While there are an enormous amount of elements that go into making a film (like cinematography, sound, and hair), many directors would argue that the most important element of all is the performances you get from your actors. For a long time, I could have sworn it was hair, but I’ve come to realize how important the actor’s role truly is (yes, even more important than the person in charge of the hair).
No one knew how important the actor was more than Alfred Hitchcock, who once said, “All actors should be treated like cattle” (I’m pretty sure he was Hindu). But, in addition to being the most important part of a film, directing actors can also be the most difficult. Why? Because actors, like most people, are human beings, and each human being is as individual and unique as a snowflake that went to DeVry University.
Since working with actors can be a daunting task for many directors, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve gained from my experiences working at an Olive Garden (the manager there has directed a TON of actors).
First, let me suggest that the best way to understand the mind of an actor is by BECOMING one (you might want to stop and check to see if you just got a nosebleed). Once you’ve cleaned yourself off, look into taking an acting class. It will help you to learn more about the actor’s general process and to go through the same difficulties that they may encounter on your set, firsthand. This way, you can say to yourself, “Oh, she must be having the same problem understanding her character’s point-of-view that I had when I did that scene out of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star,” when you’re shooting that shot-for-shot remake of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.
The most important part of directing actors is, arguably (and we ARE having an argument, in case that wasn’t clear), casting. If you cast your roles right, 90% of your job is done (the other 10% is digitally removing your actors’ face tattoos).
But, what does that mean, exactly? I’m glad I asked myself that question, because I have the perfect answer. Many actors are good enough to be in your “erotic thriller,” and many can convincingly play that crucial role of Shirtless Race Car Driver… but there are only a few actors who are RIGHT for that role. If you can, take some time to get to know them, find out about their pasts, and what their hopes, dreams, and fears are (if they’re like me, all three will involve bees). Maybe you’ll find that perfect actor who has actually BEEN a Shirtless Race Car Driver. He could bring an insight into the world of half-naked auto sports that no one else can.
In addition to making sure they’re right for the role, though, make sure they’re right for YOU. Do your personalities mesh well? Do they seem weirded out when you wear that mesh tank top? Find a way to connect with the actor as a person. Maybe you two both spent a summer shooting wild animals from a moving train. Who knows? You’re about to go on an emotional journey together (and you’re about to shoot a movie, too). It’s important that you have something that bonds you as people besides that pair of furry handcuffs that you own.
Now, there are instances where it could be interesting to cast AGAINST type (like whenever they cast Ashton Kutcher as someone who’s awkward around women). Keep that in mind, as well. Maybe you could add layers to that role of “mousey girl-next-door” by having it be played by Paul Giamatti. There’s only one way to find out! (If this ends up ruining your movie, I AM SO SORRY.)
No Two Actors Are Alike
Once you’re on set with the actors you had to settle for initially wanted, your job, now, is to find the best way to work with them. No two actors are alike (except for babies). The first days on set are about finding out how they work, think, and communicate, and tweaking your style of direction to accommodate that. If an actor needs to go over every moment in minute detail to give you their best performance, your standard technique of screaming obscenities at them may not be the best approach (but it never hurts to try).
Create a comfortable, safe environment, where the actor is free to make mistakes (unless you’re also having them do your taxes, in which case, they better get it together). An actor will take more chances if they trust that you are looking out for them. And, as a bonus, you can parlay this later if you hear a strange noise at night and you’re too scared to check on it.
Each director has his own preference as to when he or she will rehearse, whether it’s the day before the scene is shot, or the hour before. Some choose to not rehearse at all. I personally like to rehearse AFTER the scene is shot, so the actors will say, “Ohhhhh, NOW I get it… Oh, well.” Whatever your preference is, make sure you don’t spend too much time rehearsing, or the spark will die (this is especially true of scenes involving sparklers).
Many directors have found that it’s good to send the crew out of the room while you go over a scene with your actors. But, I’ve found that it can create some interesting results when you invite MORE people onto the set. There’s nothing that can get a good nude scene out of an actress like having her kids there.
There Are No Rules
One of the exciting things about directing actors is that there are no rules to doing it successfully (It’s like Outback Steakhouse, in that both should make people have to go to the bathroom afterward). Do whatever you need to get the performance you want. Some directors are warm and friendly with their actors, while others get equally great performances by being cold and business-like. For low-budget shoots, though, keep in mind that everyone is probably working for little-to-no money, so you should make sure that you aren’t rude or insulting to them until they leave the room.
Directing By Not Directing
Many directors believe that a key to directing is NOT directing, which is great, if you ask me. This is one of the few jobs where you can use “not doing it” as an excuse, and people have to believe you! This doesn’t work as well for other jobs in my experience (although I’m still convinced the key to being a temp is NOT being a temp). But, if things are going smoothly, and you’re getting the performances you want, your best strategy is to just sit back and enjoy the ride. You may even want to hide in the bathroom for a couple of hours so you don’t jinx it.
Directing By Not Not Directing
When you DO need to give specific direction, just remember: it’s an art, not a science. As you continue making films, you’ll develop your own style (this is why so many directors wear scarves). For example, Jean-Luc Godard is known to give very simple direction, such as “louder,” or “slower.” I prefer to read chapters out loud from James Joyce’s Ulysses. To each his own.
It can become confusing for the actor if you give them too much direction at once, so try focusing on one aspect of their performance at a time (like how horny the character’s supposed to be). And, don’t make them over-think it, either. Actors usually don’t need to understand a bunch of complex motivation and back-story; they just need to know what they want, emotionally, in the scene. To illustrate my point, a piece of direction I gave on a recent shoot was “Less not-good.” The actor knew exactly what I was saying (at least, that’s what I assumed the barking meant).
Watch Their Eyes
Some directors watch a scene on the monitor as it’s being shot, so they see exactly what the audience would see. Others prefer to stand next to the camera and look directly at the actors, to make sure they’re able to spot any moments in the performances that aren’t honest. I prefer to sit behind the monitor and watch old episodes of Family Matters, because I like to be surprised. But, whether you’re behind the monitor or inches away from an actor’s face, the best way to tell if an actor is truly living in the moment is by watching their eyes. If they’re maybe a little watery and looking into the other actor’s, they’re probably in the moment. If they seem tense and preoccupied: probably not. If they’re just closed, you should think about re-casting.
These are just a few tips to assist fellow filmmakers as they navigate the rocky terrain of working with actors. Obviously, it doesn’t cover everything you’ll encounter during shooting (I had to omit a couple of pages on how to deal with rattlesnake bites), but I hope it will help some of you directors out there find better ways to work with those really attractive, yet unexplainably insecure, people that we call… actors.
See you at the next Shirtless Nascar race.