The relationships between actors and directors can vary drastically. Some are friendly and free-flowing. Others are like a tyrant versus the oppressed. Some are like a lengthy marriage, where there are fights but ultimately the two come out of it loving each other. Still, think of directors as being the supervisors and actors being the employees. Both have to work together to get the job done, but it’s more about quality than just completing a project. There are numerous obstacles to overcome throughout the moviemaking project. One of the greatest stresses for a director is this: money talks, and so does the equipment.
A director has to make the best movie possible, maintain the essence of the script, and have good actors who can bring the characters to life the way they are supposed to be, making the vision a reality. All of this is subject to the equipment and the almighty ruler of a film: the budget. The studio wants it to be a hit, they want it now, and they are only going to pay for so much. This added strain can sometimes overshadow what’s important – getting through to the actors, directing them, and making a great film. There are wide cracks in the floor, and nothing must be allowed to slip through them.
The Tricky Business of Authority
A good director has to be talented at exercising authority. This doesn’t necessarily mean being a tyrannical taskmaster, though. Think about the pyramids in Egypt. Slaves worked to build them under the strict control of supervisors, ultimately under the pharaoh. To keep the work going, there were slave drivers, ready with whips for those who were slacking in the work. That is controlling. Directing should be like this in a way. A director needs to have control on the set so the film can get made within the time allotted, within the budget, and ultimately produce something good for the audience and profitable for the studio. However, instead of whipping everyone to get the job done, the director needs to remove the whips and, instead, get the job done by make everyone see what a great thing it will be. Effectively doing this will keep everyone working toward the goal, making them want to do what needs to be done the way it should be done. It’s about building relationships with the actors so that they put their all into the characters they portray, and guiding them while making them think they are guiding themselves – this is a delicate balance.
A rookie director will likely be told to keep everything and everyone tightly under the thumb, especially when it comes to those actors who may feel they don’t need to take direction because they have been in this business longer than the director. This can be difficult to manage, but it is not impossible. Many directors don’t want their authority compromised by being challenged in front of others. However, a director’s authority can still be maintained, even if openly and publicly challenged. A director must direct, of course, but still respect – and gain the respect of – his or her cast, as well as everyone else. Egos can clash, but this doesn’t have to result in the utter chaos that could potentially emerge, which would ultimately hurt the movie and prevent it from becoming what it should and could be.
A director should be detail oriented and in command, without seeming to lord it over everyone else. In other words, rule the set, but appear as though you are an equal with everyone. Directors who seem like tyrants are most likely just very committed to keeping the integrity of everything together and ensuring that even the most minor detail is given proper attention; however, tyrannical directing could breed resentment and strained cooperation. A good director has a vision and will make it come to life, making it clear so others understand it and want to make it happen. A good director is fully prepared to take ultimate responsibility for the results of the project, uses what he or she has available, gets the full potential out of everything and everyone, is a defender of those he or she works with, and has no fear or reservations about taking a different path when the current one is not yielding the necessary results.
While it may seem the exact opposite, actors want the director to be the leader. After all, directing the actors is what the director does, hence the title. The odds are that the actors (some more than others) will test the director’s authority, just to see how far that director can be pushed and what the reaction will be. They want to see the director’s competence and confidence. A director who does the job right will meet and conquer this challenge while gaining the respect and trust of the actors. Knowing they have someone who will hold it together and allow them to use their skills will help them to relax and do their job effectively. Each aspect of telling the story is important – getting the script, creating the environments, doing the right shots, and having actors who will give performances that best put the characters forward telling the story as the director envisions it. As in all things, communication is a crucial element. Communication between a director and the actors is essential to the movie and its final form.
As previously stated, a director needs to be a master of communication, both in speaking and listening. A greater focus should be given to the latter, however, in order to get the most out of the actors involved. Listening is more than just hearing an actor’s ideas. It’s truly having the ideas roll around in the brain, using them, making the actors valuable to the project, and valued as a person as well. Successful directors will actually encourage actors to share their ideas, ask questions, and still maintain authority while gaining the trust and respect of the actors.
An actor will show the director via signals either overtly or subtly when he or she needs that push to really tap into his or her talent beyond the normal limits. Actors will also give clues as to where they are not comfortable, so attention must be paid at all times. A director has to communicate the vision to the actors and ensure that they understand it, even feel it. At the same time, the actors need some freedom to be creative and put their skills to use.
Being open to the ideas of actors is often what will make a good movie a great movie. Listening is key to all things, and this means listening to and considering what would seem outright ridiculous or impossible as well as the easier ideas. Having and executing a vision can be done, even while allowing the actors use their creativity and let their natural talents shine. In fact, it often takes a marriage of these two things to make the movie the success it has the potential to be. Surprisingly, a masterful execution of a director’s authority is exerting it in such as way as to have the actors feel like they are working with, rather than under, the director. Even more masterful is the director’s ability to give the actors the illusion that they are being submitted to. The director is still getting what he or she wants out of the deal, but the actor is made to feel that he or she is in control of some things.
Actors and directors alike have shared their thoughts on the director’s authority, and the importance of listening to actors. Here are a few quotes:
“Krzysztof Keislowski could shoot as close as he wanted, shoot in my eyes. He was allowed, because he said what he wanted, and I understood it. It was like a complicity that has no boundaries.” – Juliette Binoche
“I know that the best directors that I’ve worked with, Richard Linklater or Peter Weir, have been successful at empowering other people, and some of the least successful directors I’ve worked with were interested in trying to control everybody.” – Ethan Hawke
On Listening to Actors’ Ideas
“My job is to use people, to suck the brain out of everybody I encounter to make my movie better.” – Steven Soderbergh
“The way I listen is like a three-year old child.” – Ingmar Bergman
“Mike Nichols appears to defer to you, then in the end he gets exactly what he wants. He conspires with you rather than directs you, to get your best.” – Richard Burton