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SCHECKEL, JOAN

HE WHO DARES …WRITES WELL
Filmmakers need to think more daringly, more creatively, urges leading American film coach Joan Scheckel, who avoids formula but teaches brilliant improvised solutions, as Andrew L. Urban discovers in a conversation with her on the eve of Scheckel’s Australian tour.


On the promotional literature for Joan Scheckel’s Australian tour in July and August, one quote in particular caught my eye: it was from Australian filmmaker Christina Andreef, who wrote and directed Soft Fruit, a film I both admired and thoroughly enjoyed – as did the Sydney Film Festival audience, among many others. Andreef said of Scheckel: “Joan is a born teacher with a rare gift. You learn to improvise brilliant solutions to script problems you don’t even have words for.”

Other filmmakers rave about her classes being “exhausting, exhilarating and effective...” (Mark Romanec, director of One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams); or “she’s amazing, perceptive, deeply intellectual, warm, beautiful, funny and humane all in one teacher and performer…”(Laurie Parker, producer for Gus Van Sant and Tim Burton). But it was Andreef’s words that were foremost in mind when I telephoned her at her West Hollywood home, the day before she flew to Australia. 

"with a special gift"

It was early evening in Los Angeles, and Scheckel took my call near the window of her apartment overlooking the famous Hollywood sign up on the hill. 

When I asked her when did she discover that she was a born teach with a special gift, Scheckel gave a pleased but embarrassed little laugh, demurring the compliment; “it was Christina who discovered that and I thank her for it.” But the strange fact is, Andreef was damn near right. Scheckel was just three years old when she recalls an incident which is the source of her work today. She was taken to see The Sound of Music, and when the impressionable little girl got home, she wanted to try and sing like the people in the movie. And she did. “I don’t remember my thoughts, but I do remember the feeling I had – that it was me singing. The film had taught me to sing. I was singing – the voice was coming from inside me. And I could always make that sound.”

Now it wasn’t a discovery that she would not have made otherwise; the point to her was that it was the film that inspired her. It had communicated powerfully to her. “I have been fascinated by the whole thing ever since – how you could communicate to the world through feelings. And that film is a dialogue with the audience.” 

When she grew up, she embraced professional performance and spent several years acting all over New York. About five years ago, she began to blur the line between directing and coaching when working with actors. First it was just one actor in her living room, working on a script. Next, it was a directors’ workshop. 

And then, in one of those strokes of luck that writers aren’t supposed to invent for their scripts, Scheckel was offered the free use of a sound stage for her lectures and workshops. And not just any stage, but the one Charlie Chaplin had built. “It’s about 35,000 square feet and it was perfect. I still can’t get over how that coincidence turned up just at the right time. Space in Los Angeles is hard to find – especially free!” (The studio had been hired and paid for by a production that had stalled and the producer let Scheckel use it until they were ready to shoot. It took a year.)

Scheckel continues to act and direct (she’s currently co-writing a biopic of Australian artist Mirka Mora with young Australian writer Berry Liberman, and a doco on the Trans Siberian Railway for IMAX) as well as teach. “Perhaps that’s why actors and directors feel so comfortable with me, because it’s not coming from anything theoretical. It’s coming from on the job experience.”

"the emotional logic of the character"

But what’s Scheckel offering that differs from course in film school? “Well, one short answer is that in most film schools, directors are not taught about acting…or taught very little. And I think that’s a real problem, because you’re telling a story not through ideas; you’re telling a story through feelings. That’s what actors do. So to be trained in acting, puts you in touch with what I call the emotional logic of the character. That assists so profoundly when you’re trying to write.

“What I’m really trying to do is to start with the core: what is it that you want to express with this film? And how is that going to become visual, how does it become performance, how does it become musical, editing, camera movement. So we start from the emotional, centre and how is that visualised through all the art forms necessary to make a film.”

And when she says ‘daring’, she doesn’t mean go naked and shock people. “Any time you speak out exactly what it is you want to say and how it is you want to say it, it feels incredibly daring. I’m not saying do something shocking, that’s not it. It has to do with having the courage to write what you want and to say how you want to make a film.” But, she adds, this has nothing to do with ego. It’s just being able to accurately articulate what you want and like.

Interestingly, she also maintains that being ‘daringly’ clear about what you want to say and how also means it is easier to work the collaborative process that is film. You don’t have to try and push through something from a blunt egotistical point of view of ‘my control’ but you can relax in the comfort of clarity of vision. “The confidence to collaborate…”

With each client, as she calls her students, Scheckel first explores the details, the meaning and the elements of the proposed screenplay. She gets her clients to write out it out in full. Each script is unique, and she has no template or formula, but she has some basic ideas. Such as “character is plot” because a man is what he does. “And he does what he feels. And that’s what you do when structuring a plot. You ask, what does this guy do in this scene or that scene. So character and plot are completely linked for me. That’s why we do character study. Then we’ll say, how’s this structured.”

And when it comes to characters being ‘accessible’, for Scheckel that goes back to clarity. “If I can understand what this person is doing and why, then he’s accessible to me. Not because he’s likeable….and Hollywood is so crushed by the likeable character! Like Aristotle says, it needs to be simple, clear and easy to follow, and then we’ll go anywhere…to the most complex character or structure!”

"a film coach"

Scheckel has worked as a film coach on over 100 feature films and her writing and directing ‘laboratories’ are favoured by Sundance, among others. In Australia, Scheckel began her tour with An Evening With Joan Scheckel in Sydney on July 18, at $45 per seat, in a session aimed at professional filmmakers. The Filmmakers’ Lab, from July 20 to 30 (held at NIDA) is an intensive course for a maximum of 27 filmmakers to workshop their advance level scripts prior to production. Cost: $1,750 per person.

But the general lab, August 2 – 4 (at the Bangarra Dance Theatre, STC Wharf), at $544.50, is open to all. “This is for anyone who wants to write a screenplay. You never know where that creative spark in somebody is hiding. Storytelling is natural for people.”

Published July 25, 2002

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