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Getting Better as a Director: The Power of Collaboration

01.16.12 @ 10:11AM Tags :

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

In my last article, I discussed the reasons for directors to take an acting class. In this article, I’ll share practical directing tips and give you my second piece of directing advice. It sounds a bit like Buddhist Philosophy: You can become a much better director if you learn how to let go of your “illusion of control.” This is easier said than done. “Letting go” requires a conscious shift in perspective and lots of practice. It’s human nature (and especially a director’s nature) to want to be “in control.” It’s common for directors to desire and seek total control over their artistic vision. But having “control” is a myth.

When it comes to other people, the reality is that we have no real control. Our only control is over our own actions or reactions to any given situation. We can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do – even if we are in charge. Oh sure, we can make threats and fire those who do not cooperate, but any victory will be short lived and collaboration will end. If we want a sustainable artistic collaboration, we can only influence others through the art of persuasion.

As directors, we want to fiercely control our projects in order to maintain our version of artistic integrity. This is understandable, but this “holding too tight” gets in the way of our collaborative relationships, especially with actors. When we learn to “loosen the reins,” we can remove a lot of pressure from ourselves. We no longer have to be the only person with all of the answers. We will benefit from the creative power of the collective consciousness.

When we can truly collaborate collectively, we will actually increase the artistic integrity of our projects. This “letting go” does not entail filmmaking by committee or letting everyone else direct the film. The director is still in charge and must know the material better than anyone. You can simultaneously maintain a strong point of view and still be open to other ideas. You get to choose the best ideas that will help improve your film.

Cheaper Than Therapy


There’s a joke among actors that the reason they act is because it’s cheaper than therapy. When directors work intimately with actors, their role is often very similar to a therapist. The most skilled directors often spend more time asking questions (especially during rehearsals prior to filming) than giving orders. Good therapists do not generally tell their patients what’s wrong with them or give their own opinions. They encourage their patients to talk by asking probing questions. Breakthroughs in a therapy session come when the patient has their own revelation about their past behavior or experience. Similarly, an experienced director will ask an actor probing questions about their character and their relationships with other characters. Most likely, the director will already have their own answer or opinion, but there are two benefits to asking the actor their opinion rather than just telling them “this is how it is.”

First, if the director takes this open-minded approach, he might actually get a better idea from the actor, which will have a positive impact on the film. Second, like the therapist, the director wants an actor to “own” the implications of their answer. If they do, their performance is likely to be far more personal and genuine. If a clever director disagrees with the actor, she doesn’t always say so directly. Instead, she may ask more leading questions of the actor that indicates her point of view. A conversation might go like this:

Director: “Why do you think John cheats on his wife?” Actor: “Because he obviously hates her so much.” Director: “Why do you say that?” Actor: “ Well, according to the dialogue in this scene, he yells at her and calls her a cold bitch.” Director: “You’re right; he’s punishing her with hateful words. But do you think it’s possible that he still loves her?” Actor: “I guess so, but I don’t see him show it.” Director: “What if he’s punishing her in this scene to cover his own guilt about the affair?” Actor: “Hmmm…” Director: “Maybe he’s afraid to say he’s sorry out of fear that she’ll leave him. Could he be trying to shift the blame to distract her – to make her feel more responsible? Could that work?” Actor: “Yeah, I like that. It’s more interesting to have that subtext to play with.”

This might seem like a silly, indirect game to play, but the outcome can be much more effective because the actor feels like he is part of the decision making process instead of just being told in a dictatorial way how to play the scene. It was still the director’s choice, but the actor is taking ownership of that choice. Of course, sometimes an agreement about how a scene should be played cannot be reached. In this case, a wise director will give the actor a chance to try the scene their way first, especially during the rehearsal period where there is less time pressure. Even if the director eventually overrules the actor’s choice, the collaboration is kept alive and balanced because the actor feels their input is valued.


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.

