Monday, July 23, 2012

Trust and the Art of Directing Actors

You paid them.  They showed up.  They memorized their lines.  Why can't they just do what you want??

I see it all the time with unprepared directors.  They're on set about to roll as the actor looks at them to figure out what to do.  The director's eyes dart to the script for answers.  "Make sure you're really warm and friendly," he says with a big smile.  The actor nods her head, hiding the fact that she has no idea what that means.  The director painfully watches on as the actor performs her interpretation of what she thinks the director meant.  She pushes through the scene, forgetting the subtext she pulled when she initially read the script.  The director bites his lip knowing it's not what he wants.  Lunch is in 20 minutes and they still have two more setups to get.  This will have to do.

This has probably happened to every director sometime early in their career.  Having a language and a rapport with your actors is one of the most important aspects of your job as a director.  I've seen so many directors painfully storyboard out scenes with their DP, analyzing every dynamic of the visual world of a story.  They often get to a point where the DP knows the visual vocabulary the director wants, and knows what the director wants before it is asked.  What is it about acting that seems so straightforward that directors don't feel the need to prep at this level with their actors?

Acting requires a level of openness and often times honesty that is completely unnatural to normal human behavior.  Bad acting is obvious when someone is visibly attempting to emulate their character by trying to approach it externally.  Getting into character requires an actor to open up and expose themselves.  Often times they must be emotionally vulnerable.  This process is delicate, and for many actors it requires them to be in an environment that feels comfortable and safe to them.  The last thing they need is to be directed by a total stranger that hasn't earned their trust.

Like every other aspect of filmmaking, it's all about the preparation.  Prepping doesn't always mean rehearsing either.  What is important is that you take the time to get to know the actor.  Have dinner with them.  Grab a cup of coffee.  Grab a beer.  Give yourself the opportunity to understand who it is you are working with.  

Every single actor is different and their processes will always vary.  By learning who a person is, you can feel out what makes them tick.  Knowing what both drives an actor, and what repulses him are key to unlocking what is at the core of their performance.  When I meet with my actors I am always very open about myself, which gives them the breathing room to do the same.  I am always very open about my directing process and what I'm hoping for in the given production.  We often share our favorite films and why we love them.  This is a great way to get a common ground for creating art.  

Don't just depend on your instinct on how to work with a specific actor.... ask them!  Often times when having a drink with an actor for the first time, I'll bluntly ask them about their process.  Now listen. Absorb what they're telling you.  

"The first thing you should do with an actor is not sign a contract with him.  
Take him to dinner.  And then take him for a walk afterwards".  - Elia Kazan

There was one instance I remember where I had a chat with the female lead a couple weeks before we were going into production.  She told me that she worked best with a certain amount of external reality to play to.  After this, I was always trying to find that slice of reality for her throughout production.  In one scene, the script called for her to kiss a character who is not expecting it.  It's a first kiss, it's awkward, and it needs to be spontaneous.  It was a pretty straightforward scene to block and shoot, but it was a key scene for her character.  I made two decisions in pre-production that were tailored for her acting style; we'll shoot this on the first day, and she won't know we're shooting the kiss until right before the take.  Front loading the schedule with this scene made the most sense for the journey of these characters; they don't know each other yet, and it's  awkward.  

When we arrived on location I pulled the actors aside and told them we were cutting the kiss.  I could see a bit of relief in their eyes.  Our blocking rehearsal didn't include a kiss, and I think we rolled a couple takes without it.  I then pulled her aside making the excuse that I needed to see her makeup.  "Kiss him", I muttered to her in full seriousness.  "What?  Does he know?" she asked, eyes widened.  "Nope" I replied with a grin.  Before she could compose herself or make sense of what she was about to do, we were rolling.  There's a moment of hesitation where she takes an extra moment to try to think. Then she goes for it, flinging herself at him without regret. He's stunned, but goes with it.  Perfect.  She naturally went through the range of emotions the character was meant to without forcing it.  We couldn't have rehearsed this kind of result.

Now before you close this window demanding this would never work with actors you've worked with, remember this was tailored for this actor only.  I never would have tried this if I didn't chat with her about her process.  She never would have been OK with this if she didn't already know me and trust me.

I could go on with more examples, but the most important thing here is to know your actors and have them know you.  Do everything in your power to spend time with them before a shoot.  Whether they're a nervous first timer, or a seasoned veteran, be sure to take the time to feel them out.  The actor may be a diva and not feel they need a director.  Fine, but try to figure out what they know they have, what they want from you, and what they don't know you can offer.  

Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.  Trust me, most actors are just as timid as you are when it comes to starting this process.  It can seem as difficult as approaching a total stranger, but it gets easier when you remember this is part of both of your jobs.  At the end of the day, many actors are wonderful people that are an absolute joy to work with.  Having a close collaboration with them creates an exciting and fertile space to create great work.

If you have any thoughts or questions, let's keep the conversation alive in the comments section!