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Directing Your Actors

Some filmmakers are so beloved and charming their actors will bend over backwards to work with them, even when the role doesn’t call for the talents of an eager-to-please contortionist. Other directors *cough* Alfred Hitchcock *cough* have resorted to psychological tricks or even outright manipulation to get the performance they want from their cast. Whether the director chooses to rule through love or fear, or even just plain old professionalism, there are different approaches to consider when working with actors.

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Comfort vs. Cruelty

There are lots of infamous stories about directors abusing their cast members, including some acclaimed performances in works now considered classics. Depending on your director’s track record, but more importantly, how much your actors are getting paid, this kind of treatment might not go over too well on your set. Certain directors like Pedro Almodovar basically ask the cast members how much he can get away with in order to mold them into the role. This doesn’t necessarily mean the director needs to have a safe word with every lead performer, but it’s not a bad idea to establish early on how much discomfort is acceptable. In general though, the classic advice of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a good standard for the director to keep in mind, unless of course the director really is a psychopath with sadomasochistic tendencies. However, you want to be careful about the director losing control of the set. In the end, everyone from the project’s star to the most replaceable extra should have respect for what the director is doing.

Just Pretend There's a Wall in Front of You

There’s a time and place to have deep conversations about a character’s psychological motivations and detailed biography: rehearsals. On the set, it’s better to focus on the few basic emotions required for each take. Especially with less experienced performers, explaining how a character’s deep rooted depression stems from the continual disappointments of father figures will probably be more confusing than simply asking the actor to look sad in that scene.


Nailed it.

Of course, even with less complicated instructions, the performer still has to convincingly express whatever emotion the character is supposed to feel. Michael Keaton has said that pretending to see a blank wall in front of him is some of the best advice he ever received. That might not help an actor to cry on cue or hit a high enough pitch for a primal scream, but it’s a good example of how a simple idea or image can be of more use to an actor.

Actors, Don't Take It Personally

Asking an actor to do multiple takes in different ways is not a form of on-set abuse. Some directors like to experiment in the spirit of creativity. Or maybe the filmmaker simply wants to see the scene done another way to be sure that it still works. It’s also not a bad idea to have a variety of options for the editing room to assemble the best cut. Hopefully, the director has enough communication skills and a good enough relationship with the cast that the actors don’t take things personally. However, for directors with their heads in a cloud or actors with especially fragile egos, it’s not unreasonable to expect a couple different versions – even if the “best” one was already decided in rehearsal. “It’s not you, it’s me” might be the worst possible cliché for ending a relationship, but it’s actually true for directors trying to figure out the right way to film a scene.

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