Directing Actors: The Basics Every Director Should Know on How to Work with Actors
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“Actors should be treated like cattle.” Alfred Hitchcock.
“Directing is 90% casting.” Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Elia Kazan.
The two preceding quotes represent the two extremes on how directors should work with actors. When all is said and done, the director succeeds when actors deliver monumental performances in memorable productions. On-set, the director is the top dog and how he/she chooses to “motivate their actors” to perform to their limits is a matter of personality and style.
On his films, Alfred Hitchcock was the boss. In “I Confess” he needed the star, Montgomery Clift, to look up at a building whilst crossing a street to setup a transition from the scene. When Clift, a method actor, responded that he wasn’t sure if his character would look up while he was crossing the street, Hitchcock blew a fuse—he didn’t care two hoots about the character’s motivation, he just needed the character to look up at the building. Whether Clift decided his character would be motivated into looking up, or whether fear of being fired motivated him is unknown, but Clift looked up while he crossed the street.
Hitchcock was not enamored by the school of method acting, he favored his own version of motivation—if he wanted the actor to be angry in a scene, he made sure he provoked the actor into a state of anger before he called “Action!”
At the other extreme is Robert Altman. He preferred working with a large cast and encouraged them to improvise and “go for it” without fear of failing. Actor Tim Robbins, who worked with Altman on “The Player” and “Short Cuts” said of Altman, “He created a unique and wonderful world on his sets, . . . where the mischievous dad unleashed the “children actors” to play. Where your imagination was encouraged, nurtured, laughed at, embraced and Altman-ized. A sweet anarchy that many of us hadn’t felt since the schoolyard, unleashed by Bob’s wild heart.”
Robert Altman described his process as, “When I cast a film, most of my creative work is done. I have to be there to turn the switch on and give them encouragement as a father figure, but they do all the work.”
As an actor, you would be honored to work in a Hitchcock film, but you would work for free to be included in an Altman film. However, it must be noted that the movie business was a lot different when Hitchcock was working than it was during Altman’s era.
Here’s how do some of today’s contemporary directors deal with actors.
Clint Eastwood is known for being very efficient. Rare is the scene that requires more than two takes—he often films the run through (and ends up using it in the film) because too often he’s seen “actors come out really good at the start and then all of a sudden, they start killing it with improvements.” He believes creating a comfortable and calm environment on set goes a long way towards getting the best performance out of his actors. One of the reasons he is efficient on the set is that it tells everyone we are accomplishing things each and every day which helps maintain the “set attitude” he strives for.
As to how he deals with actors, Clint says “Sometimes I rehearse with the actors, sometimes I don’t. Most actors have a pretty good idea coming to it, because it’s what attracted them to the role. Sometimes there are actors who can drift in and jump in and out more easily. As a director, you have one relationship with them. Others need to stay in character and you have another relationship with them.”
Oliver Stone has a more dictatorial approach. For “Platoon” he put the cast through a 14-day boot camp to prepare them for their roles. For the entire period, the cast was deprived of sleep and ate only MREs while learning basic military skills. No hotels, no showers just enforced method acting. Stone explained his rationale. “”Actors have a great imagination. They were able to take those two weeks and turn them into months.”
For the film “Talk Radio” Stone’s behavior drove the cast and crew to get drunk each night to blow off steam. As Alec Baldwin said of the experience, “Stone opened my eyes to the Machiavellian filmmaker who would throw his own mother down a flight of stairs if it would help him get his project financed, get the shot he wanted, or simply get his way.” Johnny Depp was so pissed at Stone during the filming of “Brothers in Arms” that he wanted to piss on him from his balcony while Stone ate dinner in the courtyard below. The AD stopped Depp from giving Stone the golden shower. Reflecting, many years later, both Depp and Baldwin say that they may not agree with Stone’s approach my they recognize its value.
Spike Lee explains directing with a sports metaphor. “As a director you’ve got to know—same thing as a coach does in sports—you’ve got to know what people’s limitations are.” Spike is a big proponent of getting the right cast and then letting them do their thing. As actress DeWanda Wise put it, “He shapes and molds and sculpts but it’s not acting school. He’s not there to pull a performance out of you. He expects the actor to come prepared with choices and interpretations of their character.”
David Lynch casts solely on headshots and what feelings the photos evoke in him. He never auditions. On set his notes to the actors are often visual metaphors. When directing Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Drive, his note told her to “walk like a broken doll” for a scene in which her character was wounded and tormented.
Quentin Tarantino is much less cryptic when preparing an actor for their part. In addition to writing larger than life characters into his screenplays—any actor’s dream—he provides the actors with detailed backstories to help them develop their character. And if an actor ever has a question about the character, or their motivation, Quentin will give them the answer. A classic example of this happened during filming for “The Hateful Eight” when Channing Tatum asked him “What color was my suit when I died in another life?” A day later Quentin handed Channing a five-page report on what color the suit was and why it was that color. In return, Quentin requires his actors to stick to the script and true to their character.
As you can see, every director has their own take when it comes to dealing with actors. There is no right or wrong answer to the general question of how a director works with actors. Different directors have different personalities, especially when it comes to interacting with people, and it shows in how they relate to their cast. If you are planning on becoming a director, the best advice we can offer is to be yourself when you deal with actors and realize they need you as much as you need them to make your film production great.
*Inset image is of Film Connection for Film Production & Editing graduate Ofu Obekpa and cast members of Klippers.