10 Techniques for Directing Actors For The First Time

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The ability to work with actors is one of the least discussed and most important aspects of directing a film. There are a few key ideas that can keep you on track and make sure you get the performance you need.

1. Deep Understanding of Character

Directing is answering questions. One of the biggest problem that first time directors have is that they don’t fully understand their story. Therefore, when they are trying to get a performance from an actor they don’t know how to give them what they need. Acting is about making decisions, but actors need to understand in simple terms what their goal is in a scene as well as the overall arc of a character. You may have heard the phrase “What’s my motivation.” Every scene has a reason to be there. You must put yourself simultaneously into both the mind of your actor and the mind of the audience. What does this character want? Is the audience with them or ahead of them? What are the inner struggles of our characters? What are the stakes?

If you don’t know these things before walking on set, you will be disoriented and unable to answer all of the hundreds of questions from every department head. And you won’t be an effective director of actors. The director should be the world’s top authority on the story you are telling and the torch bearer of it’s final vision.

2. Actors as Insecure Technicians

In many ways, an actor is just like any other member of your crew. We tend to separate them, but really an actor is a paid technician. Just as you hire a DP who has spent years to perfect his craft, hiring talented and experienced actors will be able to deliver the goods. As a director, your job is not to tell an actor how to act. In fact, if you do this in front of the rest of your crew you run the risk of making then shut down.

This simple concept should also help you relax as a director. God knows you already have enough to worry about. Good actors will be able to give you a good believable performance. Now, it may not be right specifically for the larger vision of the story in which case you will need to step in and make adjustments. But you never want to question an actor’s skill. If you ever need to critique the a performance from a purely craft standpoint, it will be much better to take them off to a quiet room and talk with them. Maybe they’re trying too hard. Maybe they can try it a different way that’s more natural. Either way, remember this…all actors are insecure. So you need to be just as much a psychologist as a director. Stroking egos can go a long way to getting the performance you want.

3. Bubble of Calm

Shooting schedules can be hectic. People are running around stressed, yelling at each other. Trying to set up for the first shots of the day. Although most actors have the ability to block these things out, they are definitely not helpful. It is important to separate your actors from the technical aspects of setting up a scene. Now, granted, not every scene requires the same amount of concentration. So there are actors who are fine hanging out on set. However, if you are dealing with a scene where your actor has to be especially focused, you need to find somewhere they can be off set in order to do their mental work.

One of the best things a director can do is to maintain that bubble of calm onto the set. If you are nervous or frustrated, actors will often think that it is because of something they have done. Directors are the captain of  the ship. Even if things are going wrong and you are having a nervous breakdown and you want to throw up….tell your AD and nobody else. Maintain your role as captain. There may be choppy seas, but you need to approach your actors as cool as a cucumber. You want your actors 100% focused on their craft.

4. Shooting Out of Order

There is obviously a technical side to filmmaking that many actors don’t understand. If you are shooting on a micro budget, the chances are your actors are probably from a school play or don’t necessarily have experience on a film set. One of the biggest issues stage actors have is the concept of shooting out of order. You almost never shoot a film in the order it is written. For example, if you have a short film that takes place in 2 rooms, you will shoot all the scenes for one location, then all the scenes for another. Even though the scenes are at different points in the story.

Seasoned film actors will typically not have a problem with this, but for actors that are new to film this can be extremely confusing. For this reason it is important to walk your actors through the entire scene chronologically so that they can get a feel for the emotional beats they will need to hit once everything is broken up. You will also need to explain that each shot will have different coverage. You will most likely start with a wide shot and move in to do closer and closer takes as time permits. You will also do insert shots and maybe a few wild takes just to have in the editing room. Actors also need to know not to stop if part of a take isn’t working. Unlike in plays, films can be edited around mistakes and you never know when you’re going to get a great moment you can work with.

Actors also need to be reminded what happened just before the scene. In many cases scenes will be continuous, like a person walking into a house then the next shot they’re on a set. There is obviously a physical aspect of this change, but even more noticeable is the emotional aspect. What was the character’s state of mind. Were they confused or scared? Nothing looks stranger than an actor scared in once scene and then totally calm in the scene that immediately follows.

