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.

Would you be confident directing Clint?

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.

“The King’s Speech”: the musical

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.

Woody gets his hands on talent that other directors would kill for.

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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9 Responses to “Fear of Actors”
  1. Brian Barnes says:

    Another great posting, Guy. I feel I can add a couple of pointers from my own experience. I wholeheartedly agree with your views on doing courses and I would recommend Adam Meggido’s and Sean McCann’s courses at the London Film School. Both of these have helped my work with actors immensely.
    My next tip is that all directors should try acting themselves! I took the plunge and appeared in a play at The Cockpit theatre in London. It was terrifying on one level, but on another level it was totally liberating and empowering and I’ll never feel inadequate talking to an actor again, as I’ve been there!

  2. Tom Slatter says:

    Hey Guy,

    I’m an actor and found your article a very interesting read. I think that what you write is very good but I think it is also worth saying that actors, as beasts, also have their roles to play in this. Directors want to be aware that a good actor worth anything will want to make the film/role the best they possibly can and should relish any input offered and given (as you say enquiring and probing as they go along). I love to work with directors, I strive to provide what a director is looking for and it is together that we will produce something really worth watching. It is important that through this a trust can be built – that what is seen through the lens (what the actor does not see) is of a high quality and that the director is going to ask them to do more, go further and dig deeper for that electric performance. I love knowing that a director has a relationship with me where they can feel free to ask more.

    Either way, I must commend you on your willingness to put your views out there. I also want to wish you the very best of luck with your career, I’m sure you’ll go far.

    Best wishes,


  3. Mahmut Akay says:

    Great article once again, Guy.

    I love to give actors simple directions – complicated directions that psychologise a character’s behaviour is redundant. Telling them the source of their emotions is great, but to tell them what emotions to feel doesn’t make sense – we can’t normally tell ourselves how to feel, so why will actors be able to do it? It’s a futile attempt, to try and get the actor to add more depth to his performance.

    The audience is touched and moved by what they see – to give a simple action reverb, telling the actor what to ‘do’ gives them so much more freedom to perform it the way they are comfortable and most natural in. There’s been many occasions where I’ve seen an director give an adjective like be ‘sad’ to an actor – and the director’s been unhappy with the result. This is because adjectives are subjective.

    Will definitely check out the raindance seminar, sounds promising!

    • guyducker says:

      Hi Mahmut,

      I’d certainly agree with your first paragraph – keep it simple. I sometimes over-complicate the directions I give, a habit I’m trying to kick.

      As for giving actors an action… depends what you mean. If the actor doesn’t know why they’re performing the action, then you’re not going to get a good result. If the reason for the action is self-evident, then this strategy might work. However I feel it’s better for this stuff to come from the actor themselves, based on the source material you’ve given them. You can get some pleasantly surprising results.

      • Mahmut Akay says:

        That’s a good point concerning the actors knowledge of why they’re performing the actions.

        One of the mistakes I tend to make is assume the actors know what the source of their emotions are based on, and neglect to tell them ‘why’ they’re eliciting an emotive reaction.

  4. JOHN LEESON says:

    Insightful blog, Guy…particularly the reference to keeping the channels of communication open between actor/director. As an actor I have suffered both the control freaks who seek to ‘mould’ actors to their preconceived notions of how a part should be played, and those equally who have allowed themselves to be the ‘safe conductors’ of actors who are in the (admittedly) vulnerable position of entering the depths of a role which can sometimes present a considerable emotional challenge. The acid test for actors in this type of role is, of course, the question ‘is the performance repeatable?’… this certainly applies to repeated ‘takes’ onscreen as it does to nightly runs in the theatre. The building of trust between both parties is paramount. There are some exceptionally talented directors who have opened hitherto unseen vistas of possibility with a role, quite beyond the actor’s first conceptions of his/her character and, if they can communicate their vision to the actor in an inclusive, non-threatening way, they are worth their weight in gold! My favourite directors are always the ‘enablers’ – but then I guess my career has dealt me a generally good hand. You’ll remeber Wilfred Hyde-White’s quip: “Directors are the most useful people in the theatre…they’ll help you carry your scripts to your car.” Ah, yes… different days, no doubt.

  5. yellowfin says:

    Interesting blog, and it does strike a chord. I have just finished a fringe show where the ‘direction’ consisted of running the whole show over and over with occasional comments on how it wasn’t really going the way the director wanted it to. This may have been because the director was also the writer of the piece, and had also originally written in a role (mine!) for herself.
    However, I also recently worked on a paid project, a mid budget feature film in which I had a very small part but still a speaking part with a name. The director spent quite a lot of time working with the people in the scene who had lots of lines but never once spoke to me, not even to suggest where I should place myself or who I should interact with. I basically decided what to do myself and tried a few different things out in rehearsal shots, but no comments were made on my choices at all. Maybe I should have asked for direction, but how to avoid the dreaded ‘What’s my motivation?’ scenario. Obviously I will find out if my performance cut it when the final film is shown and I appear or I don’t!

    • Kieth Hill says:

      Silence from the director means that you didn’t do it wrong.

      Small parts in TV and films are left to their own devices very often. This is because an actor is hired because they are demonstrably To apparently ignore you is an implicit (if scary) indication of
      a) sublime trust in your abilities but also
      b)the director’s perception that the name is a nervous pain in the fundament who will get jumpy if not intensively directed or
      c) young directors feel better about themselves getting the production stills guy snapping them directing someone famous.
      d)there may be nothing interesting to say about the part that the actor couldn’t work out.

      I share your sensation of being exposed by this perfectly simple commercial reality, as I have not done a whole lot of film, and no TV. I therefore analyse as far as the script lets me. I decide what my character wants, what’s in his way, big a deal it is. Then, if half a breathing second is available, I can reassure or alert the director by a quick: what you want is this, isn’t it? That way he doesn’t have to strain to remember who on earth I am. He need think of nothing to say at all if I am not talking the most arrant nonsense. If I have said something stupid he will be annoyed at having to explain himself, time being precious, but nthen you can bet that someone higher status from cinematography or art will still be titivating while he explains what he DOES want,and better then than after an aborted/ wasted take, especially if working on film rather then video.

      Not everyone would agree with this. It can look like attention-seeking. I would now only do it if I was genuinely worried whether the choice I had made might actually be outright wrong. For the rest of it, we keep our heads down and trust to our professional judgement, for which, after all, they hired us.

      Paul Giammatti recently said that he found lead roles more easy than supporting, since people come to you with help and support, as opposed to being expected to deliver excellent goods out of their own resources.

  6. mark1111/ says:

    Great stuff Guy. First time here. Had to take a role in a play to get my feet wet as an actor so I can be a better director. I’m that writer-director kind you mentioned. I love creating flawed characters with problems, because real actors love them. Try getting those characters past script dev. morons and too many analysts that shouldn’t be in this business.

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