The Director’s Chair – An Introduction

This is the first in a series of guest posts by filmmaker Raafi Rivero.

In this series of posts I intend to address a topic which is both critical and sorely overlooked in the current crop of filmmaking blogs: how to, you know, direct.

Specifically, I will tackle directing actors and all non-technical aspects of the craft. Koo has done (and continues to do) a tremendous job of culling through the vast amounts of tech out there, making recommendations, and pointing out best practices. I will address the aesthetic aspects of the craft. During this series of posts I will point to experiences of my own and of filmmakers I know. The goal is to be informative and instructive.

If the tone of these posts strikes you as a bit forward, that's because they are borne out of a frustration with seeing too many of us make the same rookie mistakes. But also from having made so many of them myself and taking so long to course-correct. This is part-tract, part-diatribe, part-diary. But if you want to make yourself a better director, read on.

If you're the person sitting in the canvas chair, directing actors is your biggest responsibility. Your DP is a filmmaker, your producer is a filmmaker, heck, your sound guy is a filmmaker. But it is no one else's job on set to direct the actors. This ultimate responsibility over the performances in the film is the single most important thing that you do on set. Not the look (DP), not the locations (production), but the acting (director). It is your job to mold the performances into something funny, heartwarming, off-putting... whatever, but above all: believable.

How many times have you watched someone's 5D camera test on vimeo and clicked off halfway through? Sure the images look great, but after a minute or so, who cares? At this point everybody should be able to achieve great looking pictures. That's what Koo is helping you to do on this site. What's worse: how many times have you watched someone's short film and checked out halfway through? Even some of the big, famous guys in the blog world who we can't even name? Bad acting will kill your movie faster than anything else except for bad sound. But how do you work with actors?

"I talked my way through that film."
- Tanuj Chopra

That gem was dropped by a buddy of mine while explaining his process. No piece of advice has meant more to me on set.

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Talk your way through it

Your job as a director is as a communicator. You communicate with every department constantly: between locations, setups, takes. And no place is this more essential than with your actors.

Some directors are disdainful of the performers; Hitchcock was notorious for this:

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When it comes to your own directing, don't be disdainful of your performers. At this stage in our careers, actors can be the single greatest resource we have. On big-time sets with big-time egos and people with jet-setting schedules there's no time for rehearsal. Everything happens on set through retakes and with a few days of prep. We have the LUXURY of rehearsing with actors. Of getting things right in the weeks and months before production instead of the days and hours. This is a huge advantage we have as Indies. Don't give this up!

Our advantage comes from the fact that there are good actors out there who are just as hungry to work and practice their craft as we are. They WANT to work with good directors and build complex characters. These are the people taking days off of work, going out to auditions every day, and slipping into acting classes in the evenings. Go find these people. Believe me, they want to hear from you.

A good performer can paint in a whole story with a bare minimum of extras. That's why sketch comedy works. And off-Broadway theater. A good director supplies the vision. And the place where everything starts is probably an empty room somewhere with a couple of chairs. Talking about your movie.

Communicating with actors means being available as the ultimate authority on the story: how it should move and feel at any moment of its duration. This is not to say that you won’t make discoveries on set, or that ideas won’t occur later in the editing room. But while you have the opportunity to communicate your vision to the breathing human beings who are the faces of it, it is your responsibility to draw out their best work. When communication flows both ways between actor and director, everyone involved will be able make important discoveries about the material.

Do that well, and the audience won't be able stop talking about it either.

Next time: the rehearsal process. To see all the posts in this series (to date), click here.

Raafi Rivero is a filmmaker and designer living in Brooklyn, NY. In between stints slaying dragons and leaping small puddles in a single bound, he's managed to snag a couple of industry honors and is hard at work on the upcoming feature How to Steal. Raafi has directed content for HBO, Sony, and Discovery as well as shady record labels and satisfied customers the world round. His short, Their Eyes Were Watching Gummy Bears, will play festivals this summer. Follow Raafi on Twitter here.

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Thanks Raafi, I feel like this is exactly the type of article that's missing in the film blog world. I look forward to the next one!

February 1, 2011 at 11:49AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


@MRH thanks. I've got a few in the hopper, but holler if there are any specific topics that aren't covered.

February 1, 2011 at 12:28PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Raafi Rivero

Great post! I look forward to seeing more from you.

February 1, 2011 at 1:40PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


...great read raafi! looking forward to checking these out...i think this is so call that you're writing for this site seeing that you put me on to it!

February 1, 2011 at 3:55PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


meant to say..."this is so cool..."

February 1, 2011 at 3:56PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great start Raafi!! Waiting for the upcoming articles. Could yout talk about how balancing egos on the set? Sometimes it's quite difficult to listen to everybody ideas when everybody is a starter...

February 1, 2011 at 10:45PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


@ Dennis. my 4th post in the series will deal with that a little bit -- balancing talent and ego disparities between actors. But maybe I can delve a bit more into general crew turf wars in another post.

@ralston: thanks for stopping by, man.

February 2, 2011 at 2:49AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This first article is definitely one of my favorite articles on filmmaking I've ever read. Please keep them coming!

February 2, 2011 at 6:41AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Raafi, thanks for an awesome article. I made my first short recently and I was devastated by how unable I felt to communicate my ideas with my performers. Can't wait to see the further articles in this series!

February 3, 2011 at 2:20PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Thanks for writing and for deciding to make it a regular feature. This truly is what's missing in the "internet-film" world. We spend so much time languishing over the minutia of filmmaking that we don't spend enough time talking about what really matters: stories and characters in them. At least that's what I've personally experienced anyway; being so busy with trying to figure out the right camera setting only to have a shoot crash and burn based on its performance or lack thereof.

In fact, just a week or so before reading this post, I personally experienced a devastating shoot day where neither I was prepared to direct nor were the actors prepared to perform... never again will I let that happen so long as I can help it.

Your timing is impeccable, and I look forward to more.


February 3, 2011 at 6:34PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


As a director it is your absolute responsibility for everything that appears on the screen. Make no mistake, the director takes all blame, including bad writing, bad acting, lighting, sound, etc.

The good news is when it's working, you get credit and applause, and will get to direct another. Maybe.

One of the most important things a director can do - is make sure the actors are 'Listening' to each other in the scene.

Keep a sharp ear out for 'Line readings' those are pre-rehearsed sentences, with inflections given the same way every time you have another take during the scene.

These 'Line reading' actors are stuck, and believe the only way they can deliver that line, is in the way they have rehearsed it over and over before arriving on the set. In other words, the are no-longer reacting to the scene partner in a fresh way, they are not; 'in the moment'

The remedy: Say, "Hmmm, the writing is not working here. Let's improvise for fun, for a few takes, and see where it leads us." at this point try it many different ways, even exchanging roles - this keeps your discovery of the bad acting hidden, if you confront the actor, they will pretend to listen, and then shut down to your suggestions from that point on. So blame it on the writing, not the actor - ever.

The character's 'Need' is paramount in the moment, and normally, it is disguised as a lie.

The lie - is the character's 'Filter' from where they listen to everything that's said by the other actor(s)
until they hear, what they need.


February 4, 2011 at 8:35AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


great post! keep it going koo

February 6, 2011 at 4:04PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM