I have known Scott Coffey for many years, we both studied with Sandra Seacat and David Schermerhorn. Scott has experienced the actor's reality in Los Angeles and has made that rare move: becoming a successful director. His first film, Ellie Parker, has its own post on this blog--with a link.
Scott has completed Adult World with Emma Roberts and John Cusack. It has been selected by the Tribeca Film Festival 2013, but he is too busy editing to take notice of such things. I am very grateful that he has taken the time to answer my questions for this blog. These questions and answers took place via email. The first thing that strikes me about this interview is his honesty.
I really would like to hear about your journey from being an actor to where you are now as a director. To tell your story and perhaps inspire other young actors to follow their desire to direct, and not stop at fear or doubt.
1. What was being an actor like for you? Where did you train? What training was the most helpful to you?
How do you see the process for the actor in LA?
I had a hard time as an actor truthfully. I think I didn't have the training to feel confident and solid when I was young and became successful at it. A lot of that I think had to do with the material that was available for me. I had a couple of really great experiences when I worked with directors that were sensitive to the process but it took a lot for me to get out of my head and be present. By nature I'm a pretty self conscious person so sometimes acting compounded that.
Finally I found a technique and a few teachers that allowed me to find my footing and I began to work more honestly and deeply as an artist. David Schermerhorn and Sandra Seacat initiated me to myself in a way and I discovered a whole new way of working that I still draw upon today as a director. I always felt something was missing, and I learned to access myself more fully and that really helped me move onto becoming a director which I love and feel fully engaged in.
I think LA is a hard place and it's so important to stay mindful and present and not become unhappy by comparing yourself to other people's success or failure. It took a long time for me to learn that.
I have a huge love for actors and acting and the kind of stories I'm interested in are character driven and therefor all about the actor.
2. What was the first thing you directed? What were the major obstacles that you had to overcome and how did you?
Ellie Parker was really the first thing I directed and in a way it's really my story and my valentine to actors and LA but also expresses my horror and ambivalence about LA and acting. I wanted it to be fun, satirical but also truthful. It was hard to juggle those tones.
3. There are many young filmmakers with cameras and spunk who have watched a few movies and think they are directors now.
how do you distinguish between an amateur and a genuine filmmaker?
I guess that's a hard thing to judge. Again I think truthfulness and personal investment. I shot Ellie Parker myself on a tiny camera without a crew and in many ways I guess it is amateurish but I think that expresses a certain kind of life that a lot of young artists experience before they discover their voice. I wanted the movie to feel that way. I wanted it to have that kind of tension - to flirt with a narrative shapelessness that expressed a shapeless time in a young actors struggling life. But I also wanted to do it with humor.
4. How did this latest film come about? How do make a project happen?
I just directed a movie called Adult World and it's a small movie compared to a studio movie but much much bigger than Ellie Parker was. It deals with many of the same themes, finding an authentic voice and being true to it, not comparing yourself to others, the danger of relying on outside approval for your self worth... clearly this is some of my struggle. It's fun to put it in my art and try to illuminate that but poke a little fun at it. These seem like very American problems. I was given the script and rewrote it a ton over a year, on and off, and we finally got the money to make it.
5. What do you want from an actor on the set, when it is time to shoot, bottom line?
MOST IMPORTANTLY I WANT THEIR TRUST BUT YOU HAVE TO EARN THAT. Their trust that they can try anything and not be afraid to fail or make a "wrong" choice". To me one of the most important things a director can do to gain that trust is being a great audience. Watching. Empathetic watching. A kind of empathetic love. It's hard but it's great when that vibe is there. It's a true intimacy. I want experimentation and a sense of adventure.
6. What are the most frequent obstacles for actors in giving their best work?
GOD THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS. Often it's the insensitivity of the process from other crew members and producers. Apathy can be poison on a set even from a person that is just on the peripheral of a shoot. Creating a sacred space for the actors to work in and them knowing your in there with them is crucial. Again empathy.
7. How do you handle the actors?
HA. VERY CAREFULLY.
8.What is next for you?
I have a pretty ambitious project that has a lot of parts in it and I hope to make it this year. We'll see. It's about religion and home and sex and drugs and how we try to find home.
9. What advice do you have for a person starting out with a camera to shoot their first film?
Just pick it up and start fucking around. Learn how you see things and try to capture that with the camera.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.
SHOOT PEOPLE WITH LOVE.
10. How do you make it safe for actors on set emotionally? Do you utilize any Sandra/ David techniques as you talk to actors? How do you talk to them?
THIS IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST THING TO SO . IN SOME WAYS I THINK BY JUST BEING THE BEST AUDIENCE FOR THE ACTOR EVER IT HELPS THE DIRECTORS JOB.
LISTEN. WATCH. LET THEM TAKE THE SCENE IN A WAY THAT MAYBE YOU'VE NEVER SEEN IT.
ALLOW ACCIDENTS TO HAPPEN. THAT'S WHERE THE ART IS SOMETIMES.
DAVID AND SANDRA TAUGHT ME TO USE EVERYTHING. ALLOW ALL THINGS TO BE PART OF THE SCENE AND LIVE AND ALSO TO ALLOW AND EMBRACE EMOTIONAL OPPOSITES TO HAPPEN. IN FACT ENCOURAGE THEM. SOMETIMES SUBTEXT LIVES HERE AND THAT IS TREASURE.
(Scott on Opposites: "What I mean by opposites is that - and this is a hard thing to explain without experiencing it - as an actor you'll read a scene with a pretty clean dynamic emotion. Let's say you just found your mom died and you're shattered. That's a big challenge, to not just aim at the result of the emotion and instead, sometimes experiment with the opposite extreme-- emotion can get you to the truth of the moment. Big emotions and extreme feelings can all have really similar textures. By playing with the opposite extremes you often spontaneously can come to a bigger truth of the scene you're playing. Also this can add so many dimensions and subtext to a scene. Something is NEVER just sad only or happy or scared. A million things can be happening emotionally.")
YOU HAVE TO TALK TO THEM AS YOU WOULD YOUR DEEPEST INNER SELF. WITH LOVE AND COMPASSION BUT HUMOR TOO. NOT TAKING ANYTHING TOO SERIOUSLY.