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Getting Better as a Director: Using Objectives

01.23.12 @ 2:27PM Tags :

This is a guest post by DP and filmmaker Randolph Sellars.

One of the fundamental tools for an actor is their “objective.” This is a specific way of working with character “motivation.” Discovering a character’s objective begins with asking the question “what does this character really want or need during a particular scene?” This is not to be confused with what the character says in the dialogue. We are looking for the “subtext” or unspoken desires of a character that can be channeled into specific behavior.

For instance, a scene could involve a boy and girl discussing geometry homework. But based on subtle hints written into the dialogue, as well as the screenwriter’s stage directions, the director determines that the scene is really about a couple falling in love. To direct and act this scene effectively, each character should have a specific behavioral objective. What the actor does to achieve their objective is often referred to as their “intention.”

What the actor is “doing” will naturally impact how they say their dialogue. This is a much more organic approach to getting a natural performance than micro-managing line readings. I highly suggest discussing objectives with each actor privately so that they are not aware of the other actor’s objective. This will keep the emotional beats of a scene fresh and less predictable. After all, in real life we don’t always know what the other person is thinking or what they are up to. Using the couple falling in love scene as an example, a dialogue with the actors might sound like this:

Director (to actress): “What does Sarah really want in this scene?” Sarah: “She loves Charles and wants him to love her back.” Director: “OK, let’s find a specific action that you can play. If he doesn’t say so directly in the dialogue, how would you know for sure that he loves you? What would he have to do?” Sarah: “I’d know for sure if he kissed me!” Director: “Great! That’s your objective. Don’t worry if you don’t get the dialogue perfect. You know it just fine. I know it’s not in the script, but I want you to try as hard as you can to make him kiss you!”

Because all good scenes have some element of emotional charge, our director decides to encourage a “conflicting objective” for the actor:

Director: “Charles, what do you want in this scene?” Charles: “Help with my homework. But I also think I like Sarah – so I’m trying to be nice, be interested.” Director: “That’s fine that you’re nice to her. After all, she is helping you with your homework. But why is the homework important to you?” Charles: “I don’t know – maybe I suck at geometry.” Director: “That’s fine, but let’s raise the stakes. What if you are failing geometry and need to pass an upcoming test?” Charles: “Yeah, and if I don’t pass this test I can’t play football!” Director: “You got it! Remember, no matter what Sarah does, you’ve got to keep her on task to pass this test!”

Can you imagine how this scene might play out now? If the actors really commit to their conflicting objectives, emotional sparks should fly. The actors are instructed to perform the dialogue “as written,” so they must use other strategies to achieve their objective. Charles has no idea that he is about to be seduced. When Sarah advances, he must react quickly and use his body language and vocal tone only to ward her off and keep the conversation on geometry. Sarah might “cooperate” by illustrating her dialogue with an appropriate but suggestive drawing. If Sarah plays her objective fully, it will likely inform her dialogue with a whole new meaning. A line like “the greater angle must intersect the opposing circle” becomes infused with comedic sexual tension. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t actually achieve her goal of “a kiss from Charles” as long as she really tries. If the director doesn’t want a kiss to happen in this scene, it’s important that Charles totally commits to his objective to prevent it.

Notice how the director worked with Charles to create an imaginative “back-story” about failing the test in order to strengthen his objective. It doesn’t matter if this back-story really happened in the script or not – as long as the performance appears truthful. Of course, a director can and should experiment in rehearsal with different objectives and intentions to discover the emotional subtext of a scene. The results can be unpredictable – but also magical! Using objectives as a directing technique is just the tip of the iceberg. Other techniques, such as using “action verbs,” can be used to further hone objectives and intentions.

If you want to learn more directing techniques, I highly suggest reading Judith Weston’s amazing book Directing Actors. Several filmmakers who commented on my last two posts also recommended this book. There are many excellent books about acting, but this is one of the few (in my opinion, best) books written about the process of directing actors. Weston has many successful and famous directors as former students who attest to the viability of her philosophy and techniques. It takes an open mind and lots of patience to change your current habits and try new approaches like these. But if you really commit to practicing the techniques found in this book, I can almost guarantee that your skill at directing actors will increase exponentially! After you master the first book, Weston has also written a more advanced book, The Film Director’s Intuition.

Happy Directing!

Randolph Sellars, Director of Photography and Filmmaker, has over 30 years of experience photographing a variety of projects in 11 countries around the world. He has shot 23 feature films, including The Juniper Tree, which was a Grand Jury finalist at the Sundance Film Festival and was singer/actress Bjork’s first feature film.


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 25 COMMENTS

  • thank you for these interesting posts!

  • Great article! Very well explained. I can also recommend “Directing
    Actors”, it’s a really helpful book.

  • Michael Locke on 01.23.12 @ 4:36PM

    My respect for you continues to grow Mr. Sellars. It’s nice to know there’s professionals like yourself who understand the actors task, and have developed/adopted personal methods to get what you need when you need it. To humbly add to the perspective, I come from a school of “doers” (not the Scotch). What you are physically doing onstage is the river the dialog rides on. It should reinforce or reveal something in what your “saying”. So often it conflicts, purposely. “I hate you” (but I’m in your arms), “You know I love you” (but I’m across the room, staring out the window).

