October 5, 2016

'Let Them Have it': Antonio Campos on Directing Great Actors in Difficult Performances

Antonio Campos' Christine is a dark and delirious period piece based on the life of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news anchor who shot herself live on air in 1974.

In Christine, Rebecca Hall and an ensemble cast (Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and J. Smith-Cameron) recreate the personal dynamics of the Sarasota news team that harbored Christine Chubbuck's downward spiral, ultimately ending with an on-air suicide. A welcome change of pace for a bleeding-edge American filmmaker, Antonio Campos' third film is a dark and empathetic experience that provides a sobering perspective on ambition.

With so many powerful actors at his disposal, No Film School was compelled to ask Campos how he gets the most out of his actors' performances. 

"A very important thing that young directors don’t think about: instead of coming in and telling actors how to do that first or second take, just let them have it."

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted at Sundance 2016. Read Part 1 of the interview here. 

1. Adjust to each actors' specific needs

"Your job as a director is to be 150% present and be aware of everybody," said Campos. "How you manage your time and focus is very crucial. You have so many people in the frame you have to keep your eye on. With actors like J., Michael, Tracy, Rebecca, John Collum—these professional people—they are just prepared. Once you’ve had the initial conversation—the 'this is how I see it'conversation—your job as a director is to help set a foundation that they are working off of on top of the work they’re doing on their own."

"The beauty of being a director," continued Campos, "is that you have to adjust to each person’s needs and learn how to speak to each one in a way that resonates. Or sometimes, not speak to them and give them space."

2. Give experienced actors minimal notes

"I remember calling Sean [Durkin] up," said Campos, "and saying, 'Do you ever get the feeling with these great actors that you don’t have to do anything? Sometimes I don't have to say anything.' An actor like J. is just so nuanced. Once you’re on set, hopefully everything big and important is there, and then it’s just exploring and adjusting, like, 'Let's try going a little softer,' or 'Just hold that longer.' It's about being totally aware of what they’re doing and focusing on what touches you can add to make it that much richer."

Credit: The Orchard

3. Push harder with young or non-actors

"With younger actors or non-actors, you have to pull a little bit more," said Campos. "You have to get in their face and be physical and do line readings and things like that."

4. Let your actors take ownership

"A very important thing that young directors don’t think about: instead of coming in and telling them how to do that first or second take, just let them have it," said Campos. "Then start introducing your notes. At the end, give them one [take] and say, 'This one is for you. Do whatever you want to do.' Actors want to feel that you trust them and that they have ownership. It's a difficult thing about being an actor: they have no ownership, but they need to feel ownership and that what they’re doing is right. You have to reinforce that."

"A difficult thing about being an actor: they have no ownership, but they need to feel ownership and that what they’re doing is right. You have to reinforce that."

"It's great when an actor trusts a director and thinks that they will do right by them because that alleviates another level of tension or insecurity," Campos continued. "For actors, their image—their person—is completely out of their control. They just screamed or acted crazy or did something they've never done before on camera, and now it's in his person's hand: 'Are they gonna use the best take? Was that even good?'

Credit: The Orchard

5. Minimize interruptions between takes

"The first take is like, 'Let’s get our bearings here,'" said Campos. "Sometimes actors give you one great take and then the others are like, 'What going on here?' Sometimes an actor comes on set and is like, 'I'm ready now!' Just make sure you’re ready, too."

"I also find the fewer interruptions between takes, the better," Campos said. "Sometimes everybody on your crew is waiting for you to call 'cut' so production can move a light. You call 'cut' and everybody just swarms in. Usually, I don't keep it rolling but I did do it for some key scenes where I just didn't want to stop. Sometimes I just needed it to reset myself and let the actor's emotions get deeper and deeper."     

Christine is in theaters and on VOD October 14th.

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solid advice

October 5, 2016 at 1:04PM

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Alex Mallis
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