Earlier this year, members of Film Independent’s Project Involve and Directing Lab participated in a creative workshop from instructor Joan Scheckel. For years, Scheckel has been sharing an unique approach to storytelling—dubbed “The Technique”—with her students and collaborators, which include some of the most critically acclaimed creators in film and television.
Recently, Film Independent Director of Artist Development Jennifer Kushner sat down with Scheckel at her Hollywood bungalow to discuss how she came to The Technique, and what it means to tell more meaningful stories. (To read a previous interview with Kushner and Scheckel, click here).
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. To view the complete playlist of our Joan Scheckel interview series, please visit our YouTube channel.
So I was thinking about how, in different ways, we’ve both devoted a lot of our lives to working with artists and storytellers.
I wanted to create more access to my own sense of meaning and to be able to make images—to bring work that had a deeper sense of meaning. From a very young age, I felt that stories connect us through feeling and meaning. My life is dedicated to that. I wanted to push form, to break form. I never wanted to make anything that was a repeat.
I’m here to feel into and build 21st century structures that allow for the storylines that are not conflict-based, because stories hold the human context for meaning. That’s what they are, and it’s innate. We all tell stories before we can speak, before we can think. We’re telling ourselves stories in our dreams. The very first thing that we do is tell stories through images. All animals do it, as far as we know. But [for] human beings, the difference is that we seek to make meaning of what we dream.
What is the drive behind what you’ve created in terms of collaborating with other storytellers and artists?
It’s stories that matter, pure and simple. The stories we tell ourselves matter. These are the things that drive me and interest me.
I recently traveled in the Middle East where in many places free expression is increasingly becoming more limited. Here in LA, you take it for granted. We’re so lucky. But at the same time, the luckiness can make people lazy, so I think it’s really interesting to see this contrast. It made me appreciate how vital it is to keep the art form alive, to keep a generation going. To inspire people to make work at all.
Without stories that are connected to meaning, there is no culture. Period. Without stories that allow us to address and create culture, there’s no way to think through the issues that concern our time. That’s what stories are, that’s what myth is.
So let’s talk about 21st century storytelling and what that means and why we need it.
One part of my art has been to create a new process for art making. And I understand why no one else has done that, because who would want to spend 18 years of his or her lives figuring this stuff out? It’s very hard.
Yeah, it’s hard to find training in process. I’ve had a lot of artistic training in various forms, but it’s rarely about developing a process.
They’re teaching you something that somebody else thought of.
The Technique is a fully developed process I created in the way that Strasberg created his own process to getting more authentic performances. The Technique is a process for connecting meaning and feeling to storytelling that translates to performance, writing, directing, shooting and producing.
I recognized, Oh shit, nobody else has done this since Strasberg! It’s important to develop new approaches relevant to new times. I think about it like that because I was an actor first, and then a singer. In those art forms you sit there and you have to learn. You have to learn to handle props, you have to learn the character. You have to learn how to break down a script. It’s a craft. Ditto with singing. Yes, you can just sing, but if you want to sing opera, there’s a notion system and a rhythm system. It’s a form.
You have to learn the tools.
You have to learn the form, then you have to learn tools to create the form and then you can break form.
How do you sustain that as a craft, to keep doing it over and over again?
You know, I was a singer and singing is so direct. The whole point of singing is to pierce the heart. You sing, you fall in love, you cry, you get up and dance. Singing is supposed to have an immediate effect on the heart. I’m interested in pure unmediated feeling. So to create new tools, I had to question everything.
Do people watch film or television because they want to feel, or do you think it’s because they want to escape?
Listen, it’s not the audience’s job to think about that, necessarily. It’s the artist’s job to take the question you’re posing seriously. It’s like what we’re doing to the food system. My godfather raised cows, and I grew up with them too. So you knew that you’d slaughter a cow and you would eat a steak. You could make the connection between the cow and the steak that you were eating; you can’t necessarily make that connection anymore. And that leads to all sorts of sickness and disease. And stories do the same thing. In other words, we’re hungry for stories too. We’re starving for stories, and so we’ll go watch what’s in front of us. I have to turn on the TV or choose what movie to go to, and same as everyone else it comes down to what’s available.
I think I told you once that you were the slow food movement of storytelling.
[laughs] I am, kind of.
So how do we get that awareness of meaning into the mainstream?
Well, Transparent. This is the work I’ve been doing. Little Miss Sunshine. Whale Rider. Even Snow White and the Huntsman. I think that we have a responsibility to think about meaning, working with The Technique and training storytellers, collaborating with people like Nikki Caro, Jill Soloway, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Miranda July, Mike Mills, Rupert Sanders or Nick Jarecki—any of the folks I’ve worked with. So when Transparent goes out into the world, it’s got a core, its got a center, it’s got a nugget—the question, “Will you still love me if I… ?”
So in Transparent, I do a lot of structural work. And you feel the thought behind it. That thought is coming from The Technique. It’s coming from my work with Jill. It’s coming from my work with the writers, so it’s there. That’s how you get it in to mass entertainment. Stories are the human concept for meaning. I didn’t make that up, that’s what stories are. I just take it seriously and create the opportunity for other filmmakers and collaborators to take it seriously, too.
I’ve put a lot of energy and effort into holding space for authentic work, because it’s meaningful for me to do that. I wanted to plant a flag as a woman in Hollywood, and to do it with no financial resources, one assistant and a lot of passion, because I’m a catalyst. In that way I get to be who I am and if it resonates with someone else and inspires and gives meaning, then fantastic. I hope to inspire you.
To learn more about The Technique and Joan Scheckel, including information about upcoming seminars and workshops, please visit joanscheckel.com.
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