    And know what your doing in a scene, but not so you can’t pay attention to what the other actor(s)/forces/obstacles are “doing” to you. Do, but LISTEN. Your probably not “in your head” if you’re really keen on your partner/situation. You’ll notice something, often subtle, that should “pinch” something out of you, and we’re off and running. I like to phrase things like “You suspect she…” “You wonder if he…”, to subliminally get actors to watch each other like hawks in addition to “…likes you” “…is cheating” , the main action.

    Acting is a verb, and I think of that as knowing what you’re “doing”. But the bottom line is each script/actor/director is different, so you’ll be solving the problem many ways in practice. “if you don’t like it, you haven’t solved it”. Good luck…ML

  • John Rutherford on 01.23.12 @ 6:07PM

    Directing Actors is a wonderful book. Great article, thank you for sharing.

  • Really enjoying all the articles you’ve written! Keep up the great work!

  • Thanks again Randolph, this is the kind of digging in that makes directing and acting fun & challenging, and ultimately leads to interesting conflicts, characters and stories.

    Great points. Listening is a crucial part of creating spontaneity and dynamic in a scene. When actors are really in the zone, listening for the stimulus becomes almost innate, and they are capable of responding or reacting to it as if it is the first time they have received it.

    Sometimes conflict arrises when characters want different things. Sometimes characters want the same thing but are taking opposing measures to get what they want. Often in “romantic” scenes the characters just can’t say what they want, so they keep saying little things trying to open a door (often in opposing ways), trying to drop a hint or, trying to figure out if it is safe to say how they really feel.

    Another major tool for the actor is the awareness and use of beats. A beat is a point in a scene when some new idea, argument, tack, realization, etc. occurs. There are usually numerous beats within a scene. Finding beats is a technique that can help actors navigate through the music of a scene. Often beats support an overall scene objective, but sometimes they can serve to heighten or change a characters objective. Beats are in the story and are to be discovered like the notes in a musical score, so the more one looks at a scene musically the easier it becomes to see the beats and play them.

    It is always helpful to include beat work early, but I also find that it can be a great way to work while in production. Some actor’s get stuck playing objectives at one pitch and often turn “trite”. The introduction of a new beat in a scene offers variations (subtle or not so subtle) which often help to keep them moving toward there objective on more than one note.

    The more a director works with objectives, beats and other foundational techniques, the easier it becomes to artfully communicate with actor’s in a non-technical, down-to-earth, human way, which, in my experience, garners the best results.

  • Koo have you read “On Directing Film” by David Mamet? It’s a short little book.

    It came to me highly recommended…and he puts up a compelling and interesting argument.

    He argues that all of which you outlined is not the job of the actor. Any sort of characterization by an actor is bullshit and impossible. All of this is done in the screenplay, the directors choice of shots and in the editing.

    Actors job is to do the actions outlined by the director as simply and as quickly as possible.

    Has anyone read this book? What are your opinions on this?

  • Great book! Anyone interested should buy it immediately. Don’t think about it, just do it.

  • Will,

    I have read it, it is a great little book. “A Practical Handbook for the Actor” is another short little book written by a group of actors who trained with David Mamet and W.H. Macy early on in their careers, which basically states that all an actor can do is play actions.

    I don’t think that Mamet’s book opposes what is being said. What I get from the book is that the character is defined by his actions and that those actions are defined by the script or play (if it is well written) and outlined by the director. To me this article is about how a director communicates his outline to the actor. The more an actor understands the story and his character’s objectives, the more apparent his actions become. David Mamet is a writer first, and he cuts the fat out of everything he touches. I think that it can be easy to misconstrue what he says and end up “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    It is the job of the director to outline the actor’s actions. This process begins in casting, which is often where the director finds the actors that are able to best play the parts in line with the directors vision. I always take some time to see if an actor can follow direction, it is a huge consideration, and one of many during an audition.

    I remember an interview with Anthony Hopkins (more than twenty years ago) in which he was asked about his ‘process’. His reply was that he read the script over and over, often over a hundred times and that was all. Any other ‘process’ was “mental gymnastics”. I think that this is true for most actor’s who have years of experience. They develop intuition. . . or an ability to go in-to-it with all of their senses, so the mental process becomes merged and perhaps more quiet and unnoticeable.

    Most systems begin with deconstruction, followed by reconstruction, and with enough experience, embodiment, which seems a lot like abandonment.

