In a 4,000-square foot Los Angeles loft strewn with vintage furniture and lit with skylights and Chinese lanterns, Joan Scheckel strides in, wearing a black camisole and short shorts. It's here, in what's called "The Space," that Scheckel holds the performance, writing, and directing workshops that have become an underground sensation in Hollywood. On the stage in the back of the room, director Jonathan Dayton and his wife and directing partner, Valerie Fariswho helmed 2012's indie hit Ruby Sparks and the 2006 Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine, and have participated in Scheckel's workshops for a decadeare stretching in anticipation of a grueling day. Meanwhile, Cindy Chupack, the coexecutive producer of Sex and the City and Modern Family, is kibitzing on a leather couch with Robin Swicord, director of The Jane Austen Book Club. Chupack is here to prepare for her directorial debut, Whatever Makes You Happy, while Swicord is working on an adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow short story. When Scheckel sails into The Space, chin cocked and shoulders squared, the place goes silent. The director of directors has arrived.
Scheckel, 45, isn't a film director herself: She's a former stage actress turned filmmaking and storytelling coach, and if you've seen Snow White & the Huntsman, Arbitrage, Never Let Me Go, or Whale Rider, you've seen her work. On these moviesand more than 400 othersshe has left her stamp, even if her name doesn't usually appear in the credits. Her films have earned 517 award nominations, 326 awards, and more than $1.2 billion; one of the most recent releases is Afternoon Delight, for which Jill Soloway won the directing award at Sundance this past year. "There are very few people out there who have such a clear handle on material and the trick of getting that material to a screen," says actor Mark Ruffalo, who worked with Scheckel for his 2010 directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious.
She is one of the first people directors will call, long before they show up on set. Although she doesn't advertise her services, Scheckel is well-known throughout the industry as a secret weapon for helping directors dig into their scripts' underlying meaningwhich, in turn, helps them do their job better. Take last year's Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart. "That whole movie is about the queen trying to get Snow White's heart," says Scheckel. "I was trying to help [director Rupert Sanders] make a movie that wasn't just about young bodies and jealousy, but about violent desire for inner beauty." Sanders had never made a feature film before, and he was about to make a reportedly $170 million one. He called Scheckel, anxious that he wasn't prepared for the challenge. She told him to hang up the phone and come right over"at some ungodly hour in the early morning," she remembers. When he got to her Hollywood bungalow, Scheckel immediately asked him the question she asks all directors: "What do you want the movie to say?" His answer: "I want it to have a beating heart." Acting out his script, they doctored each scene until it aligned with Sanders' vision. Case in point: one scene in which the Huntsman pushes Snow White to be a fighter. What the directing guru said that night is classic Scheckel: "Why turn her into a killer? Why not let her use feminine insight and compassion as weaponsso that instead of killing that ogre, she sees its fear, and she stands there and feels her own fear? That way she renders the ogre moot, and it lumbers off."
Her work with directors (and actors and screenwriters, whom she also coaches) is based on a process she created over 15 years that she teaches in her labs and workshops, which range from $500 per month for a weekly drop-in class to $8,500 for an intensive six-week course. These sessions span rigorous physical play and trust-building exercises to working through every facet of a character and story. Students might close their eyes, form a handheld chain with the other students, and run across a wide-open space. Or they might spend part of an afternoon trying to act out "vanity" or "passion." It may sound New Agey, but tough-as-nails types, like Chupack (who listens to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In during her drives to The Space), swear by Scheckel's effectiveness. Chupack tells me she could have never pitched Whatever Makes You Happy without Scheckel's guidance.
The process Scheckel has developed is tough to capture, but a huge part of her work involves identifying what she calls "the nugget," or central meaning, of each film. (Her classic example is that "jealousy" is the nugget of Shakespeare's Othello.) Emotions are her currency: not her own feelings or her students'she's not a therapistbut the characters'. "Just because we have feelings doesn't mean we know how to work with them," Scheckel tells Dayton, Faris, and the five other students at The Space. She pushes them to experience the characters' feelings, not by mining their own psychology and pasts, like in the Method approach, but by physically embodying the feeling. Working with writer-director Maria Finitzo on an adaptation of Alice Munro's short story "Passion," Scheckel helps to identify the nugget as "desire," and then works through how to bring that out through Finitzo's writing. "Feel it! Throw your head back!" shouts Scheckel. "Say, 'We feel enraged when our desire is suppressed!'"
It's not always easy to be pushed through this process. "Everyone talks about [working with Scheckel] with a certain kind of dread-admiration," says actor-director Miranda July, who worked closely with Scheckel on her 2011 indie hit, The Future. But before my eyes, I watch Finitzo, a tense, petite redhead, close her eyes and morph into the picture of passion. It feels like magic, and I actually tear up, watching the thwarted desire of an imaginary character. That, after all, is what great movies do. "Oprah made a whole dynasty off her ability to connect to other people and to feel," Scheckel says. "While I'm not a mogul, I'm a leader, and I want to encourage that connection in movies. I go to a movie because I want to feel something. I'm overwhelmed, and I want to know how to react to the violence I'm seeing in the world, or how to understand what's going on with my daughter or my friend."