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Film Fund-amentals: A Few Tips on Directing Actors

Alfred Hitchcock did not say that actors were cattle. He simply advised that they should be treated as such. OK, it’s not that big of a difference, and you’ve really got to be Hitchcock to get away with this attitude.

For independent filmmakers, actors are people who have been roped, stroked and herded into a production for little or no pay and no great prospect of critical rewards. They are an indispensable part of the production and, in some cases, the biggest problem to the process. More importantly, most independent filmmakers haven’t a clue how to deal with them. That’s why many directors end up not directing them in the hopes that the actors will figure out the part for themselves. I hear the same logic is applied to driving in Albania.

I can’t say I really have much advice to offer. I’ve never directed actors in a film, only in commercial radio and tape productions. But the issues are pretty much the same. In fact, I suspect that radio provides better practice for film direction than theater. In my own experience, theater-trained directors have trouble dealing with the more naturalistic demands of film acting. On stage, you have to project emotion to the back row; on screen, you simply need to show it. Besides, radio is based on the quick ability to sum up a character through vocal “types.” This is pretty much what you have to do in a movie (though now you’re looking for physical and facial types).

Type, not acting, is what you’re really looking for in the auditioning process. Most actors will have some kind of performance to present at the audition, which is always very nice of them. But whatever they perform, it will almost undoubtedly have nothing to do with your movie. What you want to see is how they move. In many respects, body language is more important on screen than it is on stage. Heck, John Wayne’s whole career was largely based on body language, not on acting. Same was true of Cary Grant. There’s even a blogger who has devoted a whole web page to James Dean’s use of body language. So you want to see how these folks handle themselves when they enter the room, walk across the stage, even when they take a sip of water. This is the kind of stuff you’ll be looking for in your film.

While you’re studying the performer’s body language, try to be clear in your own mind what you’re looking for in terms of your characters. Don’t depend on the actors to figure the roles out for themselves. They might be able to do that, but it isn’t going to be anything that you wanted. Sure, John Cassavetes was able to let his cast completely wing it, but he was working primarily with his tight friends and family. They had some idea what to expect out of each other. This allowed Cassavetes to achieve a surprisingly strong sense of emotional vividness. Unfortunately, most filmmakers would be lucky to reach the more dubious drunken ego fits found in the films of Norman Mailer.

Which means you’ll be working from a script. Screenplays and actors have a quizzical relationship. Many screenwriters would like to think that the actor’s job is to simply read the lines as they’re written. It’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. You would be extremely surprised to discover how often something that looks fine on paper ends up sounding really weird when spoken by a human being. Even seasoned professionals can trip and stutter on certain phrases and odd bits of wording. In some cases, it even results in a fit of giggles, and once the actor hits the giggles, forget it. Nobody gets past the giggles. It spreads faster than a plague.

For all of these reasons (and many more), I’ve always found it best to do quick re-writes during production. Yeah, it’s a screenwriter’s nightmare, but too bad. Words are not as precious as the cost of a shoot, and often a few minor changes to either the words used or the structure of a sentence will resolve the problem. What I’ve often found most helpful is to work with the actor in order to quickly find a sense of phrasing that flows more naturally with their own speech pattern. Granted, a good actor should be more adaptable (well, maybe), but in any kind of low-budget production you can safely assume you’re not getting Laurence Olivier. You still want to keep the line within character, but you also want to keep the shoot on schedule. This approach is often quicker and more efficient.

As a quick example, I was once directing a radio PSA with an honest-to-god experienced performer. Everything was going smoothly, and I thought we would be able to wrap within just a few takes. But during the actual recording, the actor kept breaking out in laughter over one lousy phrase in the script. By the tenth take, we were all laughing. Since the scriptwriter also happened to have been the producer and was present, I asked her whether we could change the line. She said no. So I then asked her if there was any reason why we needed the line. Ironically, she said we didn’t need the line. It was a remarkably painless cut.

So when in doubt, cut it out. Actors are often more effective in movies when they are just giving you a look, not babbling away with lots of dialog. Remember, this is a movie, and a lot of the “performance” will be assembled in the editing room. The Kuleshov Experiment, which demonstrated the various emotional relationships that can be created between unrelated shots, is still one of the most important elements to movie “acting.” Sometimes all you need is an actor who can simply hold a straight stare. The rest is movie magic.

