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.