Directing tips: Working with actors (part 3 of 3) - Relaxed sets, priorities, and their process.

(Excerpt taken from my new forthcoming film book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" due early 2019 by Michael Wiese Productions)


It pays to have a relaxed set, and the environment on set filters down from the director. He or she dictates the pace and mood on the floor. If the director isn’t relaxed, it’s normally due to lack of preparation. I’ve never understood the philosophy of having tension on set, and that somehow this injects some sort of buzz into the performances. Perhaps the actor’s last performance was well received and was filmed on a tense set, so they attribute the outcome to this. Relaxation is key here, and this applies to both director and actor. If the actor is relaxed, they are free to try new things and give their best possible performance, and I would encourage you to let them know they can. It’s okay to move out of their comfort zone.


An actor can’t play more than one thing at once. There may be a lot going on in the film, but generally the character’s primary “want” will be front and center for them. A good way of looking at what to focus on is to always play the priority. Ask what is the most important thing for that character in that given moment? Then play that. Yes, your wife has left you and you’ve lost your job — but if you’re then in a car accident with your daughter, play the car accident. The character’s primary focus is the accident. Is their daughter okay? Can they move her? If she’s okay, can they get to their phone to call an ambulance? They can’t play the car accident while feeling sorry for themselves over their wife leaving them. Making sure the actor plays the priority helps keep the authenticity, which is the main job of the director when working with actors.

If the stage directions in the script read: “Karen is happy that she’s won the lottery, but a little sad her dog died,” how can the actor play that? Directors will sometimes give actors similarly mixed, unplayable directions, and it can be confusing for actors to know what to do. In trying to play both elements and muddle the two, what is performed is a mixed bag that doesn’t satisfy either notion. Always play the priority.


In an ideal world, how little does a director actually have to do? Think about it, the actors know the script, they've done their homework, the script tells them what to do and how to be and they know their emotional state. So, actually, all a director might need to do is nudge the actor one way or another or offer a gentle reminder of tone or intent. If a director needs to have lengthy conversations with the actor on set, something has probably gone wrong. I've had the privilege of working with actors where I've said “Okay Dan, show me what you think...” and then after watching that run through, I've shot it. There was no need to give any direction, for the benefit of the crew watching on or any other reason for that matter. Know when you've got it and shoot it.

Over-direction also shows the actor you don’t trust them. Lets look at what the pros say. Here’s actor Gene Hackman on working with director Clint Eastwood: “He says very little to you, which I appreciate because too much of what is said by a lot of directors is all ego, and they say it for the people who are around the camera.” Food for thought next time you're face to face with your talent.


If you have a scene that involves any amount of nudity, intimacy, or violence, then you need to find time to speak to your actors in rehearsals before you get to set. A good one-to-one conversation is really required. Make it perfectly clear that they can raise any concerns that they might have. Offer a closed set, tell them who will be present on the day, ask if there is anything that is particularly troubling them. If another actor is involved in the scene, make sure you ask any questions to the actors individually and not in front of the other actor present. This might seem simple and obvious, but the actors might feel pressure to agree to things in front of other people. It’s about letting them know you have their back come shooting day. A violent scene should involve a stunt coordinator, but if it just requires a physical act like a thrust or shove against a wall, rehearsing gently and slowly beforehand lets the actors warm up to the action. Care must be taken when staging fights or dangerous movements too. The set needs to slow down to accommodate the serious nature and to keep safety paramount. It’s possible when rushing at the end of a shooting day to let things slip as concentration can waver. Take extra care when dealing with actors in either of these conditions. They need to feel safe with you at all times.


Whatever the actor's process is, it must be subservient to the film-making process. Obviously, film acting is very different to theatre acting as in film we have a camera that is recording images that have to work together in continuity. On stage the actor might decide to play a scene a little differently one night to the next but that option isn't there from shot to shot on a film set as things need to match. I once had an actress who was taking a class on the Meisner technique and was embracing doing things “in the moment” but got a little confused. On the master shot she felt her character should stand after the third line, which worked for scene. When filming the medium shot on her, she then decided it felt right to stand on the fifth line, not the third, as that was what felt in the moment. Obviously this caused filming to stop and subsequently a lengthy discussion as to how that doesn't work on film as we need things to match...

Actors are an extremely important part in the film-making machine, but the actor's process can't delay shooting as the list of shots scheduled for that day need to be met or costs incur and the budget begins to climb up.

"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.

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