Related Posts

  1. Getting Better as a Director: Learning How to Talk to Actors
  2. The Director's Chair - How to Work with Good (and Bad) Actors
  3. The Director's Chair - Rehearsal

COMMENT POLICY

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!

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  • Good stuff – enjoying these posts.

    It’s a lot more relaxing and enjoyable to work this way – you’re working with talented creatives that you’ve (hopefully) chosen because of what they can bring. As soon as you start to collaborate with them, you share the burden and open the production up to the magic that good actors can bring. I’ve been taking acting classes since late last year (and writing some blog posts on similar lines to this) and although I’ve always felt I had a good relationship with actors, these classes are still proving incredibly useful for me as a director and I definitely recommend it as a way for anyone to improve their craft.

    • Alex, thanks for sharing and reinforcing the advantage of acting experience for directors. As you said, it truly takes your insight and directing skills to another level.

  • Thanks Randolph! I agree 100% with your points. Especially when we’re shooting on digital, if you’re at odds with an actor you may as well shoot both ways for every set up. You only stand to burn a few minutes (depending on the scene length) and you’ll keep the actors, and in turn your crew, a lot happier.

    Some actors crave specifics, though – I’ve found a simple way to help them is with scenes or lines they’re struggling with, tell them that “in this scene, when you say this what you really mean/want is this” – a more direct way of the leading questions you described. I love this series – keep ‘em coming!

    • Thanks Sugo. I agree with you, specific direction is also essential to actors. I’ve started my posts relating to directing actors with more general advise and philosophy. I will definitely get into more specifics in future posts.

  • loving the non-camera related posts in nofilmschool, hopefully more of these and less RED/CANON posts

  • It’s easy to get caught up in being too technical and forget to emphasize the importance of actors, especially for aspiring directors. We would be well served to focus much more on acting and story than the intricacies of specific camera bodies or types of glass. Still… it’s great that Koo has tracked major camera developments, and I imagine most readers want to stay in touch with current and developing film trends.

  • Love this series…

  • Thanks very much for your article Randolph. I enjoyed it, and I agree with most of what you wrote.

    However, I think your example with the questions could be problematic because you give the actor emotions instead of a playable action. Questions are a great tool to use when working with actors, however, I would be reluctant to tell an actor how their character feels in a scene.

    Thanks again for the great article. Cheers,
    Chris

  • Sorry, was writing this on my iPhone and it freaked out. Koo, can you please delete this one?

  • Rev. Benjamin on 01.16.12 @ 6:12PM

    This post brought to mind this video by AFI of Nolan explaining how he works with talent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDfU5PqoSOo

    There are times when I’m on set that, while I do have a place I want the scene to round out to story-wise, I also just feel like discovering the story with the actor in that moment a little more (underscoring the first point of this blog post concerning collaboration). Then what was a set of more leading questions just ends up being true queries for insight to another’s take on the story, which I think could keep to Nolan’s “lie detector” advice. Sort of weird putting all that into words.

    Anyway, thanks for the post! “It was still the director’s choice, but the actor is taking ownership of that choice” is a brilliant concept – allow members of the creative process to own choices for crying out loud!

  • These posts are awesome.
    we had an actor directing workshop at my uni (CSM) the other day that literally blew my mind, and theres some of it in these posts. We had the workshop with Simon Shore, the director of “Get Real” (1998).

    The key things i got from that workshop were:

    >That “result-directing”, or considering actors as puppets is only going to give you a bad performance: don’t tell the actor how he should move.

    >never make the actor feels self conscious.

    >Don’t use adjectives ,use verbs (eg: don’t tell the actors “act sexy”, say “seduce him”) so that they will interpret, not fit a mold.

    > always define what the character WANTS, HIS GOAL, and INTENTIONS, so that the actors can improvise and stay in the right emotional spectrum.

