Thinking like a DirectorA director is responsible for four forces: the story, the audience, the cast and crew, and the schedule and budget. Sometimes “actor-oriented” directors can get so caught up in the inner lives of the actors that the responsibility to the audience is forgotten.

A director who wants to be actor oriented needs to be able to step into the actor’s reality—and then step back again-into the audience’s reality to ensure the needs of the actors are not taking precedence over the story.

Directors tend to be either actor- or technology-oriented. For a director with a background rooted in motion picture technology, the approaches suggested in this book may be akin to working in a foreign country and learning a new language. The adoption of these techniques could completely revolutionize your approach to direction and the filmmaking process.

But use common sense as you read. If these actor-oriented processes are not what work for you, be honest about this. Learn to accept your limitations and stay of out the actors’ way. They will do a better job for you on their own than if you intrude without fully understanding their craft.

Actors as Individuals

“The only language that works is the language you develop between yourself and your actors. You’ve got to treat every [actor] differently…there are as many ways of working with actors as there are actors.” -Sam Mendes

All actors are different. Some appreciate praise, preferring to have their feedback verbalized in a supportive and tactful way. But others prefer directors to be blunt in their critiques. Steve Zahn said of working with Steven Soderbergh, “He didn’t say much to me. He didn’t pamper you, [and therefore] I really trusted him. I hate being stroked. I don’t need someone to stroke me. I know I’m a good actor.”

Different actors also have unique responses to different language. Some like to get into the psychology of the character, and others do best with direction that is more physical. Some excel when appealed to on the most raw and visceral emotional level, while others get frightened by it, or feel that the intensity is an intrusion.

Most actors respond well to “as if” statements of suggestion or “it’s like when” adjustments. In addition, the one tool that seems to be universally effective when communicating with actors is asking, “What does the character want?”
One way to discover which approach is most appropriate for the actors you are working with is to simply ask. It can be a good way to begin a discussion with actors; learn what works for them, with whom they have studied, and what is expected from the director. Be cautious about taking everything they say at face value.

An actor may say he likes to be left alone, only to bombard the director with questions during every scene. An actress may declare that she welcomes feedback, but offer resistance to suggestions. It is just as important to observe subtext in your actors as it is to employ it in script analysis.

It is also important to note that an actor’s desired approach might not work for a given scene. An actor who asks for coaching might do better if told to “find himself.” An actress who wants to be left alone may need oversight to bring her back to the moment and encourage engagement with other actors. It is important to remember that the director is there to offer direction. If an actor says he can “get there” but it isn’t happening, consider a tactful, private conversation to discuss how the approach can be improved.

The only real way to gain confidence in these matters is through experience. Take the time to watch the actors you are working with and learn about their personalities and habits. Even major actors like Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, and Robert Duvall, who insist that they don’t want directors analyzing them and prying into their lives, are not telling directors to run away with tail tucked between their legs. All actors must be engaged with other members of the project; this engagement simply may take different forms for different people.

Respecting Actors

“I’m retiring from movies next year. Honest to God, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m not happy doing it. Film is a director’s medium, it has nothing to do with actors. We are basically puppets, making around, hitting marks, saying lines. Producers earn all the money, and you get the sense that they hate actors.” -Liam Neeson (who a few days later claimed to have been joking)

Directors often relate stories of bad behavior by actors on sets. Sometimes it is with terror in their voices but, unfortunately, other times it is with glee; they are pleased to have an excuse to blame actors for any difficulties with the film.

Directors often speak out against poor treatment of actors. Gina Prince-Blythewood, writer-directors of Love and Basketball (2001), has said, “On my set, people respect the actor’s process. I totally respect what actors do. I give them whatever time they need and I never scream out directions from the camera. I take the time to walk up to them and talk to them personally.” As admirable as this admission is, it is unfortunate that this is unusual enough to have warranted attention or been reported on at all. That is to say, the opposite is so generally accepted as the norm that decency from directors toward actors on the set of a film is actually news.

“I’ve worked with directors before who think you’re a piece of meat, and I think ‘Ah, I don’t have the technical ability to do this.’” -Guy Pearce

Actors are people, just like anyone else. They can sense how a director feels about them; in fact, through their gifts and training, they are more sensitive than most to such nuances and to the weight of their own feelings. If they are not treated as human beings and not respected for the nature of their craft and skills, they cannot accurately and reliably portray an equally human character.
Directors who Love Actors

“Working with actors is what I like best about directing. [I love] providing actors with the opportunity to do their best work. That’s what I’m most proud of in the performances, what one might call nakedness.” -Curtis Hanson
“A director ultimately can’t offer more to any actor than your love and your friendship.” -Jane Campion

Authority is not an awarded position; it results from a relationship. Directors must love actors. Not in a slavish, star-fucker style of adoration, which is offensive and demeaning to all parties involved; instead, it is a love borne from genuine respect for the demands of acting and the sacrifices that are made to get results. A director must assume a world-view that is based on the belief that people are basically smart, talented, and happiest when they can put their work first.

