In the Director's Spotlight, Big Apple Film Festival is proud to present our interview with Adrienne Weiss.
A graduate of Yale, Adrienne Weiss began her career as a theater director but became a filmmaker after realizing that in film she could combine her two great passions- powerful, spontaneous performance and beautiful images. Love, Ludlow, her first feature film as a director, premiered at Sundance ’05 and starred David Eigenberg, Brendan Sexton III and Alicia Goranson, The Sundance catalogue read, ”Weiss sticks close to the raw emotional truth of her characters, and we fall in love with them because their behavior is always unpredictable. With her deeply humanistic sensibility, her flair for ironic humor, and her ability to creatively mine cultural references, Weiss is unequivocally someone to watch.” The film screened at over 20 festivals worldwide, was released by Time/Warner DVD and was broadcast on Sundance Channel, Starz and other cable networks.Adrienne works regularly as a private directing actors and script coach for episodic television and advertisement. Recent gigs include acting as a script and directing actors coach for the Nike webseries Lily V. Margot, a campaign for Miu Miu, and episodes of Ray Donovan and Girls. Past favorites include 30 Rock, Damages, In Treatment, Monday Night Football and Grey’s Anatomy, among many others.Adrienne also works regularly as a directing and script consultant for feature films. Projects include The Bad Intentions (shortlisted for Best Foreign Film Oscar), May in the Summer (Opening Night, Sundance), Homewrecker (Best of Next Award, Sundance), The Abolitionists and Murder of a President for the American Experience (PBS), Sunbelt Express, Kalushi: The Solomon Mahlangu Story (post production) and Retablo (post.)As a screenwriter, Adrienne’s screenplays include Free, a prison drama which she will direct as her second feature; The Breakers, in development with Opening Night Productions (A Late Quartet); and an adaptation of Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novella The Funeral Party, which was directed by Yefim Gribov and starred Simon Strogachov and other luminaries of the Russian cinema.Adrienne taught Directing Actors for five years at the NYU Grad Film program and has taught the past eight years at the Columbia Film Division. directingactors.com
1. After graduating from Yale as a theater director, why and how did you make the transition to film?
There are many reasons, but from a creative point of view, one of the main reasons was that after I doing quite a bit of downtown theater directing in years after I graduated, I started to notice that the thing I loved most about directing theater was rehearsal. I loved the intimacy of being in the rehearsal room with the actors, exploring the scenes and making discoveries that felt fresh and authentic. Then, after we got into the theater, even when the venues were quite small (which mostly they were!) the actors had to keep recreating what we had discovered in rehearsal, and make it bigger so that the audiences in the back row could see. It's an art to do it and of course many theater actors accomplish that brilliantly, but that wasn't what interested me. I began to realize that with film the director can capture the immediacy of a discovery, and if desired, could make it incredibly intimate with the closeup. As a theater director, I had also been trying to make work that was strongly visual and at the same time with very intimate performances. I kept experimenting and couldn't get it right. Then one day I woke up and realized that directing film could give me both, seamlessly. As for how I did it, I started taking film classes at F/VA, crewing on any shorts that would have me, and just generally learning as much as I could. I was lucky in that after a few very basic short films I met someone who had a foundation giving money to female filmmakers, and they wound up producing my first proper short.
2. Why did you start the Directing Actors workshops, and can you tell us about the type of training you provide in these workshops?