Most of all, you’ll be working with largely inexperienced performers. Likewise, you’re probably not going to be too experienced with directing people. Everybody will have plenty of room in which to fumble.

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Comments (9)

  • Marvin


    My son is an actor and has done both stage and film work. He’s allowed me to see some of the process necessary to make written words into characters. I must admit that the process is one for which previously I had little appreciation. As a non actor I can now say that I have a greater respect for what actors do.


  • Robert Moskowitz


    Helpful, but there are times when you can’t cut out the line and the actor just isn’t conveying it well enough, or even tolerably. That’s when you separate the good directors from the guys who just happen to have a director’s lens hanging from their necks.

    There are many ways to get good performances from actors, but they all depend on being unwilling to accept mediocre performances.


  • Kevin Cloud Brechner


    I completely disagree with these tips offered. Actors deserve utmost respect for their craft. Most people go to movies to see actors, not directors. Many great directors, such as William Wyler, Clint Eastwood, and Woody Allen hire actors who can act and then give them the space to experiment. Casting for type is a recipe for mediocrity. Casting against type can lead to some of the most interesting performances. Some actors need a lot of feedback from the directors. Some don’t. Some actors can hit it on the first few takes. Some actors such as Marlon Brando my require 50 or more takes, and it is the last take that is magic. Charlie Chaplin was known to shoot 200 or more takes to a scene until the character or the sequence works.

    Changing words in the script to make an actor more fluid with the lines is fine, but feeling that words can be changed because the production costs more than the writer is very demeaning. The words should have been changed before production was started. In a really well-crafted script, every line contributes to the whole. Little minor changes can totally screw up the pacing or the subtext or even the concept. People who control the money often seem to think that they can write better than the writer. I have had executive producers chew up scripts because of their paranoia of offending viewers, to the point that they totally destroyed the concept, and took all the meat away from the part so that the actor had nothing substantial left to work with. Because the executive producers followed the golden rule “Those with the gold rule,” they rewrote the piece into a boring, ineffective piece, that aired a couple of times and was retired to bone heap of dead productions.

    Working with actors is exhilerating because it is the artistic process, like watching a painter apply paint and then make changes. It requires a totally different language than the technical aspects of camera exposure, lighting ratios, and audio dynamics. Many film schools never teach how to talk with actors, or how to make an actor feel comfortable enough on the set that they can dare to take risks without fearing embarrassment or disfavor.

    Personally, I was never too fond of John Cassavete’s approach of letting the actors completely rule the production. The role of the director is to direct the performances. Whether that be through giving abundant notes and feedback, or whether it be through letting the actor try it in different ways and then chosing which takes to print, it is the synergy of skilled creative actors and skilled creative direction that leads to great productions. I once watched actor-director Orson Welles direct a scene starring actor-director John Huston. Huston brought Welles nearly to tears. At the end of the take, Welles said, choked with emotion, “John, I don’t think that could have been done any better.” John Huston, in his gravely voice, replied, “Perhaps.” Welles printed the take and moved on.


  • Ninaad


    hey Dennis

    This article is a Gods sent something for me.I am in the process of starting up with an independent production film obviously very low budget,almost finished the screenwriting.Being entirely from the 3d Animation background have no experience of directing a liveaction footage except few sensibilities that have developed over the years.
    So this is gonna certainly help me a lot.

    Thank U v much.



  • Regina Dreyer Thomas


    As a mature actress (SAG), I totally agree with Kevin’s comments. As one of my acting teachers said, “Film is the director’s medium; theatre, the actor’s.” And then there’s improv. Non-scripted material can be hilarious on film when it’s left to the actor. And didn’t John Ford hold John Wayne’s chin in the beginning so that he would communicate only through his eyes and not his mouth during close-ups?


  • Marc Aeon Bradley


    ” I’ve always found it best to do quick re-writes during production. Yeah, it’s a screenwriter’s nightmare”

    That might be ok for radio when the actor has the page in front of him but it can be quite hard to forget lines that you have spent a fair few weeks working on.

    Anthony Hopkins would walk off set on the spot if a director kept changing lines, not in a strop but because he too cant simply “forget” dialogue. For short scenes ok not a worry but half a page of text and its asking for it. I was the lead in a feature last year that was low budget indie. The director took the time to have a good read through BEFORE production so that the issues with the written and spoken word are ironed out. YOU MUST go into production with a fully tested and locked script and not just for the actors benefit.

