Monday, June 1, 2015

Dustin Hoffman's online Master Class in acting is a treat for actors and directors alike

I get a fair amount of offers and requests in my inbox. It's not often between emails from someone asking me to promote their new podcast, or their new blog, or to push some screenwriting service they have. To be straight with you, I decline most of these. Sometimes it's because it's readily apparent this person is just spamming EVERYONE they can find connected to screenwriting and has read maybe half a post of mine.

I also am often reluctant to plug new podcast and blogs because I've seen too many people give up after a matter of weeks when their audience fails to show up. I also take my endorsements pretty seriously, so I'd hate to plug someone and then have them turn out to be a total nutcase. On top of that, it's a time commitment. If you're reaching out asking me to promote your screenwriting book, I'm probably going to politely decline unless you've got some serious credibility or there's a really unique angle. I've wasted enough of my life reading screenwriting books, so unless it's something I'd HAVE to read upon seeing it at Barnes & Noble, I'm probably not going to read it.

All this is preamble to saying that when I first got an invitation to check out a new online Master Class on acting, my impulse was to decline. Then I saw it featured none other than Dustin Hoffman. Consider my curiosity piqued. I have zero interest in Joe Schmoe's online acting class, but a two-time Oscar Winner? That's a different story.

Here's the nuts and bolts. The class costs $90 for 24 videos. Most of those videos are in the 12-15 minute range, though there are a couple closer to 7 and 8 minutes long. Just for the sake of argument, let's say it averages out to 12 minutes a video. That's giving you close to five hours of instruction. You also have lifetime access to all the videos and materials.

The videos are generally broken into two categories: 14 of them are essentially Dustin Hoffman speaking to the camera and the students directly. This is more or less the lecture series part of the class. He tells a lot of personal stories, but relates them to both the technique of acting and the profession of acting.

A running theme through many of these concerns honesty in performing. One of the first things Dustin says is that he doesn't want to see someone on-screen "being a prick," he wants that actor to "show the prick in them." His method is less about pretending and more about harnessing an emotion within you, the actor, and imbuing the scene with it. He's a big proponent of real emotion in a scene rather than "recalling" emotion. Multiple videos discuss how to achieve this, and often from different angles.

As someone who has never taken an acting class, I found it compelling. Also, I've read and seen interviews with Hoffman over the years, but I can't consider myself an expert on his anecdotes. Most of the stories he related were new to me. If you're a Hoffman fanatic, I can't say how many you'd know already.

(The reason I bring this up is that when dealing with artists I've studied closely, read their memoirs, seen their interviews and such, I find I know most of the anecdotes they'll tell. As a massive Billy Joel fan, I've gotten to the point where I could probably accurately anticipate the answer to any question Billy is asked, even in deeper-dives like the James Lipton interview. But then again, if you're that much of a fan, you're probably paying $90 bucks for the class anyway.)

As a non-actor and someone who's more interested in directing, the highlight of the course for me was the other 10 videos, which encompass two scene workshops. Each of these scenes evolves over five videos with Hoffman directing two actors. The first scene is the break-up scene from Jerry Maguire, and to my mind, it's the more successful of the two both from an instructional standpoint and a performance standpoint.

It's fascinating to watch Dustin guide the actors as they go from performing what they've prepared to really tapping into the scene. You can tell that the young actress in the scene, Molly, knows it cold and seems to have even her smallest reactions and movements down. I noticed this because later, as Dustin takes them further and further off-book, you can spot moments where she reincorporates a specific head-nod or gesture back into the scene. (This isn't a critique of the actress, as it doesn't feel like she goes the extra step into having over-rehearsed.) Her companion, Nick, seems to be looser and maybe a little less connected to the material at the start. It benefits the scene because he seems more pliable to Dustin's techniques and you can feel their chemistry working from early on as he initially reacts to her.

I've directed a few things, and I've even visited a couple sets of TV shows during production, but I've never really had the opportunity to watch a director work with actors. In TV, not only does time not afford such a thing, but on longer-running shows, the actors tend to know their characters inside and out. Mr. Hoffman's videos introduced me to a different sort of language in talking to the actors.

At one point, he tells them to just run the lines, no performance. It appears what he's doing is essentially pushing a reset button, trying to get them to unlearn what they think they know about the scene. He moves on to asking them about themselves, and it gradually becomes clear he's trying to get them in an emotional state of mind that will be appropriate for the scene. The process is geared towards entering that particular state of mind. He even tells them "Text is the last fucking thing." He's less concerned with them getting every syllable, comma and period right than he is with them building a emotionally true performance.

My film school education was more about the technical directing and the writing side of filmmaking than it was about interacting with actors. I've been lucky to cast actors who have given me what I wanted and often gone beyond it. I've rarely had an actor who needed a lot of help to find what worked for those scenes in question. Dustin's videos were a revelation, a light bulb that went off that said, "Oh, this is how the give-and-take works when your actor isn't starting on the same page as you."

A second scene workshop uses a scene from Good Will Hunting and that was equally effective even though to my mind, the actors weren't as connected with each other and the material for long parts of it. It's an opportunity to see Mr. Hoffman try the same techniques and get more varied results. The Jerry Maguire scene resulted in a lot of interesting variations that each had their own merits. The GWH sequence feels like more of a struggle and that ultimately is at least as instructive as the more successful sequence is.

The Master Class also has an interactive element that goes beyond the comment section of each video. Dustin has "Office Hours," where students can record a video question for him and eventually get a video response from Dustin personally. These tend to be pretty comprehensive and thought-out answers too.

On top of that, actors can film themselves performing some of the provided scenes and submit them for critique. It doesn't appear that Dustin critiques all the scenes (the submission period only just closed this weekend), but seeing him offer feedback on any performance would probably be valuable to most actors.

I asked a couple actor friends of mine what they thought of this program, explaining to them the basics of it and the cost. They said that most acting classes are $50 for each class and that you generally take an 8-week class. To put it another way, that's an investment of $400 over 2 months. These actors were quick to note that they felt direct feedback on their own performances was one of the more valuable aspects of a normal acting class, and that's one thing Mr. Hoffman can't precisely offer.

However, the cost for this is less than 25% of what an actor might spend on such a class and at that rate, they felt that everything Master Class said it offered would be worth it from their point of view. I believe one of them straight up said, "They're gonna make a lot of money with this." I might not be able to speak about this as an actor, but the people who could, felt that the course as I described it had value.

And as I already said, speaking as a director, this got me thinking about actors in a different way. It made me want to direct another short soon just so I could apply some of what I saw Dustin doing. As far as I'm concerned, Dustin Hoffman and his Master Class team have put together a very informative series of videos that cover a great breadth of essential information.

You can find the Dustin Hoffman Master Class here.

1 comment:

  1. Well written review. Thanks.

    I've been curious about this since I first saw it advertised. I'm trying to be a screenwriter, but I've done a little (awful) acting and I've always been interested.
    I've taken a screenwriting course, and have considered taking an acting course but have been turned off by the time commitment.

    Anyhow, thanks a lot for the review and good luck with directing your short. (I have a couple short scripts that I'll never do anything with, if you wanna take a look)

    Have a good one,

    ps. Really enjoy your site/posts/blog