Well, as I said above, I just love working with actors and giving them what they need to give spontaneous, authentic performances. Once I started working on film sets, and also talking to my friends who were working film actors, I started to realize that so many directors out there didn't have the skills to help actors give their best, and that this was very frustrating for both the actors and the directors. I had done some theater teaching at that point and believe it or not one day I just woke up with the thought - "Hey, I think I could teach people how to direct actors!" At that point I did not have any particular method, only a lot of practical experience, a love for it, a few pieces of technique I'd picked up here and there, and the hubris to think I could teach it! I started making cold calls telling people I was teaching Directing Actors, and the next thing you know I was offered a job teaching in the NYU Grad Film Dept! It was very magical and I was, and still am, very grateful that they gave me that opportunity. That was about 20 years ago. As I started teaching, I began to realize that there were certain things I would do with the actors that worked every time, and gradually I began to formulate those things into a method, which I call "The Tools." The Tools are a practical compilation of the most effective techniques I've found to support actors and give them everything they need (and not what they don't need!) to give a great performance, and that is the method I teaching in my workshops today. I've been teaching pretty much non-stop since that time, in private workshops and now at Columbia Film School, and I now have a wonderful colleague in LA, Brad Barnes, who trained extensively with me and now teaches Tools Workshops through my company, www.directingactors.com
3. How does Buddhist meditation influence and inspire your work as a screenwriter and filmmaker?
Wow, in so many ways! I think the main thing is, before I started practicing Buddhism, I often felt crippled in my ability to work because I felt so much internal pressure to do something great, and so much fear that what I might do would fall short. Through my Buddhist practice I gradually learned to let go of my ego and simply enjoy the moment to moment process of working, with the intention to make something that other people will enjoy and benefit from. It is a much, much freer and more enjoyable way to work, and I also think the work itself has greatly improved. Another aspect was that through the Buddhist psychology I was learning as part of my training, I began to understand myself, and therefore my characters and collaborators, with much more precision and insight. And of course, this was extremely helpful. Lastly, through my practice I've been able to greatly reduce and often completely reduce my stress and anxiety levels. There's so much uncertainty in filmmaking that the ongoing stress levels for many of us can be very, very high. Honestly, without my Buddhist meditation and practice I think I would have left filmmaking altogether, and chosen something more stable.With my practice, I have been able to stay grounded through all the ups and downs, and use the uncertainty to remind me to stay present, to be grateful for each moment, and to always strive to stay peaceful and love others to the best of my ability. I am extremely grateful to my Buddhist teachers - because of them I am able to have a very joyful life.
4. Which films directed by women do you feel are most important and influential in our society today?
Well, I'm over the moon with joy to say that all of my top films this year were directed by women: Dee Rees's Mudbound, Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, Chloe Zhao's The Rider (opening in April) and Julia Solomonoff's Nobody's Watching. They are all outstanding films on every level. It was thrilling to see each one of those women turn out such brilliant work, and all together in one year is definitely not an experience I (or any of us) have ever had before! Prior to this year, for me the most exciting film directed by a woman was Denize Erguven's Mustang in 2015, and before that (quite possibly I missed some gems) I would have to go back to Jane Campion! It feels like there's been some kind of breakthrough and I am very encouraged.
5. What is your new film, FREE about? Which cast members are attached? And, when can we expect to see it?
Well, the logline is, "An immigrant single mother, in prison for avenging her son's death, struggles to maintain her humanity while battling an abusive system."
Thematically, the story is about the ways in which we react to injustice, and how if we react with anger, we only make the situation worse. But if instead of anger we can learn to respond with compassion, that this leads to peace for us and often times an unexpected solution to the problem. It's a very gritty, dramatic and emotional film, with elements of horror, and is my attempt to express some of the journey I went on with my Buddhist practice while wrestling with my own demons! I have just started working with producer Adeel Ahmed (Burn Country) with the aim of shooting late 2018. We have not gone out to any cast yet but I wrote the lead role with Lupita N'Yongo in mind. In my opinion she is absolutely one of the most talented actresses working today, and I wanted to create a juicy lead role that would give her, or some other talented woman of color, a chance to fully express her talent. Fingers crossed!
6. What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers? And, what advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago?
For aspiring filmmakers, my advice would be to explore and go deep with other areas of their life and learning besides filmmaking. For me, that was my Buddhist practice. Having other important areas of your life will not only give you something rich to write about, but also help you remember what's really important in life is to be kind, patient, compassionate, loving, not simply to make a great film! About advice for myself ten years ago, I think probably would have to be - relax!