    > surprise your actors, omit some parts of the script to them so that your actors can really put themselves in the socks of their characters, not knowing what’s gonna happen next.

    hope it helped a bit

    • Alex, that must have been a great workshop! All good advise. I plan to cover in more detail some of the points that you bring up. My next post is all about intention, objective, goals, wants – all different names for the same thing. After that, I’ll cover the effectiveness of using action verbs as a directorial technique.

  • This really is a great article and like it was said earlier, this series is just all too valuable.
    It’s amazing how much being more personal and having a give-and-take attitude can be in nearly every situation. Not even in just Cinematic direction

  • Thanks for the article Randolph. I look forward to the next installment.

    In the independent film world, this is the most underdeveloped area of craftsmanship and this makes sense to me since “dealing with actors” in the collaborative sense requires social, psychological, emotional, mental and intuitive prowess. This ultimately comes from ones own self-awareness, humility and openness to other humans. Some are born with a head start in this area and others have to work at it a bit. Either way there is no end to this evolution.

    An important thing to note is that while there are only a few ‘schooled methods’ taught to actors, people are different and the ways in which actors process stories, characters and relationships run the gamut.
    Some actors are very cerebral, some visceral, some physical, some very quiet about their process of understanding and portrayal. Some actors want (need) to be told when, why, how and others would shut down if they were told.
    At it’s best, acting is intimate. Some run into the flames and others linger on the periphery before deciding to let go and trust. In my experience, an actor’s trust is earned not by having all the answers, but by having a firm hold of the compass and an ability to go into deep waters in the ways that work for each of them.

    Read throughs, table work and rehearsal can help a director get to know the types of people he is working with and how best to help them get the real bead on their character.

    Directing actors toward an action can be very effective and fruitful and is a very direct way of directing, but this realm of acting is an art form of it’s own and requires study and experience. Words cast spells, and choosing the words that formulate an action becomes more potent when they are specific. The action,”To stop him from winning” can be stated as “To castrate him so that he will not want to play.” More specific and more potent.
    The actions are usually in the script, which is another reason to sit down at a table with your cast and read . . . . a lot.

    • Granville, great points – I couldn’t agree more. Directing actors is a complex art that requires maturity, intuition, and lots of practice. I’m glad that you brought up all of the differences with actors: excellent description. No suggestion or technique will work with all actors. It does take time, patience, and experimentation. You’re right, rehearsal is the best way to discover these differences. I love your example of using a powerful verb like “castrate.” Much more visceral and evocative for the actor.

  • Ross Brannigan on 01.19.12 @ 4:12PM

    Great article again thanks Randolph and really valuable response too Granville. I like your idea of owning creative choices. Its a difficult balancing act. Actors do want to be a valued part of the creative process and, for most, script analysis and the discovery of the rehearsal process is very exciting. On set there is hardly ever time for much of this. Your hypothetical conversation is a good start (for rehearsal I think, not on set). Hopefully the broad discovery has taken place before the pressure of shooting is on you. It is not the time to pull the actor into a reflective, objective, analytical, interpretative, call it what you will, mindset.

    I’m glad you use the word “actor”. For some reason “the talent” doesn’t sit well with me. Crew say – “aren’t we talented too?” and actors think “I’m more than just a commodity and I’ve worked and studied hard to develop my natural talents”. On one TV show I worked on we were short one extra and one of the producers visiting the set had to stand in for a few hours. Afterwards she said “##$%^&!!! that was hard, I never knew how much concentration this required – I’m never gonna call them warm props again.”

    • hahah!
      Yeah, right on what the ‘producer’ said… acting is DAMN HARD and those who makes is effortless (and good) are the ones ya gotta have in your projects. Easy to direct them and they know their craft.

      I thought producing was difficult and it is as you know, if you’re a producer…..but direct/produce a project is nothing short of a miracle sometimes :)

  • Giozza Fittizio on 01.19.12 @ 4:46PM

    Seems like Shurtleff Michaels’ method (sorry for the english, i’m italian)

  • Giozzo,

    I agree, it does sound like Shurtleff’s method (or system), as well as other systems (Stanislavski & Meisner ultimately end with, “What is your task?” or “What are you doing?” I think that Shurtleff’s 12 steps are naturally beneficial to the directors process as well.

