The Art of Directing Actors

As a trained actor of 6 years before I came into filmmaking, I’ve been blessed with being able to work on over 100 filmed projects. Being in front of the camera gives you an appreciation of what good directors do, as well as what bad directors.

The real issue is that bad directing takes just as much time & effort as good directing – the real difference is preparation & application of directing techniques.

Once you’re on location, you have a myriad of factors to deal with. Sound, camera, set design, catering, extras, props, costumes – blah, blah, blah. Yet, as obvious as it may be, there’s always the possibility in dealing with those areas, that you will forget the most crucial of all… the actors.

It takes a special discipline to communicate effectively & empower your crew to handle those responsibilities, but it is imperative to a good film to do so. In following these tips, you’ll have more time to work with your actors and give them the space to get outside of their own head, and into the character of the story.

Delegate & Plan Before the Shoot

We’re not even going to talk about working with the actors until we’ve covered out the ways you can buy more time & space on set to work with the actors.

Every director feels like they’re being pulled at both ends by wild horses. But the good ones, know how unbind their wrist and let someone else reign that brumby in!

The best ways to delegate come down to preparing a job brief & discussing with key crew about what you want before it happens.

For instance, if you need a multi track recording of sound on the day, because there are lot of ambient noises and an abundance of vocals, then it is imperative that you prepare a document for your sound recordist to read what the technical requirements are.

Once this is done, pick up the phone and dial (sorry Wolf of Wall Street fans). Call your sound recordist and discuss the scene / set requirements to the most minute detail. This way, you won’t be blasted on the day with small questions, and chances are, if your 2nd AD is good, they’ll be able to help answer those questions for you. This gives you way more time to concentrate on working with the actors.

Film Set Processes

A lack of clearly defined process can cause the crew you have to second guess themselves & continue to bombard you with minutiae.

The more clearly defined the process, the more confidence your crew will have in executing tasks. Make sure your 2nd AD or Producer helps with this.

It could be as simple as writing down the process of leading extras onto set – who is in charge of this, where do they go, what information do they need, who is going to get them to sign release forms etc.

Again, we are buying time & concentration by doing this.

Go to Acting School

Acting school, for me, was one of the most formative experiences I’ve been blessed with undergoing. By studying scripts as an actor, I’ve been able to understand the intentions of a writer, the goals of a character, the obstacles a story presents, and how to interpret the script for the understanding of an audience.

But even more to the point, it has taught me what tools really good actors use, and how to interpret it as a director.

I strongly encourage directors to go up and start acting, because it will teach you how hard the preparation is for an actor to really nail a connected & truthful performance.

There are a myriad of techniques like…

  • Alexander Technique
  • Laban
  • Chubback
  • Stanislavski
  • Sensory
  • Meisner
  • Improv
  • Suzuki

All of these techniques have different ways of provoking a character’s traits & telling the story. It is imperative that you know what techniques your actors know & how to translate what you need into language that the actor understands.

Researching the text

As a director, you have a duty to understand the text better than the actors, and to see it cinematically better than the writer. In all, you have the hardest & most time consuming job of translating the text.

This is super important in working with actors, because they will come to you with questions. It isn’t important that you can answer every question, because that would be ludicrous. But it is important that you can help facilitate your actors to think for themselves.

Researching the text can answer a lot of important questions about the characters & storyline, which also informs whether your actor’s performance is true to form with the text.

Begin by asking questions like…

  • What does this scene need?
  • What relationship do the characters have?
  • What important memories, names, words, items etc appear in this scene?
  • What is the subtext of each line?
  • How should the character move?
  • Where are the beats & emotional transitions (and why)?
  • How does the voice of each character sound?

By answering these questions, you may give firmer & more accurate direction to your actors.

Calming down nerves

Everybody, regardless of the training and talent, gets nervous at some point in their lives, in front of the camera.

Even the simple act of setting a tripod up, can cause a person’s central nervous system to start firing up energetically and flood themselves with anxious energy.

It is very important to learn techniques that can help calm down your actors nerves & ground them into their bodies, lest they haven’t had this experience before.

