February 6, 2012

Getting Better as a Director: Gaining Trust

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

I’ve read several interviews with Hollywood directors who, when asked about directing actors, responded with something like "casting is 90% of the job." While I agree that casting is extremely important and certainly makes the director’s job easier, I must quibble with their percentage estimate. This 90% claim is either a cop-out answer or these directors aren’t fully doing their jobs. Even the best actors still need skillful guidance with their roles. We’ve all seen great actors deliver bad performances occasionally. In most of these cases, it’s not entirely the actor’s fault. Much of the blame can be assigned to bad writing, sub par directing – or both.

Even the consistently brilliant Sean Penn turned in an embarrassing performance playing a mentally retarded man in I Am Sam. He needed material with less clichés and a strong director to pull him back – prevent him from grossly overacting his character.

If casting really is 90% of a director’s job with actors, what does one do when casting choices don’t turn out to be 100% perfect? Give up on the film from the start? Big budget Hollywood films certainly have a financial advantage when it comes to casting choices. Most of us indie filmmakers do not have access to proven top talent. But there are lots of up and coming actors out there capable of great performances given the right material and a skilled, supportive director. It all begins with the working environment.

Make It Safe

All actors (especially less experienced actors) need a safe working environment. I don’t mean a set where they don’t get electrocuted or crushed by a falling light -- although that kind of safety is also important! I’m referring to an environment that encourages collaboration, intimacy, and risk taking without harsh negative judgment. Most actors have some degree of insecurity about their work. This is only natural because the measure of a successful performance is so subjective.

A director’s essential task with actors is to reduce the fear of failure. Less experienced actors in particular, are most afraid of looking foolish or ridiculous. This self-consciousness causes the actor to "watch" his or her own performance while doing it. This phenomenon leads to wooden performances or ironically -- overacting. Good performances are only possible when the actors are absorbed "in the moment" and are reacting truthfully with each other. Actors need to learn how to let go during a performance and trust the judgment of the director. Directors must earn the actor’s trust through their demeanor and performance feedback.

Keep It Positive

I believe that a director’s communication with actors, especially criticism, should always be positive. For me, this starts with adopting a belief that actors cannot make bad or wrong choices. Artistic choices are always subjective, so they can’t be wrong. However, sometimes actors make choices that don’t work as well as others in the opinion of the director. Since the director is in charge of the artistic vision of a film, she must guide the actor in a more appropriate direction while still encouraging the actor to make bold choices and take risks. Actors need to be reassured that you (the director) will not allow a performance to be used that doesn’t work for the scene or the film. You are the actor’s safety net and you will not allow them to look foolish. It’s a big responsibility. Here’s how a "positive only" director /actor conversation might go between takes in a scene:

Director: "That was good John. You’re on the right track. In the next take, I’d like to try something just a little different." John: "Was I too angry? It didn’t feel right. Was I was pushing too much?" Director: "I don’t want you to worry about that. You were fine – you played it just like we discussed. I’m looking for a more hurt reaction from Heather and you can help with that. Let’s try a slightly different way to express your anger. Instead of punishing her, what if you humiliate her?" John: "Hmmm, that’s interesting." Director: "Do you see the subtle difference? Could that work for you?" John: "Yeah, I definitely see the difference. Can I still keep the same objective to make her cry?" Director: "Sure, that still feels right. You’re just using a different strategy to get her to cry."

Notice how the director didn’t negatively judge John’s performance –- even if it wasn’t what he was looking for. I’ve presented John as an actor who really wants to succeed –- so he sometimes tries too hard instead of relaxing. This can lead to frustration or beating one’s self up. That’s why the director stopped the discussion from being about what was "wrong" with the last take. Instead, the director emphasized the new strategy for the next take. I’m not saying that all actors respond like John – but this is not uncommon for some high-strung actors. It’s very similar to a baseball player always swinging too hard for the homerun.

Did you notice how the director asked for John’s help in getting a different response from Heather? This is a subtle way of the director telling John that he was not singling him out for more work. Heather’s performance needs evolving as well. The director also used a directing technique that involves the use of action verbs instead of adjectives. Instead of asking John to "be angry" (a vague and non-specific direction), he first instructed John to punish Heather. On the next take, the director wanted to pull John’s anger back. But instead of asking for "less anger," the director suggested John work with a different verb: humiliate. This adjustment should elicit specific behavior and reactions that are different from punish. Action verbs are a powerful directing tool that I will discuss in more detail in the next article.

