Directing actors is something that I consider to be a fine line that must be walked by a good director. There’s nothing that drives me more mad than the way I’ve seen some indie films work with actors and the manner they go about directing actors. I don’t know if filmmakers aren’t being taught about the proper way of directing actors in school or if the problem lies more with massive ego and control issues. What I do know is that I wish more directors would take the time to attend some acting classes by knowledgeable instructors, with an emphasize on knowledgeable. There are too many “acting” coaches today who teach how to look good on film, or how to get your best side shown on camera. This is not acting. I’d be surprised if very few of those who attend these types of acting classes ever get past community theatre or college plays.
Directing actors is an art form. It’s having control but also allowing the actor to express his own creativity. They should complement one another, or else you might as well have robots reading the lines back and forth. I was fortunate to train under someone who learned the craft of directing actors at Herbert Berghof Studios in New York back before “the look” became such a big thing in the industry, back when actors were truly actors. My instructor eventually moved on to be somewhat of a big agent in L.A., before retiring and training actors across the country based on Herbert Berghof’s vision of affordable classes. For those who are unaware, Berghof ran a non-profit and attending his classes were cheap. He believed that training people in the arts was more important than making money. Berghof worked with big names in the movie and theatre industry such as Uta Hagen, Al Pacino, William H. Macy, and Robert DeNiro just to name a few.
During my time in this instructors classes I would see students attending who had recently left “big name” instructors in town. These instructors trained actors in the same way many indie filmmakers go about directing actors. Their performances were stiff and lacked any connection to those in the scene with them. In other words, they were robots. It was sometimes said that we may just as well put a podium in front of them because anyone else in the scene didn’t matter. Depending on that actors talent it would take weeks or months to untrain all the bad habits they had been taught and to get them to connect to the person standing on stage with them. Once that was done though, their performances became mesmerizing to watch. They were no longer doing a scene, but were living in a time and place they had created around them.
The culprit in all of this was in their previous instructors telling them how to say a line, or instructing them to break down their lines in a way that they knew how they wanted each line delivered. Many indie film people do the same when directing actors. When watching it though it literally appears as if the actor was giving a speech on a podium. On their own they may have been interesting to listen to, but with another actor in the scene everything came out feeling and looking very rehearsed. Most indie film directors do just this. They instruct their actors on how they want the line said, or which words to emphasize. This is the death of an actor, and is sure to make everyone involved appear amateurish.
What indie film directors don’t seem to understand is that directing actors is similar to selecting shots. You may have a great idea for the framing of a shot in your head, but in actually shooting it there’s something not right about it. Sometimes it means scrapping the shot completely. It’s the same with actors. You may picture a line said in a specific way, but that normally doesn’t play out in the way the scene works.
In life, when people speak it comes from a certain place in the body and the way our mind interprets how we were addressed. The way we speak, and the tone we use, is also dependent upon the way we’re spoken too. If we’re trying to make a scene believable in its dialogue each actor is completely dependent upon the way the other speaks to him. We’re basically reacting to what we’re being given. When someone instructs an actor on how to say a line, no matter how great that line is delivered, there’s usually a tone that’s missing that normally happens when we respond to another person. It makes the line sound scripted or the actors sound off kilter, as if they’re not speaking to the other person at all. An example of this can be seen in the movie Napoleon Dynamite when the tater tots are crushed in his pocket during lunch. If you close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue it sounds completely off and unrealistic. It had me wondering if they were even in the same room together during the scene being shot.
The goal when directing actors is not to tell them how to say a line, or emphasize a word, but to help them get into the emotional state that the character finds himself in. Once you help an actor find that state then ego’s must be set aside to allow the actors to deliver the lines in a realistic manner because they are depending on each other, and completely dependent on how the actor across from him is addressing him in tone and emotion. This brings a scene to life, and makes the characters much more interesting to watch. It brings the audience into the story which is exactly what you want to achieve. The actors actually have a conversation instead of a line read.
If the actor is not able to achieve the emotional state on his own there are little tricks that can be done although I consider them a last resort. Elia Kazan was said to have pulled some of these when directing actors on his own sets. He did so with James Dean during the shooting of East of Eden. The anger Dean was expressing was not to Kazan’s liking so between takes he purposely became somewhat nasty with Dean in an attempt to anger him. The result was exactly what he was hoping Dean would achieve on-screen, with all the underlying anger as he threw ice down the chute. Personally I wouldn’t mind a director doing this to help me if I found myself struggling similarly, although some actors do not handle it well.
Regardless of the approach you take, when directing actors realize that getting the best performance out of them depends on how well you help them communicate to one another, and not on how you specifically want them to deliver a line. Your actors will appreciate it, and you’ll find a your films benefit from them due to better performances too. Directing actors is an art. Each gives up a small bit of control to get the best out of each other.