A scene from Alison Maclean's "The Rehearsal"

“It’s always a mixed thing,” Alison Maclean said of debuting her first feature in 17 years, a day removed from its North American premiere. “I find it exposing and nerve-wracking, but it is exciting. Sometimes it can be hard to tell how [the audience is responding], but you feel it in the room and I did feel it.”

Perhaps this is the reaction to expect from the demure Canadian filmmaker, but one that surprises after seeing “The Rehearsal,” a fiery adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s drama set inside a drama school over the course of a year. Erupting with a vigor and sense of daring that would make one think Maclean’s the same age as the teen characters she’s following, it’s only the skill she’s accrued in the years since bursting onto the scene in 1992 with the Marcia Gay Harden drama “Crush” that gives it away as the work of someone slightly older, employing a highly sophisticated and stratified narrative structure to show the evolution of aspiring actors who are discovering who they are while learning how to inhabit other characters.

Maclean draws on the students’ feverish levels of energy and passion and, though they don’t quite know where to place it yet, channels it into how they deal with a moral quandary as one of the them, Stanley (James Rolleston) begins to fall for Isolde (Ella Edward), a girl he meets outside of school whose teenage sister Victoria (Rachel Roberts) has become something of a pariah after it’s learned publicly that she slept with her tennis coach. Needing a subject for his year-end class project, Stanley finds inspiration in what Ella confides in him, but even aware of the danger in using her family’s personal pain for his work, he creates a ticking time bomb that will detonate sooner or later in trying to find the line of where his personal life ends and the professional begins.

As has been a signature of her work, Maclean’s sensitivity towards her characters is on full display in taking on the particularly difficult challenge of conveying the intensely vulnerable disposition of actors, let alone teenagers, as they learn how to construct a performance, working with an extraordinary set of young actors from New Zealand where she also spent her formative years, graduating from the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. While it’s invigorating to watch how each member of the ensemble demonstrably grows before Maclean’s lens, casting Kerry Fox as a ferocious drama teacher whose demands for truth confound the budding thespians before they learn to question her during intense acting exercises, it’s equally satisfying to enter their minds as they begin to think for themselves when the film captures the small, intimate moments that inevitably have the most lasting impact on who they will become. As the film begins to play the festival circuit, including a stop this week at the New York Film Festival, Maclean reflected on her own growth as a filmmaker after what’s been a break from features far too long for her many fans, as well as what attracted her to Catton’s novel, her return to New Zealand and finding the film’s crystalline editing style.

Kerry Fox in "The Rehearsal"How did this come about?

I had been actively looking for something I could do in New Zealand for a few years because I made “Kitchen Sink” there in 1989, and I really wanted to reconnect. This book really grabbed me – she just discovered the world of drama school through a personal contact of hers and was really inspired by it and that comes through in the book. It has such an original voice to it and it’s quite experimental, so I loved how audacious it was, how subjective it was inside the heads of these young people, and that it’s about power dynamics and the levels of performance in life and in training to be an actor.

I made a short film a couple of years ago called “Intolerable” that’s actually about actors doing auditions and that opened a door for me [where] I was interested in doing a little bit more, working with actors being actors and what that process was like. I’ve never been to drama school and never would. Improvising and trust exercises and all that stuff you do at drama school…I’m a bit squeamish about that stuff – self-conscious – but it was interesting for me to lead something like that and be part of it as well.

When it’s a film about actors, how much do you want the actors to bring themselves to it versus what you might’ve designed?

It’s a back and forth. All the actors were quite different in the way that they’d work, but I try to incorporate things that I observed and came to know about them as people, some more than others. [For instance] Keiran Charnock, who plays William, is brilliant at improv and would do something different every single time, and some of them a bit less so, but there were scenes like one quite early on – the first intensive drama scene with Hannah where they’re doing those simple [scripts], where [James Rolleston’s character Stanley] is saying, “I want you,” and she’s saying, “I can’t hear you” – and back and forth like that where Hannah’s giving him a hard time, and I encouraged her to just go off the script completely. She was just throwing things at him, so a lot of that stuff that he says is he’s just a deer in the headlights and he has no choice but to respond authentically. We did that with some scenes, and I found that very exciting because in a way he’s in the exact position the character’s in, so it was perfect.

And this is just a beautiful age. All of them are just so excited and open and curious and happy to be a part of it and throw themselves in. It really felt like a treat because it was such an incredible range of talent in that age group – I was so impressed with the young actors I met there, and it just was a fantastic experience. I loved it.

Was it difficult to find the structure for this? You really find a way to show how these are different people in different contexts, but it couldn’t have been easy.

Yeah, there were a lot of iterations of the script and [because] it is the kind of structure [where] there are so many characters and they’re both performing, rehearsing and in their lives, it was quite layered. It was very complex and quite hard to edit, finding the right sequence that had enough forward momentum and gave you enough information and yet kept a mystery. We tried it a lot of different ways where it didn’t work so well or it just seemed too long to get going until the strands came together.

There’s that brilliant moment where you see Stanley with his boorish father, then he’s in class playing him, so you can see how he developed the mannerisms and speech – the choices he makes in the performance. Was that an immediate connection?

