Jonathan Peel '18 interviewed actor/writer Stephen Tobolowsky ("The Tobolowsky Files") during his fall visit to Cornish College of the Arts. Currently preparing his BFA thesis film, Peel received invaluable tips from Tobolowsky on the duration of the story, how to direct an actor, and more.
By Jonathan Peel
This October, I had the opportunity to sit down with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and put a few questions to him as a soon-to-be Cornish graduate entering the world of filmmaking. To start our session together, Tobolowsky posed his own question.
Tobolowsky: How do you think crafting a story for a film is different than crafting a story for a TV show?
Peel: I would say the duration of the story.
Tobolowsky: Duration of the story. So a film is approximately 90 minutes. And a television show, single camera, could be 30 minutes or and hour. Right, so the difference is duration?
Peel: It could be.
Tobolowsky: It’s possible. I think it isn’t a matter of length of time, but how you fill the time. This is what I would say, in answer to my own question about the difference between film and television: In film, you really have to finish your story. One story: Act I, Act II, Act III. People want to see an ending, a conclusion. In television, it’s about not ending. It’s about avoiding Act III as long a possible. If you have an Act III, it means your series is canceled. Everybody is saying, ‘What’s the last Lost gonna be?’ Finally you have to get to the end, but until then you’re going to keep trying to reintroduce new Act I’s. Over and over and over again, not just at the beginning of the show. Maybe during Sweeps Week you’ll have one major character that is killed, as rising action of Act II. But the purpose of television is to never get to Act III. Whereas in film you have to have a complete narrative, in TV your goal is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible. You have to learn about reinventing Act I … In TV, as a writer and a director, you have to develop the craft of starting Act I again artfully.
Peel: What is one valuable thing I, as a director, can offer you, as an actor?
Tobolowsky: Three answers come to my head: one, don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m not sure this is working, take a look at this. We’ll look at the monitor and discuss it together.’ A lot of times, directors are afraid to say that to an actor. Actors want to know if something is awful. We don’t want our parts to get cut out, we’d rather try to fix it. Talk through the story with your actor. If you talk to me in terms of the story, instead of as to whether I suck or not, I’ll be able to listen to that. Use the narrative as the third safe person. The elephant in the room can help you.
Two, 90% of the notes I get from a director are, ‘That’s great, can we just pick it up? Just make it a little faster.’ As an actor and director, understand that pacing is really important. Tightening your performance up will almost always be important in making a project work.
Three, don’t say, ‘Give me more.’ Be specific in your direction. This is why it’s good for directors to take acting classes, to know what to be specific about. ‘More’ doesn’t mean anything.
Peel: How do your roles as a director and an actor inform each other?
Tobolowsky: As a director, you must understand the hierarchy of focus. As an actor, if you have a good line, stand there and say it. Don’t move, just say it. If as an actor I give a line an odd lilt, what takes precedence is not what I say, but the odd inflection of the line. Saying the line in an odd way will usurp the meaning of the line, and as an audience, we will only hear the odd inflection. Next, if you move as an actor, we don’t hear anything you say at all. Movement usurps everything. Same thing is true with the camera. If the camera is moving while the actors are talking, we are aware of the camera primarily, and then we are aware of what the actors do. And you can use this, both as a director and as an actor ... Often I’ve been in auditions where you have boilerplate material. As an actor, I can walk on that and make the line more interesting … but at the key part of the line, I stand still ... If you have a moving camera with an actor, the performance has to be more naturalistic. If the camera is on sticks, it becomes a proscenium–a stage–and I can be as big as I want. The more the camera moves the more naturalistic the performances have to be.
Peel: The camera is almost a part of your acting.
Tobolowsky: Definitely. It’s like when you do voice-over, where is your arena?
Peel: The sound booth. The microphone.
Tobolowsky: That’s your arena. When you do theatre, it’s the whole theater. When you do film, it’s whatever lens they have on the camera. That’s why I ask the director and cinematographer beforehand how they’re thinking of shooting the shot … In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Where’s my performance gonna play best?’ I’m thinking here’s my frame, here’s my arena. You have to work with how the director sees the scene.
Peel: As a writer and an actor, how do you ensure your work is authentic? How would you define authenticity in filmmaking?
Tobolowsky: Narratives have nothing to do with emotion or creating emotion. Human beings are emotional 24/7. We’re always emotional. What narratives are about is clarity. You’re trying to be clear and the camera will capture every bit of emotion in the world. So the idea is, as a writer, you want to write something that is truthful; situations that have conflict, situations of jeopardy, and situations of triumph. Let them be true; just write them and the emotion will be authentic. But if you are aiming to create an emotion, it’ll be like painting this wall. It’ll all be yellow ... As a director or as a writer you don’t aim for an emotion; you tell a story where the emotion is the surprise.
There are multiple truths that you’re working with if you’re talking about truth in film. There’s journalistic truth, where you’re reporting a series of events. There’s emotional truth, which rises and falls with the series of events. There’s spiritual truth–which might be what you’re talking about–it doesn’t really have to do with the emotion of the scene, or with the events of the scene, but something that’s happening on a broader plain beneath everything else that’s truthful. All of those can be compelling. The one thing I’ll say is, to be authentic, know what you’re talking about. Tell the stories you know and the stories you observe to be true. And to that, it isn’t a matter of being inventive, it’s a matter of being a good listener. If you are a good listener to the world, and you watch, and you take note, you will see many things that are true.