  • Thank you all for your kind and thoughtful feedback. I really appreciate everyone adding to the conversation. Michael, I really like what you said about “doing” and truly “listening.” These are the essence of the actors job. And part of the director’s job is to help the actor with these tasks which are simple in concept, but often challenging to maintain. Granville, thanks for bringing up the “beats” within a scene – you describe and articulate the concept very well. Will, I haven’t read Mamet’s book, so I don’t know how he works with his actors. I do respect most (but not all) of his work as a writer and director. He obviously has a great rapport with his regular ensemble of actors. I agree with what you attribute to Mamet with respect to the director’s job – to outline the actions of the actors. The director is ultimately in charge. However, keep in mind that the actors are the ones who must ultimately perform the outlined actions and the dialogue. They must be involved in the process of creating a performance. Remember, we can’t MAKE anyone perform exactly like we want – even if the person wants to do exactly as we say. A skillful director must find unique ways of working with different actors that accommodate THEIR working style and strengths. A director can be 100% correct in their opinions and interpretation of a film – but if they can’t work effectively with their actors, they will never get the performances close to what they desire.

  • So long as we’re discussing short books that’ll make you a better director, Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies” is a fast read that touches on all the important aspects of film making – casting, cinematography, set design, screenwriting and rewriting, and yes, working with actors. A great aside was how he set up two cameras with multiple mags to let Pacino perform the telephone scene with Leon in DOG DAY AFTERNOON in an uninterrupted take.

    Thanks again for these, Randolph!

    • Joe, I like Sidney Lumet’s book as well. He’s got a great reputation as an “actor’s director” – and I think that he’s a great director all around. His films usually have great scripts with compelling stories and wonderful characters. Although he is not a “flashy” visual director, his films are always well shot with lots of mood and texture. He’s one of the “greats” in my opinion.

      • Absolutely – he left quite a body of work behind him, and I admire his relative restraint in his visual style. Even though he didn’t have a lot of flash, you can tell Lumet’s at the helm!

  • Randolph,

    Your response really gets to the crux of the matter, which is that in the end the actors have to perform in order for the film to work. The more we understand as directors, the better our chances at helping them to pull it off without getting in the way.
    I think that at a certain point all science yields to magic (or something unnameable). As useful as any process is, it is important not to mistake the raft for the shore.

  • Another fantastic book on acting is “Intent To Live” by renowned acting coach Larry Moss. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his workshops, he’s one of the best in the business.

    Acting is all about finding the emotional truth in a scene and conveying it as simply and as powerfully as possible. If you can learn this language and communicate with your actors successfully, it really doesn’t matter what you shoot on or how high the production value is. If the material is truthful and connects with the audience emotionally they’ll be invested.

    Subtext or the intent of a scene really is where the magic and the power is. I remember years ago seeing an interview with Jack Lemmon where he talked about it in regard to love. He said that it’s one of those things that many actors get wrong. For example, when a character asks “Do you love me?” what they are really saying is “I love you” and when a character says “I love you” what they are really asking is “Do you love me?” This example really helped me understand how to look beneath the external layer of the text and dig deeper.

    Great articles the last little while guys. It’s such a refreshing change from the usual camera tech stuff.

    • Thanks Neil for your comments. I love the Jack Lemmon explanation of subtext from an actor’s point of view. It’s a great lesson for writers and directors as well. I got to light Lemmon for a day – years ago when I was a gaffer. What a thrill! Besides being a great actor, he really was a super nice guy with lots of charm and wit.

  • i think this is the only helpful post i have ever seen on this site so far regarding the importance of story telling film making , yeah it’s exciting to know about the tools (for the geek side of us)but even if we have gazillion k camera with all the best gear’s known to the industry. if we don’t know how to write story or pull performance out of actors. i don’t think one can be a true film maker. so Koo please keep this kind of posts coming it really is necessary for the self taught indi film maker, since specially this days most novice film makers focus on only equipment as if the equipment could make creative decision for them.

    • Agreed! I’ve been working as a freelance Story Consultant (as well as an indie filmmaker) for almost 10yrs now and it is with great sadness that I have to say that of the many hundreds and hundreds of screenplays I have read I only need two hands to count the ones that had potential. Whether it’s an iphone or a RED Epic you’re shooting on, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a story to tell – and this is as appropriate for a 2 minute PSA as it is for a 2hr. dramatic feature.

      • yea its true i agree 100% but most people just look at the glossy surface and think anything shot on high end video must be great…

        i m working on becoming a better writer, director and overall filmmaker. story is king.

  • Directing Feature films by Mark Travis really good book about directing and the creative collaboration between directors, writers, and actors.

  • As someone who has done quite a bit of acting, the “objective” concept is really helpful. Most people that have been trained will already have something in mind, so knowing they are using the idea of “objectives” already opens up a whole new avenue of creative conversation if you can use it too. Non actors may have never thought of it this way, and it gives them a good way to play subtext without getting too actor-y for them.

  • This is great! A whole new dimension of directing actors!

  • I LOVE that you mentioned Judith Weston’s book! I have had the fortunate opportunity to study under her, and I can say that what I learned from her I will carry for a lifetime! And she is such an amazing person, at that! Great article.

    • Cetre, I’ve also taken two workshops with Judith Weston. She is an amazing teacher – I feel the same way that you do. I was pleased to find out that she read and liked this article. She told me that she is writing a new book – very exciting.