My Tai Chi teacher is a master. He lives in Denver. He’s one of those rare people that other masters seek out—like travel far and wide to find. The whole experience of training with him while I lived in Denver was esoteric—and I think I could write a TV sitcom pilot on how funny and weird that class was.
Anyway, he used to raise a brow when he’d ask students to do something and they’d do the exact opposite, or they’d do the wrong thing. Meanwhile, I am always imitating his every move. You could see in his face that he wants to shake his head when everyone wants to do their own thing; and this made me laugh.
One thing I learned from master teachers is this, and it’s very key: follow instructions.
If you just follow the master’s instructions to a tee, you can never go wrong. The problem is, everyone wants to express their own way and their own individuality.
But I am sure that if you follow the Master’s instructions, you yourself will become a master—because they know what they’re doing—and you just have to emulate them. So all I did in his class, in my yoga class and in any class where I have a high regard for a teacher is: I just follow directions. But there’s a caveat: you have to be able to identify bad teachers. In which case, you don’t follow directions—because you will develop bad habits.
When I was much younger, I studied with another Tai Chi teacher and he looked really freaked out when we were tested and I did my form. I think he looked impressed because I was imitating every one of his moves by the letter whereas everyone else was doing their own thing. I had no idea why other people couldn’t just imitate him—they’d be so better off. It’s almost as if people wanted to self-sabotage themselves by making learning so much harder. I was doing my form exactly the way he was doing it—not because I mastered anything—but I was just doing what he asked.
One thing I learned about this is that it applies to filmmaking as well. The actors that follow directions well are the ones that come out better. That is because once you follow the director’s directions, you have room to fill in the gaps and have room in the box to explore.
I could see this most with Vaunt (Baker Chase), who plays a bully. He’s a brilliant actor and can bring in his own thing to the character. But he did everything I said and never challenged why I asked him to do things a certain way. But because I gave him a “box” to fill in, he could add his brilliance to it. When you look at the final picture, you wonder how he could come off like such a thug—when really, he wasn’t trying that hard to be mean. He just filled his character into the space that was given—through the directions.
The same goes with almost all the actors. Most of them took directions extremely well. Brianna Joy Chomer was the best at it I think. For someone as talented as she is, I was surprised that she took my directions at all. LOL. And those that didn’t follow directions had their performance suffer on screen; what I mean by this is that the character’s motives didn’t TRANSLATE in the visual image—and I could see it; because they took directions but then forgot about it and did their own thing.
My job as a director is partly to make sure an internal moment and its visual translation doesn’t get missed. That is why when I ask for an exaggerated movement, it appears offbeat or contrived—but it’s very visual and on film, that visual will either look diminished or over-the-top. So there’s a balance.
I learned about the directions thing very early on in my film school days. No one taught it to me. It was just a matter of creative synergy.
I remember I did an actors study class and we had to work with the acting department in the school. I had a girl that argued and put me down every time I gave a direction. It was so combative and condescending that I learned very early on that you NEVER work with an actor that doesn’t follow directions. It was as simple as that. That was the first time I worked with an actor, and it was also the first time I “fired” one.
My Tai Chi teacher used to say he wouldn’t teach a newcomer because he could tell, “His cup is already full.” If your cup is full, you have nothing to learn. The cup full usually means the student has too much knowledge, too much arrogance. He has to do a lot of “un-learning” in order to learn.
In terms of acting, if you come up with your own way without following directions, you’ve already come to a conclusion and there is no room for growth; because your conclusions are limited by what you know. A person who is teaching you always sees outside your limitations.
These habits apply to almost anything in life.