Fear of Actors
On Directing Actors ☛
Hang around the industry for long enough and you’ll realize a surprising thing about film directors: many of us are crap at directing actors. I’m not just talking about newbie short filmmakers or genre hacks, I’ve seen very experienced directors manhandle performances and heard many an anecdote pointing the finger at everyone from great European directors like Fellini and Antonioni to American filmmakers like Lucas and Kubrick. The number of times I’ve watched rushes and seen a bewildered look from an actor at the end of a take that just says “was that what you wanted? I have no idea!” Given how crucial a subtle performance is when you’re using that great lie-detector the movie camera, you’d imagine that the talent to fine-tune an actor’s work would be a crucial skill for the hand at the helm.
It’s almost like there’s an unspoken agreement between directors and actors to keep out of each others’ hair. One long-established director told me about working with an Oscar-winning and highly respected Hollywood star; the actor took him aside on the first day of filming and told him “there are four directions you can give me: louder, softer, faster, slower.”
But, why this dysfunctional relationship? It doesn’t help that very few film directors are trained to work with actors. I went to a good film school and got a lot out of the course, but it’s an unfortunate truth that in all my time there we only had a single hour-long session on the subject of directing actors. Simon Phillips (more on him later) points out that actors can turn to the Method or Meisner to learn technique, screenwriters have McKee and Syd Field, even editors have their guru in Walter Murch, but there’s no such figure to whom directors can turn.
Even professional experience doesn’t always make up for this lack of training. Commercials directors clearly have little motivating them to concentrate on the actor. TV directors don’t get much of a shot either – with episodic drama all the regular cast know their roles inside out and back to front, the director only really gets to direct the day-players, and tight schedules make it difficult to give them the time they deserve. Of course film directors who started out life in the theatre or as actors themselves are the honorable exception. We envy them: without formal training, interacting with actors, especially well-known ones, can be daunting.
The disconnect between actor and director doesn’t always stem from the director however. I once worked with a TV actor who had rejected offers of a rehearsal and came to set with a pre-decided approach to the role. It was a good performance but it left little room for my input. I don’t blame her for this: many TV actors have learned to accept that directors, whether down to lack of time or lack of talent, may not be able to give them what they need. Result: they learn to be director-proof.
But what is it actors fear? What do we directors do wrong? There are so many sins, but I think they stem from two sources: one is neglect, the other control-freakery. Neglectful directors fail to give the actor a clear enough idea of what they want, both initially and when going for retakes; control freaks come to set with too fixed an idea of what they’re after. The first leads to sublimely useless directions like “do it again and do it better!” the second to “no, say the line like this…”
Often neglectful directors have become this way because they’re afraid of their cast – what if an actor asks a question I can’t answer? What if I lose their respect? Safer to hang out with the camera crew and make swooping gestures; surely the script has already given the actor everything they need. With this attitude, the director’s control over performances effectively ceased when they phoned up offering the role.
The controls freaks, even if they manage to bite their tongue and not give the actors line readings, rarely get the best out of their cast. They have directed the film in their head and decided what performance they want long before the actor was even on the film, and so the chance of the actor being allowed to bring anything of their own to the part is negated. Such directors, often writer / directors, basically need to learn how to collaborate.
Given all this you may wonder how is it that the big screen witnesses so many fine performances? Mainly because good actors have learned to read directors, to divine what they want, even when the director can’t find a way to express it. But this dynamic is back-to-front: directors should direct clearly. It’s our duty to learn to speak ‘actor’, not the actors’ duty to understand ‘director’. Relying on the goodwill of actors can be dangerous; remember there are some shockingly awful performances hitting our screens too, sometimes from actors who are usually great.
Here are some very basic tips on working with actors:
- Cast carefully – if you’ve cast the wrong actor you’re fighting a losing battle (I may write a separate article on this)
- Organise rehearsal time if you possibly can – it always pays off. The King’s Speech had an almost unheard of 3 week rehearsal period – seemed to work for them.
- Try to find with the actor the source of what you want, not the result – don’t tell them to be angry, let them know why they’re angry.
- Ask questions of your actors and demand that they ask questions of you – keep your communication with them interactive.
These few tips should help, but they’re not going to turn you into Ingmar Bergman. Short of retraining as a theatre director, the only way I know of getting really good at working with actors is to take a course then to practice whenever and wherever you can. There are two UK courses on directing actors for camera which I can heartily recommend: one, ‘Directing Performance’ given by Chris Thomas of Raindance – an invaluable overview, Chris is great on the subject of rehearsals; the other is ‘Tools of Directing’ by Simon Phillips via the DGGB – Simon has a wonderfully holistic approach to directing, particularly focused on close reading of the script and plotting moments of emotional change. Both courses have greatly impacted on my thinking when working with actors.
Apart from facilitating great performances, a real bonus of being able to work well with actors is to get known as an ‘actors’ director’. This makes good actors more likely to work with you again and eventually will help you attract top-class talent because they want to work with that rare beast: a film director who knows how to talk to an actor. Woody Allen has this reputation and for many years has been able to attract A-list Hollywood talent to his very modestly budgeted films.
For too long the director has been the guy sitting in the shadows by the camera. Get out of that chair. Learn how to work with actors and get good at it, and they’ll trust you with their soul – capture that with your camera and the audience will be yours.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
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