Intimate LeaderBeing Open with the Actors

Being vulnerable as a director is not the same as being a weak director. Sometimes, directors may not have all the answers, nor will they admit to any type of mistake. Actors may perceive this as coercive or micro-managerial, insensitive to their work, mistrustful of their instincts, or negatively critical about their work as actors. Directors need to be open and honest in their roles as leaders on the set so that the director and actors can achieve the best possible film they can produce.

Michael Douglas, when speaking of director Curtis Hanson, remarks on Hanson’s ability to admit when he doesn’t have all the answers. Douglas believes that this “kind of vulnerability makes you feel comfortable.” This raises the question: when strength and confidence are seen as higher qualities, why would “vulnerability” give actors comfort? Simply, humans are vulnerable creatures, and actors, being human, feel safer around other people than around unfeeling robots. Kenneth Branagh agrees with this idea as show strength and confidence when recalling Barry Sonnenfeld, who was willing to admit confusion when unsure what to do next.

Overall, it’s much more important to be certain, honest, and clear with actors than it is to be concerned about the image as director. If there is terminology that doesn’t come to mind right away, or there are feelings that need to be voiced, be forthright and express those ideas and feelings. Vulnerable authority presented may contain a certain amount of risk. Directors need to avoid petty behavior for they can show proper authority through honesty; furthermore, they can show the actors that it’s okay to be open while working toward their common goal. This honesty shows the actors the director has real strength and confidence as a leader.

Directors as Leaders

While being honest and emotionally open with the actors shows a sympathetic role, leadership also requires emotional responsibility and stability, and even some stoicism. Part of this leadership is the ability to withhold your own feelings and comfort in order to attend the actors’ feelings, putting aside your personal needs in order to make the film.

For example, Jim Brooks and Jack Nicholson’s tensions while filming As Good As It Gets are known well. However, both parties knew it was professional. Nicholson even said later that it was “inevitable given the intensity of the role.” One time, Brooks shut down the set in the afternoon and sent everyone home. As he was also the producer, his action showed that he was willing to do whatever it took to make the filming work. He showed it wasn’t about money, or pride, or intelligence. It was about meeting the actors emotionally.

Roman Polanski provides another example when he and Adrien Brody were filming The Pianist. Brody was forced to perform his own stunts due to the film’s low budget. When Brody was unsure of a particular stunt, Polanski did the stunt himself to show Brody it was safe. This sends the message to the actors that the director is willing to take the same risks he wants of the actors.

Frequently checking with the actors and how they are feeling is always good. Sometimes, perhaps during intense or emotionally charged scenes, it is good to do this after every take. It is important to address whatever doubts, irritations, expectations, or even insecurities the actors may have of their own performance. Again, it shows care toward the actors while also showing that the work is the overall goal.

Leave the Actor Alone?

Seemingly against the advice of paying attention to actor’s feelings, the actors themselves feel that their work and comfort are best done when they are able to perform relatively unfettered.

Robert Duvall has said that “the best directors I’ve worked with leave you alone.” Ewan McGregor similarly stated about direction, regarding Danny Boyle: “he let[s] you do your job, which most other directors I’ve worked with seem to forget.”

What actors mean by saying they want to be “left alone” – they do not want to be told every single thing by the director. The main concern is directors “hovering” over them, trying to control their every line or movement. This does not give the actors the time to work on interpreting the characters, exploring processes, or working with other actors.

Steven Soderbergh did not hover; he said that he used rehearsal of Out of Sight to “[watch] other actors work” to see how he should communicate with them. Denzel Washington, as a director, was praised by his actors because his set was relatively free. The actors want room to breathe, be comfortable, and importantly, be themselves in how they prepare best for performing a role.

At times, this means they need to “perform” their frustrations and anxieties. Richard Harris and director Don Boyd once had several “enormous rows” while working on My Kingdom. Harris said that if he “respect[s] the director then I am going to want them to understand me.” Harris was not shy about his resistance; however, Boyd allowed him to fight through it in order to come at the role the best way he could. Harris, like other actors who resist, takes this as part of the process.

They need to engage personally with the director in order to perform, or in order to find the best interpretations for their characters.

Intimacy and Honesty

An experienced director will know how to address any issues or problems. He will prepare by forming ideas and methods to make sure they do not advance further than they do. Actors are perhaps those most intimately connected to the director during production – they must interpret and internalize the roles while paying attention to the director’s vision.

This intimacy provides the director and actors with unity toward their final production. The actors need to know you as a human and director both. As a director, it’s important to remember most conflicts about actors’ “arrogance” are truly about insecurity. This stems from uncertainty about the role or about how the director will react to the actors’ performances, or how much control and power the director will implement.

The actors need to know that the director knows what they are going through. Because of their intensity and insecurity, they may interpret direction as negative criticism, mistrust of the actor’s work, or micromanagement. The director needs to let them know they have room to work and breathe. The actors should also know they are respected. At the same time, the director needs to exert his authority to unite the overall vision of the film. In order to do this, the director needs to meet his actors intimately, with honesty, patience, and a vulnerability that shows they can all discuss what is most important – making the best production they can.