    Making films is a walk in the park. So long as, and like anything in life, it’s planned like a military operation with every single step worked out or at least thought about. Going into production to find the dialogue is not correct is asking for trouble that could have and should have been solved long before a camera and crew came into the mix. There is no excuse whatsoever for not reading out loud a script at home. Of all the directors I have met, the best ones all had one thing in common, they too had learned the dialogue and were off the page.

    On the note of Directors. Wow, I have never ever had the same experience once. Every single one has been so very different to work with. Make no mistake, an actor will know if the director is organised and knows what he is doing. In my book it is the responsibility of every single person on that location to know what he is doing, why he is doing what he is doing and to know when he should be doing what he is doing. A well oiled machine with all cogs turning at the correct speed.


  • Dennis Toth


    Actually its pretty fun (and even enlightening) reading through the many comments received, but I did want to clarify a couple of points. In these tips, I am dealing with the conditions of low budget independent filmmaking. That means you are roughly dealing with productions that are being made for somewhere between no dollars to $500,000 top. So obviously no body working in this vein will be doing 200 or more takes a la Chaplin (and by the way, this approach to filmmaking was one of the reasons why Chaplin couldn’t continue as a filmmaker after a certain point). Likewise, the cast in such a production will usually be, at best, semi-professional. I am not attempting to demean their profession. But I am suggesting a realistic approach. Otherwise, you are making demands on your cast that is neither fair nor rational.

    When I suggest making changes to lines, I am not suggesting extensive re-writes. But I am suggesting ways of working with a semi-professional cast in order to make certain lines more manageable within the context of their own speech pattern. Personally, I have found this useful.

    A good time to work out some of these problems is during rehearsal. However, it rare that many low budget productions will have either the money or time for much (if any) rehearsal of the script. This is simply another hardball reality of low budget production.

    In terms of picking actors by type as opposed to casting against type, there is the obvious problem that most (if not all) of the cast in this type of production will be unknowns. So basically, this issue is not a concern.

    As for the idea that doing a performer on radio is made easy because they have the script in front of them, I can only say thanks for the jolly laugh. I had the same idea until the first time I had to direct such a production. Sounds good and even makes sense. Too bad it just doesn’t always work out that way. Why, I really don’t know. But it simply doesn’t.

    Finally, thanks for the Ford/Wayne story. I hadn’t heard this one before. I have heard quite a few others, but not this one. Supposedly, Ford would call Wayne out to the set by loudly yelling “Tell the big dummy to get his butt out here.”


  • Jai Jai Noire


    While I get where Dennis is coming from and agree with some of his points, Kevin Cloud Brechner nailed it. When I direct actors, I spend time pre-shoot discussing the character that they’re playing, the character’s situation, their body language and how s/he relates to the other characters. I love actors and love what they can bring to a role. Casting a good actor is worth its weight in gold. Having (so far) been limited to ultra-low or no-budget shoots, I’m enormously grateful to the actors with whom I’ve worked. Creating a film is a team effort, and yes, the job of the director is to direct, to helm the project, direct and hone the performances to tell a story and set the mood for the audience. Lines do sometimes need to be re-written. I recently shot a piece as a book promo and even the book’s author noted that her dialog sounded so much different when spoken. The brief scene (based on described events in the novel) that I wrote dialog for ended up sounding smoother because I was writing with actors in mind. With dialog, “less is more” in most cases.
    One thing that he didn’t mention in the article is directing non-actors or first time actors (common in low budget shoots.) In that case I find it helpful to watch that person closely and try to steer them toward body language/actions that will feel more natural to them, without squirreling up the script.


  • Matt Shelton


    The truth of the matter is that acting is an art form that requires tremendous skill and technique. The whole gestation of film is so that human beings can understand each other better. Without a gifted actor/artists the film medium continues to de-evolve to an intellectual and/or entertainment medium which is useless to any of us really. Filmmakers that do not understand the actor’s process and/or have the ability to recognize good from mediocre acting will only continue to bastardize the potential for film as a communicative vision of the human condition. Do yourself a favor and hang around the best acting studio in your area for awhile. Most real filmmakers do this.


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