Directing Actors

This post is dedicated to Mr. Dom Zook, not because I think he needs my help, but because he posed the question: “What could directors do to get the most out of their actors? What advice would you give a director to achieve the results they wish?” I will also say I am not an expert on the subject, but will blog anyhow in the spirit of stimulating discourse.

Dom, this is a GREAT question. First, read Judith Weston’s Directing Actors. It is a great book. Helpful for both actors AND directors.

I will outline a few tips, and then elaborate, if needed:

  • Know as much as possible about the story you are telling, including each character. I recently re-watched one of my favorite films, Collateral by Michael Mann. I suggest you watch the bonus features and discover the amount of preparation Mr. Mann does for his films, and how, in turn, this allows him to get the most out of his actors.
  • Make time for rehearsal, if at all possible. Even if you only have time to run the scene a few times on set while crew is setting up. Run the scene and give each actor feedback. “I like the way you did that” is great feedback, and it can be said to every actor if you are not requiring any adjustments.
  • Most actors think in terms of actions. What the character is DOING in the scene is very important to the actor. And, it is easy to give an adjustment using actions (verbs, tasks, objectives, wants, needs – whatever you want to call them). For instance, if you need more fire from an actor during a fight scene, instead of adjusting with emotional tweaking (“be more upset,” etc.) go for, “punish her with your words, make her cry, etc.” If the scene needs to be lighter or funnier, go for, “Try to make your scene partners laugh.” This way, you are giving the actor something to play, rather than steering them towards an emotional state. Emotional reactions should come out of actions played, and fueled by character research and development.
  • If you get into a heated discussion on set between takes, make the time to settle the actor back down (whenever possible) before the next shot. Hopefully, if you don’t get what you want out of the actor at first, you might get it on take 3 or 4 (I know, time is money…).
  • If you are shooting a film, especially if you are working with more novice actors, tell them how they are framed (wide, medium, etc.).
  • Keep things professional, but light, so your actors stay on task, but are able to relax.
  • Ask your actors questions about the scene and what they are doing. You may not need the answer, but you should plant seeds to light a fire in the hearts and minds of your actors.
  • Continue to reinforce your actors with praise when they make good choices. This will give your actors confidence. Without confidence, your actors might appear stiff.

14 thoughts on “Directing Actors

  1. Yes, agreed to all this. Especially the positive feedback aspect. I recently was shooting a scene where I started in the house, opened the door, and walked outside, where the crew was. I’d go back to 1 in the house (by myself), and overhear the director saying outside to the crew, “that was perfect! she’s doing a great job.” Um, why don’t you say that to me, so I know I’m doing my job? 🙂

    Another thing is the time management issue. We as actors understand that the needs of the production, such as location availability, setup sequence, etc., come first, but actors get the short end of the stick if there are organization or time snafus. If you plan and schedule well, your actors will love you (even low or nonpaid) and will clamor to work with you. Plus they will be happy and calm and focused on set, not wondering if they’re going to have to hang around 2 more hours for a 20 second take.

  2. All of these points are spot on. Actors like freedom, but they also like to be truly DIRECTED. I haven’t posted before, but your blog is excellent and has a lot of good information and suggestions.

  3. Pingback: Respect for Time « davidshogan

  4. Ohhhhhhh Directors, we LOVE them and sometimes we HATE them. But we always NEED them. I love a Director who asks questions, in film or Theatre. What a great way to get the Actor talking with you about the scene, the role and the story. Of course, positive feedback is great BUT I think Directors need to be careful with pin pointing things. For example, if a Director says “oh Angela, I love what you are doing with that moment, keep that intense energy.” this is GREAT! I know they like what I am doing and do continue on with the same “energy.” BUT if a Director says “oh Angela, how you said that line was perfect, do it exactly like that and that excact hand gesture.” Now, this sometimes poses a problem for Actors. I am seen Actors and I personally have experienced after a comment like that, getting into my head. The Actor will then be so worried about doing the EXACT same thing, same vocal, same gesture, it can suck the TRUTH out of the moment. I know many jobs, like voice-overs, need things to be the same. I just think, with most other projects, it best if a Director lets the Actor know they are “in the ball park” and they want us to play. Of course a Director should lock certain things down but even then be careful how “concrete” you make things because it is bound to crack.

  5. I love the suggestion to ask questions: learning any discipline (acting, directing) is not about learning information: it’s learning what questions to ask and when.

    I once heard Brian Dennehy speak on the difference between stage and film acting. He said that he starts preparing the same way: he decides what his action is, etc. Then, for film, he hides it: it’s the director’s job, and the DP’s job, to find it . . .

  6. Pingback: Note to Actors: “Really Ask the Question.” « davidshogan

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