    While I don’t think it is an absolute necessity for a director to take acting classes, it can certainly help. I think that it makes a difference to be well versed in the dynamics and vocabulary of an actor’s process(es).

    I agree completely with Ross that before filming begins, the world philosophies, and cerebral stuff should be worked out as much as possible, which makes focusing on action with spontaneity easier, as hopefully the actor’s have built an inner life from which action springs. Still, I think that the real discovery happens in the playing out of a scene (hopefully while the camera is rolling).

  • Clayton Arnall on 01.20.12 @ 11:50PM

    Enjoying your articles!

  • Yeah, I agree. Thanks with your articles!

  • Nice article, Randolph! Hey, could you perhaps talk about the indie no-budget/micro-budget world when it comes to actors? Like, how to rally actors around and ensure they’re committed when they have a schedule outside of your own project (and/or they have school or a job)? Thanks!

    • Thanks Carl. I understand the challenges of maintaining commitments among cast and crew when doing micro budget filmmaking. I’m afraid that I don’t have any magical formula for making this work, but here are a few ideas. First, you have to be very patient and understanding especially if no one is being paid – this can be a real test of your nerves when you are under scheduling pressure. You don’t have much choice but to create your shooting schedule around the key actor’s work schedule. One of the best ways to get strong commitments from actors is by having a great script – which is easier said than done. If the material alone doesn’t really excite them, then it’s going to be difficult. Whenever you approach anyone about working on your project, remember to let your passion for the material show. Some filmmakers are shy or humble about their work – but it’s important to sell yourself and your project. But don’t just say “its going to be great” – be prepared to explain “why.” Be sure to explain how important their role is to the success of the project. Anything you can do to help give a collaborator a feeling of ownership will help cement commitment.

      I would also suggest doing anything that you can think of to begin creating a bond between the primary cast members – especially those who have scenes together. This could involve going out together for drinks or lunch, etc. Even better if you can do some fun activity like bowling. You don’t need to bring up the project, let them do it if they want. The main purpose is team building. Remember, enthusiasm is catching! Later, at a table reading or first rehearsal, you can remind the actors of their commitment – not just to you, but to each other. This all assumes of course that you carefully vetted each actor and explained the commitment ahead of time prior to “hiring” them. It will be harder for actors to “flake out” if they feel committed to a whole group of people.

      When looking for actors who will be committed, always keep in mind “what’s in it for them?” If they aren’t being paid, why would they really want to do it? Perhaps the actor wants more experience doing comedy (your project) to balance out their “dramatic resume.” When something is at stake for the actor, commitment is much stronger than “OK, I guess I’ll do it.” When casting, look for “hungry actors” with something to gain or prove and then find subtle ways to remind them of what they stand to gain.

      Hope some of these suggestions are helpful.

  • Mayur Kumshi on 01.23.12 @ 4:12AM

    Hi, I am from INDIA, I have just completed my film direction course. Also I do find the articles written by you very useful and they are very good. Thumbs Up!! I want to start my career as an Assistant Director. Sir, How do I proceed ahead. Please help me.

    Thanks

    Mayur

    • Mayur, I’m glad you’ve liked the articles. I’m not sure of the career path and hierarchy of the film industry in India. I don’t really know how to advise you if that’s the path you want to take. I can say that In the US, the career path toward Assistant Director (AD) usually begins by becoming a set Production Assistant (PA), followed by second second AD, second AD, and then first AD. You should be aware that the job of the AD seldom leads to becoming a Director – it’s a different skill set that centers around creating schedules and keeping the production on schedule. More often, the AD position can lead to Production Manager and Producer. Sorry, I wish that I could be more help.

  • Thank you very much for this post and sharing so valuable knowledge!!!

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