The incredible success of Avatar deserves much of the credit for mainstreaming 3-D movies, but its historical significance likely rests more in being an emphatic announcement that digital filmmaking had arrived. What that means for Hollywood and commercial filmmaking is, at this point, known to all: digital technology, cheaper and easier to use than its analog predecessors, has broken down the most intimidating barriers to entry to the movie business. What it hasn’t changed is that, however much easier it is to make a movie that looks good, it’s as difficult as ever to make a movie that is good. So, while aspiring directors no longer have to go to a fancy film school to learn how to make a movie, they also miss out on the other crucial element of film education, that of how to make as good a film as possible.
In the eyes of famed directors, and former USC roommates, George Lucas and Randal Kleiser, the obvious way to bridge the gap is to bring the school to its would-be students. Kleiser and Lucas, two members of USC’s ‘dirty dozen’ of successful 1960s graduates, both retained close working relationships with professor Nina Foch long after leaving the school; Kleiser even brought her aboard as a script consultant on several of his projects. Later in her life, the pair had Foch’s ‘Directing Actors’ classes taped, generating over two hundred hours of footage. They’ve since edited it down to a more manageable four hours, and the pair are marketing it as a resource for actors and filmmakers.
To understand what separates the resulting product, straightforwardly titled ‘The Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors,’ from any of the myriad books on filmcraft that are available at your local bookstore, it’s important to understand who exactly Foch was. Prior to joining the film faculty at USC, the Dutch-born Foch was a successful Hollywood actress, appearing in such impressive fare as An American in Paris, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus; she was also nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1954 for her work in Robert Wise’s corporate drama Executive Suite. Not quite a star, then, but still a not unimpressive resume, especially in an era in which there were far fewer jobs around for actors and actresses; if she’d been working today, she almost certainly would’ve gotten the chance to headline her own police procedural.
In the end, Foch’s greatest contribution to Hollywood was as a teacher. She joined the faculty at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the 1960s and stayed for over forty years, teaching a course on directing actors even while continuing to act in other productions. Along the way, she taught a number of students that would go on to have successful Hollywood careers – among them Robert Zemeckis, Edward Zwick, and Ron Underwood, as well as Lucas and Kleiser – and became something of an icon to those who went through her class. In championing an approach to method acting that demanded a comprehensive understanding of a script, Foch also put tools into the hands of directors, screenwriters, animators, and producers, as well. Her course wasn’t on acting, after all – it was on directing actors.
‘The method’ is a sort of catch-all term that refers to the dominant philosophy of acting in use today. Everyone has their own technique, some more extreme than others – Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, will famously stay in character for the entire period of time that he’s on a film set – but all aim at helping actors to inhabit their characters, feeling what they feel and understanding why they do what they do. It’s been parodied to death, but the line “What’s my motivation?” conveys a fairly accurate idea of what the method is about: if you understand what a character wants, you can more perfectly portray him onstage or onscreen. The few times that I’ve performed in plays, motivation and intention have always been the core questions that have to be answered for an actor to make a role his own.
Foch’s contribution was to expand the use of the method beyond acting. Rather than simply motivating the way that actors read their lines, she taught that the method could also clarify the words that they would say and the situations that they would get into; by extension, this meant that the method could be a strategy for approaching a project as a whole. I mentioned earlier that Randal Kleiser hired Foch as a script consultant on most of his projects. When I asked him how that worked, he told me that their strategy was, quite straightforwardly, to go through a script scene by scene and line by line to determine the action and intention of every unit of storytelling, line, scene, and act.
Actors, of course, bring their own interpretation and vision to their roles, and Kleiser noted that it was important to see what they had come up with on their own. At the same time, the actor’s performance in a given scene had to fit with everything that had already happened in the story and everything that would come after. Kleiser found that, in working with his actors, it became important to immediately know what to tell them. In rehearsing a play, there’s plenty of time for a director and actor to work together, to refine a character, to make adjustments large and small. In directing for the screen, one only has so many takes, and, since a film director has so many more people to work with than a stage director, he can’t invest as much time in working with his actors – meaning that it’s very important for them to figure it out as quickly as possible when they are working together. Foch’s method provides a concrete structure in which directors can work with their actors, helping make that time count. (As an illustration, Kleiser told me one story about Peter Horton, an actor and director. At one point, Horton was shooting a scene in which the featured character, who had lost her son, had to break down, but the actress couldn’t get the tears to come. Once Horton reminded her of the intentionality for the scene that he had worked out with Foch, to ‘call the son back,’ the actress was able to fit into the character again immediately.)
Going beyond the question of aiding performances, Kleiser also pointed to Foch’s approach as helping to streamline cinematic storytelling. Her approach to story was the same as it was to acting: essentially, understand and execute. For actors, and in directing actors, that meant understanding what a character was trying to do and acting accordingly. For directors and writers working on a story, it meant knowing what the story was about and making sure that everything that happened was related to that central idea.
Foch wasn’t the only one advocating that sort of simple approach, to be sure – but she did succeed in articulating it more clearly, and humorously, than anyone else. There’s a reason that she remained a respected educator of film for over forty years, and it’s obvious from the clips that are available from the Kleiser / Lucas DVDs: she set forward her goals directly, and jumped on anything she saw that wasn’t right. “No, you’re walking before you know where you’re going!” she barks in one clip at a student who’s aimlessly shambling towards the door; at another moment, showing a video to her class in which a man is taking a drink while talking to someone else, she asks her students, “Now, what the hell is he drinking for?”, with the obvious answer being that he doesn’t know. “She wasn’t there to be liked by us,” says Marshall Herskovitz, and it’s clear that Foch put up with no bullshit. It’s also clear that she got her message across. And, beyond her pedagogical pedigree, Foch had the credibility of someone who had worked in the industry with these techniques for years. When she offers up anecdotes about Dennis Hopper’s drug problems turning production on Apocalypse Now into a nightmare, you know she knows what she’s talking about.
Foch died in 2008, at 84, of complications resulting from a blood disorder; according to Kleiser, she taught right up to the day before she died. In light of that, the Lucas / Kleiser DVDs of Foch’s course are a tribute to their former teacher, a way of preserving her ‘amazing teaching legacy’ for future students to benefit from. The hope is that it can be more than that as well – a resource for professional actors and filmmakers who want to learn their craft better. (If that’s you, you can check out the website here.) And why not? Good storytelling doesn’t change, no matter how much technology does – after all, people still get pretty into this. If Foch’s approach helped Lucas to create Star Wars and Kleiser to make Grease, it probably has something to offer.