Film & TV

Working With Writers & Directors

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 23:27 min

Helen advises you on how to create successful relationships with writers and directors, and she shares lessons learned from working with renowned director Robert Altman on the film Gosford Park.

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Helen Mirren
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You have to be very careful when you're dealing with writers. I won't say dealing with, but in your relationship with a writer. Because a writer has his or her ego. And this is their work. And it might have been a painful process to get this script on the page, or the scene on the page. And they might have put an awful lot effort into it. So you must be very careful with your relationship to that. Sometimes they haven't quite got it right. Or sometimes they've got it completely wrong. But nonetheless, you know what? You agreed to do the role, so it's your job to kind of make sense of it. Some writers want to work with you as an actor, and others don't. And really, you have to judge that. And you have to judge whether it's appropriate or not to approach the writer if the writer is on set. It's always great if the writer is on set, incidentally. And if the writer is on set, go make a relationship. Say hi. Say how much you love their work. That's always a good thing to do. And make a relationship with them, so then you can approach them and say, I'm having a slight problem with this line in this scene. And I'm not quite sure why it's there. Could you maybe help me a little bit with that? So make a relationship with the writer If that's feasible, if that's possible. I would say always treat the writer with respect, because they're on their own mostly, when they work. They're isolated. And they don't know whether this thing is going to fly or not. So I would say, treat a writer with respect, but not so much that you can't contribute. Because in the end, what we do on the screen is an absolute collaboration. The first moment of the inception of this baby that we were all putting out into the world-- it takes its little toddling steps out into the world-- the moment of conception is the writer with his empty page. Then comes the director, and comes the cinematographer, the production designer, the actors, the editor, the music. And all of these elements-- all of them-- in every moment this work of art shifts and changes, gets added to, and morphs into something. And you're all contributing to that. Every one of you. So be conscious of that. That you are a part of a very complicated whole. Sometimes writers, because they have so much to deal with, they haven't quite grasped-- They've got the scene right, but they've actually got it in the wrong order. And you, as an actor, because your job as an actor is to make the mental connections between this word and that word, this speech and that speech, this relationship and that relationship. And we have to consciously make those psychological connections. Great writing-- It's very interesting to me that good writing is really easy to learn. Bad writing is really difficult to learn. Because in good writing, those subconscious, those psychological connect...


Find freedom in your roles

In her first-ever online acting class, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren shares the techniques she has learned through the course of her international career that has spanned stage, screen, and television. Her powerful and versatile performances have earned her numerous awards, including the Academy Award in 2007 for her performance in The Queen, a Tony Award in 2015 for her performance in The Audience, and four Emmy Awards.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Top notch masterclass. I wish it was longer. Helen Mirren is awesome.

Mirren taught me the foundation of acting- being yourself.

Ms Miren’s delivery demonstrates a simple sophistication, elegant prose to describe her passion and calling. Well done and time well spent. Thank you, Dr. JHS

I began this class during my audition process into the theatre schools of my region, and I have found it infinitely useful. It has given me a clear and inspiring idea of the field I am aiming to work in, and i truly hope that many others will, like me, benefit from Helen's sharing!


Comments

R.G. R.

If an actor is going to be the kind of actor who does approach the director with recommendations on script or scene or any general idea you think might be worthwhile, tact and approach is very important, especially if you are an inexperienced or young actor. Ms. Mirren's examples are interesting and important, but she does have a long career that offers a credibility that a new or young actor might not have at first.

Michael O.

An honest intensive behind the scenes of 2 films re: actor relationship to writer(s) and director on set. Actually you've given us - in this lesson and several previous - the insider's experience behind the scenes. Truly remarkable.

A fellow student

lWhat Helen said, because it's very true. "Respect writers". "A lot of work and effort goes into it". "it's hard work.". Unless you are a writer, especially of fiction, you don't know how much goes into writing. I like how she puts it, that as an actor, you should join forces with them. Point out politely what works better when it comes to acting.

ALICIA S.

Working with writers and directors is part of being an actor. Everybody is cast and crew.... However, when you take initatives to change or add to a script, you're messing with a creative individual(s). So, learning tactfulness is an art. I like that you fully understood the script and could write a scene. I'm shocked the director added it. It sounded like a brush off was coming for a few seconds there.... Lucky.

Julian S.

Working with writers and directors is always going to be a challenge as an actor. Sometimes we'll see something we don't like and we won't want to do it, but sometimes we'll something that is good and we think we could make it better. Making a few suggestions is all right but pushing the directors might be risky. Finding the proper dialogue within words is time-consuming if anything and it's worth it. If you know how to make a scene flow better by rearranging sentences, you should feel free to be up front about it. And adding to a character to add to the movie will prove beneficial not only for you, but for everyone in the long run. I'll have to watch The Long Good Friday and maybe check to see if the original script is available to see the big differences. I am seeing some of myself in Helen Mirren, though maybe I am being over-presumptuous.

Louanne F.

I just reserved Gosford Park from my local library......the beginning of another film festival of Helen Mirren in the works!

Kalia D.

"I was locked into playing this role that kind of offended me for its thinness. The scenes I was in I wanted to have meaning and character and complexity. So on a daily basis, I just took my courage into my hands, and I fought through on a daily basis to try and bring this character more into the movie. And actually, I succeeded. Betty Davis recognizes in her memoirs that she was probably extremely annoying to her directors. But she says, I made my movies better. And I bet she did." Again, the Laws of Power. Not any actress, a good, respected actress. Do you have the courage and expertise to fight for your role?...

Mia S.