5. Making Time

As I mentioned, film sets are hectic, but if you aren’t getting the performance you need, you won’t have a film. You can look at a film set like this: Chaos! Movement! Stress! then…all of a sudden…”Action!” Actors need time. You will most likely need 3 or 4 takes of each shot. But sometimes you need more. Sometimes a scene isn’t working and for whatever reason you don’t know what to do. But it’s important not to rush actors. Let them feel like there is plenty of time. Give them the space to find a performance if it’s not working.

6. Overall Vision

It is easy for a film to get derailed into a choppy mess. This happens when you don’t have a captain or someone who understands the vision of the film. This is the person who can site back and watch the film in their head fully edited and then, almost like a psychic, explain the vision to everyone else. The job of the director is to not only impart this vision, but fight for it. Many people who haven’t spent time on film sets most likely don’t even consider this to be a problem. However, especially when shoots get grueling, the idea of just putting your film on autopilot can be alluring. And this is exactly what has happened on many sets. This happens a lot of big budget studio films that flop. You have hundreds of talented technicians all functioning individually, but you don’t have someone who ties it all together. As with the crew, actors will also need to have a clear understanding of what your vision is and how they can make it happen.

7. Blocking

Any director worth his mustard is well aware of the importance of camera placement, movement, and blocking. A good director is a prepared director. With the rare exception, before you ever walk on set you should have already worked out with your DP every shot. Your blocking will come from your storyboard. Blocking and camera movement really separates amateur from professional filmmakers.

For seasoned actors, blocking will be second nature. Hitting a mark is just part of the job. But since we’re primarily talking micro budget and less experienced actors, you will need to have absolute confidence on set that you know where the actors should be. If you start making it up on set, you’re going to have a lot of problems. Blocking can also cause actors to be self conscious of their movement, which can show up in their performances. So make it as easy as possible and don’t freak out if a mark is missed once or twice.

8. Physicality of Acting

It may seem silly, but often times actors don’t know what to do with themselves during a dialog scene. There is nothing more boring that having two characters stand with their hands to the side as they talk, but often there is not direction in the script that will inform their actions. To make a scene more dynamic and to help your actors stay in the world, give them an action to perform during a scene. For example, if your characters are talking in the kitchen, have one making a sandwich. Or if it’s a character alone, simply find ways to connect them to the world around them.

One of the greatest examples of this is Brad Pitt’s choice during Ocean’s 11 to have his character eating in every scene.

9. Goal Oriented Acting

I love to hear tricks actors do to give a specific kind of performance. In his masterclass, Dustin Hoffman discusses how, when he yells in a scene, he is focusing on trying to break the glass window with his voice. That’s it. Many actors will bring techniques like this with them. But you will often be able to get a more complex performance if you can give your actors a goal in the scene that’s not apparent. By giving actors a goal to work with in the scene, they will be able to stop focusing on their performance and think more about what they want or want to avoid. For example, a woman goes to the door and there is a man she is afraid of and doesn’ t want him to come in. Instead of directing her to “act afraid” which will result in a flat performance, you can tell her “Pretend there is blood all over your living room if he comes in you will go to jail, but you also don’t want him to know there’s anything wrong.” Given what we know, the performance will be relevant, but not what you’re expecting and give a more realistic sense of dramatic tension.

If you see that an actor isn’t making a clear decision, figure out a very clear goal that they have for the scene. Don’t make it confusing, in fact the simpler the better. One of the greatest techniques for teaching acting is to give two actors opposing goals. This should probably be inherent in the script, as most good screenplays are filled with conflict between characters. But sometimes, in scenes where there isn’t an obvious conflict, it helps to hack a performance with a goal that only they are aware of. Or you can always go with my backup “When he comes in, he smells terrible.”

10. Result Acting

I think one of the most important lessons I learned about directing actors is trying to avoid directing responses. In other words, saying things like “You need to act more upset” “You need to be really sad.” Ok, I am guilty of giving directions like this. In fact I think almost every director has done this. But it’s not good directing. Good acting comes from internalizing a situation, not being asked to give a specific emotion. People who are “acting” afraid usually appear pretty fake on screen. This is because we are all highly advanced BS detectors. The key to getting a good performance is to explain the situation and then the actor’s natural response will be their character’s response.

 

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