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.