Filmmaking To The Max: How to Handle Emotional Scenes

on-set
acting

(Kyla) #1

Hi! I’m Kyla, teenage filmmaker & creator of the teen drama webseries To The Max. This column will serve both as a production diary and an ever-growing list of how I’ve found my way around every issue I’ve come across and every mistake I’ve made.

To start this column, I will begin with the wise words sung by one of my actors (which you can find on our Instagram page on the “march 2 shoot” story): “Angst! Angst! So much teen angst! It’s like having an angst party, yeah! Except everyone’s depressed and moody! Woo!"

That’s a basic summation of the show I’m currently working on, To The Max. It’s not truly about teen angst at its core, but since it is about teenagers, there is a whole lot of it that goes on as the characters try and navigate their teenage drama and some actual plot-related stuff. I don’t know how well you adults remember your teenage years, but I’m sure you remember the angst. And the tears. And the “no one understands me” or “it’s not a phase mom” or “you know my name not my story” or some variation thereof. It’s a fun time, isn’t it?

With all this teen angst, that means we have a whole lot of emotional scenes. There are friends opening up to friends about their fears and their convoluted wishes, huge blowout arguments about relationship drama and betrayals, and moments of trying and failing to understand other people’s grief. For all the drama that occurs, it gets pretty human. (You know, if teenagers are human anyways.)

I chatted with three of my actors to get their thoughts on the emotional scenes we filmed, giving them full permission to roast me in the process because it’s a learning experience and I know I definitely handled some things wrong. Those quotes, as well as my opinion because I’m both egocentric and the one actually writing this column, make up the following list of guidelines for when you film an emotionally intense scene.

KNOW YOUR HOW YOUR CHARACTER IS FEELING

Maya Tomala, who plays Melinda Kavinsky, extremely eloquently says it best: “It needs to be emotional but it also needs to be emotional for like the emotional level of your character like be emotional in general but you still need to stay in character through the emotionalness.”

In other words, you’re not always going to be super similar to your character, unless you’re me and you just play an over-exaggerated and immature but still normally bitchy version of yourself. But you can’t get emotional as yourself-- you have to know what your character’s feeling, what your motivations are, how your character carries anger or grief or sadness.

HAVE PATIENCE AND DON’T RUSH IT

I know one of my worst errors was rushing emotionally intense scenes and not having patience with actors, especially when they didn’t know their lines. There was a huge difference between a scene we filmed over a month and a half ago and a scene we filmed last Saturday. The scene from over a month and a half ago had a strict schedule and one of our props was not functioning as planned, so emotions were running high and not in a productive way, and it generally wasn’t the best experience for the people involved. On Saturday, however, our schedule got absolutely demolished the night before and we just knew we had about four hours from when everyone got there to when one of our actors had to leave, and we took our time with a scene that was both emotionally and physically intense, and though mistakes were made on that day as well (which we’ll get to), it was a much easier day.

Ben Faulknor, who plays Benjamin Wright, on what he think would be better the next time he filmed an emotionally intense scene: “Yeah it’s frustrating but just being patient I think maybe with the actors cause keep in mind we’re all like fricking teenagers and stuff and we have like no filters whatsoever.”


Daria Miran (as Heather) and Ben Faulknor (as Benj), clearly having broken character because I honestly don’t think Benj has ever actually smiled in this entire webseries. TEEN ANGST!

LEARN THE SEPARATION BETWEEN ACTOR AND CHARACTER

Actors handle things differently when it comes to character immersion. Some, like Daria Miran (who plays Heather Jackson) finds it easier to become the character in these emotional scenes.

When talking about what she thinks is most important to keep in mind while filming emotional scenes, she said: “Honestly just like pretending that you are the character. I’m not Daria anymore and I’m Heather and this is what I’m feeling and I am telling Benj this and like Benj is going through a hard time and I need to comfort him.”

On the flip side, Maya believes in some separation between actor and character. “I don’t think you should treat it as you. Like you should be like ‘this is the character, this is what the character’s feeling’ and you can pull from your own experiences like ‘I felt something similar here’ but just don’t go-- it’s a thin line to not go too far into experiences that you had that have been just as emotional, but it’s also a good thing to have there just as a [snaps fingers] so you know how to feel there.”

(No word on the meaning of the fingersnap, aside from her telling me to just omit it.)

SPEAK UP AND ENCOURAGE COMMUNICATION

“Don’t like, risk yourself.” The wisest of words from Maya.

If you’re acting in a scene, whether it’s emotional or not, and you’re not comfortable doing something or you have reservations about a line or a scene, talk to your director! Any sane person will not make you so through with something that you genuinely don’t want to do.

On the flip side, directors, check in with your actors. Make sure they’re okay and they feel comfortable doing what you’ve asked.

And overall-- although I am most definitely a massive hypocrite for saying this-- this webseries is NOT everything. Don’t suffer in silence to get an amazing take. Don’t go through with something dangerous, mentally or physically, because it’ll make the scene better. Your health matters most. I know I have a habit of doing things to get shots that I would never subject anyone else to because it’s dangerous or painful. Don’t be like me.

BE PREPARED

Daria and Ben both separately denoted this as the most difficult part of filming an emotional scene, specifically in terms of line memorization.

Daria said: “And like the hardest thing probably is when you’re kinda in the zone and you’re like really passionate about something and then it just stops and you’re like ‘oh’ and then you have to start again.”

Ben had basically the same viewpoint, saying: “It gets hard to try and get back into some things when if people, including me, don’t have their lines fully memorized then you kinda lose your mindset of what you’re doing because then people start laughing and then it kinda gets out of control.”

On the topic of laughing, Maya said “If you laugh at other people being emotional, do it quietly so you don’t ruin the scene” which is… questionable advice.

However, she did discuss being prepared in a different way. There was one shoot day when we had a basic scene and then a scene where she just straight up sobbed, no lines or anything. “I prepared for the first scene we were doing that day but didn’t really think to prepare for the other one because I’m like, ‘I don’t have lines I just need to look sad’. I think still just prepare for it mentally.”


Maya Tomala, unprepared to look sad but still a total icon anyways

THE BOTTOM LINE: Communication, patience, and having your own methods for being in character are absolutely key. Angst safely!


(William E. Spear) #2

Kyla @kmd - Tremendous post; thank you for sharing both insight and experience. Please permit me to ask the following: What do you think of encouraging actors in emotional/stressful scenes to save a bit of intensity in case circumstances present an opportunity to go a notch or two higher? It seems part of the discovery of the character/scene/story that can’t always be rehearsed. Please accept wishes for continued success with TO THE MAX.


(Bri Castellini) #3

For newb directors (who are usually the writers) this so often gets overlooked. Actors aren’t machines, and even though they’re there to do a job just like your gaffers and DPs, their job has very different rules and they have very different needs. You can’t treat everyone on a film set the same and that doesn’t make them “sensitive” or “snowflakes,” that makes them skilled in a different way.


(Kyla) #4

so sorry for the late response! that’s a great idea and something I’d love to explore further while both acting and directing. I feel though that that does depend on what kind of scene you’re doing and who you’re working with; for example that kind of improvisation when it comes to intensity can be harmful when the scene is as physically intense as it is emotionally, or if you’re working with an actor who goes a little too method. it’s like walking that line regarding separation of character and actor-- a lot could be discovered about the character/scene/story, but it could also prove harmful, if that makes any sense.