Last week, in Hackney's London Fields, I shot a scene for Rouzbeh Rashidi's new feature film, provisionally titled Closure Of Catharsis. Rouzbeh intentionally works without a script and outside the bounds of traditional storytelling, instead, his cinematic style is rooted in the poetic interaction of image and sound, letting his actors respond to their immediate situations in order to create “moments” of cinema. His film language is completely personal, it would be impossible for me to reference any other filmmaker to help you understand it, you'd have to watch his films for yourself. However, suffice to say, his was an aesthetic which completely bowled me over when I first discovered his work. And so, it was against this background, I approached my first collaboration with the young Irish-Iranian filmmaker.
The scene in question was to be an improvised monologue, I would be the only person infront of the camera. There was no rehearsal, Rouzbeh gave me only very brief instructions as we made our way to the location, and were something along the lines of; “you are trying to remember something, something you have repressed because of it's traumatic impact upon you, but now you are really struggling to bring forth the memory”. He told me that the memory could be real or something I just made up, or a mixture of both. Now, the object of all of my work is to avoid the hideous feeling of falsity which comes via bad acting. And the way that I have taught myself to do this is by turning everything into a concretely doable task, or action, something I can actually do or try to do, because this keeps me grounded in truth. So, in the few minutes between receiving my instructions and beginning my work before the camera, I reasoned thus:
“a memory I cannot remember is a mystery, and I have been asked to remember something I've forgotten, therefore, my task is to solve a mystery”.
To solve a mystery is doable. It also frees me from having to “invent” something, and by that I mean, inventing a memory within the improvisation and then pretending to forget it and then pretending to remember it. So, what I am doing as an actor and as a character is exactly the same, and what I hope to give the director is the truth, so what you see is not me pretending to remember something, but me trying to remember something in actuality. The objective of the character is to unlock a repressed memory, and what I am doing is trying to solve a mystery, and the mystery for me is: what am I actually going to remember for the purposes of the improvisation.
The danger of improvisation is that the actor tries to manufacture a result because the clock is ticking and he may feel he should produce SOMETHING. I believe that we should be very patient in improvisation, and simply wait until something happens within our given circumstances. So that's exactly what I did after I sat on the bench, I just waited with the camera turned on me, confident that my action of “to solve a mystery” would begin to work for me, and that I would start to move and speak truly. I did absolutely nothing for what seemed an eternity (it may only have been a few moments). There were occasions where I almost succumbed and was about to speak merely because it would've made me feel like I was doing my job and not as a result of any genuine impulse, but mercifully I resisted and those moments passed.
At the beginning of shooting, the camera is always oppressive to me, I am always conscious of it, it is like a flame too close to my face and I want it to go away, and I am horribly self-conscious which means it's almost impossible to do work that is anything other than mechnical. Rouzbeh would disappear for long walks, maybe for 10 or 20 minutes he would go off for, and leave me with the camera rolling, which did make it easier for me to be patient because I may have felt more pressure to produce something had he remained present. Mercifully however, it was not long before my performance instincts took-over, suddenly I love the camera and long to deliver provocative moments for it to record, I am no longer worried about what I should do, but I'm looking around the park, responding to the environment; a couple of unleashed dangerous-dogs come a-sniffing nearby, a squirrel darts across some branches, a jogger cruises by oblivious to the camera, while some schoolgirls giggle at it. For me, this is all grist to the mill, providing me with something concrete to respond to, taking me out of myself, and thus enabling my action to do it's work in my sub-conscious. And, in time, a mystery did emerge, something about dogs from my childhood and something about an old 14 inch black and white television, also from my childhood. And the mystery became about understanding the link between the television and the dogs which was never actually resolved during the improv.
Very curiously, after awhile, I began to feel as though the whole of London Fields belonged to me, and that all the passersby were merely extras in the film, orchestrated by Rouzbeh. I also felt as though I was now in a bubble, and that I could not leave the frame within which I had been placed, but not necessarily unwillingly, but more like a character from a Beckett story, voluntarily and involuntarily immobile. I felt sad when Rouzbeh drew the improvisation to a close, after what, he revealed to me, had been a 2 hour non-stop session (I had lost all sense of time). Of course, I was mentally drained, plus the cold weather had started to get to me, which meant I was probably producing very little that was worthwhile by this point, nontheless, I didn't want to leave my little kingdom where I had felt so imprisoned to begin with, but now felt so at home.
As an actor, I never concern myself with the outcome of my work, I never try to artificially create a result, if a provocative moment is brought forth, then terrific, acknowledge it and move on, it would be false to try to recreate it. I don't know if what I have produced in this film is any good, and I wont know until I see the finished film, and even then I will only measure my performance in relation to my intentions, but of course, in my heart I hope I have done my job well. The most satisfying aspect of my work on Closure Of Catharsis however, was how my technique worked for me, almost independently of any conscious effort on my part, a very real mystery was brought forth, and I tried my best to resolve it. This this is the pay off of an habitual approach to craft.