Andrei Tarkovsky speaks about...

Film School Education

This is an excerpt of a transcript of an interview with Tarkovsky, conducted by Maria Chugunova for To the Screen, 12 December 1966. In the following excerpt he speaks about various aspects of the formal (film school) education of actors/actresses [ see also this page ] and film directors. The first English translation of this interview appeared as an Appendix in Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986, Seagull Books Private Limited, Calcutta, 1991, pp. 358-361. ISBN 817046083-2. English translation by Kitty Hunter-Blair.

Tell me about how you work with actors.

I don't work with them. I believe Marcel Carné or René Claire was once asked that same question, and he answered, "I don't work with them, I pay them." In my view, actors should not be told all about their function, or their meta-function, in a particular scene. As a rule, what I explain to the actor is the state he has to be in, what he has to be perturbed by, or excited by. It is through a grasp of these basic factors that the actor arrives at a clear understanding of the form and the essence of his actions. There are some directors who actually show the actors what they have to do, they try to find the exact movements that are going to help them.

What about you?

If an actor doesn't understand what I mean, then of course I might show him. But an actor has to be able to act, the only thing that ought to be explained to him is his own state of mind.

Can an actor improvise?

Yes, indeed, within the framework of the required state of mind. But when an actor can't find that state of mind, you have to be inventive; you sometimes have to think of devices of various kinds to help him. On the other hand, when you are driven to using such ingenuity it can only mean that the actor is not fully competent. I tremendously enjoyed working with Nikolai Grinko. He's an amazingly gifted and natural actor. He understands everything immediately. There is no need to explain anything.

What do you feel about the training at VGIK?

People have to study, but really if you want to be a director you would do better to take part in the making of one long film. The best course is the Advanced Course in Directing. It is absurd to spend six years studying in the Faculty of Directing, you might as well spend twenty years there, when you take into account the fact that only twenty percent of the total time is allowed for your speciality.

You can't teach a person the Art of cinematography any more than you can teach him to be a poet! The profession as such can be taught in a couple of months. Piano-playing has to be taught by someone, whereas writing you can learn only yourself, by reading other people's writings. And of course you have to be taught how to be an actor, only they are not being taught the right things. They don't know other languages, they can't ride. Nor can they fence, swim, or dive, or drive a car or motor-cycle. Doubles have to be used for all those things. The actors can't pronounce their words properly, they are not natural, but on the other hand they pass dozens of exams. What they need to be taught are things like hygiene and diet, and intense physical exercise. But all of that has to be done professionally. VGIK ought to enlist the services of leading cineastes who know how to teach. In my view, film actors should be taught by good film directors. Sergey Gerasimov is right to teach actors and directors together.

At the moment a lot of people straight off the street are being taken on as actors. And quite rightly. They will have parts in films, and they will become real actors, because they know what they want. There are plenty of VGIK graduates who imagine they are fully-fledged actors or directors, when in fact VGIK is merely a place where you can get a good degree; the whole thing only starts after VGIK. When you leave.

The main trouble with VGIK is that the professionals are not interested in it. None of the Studios know anything at all about people at VGIK. It is vital to break down the wall that separates VGIK from actual film production. I think they ought to have a year's practicum, working on an entire production. A year of specialist study and then a year of practicum, working on a full-length feature. Or maybe the other way around: the practical year first and then the Institute. The point is that VGIK can't go on being divorced from production. When we first came into the studios in our fourth year, we felt as if we were in some dense forest. The rules there were different, we had to do things we hadn't been taught to do. On the other hand a studio can't guarantee work for twenty people...

And then—how should candidates be selected? I only realized what I wanted to do when I was in my fifth year; before that I hadn't the slightest idea why I had come to VGIK. Only after working under Marlen Khutsiev did I begin to understand that this was something real, and important, and Art. Earlier I had been working on screen adaptations, and working with actors, but without knowing any of the whys and wherefores. I wanted to become a director, and I imagined I knew why, but in fact I only really understood why very recently.

First you have to be bitten by Cinema, you have to ask yourself if you are going to be able to do something in cinema, and only then should you go on and study. Lots of people who graduate from VGIK have a difficult time. We don't have a satisfactory selection system, and there is a tremendous amount of wastage. We remain oblivious of all the endless psychological tests that exist to establish what a person is likely to be good at. Surely there must be a way of finding out about somebody's professional potential? Then, of course, nobody actually knows what it takes to be a film director. That ought to be established. One is told that it is not possible to develop any system of that kind, but the fact is that nobody is giving it any thought. One way would be for a student to be apprenticed to a Master, as they were in the old days. Apart from all that, how can anyone live on twenty-eight roubles a month? The students are quite simply unfit for work; it's hardly surprising that no one will take them on. Engineers are needed all over the place, but directors are pretty well redundant. A director only becomes necessary when he has proved that he can do things better than other people. Then he'll be an Artist. All the rest are doomed to eke out an existence of the periphery of art, on the periphery of cinema. Once a person has been studying one thing for a year or two he hasn't the courage to give it up and start doing something else.

There ought to be quite a different form of training. They ought to see more films. The whole "new wave" was a result of film critics sitting in cinemas and watching huge quantities of films, after all! It's important to see the work of the great masters, and know it well, in order not to start reinventing the wheel. There aren't very many of them, perhaps only five; Dovzhenko, Buñuel, Bergman, Antonioni, Dreyer, and one or two others...

And then there's no time at VGIK to read. All you have time for is getting through the reading for the seminars. You don't read beyond certain works, or even just extracts, on specific themes. That's very bad. A person can only really assimilate what he reads when it has time to become part of him. If they were to read more at the institute, and watch more films, they wouldn't then start inventing things that have been invented long ago.

What are your plans now?

I have a great many plans. It's hard to say anything definite. I hope to be working again in the spring. I may make a film of The House with a Tower, based on Friedrich Gorenstein's short story.  end block

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