That was probably the standout scene in the book. There were about four scenes that we lifted quite substantially, and I loved that scene where he has lunch with his dad and then the scene where he becomes him. They were very separated in the book, but in the edit, we ended up putting them closer together so they worked better. It was possibly the scariest scene for me in the whole film and also for James because we knew he wasn’t going to mimic [the father] – he had to transform in some way and find a kind of authority and swagger and it was challenging for him to get there.

You also have the connective tissue of these scenes in a pink room that are pure performance. How did that come in?

They were there from the beginning because the book itself has a very fragmented time structure, so we wanted to honor that and make it chronological, but we always had this idea they’d go to this room – and strangely, it was [written as] a pink room right from the beginning and that they would each do a very different interpretation of the two characters Isolde and Victoria. I always thought those were going to be out of sequence, and those scenes were written and some of them were close to what was written and some of them the actor came up with it themselves.

There’s a funny side story about that because I don’t know what the chances of this are, but we filmed at this place Unitec, a performing arts school. At some point, we were looking at rooms [in the school] and they were showing my production designer options to store her art department and wardrobe. They just opened a door and there was this giant, unoccupied, windowless pink room that. It was very strange – like it was waiting for us.

Having previously adapted “Jesus’ Son,” did you have a different feel this time around for where to be faithful and where to play it looser?

It’s interesting because on “Jesus’ Son,” I was quite involved, but it was written by three other people and that was a book of short stories, so that had its own challenges, but because it was so vivid and you can see the scenes immediately when you’re reading it, they had to go through a process of being too faithful and find a way to move away from it. This was so clearly experimental and very literary in certain ways – inside the head of these characters – we had to make so many changes it was actually liberating. Right away, we jumped away from the book and we used certain scenes, but I wasn’t overly concerned about being faithful, though I wanted to be faithful to some other themes and the tone of it. Beyond that, it felt free.

This may just have been my sense, but it felt like for the first third or so of the film, you’re sitting in judgment of these acting students because of the visual framing and then once they’re allowed to be more creative with the introduction of the class project, it feels less locked off. Was that actually a consideration.

Opens up a bit? Yeah, I think that’s true. We didn’t think there was an absolute turning point, but we liked the idea of shooting widescreen. That has a certain formality and perhaps a little bit of objectivity and distance and then it becomes this arena, but within that, there was room for a lot of unexpected things or spontaneity.Then there were certain scenes [where] we liked to bring in some handheld and just give it a different rhythm.

In the “I want you” scene I was talking about before, that was day two of the shoot and normally I don’t like a scene that’s that meaty and important early on. I would never choose to do that because you want to warm up. But it was just the way it worked with the schedule – it was the only day we had that studio, so it was either give up the room or do it on that day. I just decided I might as well go for it because James’ [character Stanley is] scared, he doesn’t know how to respond. He’s a naive young actor and he’s learning, so it was perfect in a way and we planned it out how we were going to shoot [the scene], but there was a funny moment where [his scene partner] says, “Show me how much you want it” and he drops out of the frame. We have a reaction shot of all the kids watching and we just did the shot where he was crawling underneath the frame and I thought it was really funny – the top of his head is bobbing into the frame. I thought, “Okay, we’re not going to cover him crawling. We’re just going to have him under the frame, so you’ll have to imagine him there.” That inspired us for to use offscreen space more [throughout the film] — things happening just out of the frame that you can hear but not necessarily see. That just delighted me.

While I wouldn’t spoil the ending, you’ve said it was inspired by a YouTube clip and given the generation you’re making a film about, were you referencing online videos for the visual language?

A few things. One specific inspiration was I went to this class in New York about African music [where] this guy shared his collection of his favorite African music videos. There was one by this South African group and it is one of my favorite music videos ever, so it’s a song we ended up using when they’re doing that dance. It’s not an exact copy, but like a feeling that I took from it. So that’s one thing. And then “The First Follower” [which inspired another scene], I got really fascinated by this group called The Dark Mountain Project in England, a group of writers, artists and former environmental activists who have formed a collective. They have these festivals where they look at what’s the appropriate response to like the current ecological crisis that we’re in and [ask] how do you create a movement.

You’ve been making all sorts of stuff in the interim, but was it different making a feature now than your last one, “Jesus’ Son”?

Yeah, it was different in a number of ways. It has been a long time – too long – so I did have a little bit of a feeling I had something to prove. It was an adjustment because I had been writing and doing television, but not in a number of years, and I’ve been doing a lot of commercials. To go from the 30-second world to 90 minutes is a strange adjustment, so it messed a bit with my sense of duration. But also I felt freer on this film than I felt on the other features I’ve done – freer as a director to try things in the moment on set and depart from the script and take risks, so that really felt good.

“The Rehearsal” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the New York Film Festival on October 5th at Alice Tully Hall at 9 pm and October 6th at Bruno Walter Auditorium at 6:15 pm and the London Film Festival on October 12th at the Vue West End Cinema at 8:45 pm at October 14th at 8:45 pm at the Ritzy Cinema. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.