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.

Your Comment


i think what those directors meant when they said 90% of the job is not...find the most skillful and experienced actor and your job is done...it's more find the perfect person for that perfect role and 90% of your job is done.

I went to a seminar with Bruce Beresford and that was what he said. For one of his films The Getting of Wisdom he auditioned hundreds of high school girls for the perfect role.

He also said that "so much time is wasted on roles that were almost perfect".

February 6, 2012 at 7:00PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


You know, I love this director's chair series, and I also have to say it's sort of surreal reading it. There's so much I've had to 'learn the hard way', especially with working with talent. And I wish I would've read something like this that was this easy to read years ago (I don't like the 'directing textbook' reads as well, as they seem to get very techy and sort of bypass the artistry of it). In short good job yet again man.

February 6, 2012 at 11:32PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

Rev. Benjamin

Rev Benjamin, I think we all have to eventually "learn the hard way" even if we benefit from someone else's advise or knowledge. Mistakes can be painful - but they are a necessary part of the learning process. I'm glad you like the series. My goal is to inspire directors to learn new techniques on how to improve their skills at directing actors. I can only impart so much information in a blog post. But there are books, classes, and workshops available that can make a huge difference for those willing to try and dedicated to practicing.

February 7, 2012 at 12:42PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


keep these coming!

February 6, 2012 at 11:51PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


i agree on finishing most of directing work on casting too, the director job is bringing all the best talents together and getting the most out of them, i think the best directors are those who can see talent and recognize it or see performance be able to say that's it. if you cast the best actor for the role you don't have to direct him from 0 gravity, may be a little adjustments. so if it possible i go for 100% casting. it's like sitting down and watching things happen as it is in real life, and still i will be proud of my directing skills. movie making is a collaborative processes, I think it is a miss conception to think directors who go for the best talents are lazy or not doing their work this applies not only for casting actors but even the crew. if the person you cast doesn't have a talent in the first place, there is nothing to squeeze out her/him.

February 7, 2012 at 2:35AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


*so if it possible i go for 100% casting 0 directing work

February 7, 2012 at 2:38AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Kirubel & Will, let me clarify my position. I believe that the casting process is incredibly important and one should always strive 100% to get the best cast possible. Good casting decisions will definitely contribute to getting good acting performances. However, casting is just phase one in the process of directing actors. There will be a lot more challenging work ahead guiding performances. It is similar to a writer's first draft. The spine of the story must be there, but much pairing and honing will be done in subsequent drafts. It takes lots of re-working for writers, directors, and actors to approach perfection. No actor, no matter how brilliant, will "nail every take." The director's job with actors is two fold: judging the performance and then guiding the performance with choices that are appropriate to the storytelling. Judging a performance isn't easy - even though it is mostly intuitive. It requires practice and concentration. Kirubel, you're right that directors must know when a performance is working and leave the actor alone. But actors still require feedback and guidance when necessary to do their best work. The point that I was trying to make was that directors can learn effective techniques, that when practiced, will enhance acting performances. Of course, techniques or methods are only part of a personal directing process that relies on practice, experience, and intuition.

February 7, 2012 at 12:29PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Great blog guys,

New short action film I shot on the Canon 5D & 60D, Check it out!


February 7, 2012 at 10:20PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Randolph- I'm loving your articles!

Do you have any suggestions on books which offer more practical techniques like what you suggested with verbs vs. adjectives?

February 8, 2012 at 4:29AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

David Komer

Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television by Judith Weston is Awesome book

February 9, 2012 at 1:20PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


David, I agree with Kirubel - Judith Weston is the way to go. She also has a follow up book called "The Film Director's Intuition.' She emailed me the other day and told me she was currently writing a third book. I highly recommend taking a workshop from her as well if possible. It was worth every penny.

February 10, 2012 at 1:05AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Thanks y'all, will check it out!

I'm in Israel, so taking a workshop will be a little tough :)

February 13, 2012 at 3:53AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

David Komer

Great article. I believe in a positive work environment. Please check out my directorial debut. I am open to feedback.


February 10, 2012 at 7:52PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


You never go full retard.

March 9, 2012 at 2:40AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM