Joan Scheckel works with writers, directors and actors to hone their craft. She’s been called "the director’s guru'"— Jill Soloway of Amazon’s streaming hit "Transparent" is among her clients, as is Rupert Sanders, who directed "Snow White and the Huntsman," and the directors of the indie hit "Little Miss Sunshine."
But in some industry circles there are varying opinions on Scheckel's approach. Some say she’s a master on par with famous acting coach Stanislavsky, while others say her teaching strategies — which for many require pushing physical and emotional boundaries — hurt more than they help.
KPCC got rare access to record inside Scheckel's studio, known as "The Space." It's a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, on Lexington Avenue east of La Brea in Hollywood.
During a visit in early April, Scheckel sat in the back of the warehouse in an area she calls "the garden." It’s a nook with hanging plants and a twinkling chandelier that dangles overhead.
Scheckel wore a T-shirt and shorts, and black Ugg boots that hit at mid-calf. It was Friday evening, just minutes away from the start of one of her sessions. Students pay $1,200 each to attend.
"What is about to happen is that I’m going to give a three-day lab," she said. "And what I hope to do is to give an experience to writers, directors, actors, filmmakers, producers, journalists about what stories mean, what that feels like, and how that’s embodied through action."
The June 3-Day Lab: Nugget, Action, Beats is coming up fast! June 5 - 7. Will you be attending? Spread the word! pic.twitter.com/u99ZQRtq4E— Joan Scheckel (@filmmakinglabs) May 27, 2015
As she describes her preparation process for the lab, she at times takes long pauses and closes her eyes mid-interview.
"I call it opening the empathic body," she said. "So already my head plates are opening, and my joints are softening, and I'm feeling my breath, and I'm just creating space in my joints, space in my mind."
Moments later, Scheckel gets up and walks off with no explanation.
Born and raised in Nutley, New Jersey, she says she wrote her first book of poems at age 7 and started writing plays around the same time. She later graduated with a theater degree from NYU and began her career on the stage. Scheckel doesn’t have any formal teaching training, but says she’s learned her technique by working on hundreds of films.
Filmmaker and longtime friend Lisa Leone, who met Scheckel during the late 1990s when she was working with Stanley Kubrick, said she's seen Scheckel develop her teaching technique over the years.
"It basically changed my life, I fell in love with it," she said, recalling her first encounters workshopping with Scheckel. "It just made me feel so alive."
Leone is now the vice president of artistic programs for the National YoungArts Foundation. In February, Scheckel worked with high school students during a YoungArts Los Angeles event for young artists. Scheckel has also expanded her work to studio executives — toward the end of last year she taught her technique to a group from Amazon.
Scheckel's IMDB page lists miscellaneous credits on titles going back to 1992, mostly for workshop development. Scheckel says she doesn’t pre-plan the workshops — it’s all about being receptive and in the moment.
During KPCC's visit, she instructed the group to begin by looking around. Soon, the class of about 15 students was grouped in pairs and trios, staring into partners’ eyes and touching strangers. She instructed the group to act out what she calls "resonate words" — things like "imaginative" and "ambitious."
No air conditioning or food was provided, and leaving the group for things like a bathroom break was questioned. That first day the course went well into the night, wrapping up after 11 p.m.
Holly Willis, a professor at USC’s film school who studies teaching trends, says Scheckel’s approach is completely unique.
"I think everyone is surprised, they’re shocked. They can’t believe what’s happening in the lab as it’s taking place," she said.
Willis — who’s taken several of Scheckel’s courses and is collaborating with her on a book project — said one of Scheckel’s talents is using the body as a teaching tool.
"I think that the process that Joan offers is a very intense, mentored experience that only someone like Joan can do," she said. "I mean, she’s incredibly gifted as a person who embodies, almost like a performance, the experience in the lab."
Some former students, who declined to be quoted for this piece, described the classes as a waste of money. They said they felt Scheckel was exploiting people’s vulnerabilities and pocketbooks.
Still, others credit Scheckel with helping them reach much-needed breakthroughs. Director Joshua Seftel — whose latest film recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival — has worked with Scheckel three times over the past 15 years.
"I feel like she creates an environment that is both sort of simultaneously safe and scary," he said. "But I think that there’s a reason for that, I think there’s an intention."
Seftel said Scheckel's methods work. On a recent shoot for a commercial, he heard Scheckel’s voice coaching him in his head. He said training with Scheckel teaches directors how to listen.
As for Scheckel, she describes her process this way:
"To really learn is a, is a felt experience and it's journey. And so when I’m giving a lab, I want to give you an experience. So the whole weekend is constructed like a ride, you know, a roller-coaster ride."
Scheckel offers 10 separate chapters to teach her technique. Willis, the professor at USC, said that for her Scheckel's strategies were "perfectly right."
Willis’ writing changed dramatically after working with Scheckel, but for some Scheckel may be too frank to handle. If you want to be treated like a customer, Willis said, look elsewhere.