"When you're making these kinds of efforts - they're difficult, because you can maybe be making yourself unpopular; and you have to learn how to do it the correct way. The best and correct way is to first meet with the writer and talk through these things, meet with the producer, not to make a big deal out of it - it can happen the night before, almost. But communicate with them. It must go through the correct channels, and then it comes back to you. What happens is the first AD will come back to you the next day and say, 'Oh there's been a rewrite on that scene, here are the new lines.' They're my lines, that I wrote last night, but they've now gone through the correct channel. (When you have a lot of lines on the page, it's not necessarily going to have an effect in the overall picture of the film.) Bette Davis, who did exactly the same thing -in her memoirs, she recognizes the fact that she was probably extremely annoying, but she says, 'I made my movies better.' And I bet she did. So often women's characters, especially in that era, but even to this day, they're watching the story from the sideline, occasionally popping in to take their clothes off, or kiss someone, or wave them goodbye, but mostly watching from the sidelines. Most films are basically the same. 'What was it like to work with Peter Greenaway?' Well actually, it was exactly like working with almost every other director; the subject matter was completely different, but the way of working was the same: master shot, two shots, overs, cutaway, and we're done and dusted. [Robert Altman] worked in a very different way - first of all, everyone is mic'd, so that the sound story of the film was as important as a visual story. This is what gives his film such incredible sort of depth - you're looking at one thing,but you're hearing something over here that's maybe off screen or it's blowing in the background, and you're hearing it and picking it up - you get the sense of layers. The way he shot was he would have one, sometimes two cameras on a dolly go this way, and then another camera on a dolly going this way, both constantly moving. Everything you say is recorded and can be used. That was very curious, and kind of wonderful. It was kind of liberating, because if you did happen to think of something brilliant to say, if you did happen to improvise a line quietly to yourself off camera, it would be picked up, and it could or could not be used. He already had that freedom of approach. I knew he was the kind of director who could let go of a scene very quickly and easily. I thought maybe he was the kind of director who could also put in a scene pretty quickly and easily."

Mia S.

"Good writing is really easy to learn, bad writing is really difficult to learn, because in good writing, those subconscious, psychological connections are correct and in the right place. With bad writing, no attention has been paid to the psychological connections between this word and that word. With Bernard Shaw, you have these enormously long speeches that are so easy to learn, because he totally understood the psychological connection as your work through a speech. Bad writing is so difficult to learn, because there is no connection. 'Why do I say that after that?' But sometimes even in a well written scene, you'll find that the words are all right - they're just in the wrong order. And usually if you're working with a good actor, the two of you can work that out. Incidentally, work with your other actors. Take the time to knock on their door in the trailer, 'Do you mind if we just read through this scene?' And instantly if you're a supporting actor, really down on the call sheet, and the other actor is up on the call sheet, still don't be afraid of doing that. Any actor worth his or her salt will say, 'Yes of course, let's read through it.' Wonderfully written script, it was a page turner - no scene was too long. It was funny, but it was funny, but it was serious, it was very dramatic. One of maybe the five top scripts that have ever landed in my lap. The only trouble was, the female character was one-dimensional, was cursory, was there just to be a kind of a plot device, was just there to be a kind of a female, and it annoyed the hell out of me. But I wanted desperately to be in the movie because the rest of it was so great. I asked with big meetings with the director, producer, and writer to say - 'I want to do this, but honestly, this female character is really nothing. There's nothing there, it's uninteresting - why not make her into an interesting character?' I came up with all sorts of ideas, I had studied the script to see where I could insert this character, change the story so she became more embedded in the story. So I gave them all these thoughts and ideas, notes and stuff. This does happen a lot, guys - the shooting script can be a very different thing from the script you agreed to when you took the job. The shooting script, nothing had been changed - nothing. And I was kind of devastated. I really felt very strongly that this was going to add to the movie, and it wasn't trying to make myself a bigger character. I was happy to lose scenes, lose lines. But the scenes I were in, I wanted to have meaning, and character, and complexity. On a daily basis I just took my courage into my hands and I fought through on a daily basis to try and bring this character more into the movie - and actually, I succeeded. I only succeeded because I was supported in this by my costar, and many costars would not want this, because they don't want anyone else's role to be as good as theirs is, and you do get a little bit of that, often."

Mia S.

"You have to be very careful when you're dealing with writers. A writer has his or her ego, and this is their work, and it might have been a painful process to get this script or scene on the page, and they might've put an awful lot of effort into it. So you must be very careful with your relationship to that. Sometimes they haven't quite got it right, or sometimes they've got it completely wrong but nevertheless, you agreed to do the role, so it's your job to kind of make sense of it. Some writers want to work with you as an actor, and others don't. You have to judge that and whatever it's appropriate or not to approach the writer if the writer is on set. Go and make a relationship, say hi. Say how much you love their work - that's always a good thing to do. Then you can approach them and say, 'I'm having a slight problem with this line in this scene, and I'm not sure why it's there - can you maybe help me with that?' So make a relationship with the writer if that's feasible. I would say always treat the writer with respect because they're on their own mostly when they work, they're isolated. And they don't know whether this thing is going to fly or not. Treat a writer with respect, but not so much that you can't contribute. Because in the end, what we do on the screen is an absolute collaboration. The first moment of the inception of this baby that we're all putting out into the world, the moment of conception is the writer with his empty page, then comes the director, then comes the cinematographer, the production designer, the actors, the editor, the music. All of these elements, in every moment - this work of art shifts and changes, gets added to, and morphs into something. You are a part of a very complicated whole. Sometimes writers, because they have so much to deal with, they haven't quite grasped - they've got the scene right, but they've actually got it in the wrong order. Your job as an actor is to make the mental connections between this word and that word, this speech and that speech, this relationship and that relationship, and we have to consciously make those psychological connections."