FROM IMPROV TO FILM DIRECTING WITH MIKE ROHL

Giles Alderson and Christian James chatted to the fantastic director Mike Rohl this week.

You’ll have seen his work on films & TV shows like Shadowhunters, Smallville, Supernatural, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and The Princess Switch.

In his 20s, Mike was trying to figure out what he really wanted to do when he discovered an improv theatre in Calgary and started doing comedy part-time. 

“Being in that environment opened my mind up completely to the idea of artistry and creation. And the idea that people have their own unique voices. And getting past our self-editing systems, which is the core of improv: just being open and spontaneous.”

He then found and attended a small film school, which he financed by doing improv gigs. After that, he moved to Vancouver and got work as an AD, while directing his own short films on the side.

“And then I got noticed by a producer I was working for and he offered me an episode of television and the directing took off after that.

I started to realize that improv is really great, but it’s first draft material. When you spend your life digging into scripts and breaking them down and looking for subtexts or the red thread. All the narrative components and really seeing how important story and structure are for an outcome. It just melted away.”

Transitioning into a Full Fledged Director

Mike said that as an AD you’re on the outside, watching some of the action, but as a director “you get to be on the inside. It’s a unique position because you get to see exactly how everything works. When you’re watching somebody else do the stagings and talk to the actors, you’re on the outside. You’re not at risk.

And then to be inside, it was this surreal feeling of free-floating, not attached to anything. It was a little freaky at the very beginning, but I had enough experience doing the short films and AD-ing that I got through it.”

Lessons Learned From The First Films Made

“I don’t regret (any of the first films) because anytime you get to be on a set and direct actors and work on stages and with cameras, that’s totally a valuable experience that you can put in your little toolbox of experience.”

After getting into directing, and getting busier and busier with jobs, the writing fell by the wayside a bit.

“I was really stuck in that momentum of wanting to keep this thing going, because being a film director is probably the most unlikely place that my parents ever thought I would end up, in Western Canada, especially at that time. There was no film industry… It’s a different feeling now.”

His Key To Success

He says that “there’s a difference between episodic television, TV movies, and feature films. I always tried to keep trying to get it as movie-ish as I could, mostly in the stylization and the look.

I found that the key to success was the actors. I had a good peer group and we all agreed that the route to success is the actors.

Learning how to talk to actors properly, to figure out the best way to communicate; becoming a performance director; and then obviously shot-making, and the technical side of things is very important, but if you can make performance really good, then the people you’re working for might notice that more than anything else.”

Working As A Director on The Princess Switch

Mike said that being able to discuss the direction of the film, in broad strokes with writer Robin Bernheim was really beneficial for him.

“Once we got the script, my process would be to read it a bunch of times and get the structure in my head, and try to get as deeply in there as I can.

I break down each character first and their needs and desires and what their goals are. I try to get that really clear in my head. And then I started breaking it down into the technical things, not too deeply until I get the locations, but I get feelings for shots, or how I’m going to stage it.”

His primary focus is always on the red thread and the arcs. Making sure that “desire lines are understood and what the tactics could be.”

The Princess Switch was a very technical movie, so Mike found that he needed to be the “guiding light on set. 

I’m there to control things, to keep the momentum going. That’s part of the toolbox too because I was an AD for so long. I can stand on a set within the first two hours of a day and know how the day’s going to go. I just have an instinct for it now, so then I can make adjustments in logistics and production or on a technical artistic side.

To hear more advice and insights from Mike, listen here.

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