A few techniques that can help are…

  • Yoga
  • Wim Hof Breathing/Tibetan Tummo Breathing
  • Alexander Technique
  • Emotional Freedom Tapping
  • Hypnosis
  • Visualisation
  • Chanting/Humming
  • Massage
  • Guided meditation

Not every technique will be right for you or your actors, but it is important to pick one and approach the actor and demonstrate confidence, trust & safety in the techniques in order to calm them down.

I would begin by taking the actors to a quieter part of the set, and get them to simply lay down on the floor, then begin with one of the techniques above. (You will have more buy-in on the day, if you discuss with your actors what your process is).

I would strongly recommend implementing a “no phones” policy on set to stop actors from distracting themselves with extraneous stimuli that doesn’t serve their characters.

Finally, you must hold a mirror up to the actors and get them to understand, that they hold the keys to the vehicle that is their body. Only they can stop the anxiousness and begin fully relaxing into their instrument, for the benefit of the film.

Keep It Simple Stupid – Emotionally Preparing

Most actors mess their minds up with overpreparing. Or even worse, they become emotionally apathetic or confused, and begin to forcefully self-generate emotions that look weird & uncomfortable to witness.

It is crucial for you to intervene in an actor’s process if you feel that they are misfiring or mispreparing.

Sometimes the easiest way to do this is to go back to the script and say “you’ve just found out the dog died, and you need to think about how that would feel before each take”

Philip Seymour Hoffman was well known for jotting down onto a piece of paper before each take, and he would write down one emotion that he had to focus on and feel. We all know how well his acting was.

Working out the technicalities

Look for the following signs to troubleshoot through….

  • The actor isn’t listening and responding naturally / Do a brief Meisner or Eye-gazing exercise to help emotionally open up the actor in a manner that allows them to react to the other actor.

  • The energy doesn’t match the scene / Get the actor to do a ‘what if’ exercise (i.e What if I don’t get my goal?) as this will get their subconscious to lock.

  • Acting from the neck up / If your actor doesn’t use their body enough, get them to go for a 2 minute walk in character, to open up their body and ground it more into the character.

  • Deer-in-the-headlights eyes / This shows that the actor is scared, nervous or anxious. A grounding, breathing or relaxation technique is worthwhile to solve this.

  • Remembering-their-lines eyes / This shows that the actor is struggling to remember their lines. At this point, give them 5 minutes to go over the script and the words, whilst positively reinforcing them that they do know the lines and to trust themselves that they remember.

Limiting Distractions

A set can be full of unhelpful stimuli, frantic crew, a plethora of conversations – it is important for your actors to be disciplined in blocking all of this out as it can settle into their subconscious/conscious mind – which disrupts their character building.

Getting them to set up shop in a quiet area in the set is key. I would also encourage the actors to get their phones onto airplane mode, and listen to music, whilst laying down on the floor to relax/conserve their energy. This is super crucial to getting the best out of them.

The Feedback Sandwich

Actors can be sensitive by their very nature. From experience in the corporate world, I’ve found it very helpful to utilise the feedback sandwich technique to help actors take on board critique in an emotional sensitive situation.

The way it is works…

Open up with a positive Feedback Then include a negative feedback And finally end with another piece of positive feedback.

The difference can be night and day in how your actors respond to this.

Imagine if your actor has an emotionally fraught scene that they’ve prepared intensely for, but their emotions are too big for the scene. You could start by saying…

Positive Feedback – “Chelsea, that was a remarkable job you did there. I’m really impressed with how you used the blanket to comfort yourself, which added an extra layer of immersion into the scene”.

Negative Feedback – “Now I’d like you to keep the same choices, but dial down the energy. Make it more natural & subtle. The tears are beautiful, but we want to tell the story more effectively with a gentler sadness to your character

Positive Feedback – “With all that said, I really enjoyed the musicality of your voice. Please keep that the same, because it will really draw the audience in, as it helps them understand the subtext of this scene”

And that’s how you apply the feedback sandwich!

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