notes on acting came from advisor Ed Harris. With the stealth of a predatory cat, Ed appears and disappears from sets throughout the day. He appears, crouching behind me, “Myna, why that angle? How about this one?” “Just tell her to walk through the expletive door.” Ed, I’m not you, I can’t do that. At one point, he begins clapping at the beginning of a take in order to help an actress connect with where she’s coming from (a poetry reading) at the top of the scene. I’m a fan of the clapping for many reasons. I’m thinking it would be nice to have Ed Harris clap for me whenever I begin a take, or stumble, or have a new thought. Here, on the mountain, it sort of feels like he is.

Myna Joseph completed her MFA in film at Columbia University. Her thesis short film MAN was an official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, SXSW, and New Directors/ New Films at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. The film received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short at numerous festivals including Florida Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival and CineVegas. Joseph recently served as line producer on Eric Mendelsohn’s Three Backyards, starring Edie Falco, and co-produced Pressure Cooker, a documentary feature broadcast on BET.