Actors feel especially loved when they are cast multiple times by the same director. Julianne Moore once said “I’ll do an awful lot for Paul [Thomas Anderson] because I’ve known him for so long. I’ll go out on a limb because I want to learn something, and I trust he’ll teach me.” Often top directors work with the same actors in multiple productions because there is no substitute for the trust built from having already “walked through fire” with someone.

Directors Who Have Been Actors

“It is hard to imagine how anyone could understand an actor’s needs and fears without having done some acting themselves. How does Rob Reiner have the guts to say to Meg Ryan, ‘It’s not about you, it’s about the other actor’? I’m sure the fact that he’s an actor helps give him that authority.” -Elia Kazan

Sidney Fumet and Peter Berg acknowledge two primary benefits to being an actor before becoming a director: trust and skill. Fumet explains skill.

“Having been an actor, [I] know precisely why something is difficult. It makes your work with actors very, very specific. Having been an actor leaves me open to their fears and their insecurities. I’m aware of them. It also gives me great consideration for their privacy. If they’re good, they’re not going to spare themselves or their emotions. Revealing them is a painful process. But I understand it and respect it. And I think that’s why they start to trust me after a very short while.”

On the issue of skill, Berg observes that, “An actor has a great advantage directing other actors because he knows how to not be intimidated by acting. Because I’m an actor, I knew how to break in and get into each one of my actors’ space in a way that didn’t offend or upset them.” Fumet and Berg are success stories of how the craft of acting can prepare a director and offer advantages. In the same respect that not all directors are good actors, however, not all actors make good directors. Directing requires a certain personality type—objective and “left-brained.” Actors and writers tend to be more “right-brained”—impulsive, subjective, personalized.

It can be difficult for these types to extricate themselves from the moment to take a broader gaze and see the relationship between moments and the big picture.

Actor-directors can sometimes make the mistake of forgetting that not all actors think like they do. They may become frustrated when other actors don’t understand their directions or interpretation, and overcompensate by forgetting how to stay committed to their vision while admitting necessary adjustments. In this way, they become as result-oriented as the most amateur director.

If you are considering acting and directing in the same film, make sure that you are the only person who can play the part. Be sure that your commitment to the subtext is strong enough that you don’t need additional, outside direction, or that you are having so much fun, you don’t care if your acting is good or not.

What if Actors and Directors Disagree?

When Jack Nicholson has different interpretation than his director, his first response is, he claims, “To make a firm argument, whatever the disagreement is. If I feel I’ve expressed it, and I feel that it hasn’t altered the situation, I do what the director asks me to do.” He goes on to add, “I do make a good argument. That’s what I’d want actors to do for me when I direct.” Nicholson’s approach is textbook in its rational negotiation strategy; directors should never assume that most actors are not capable of handling disagreement with the same professionalism.

This approach, however, only works if there are no other agendas hiding behind the conflict and the actor and director show genuine concern and openness of others’ perspectives. Then and only then is there the possibility that a mutually satisfactory third option can emerge as a synthesis of what started as two competing ideas. It is also helpful if the director has considered multiple interpretations during the script analysis and remains responsive to collaboration throughout the project.

Taking Responsibility for Casting

“I have never felt I made a mistake in casting. Sometimes I have to make it work; but it you just take somebody out of a project, you leave chaos.” -Robert Altman

The best casting advice available is this: don’t cast roles or performances; cast relationships. Even if you are forced to choose from pre-approved lists, or your first five choices turn you down, stay focused on how to make your cast an ensemble.

Mike Nichols was once asked what he does when he and an actor are in “different keys.” Nichols immediately reframed the premise of the question to provide his answer, “I don’t experience it that way, because my job is to find the key in which we meet. If I have to, I can transpose to some other key.

It’s usually not a problem because I look for this in casting. When Krzysztof Kieslowski met with actors, he would talk to them about life-even asking what they dreamt about the night before, and sharing his own dreams. John Cassavetes follows a similar approach, “I sit and talk with [actors]. You just look to see if they are serious about their work and are willing to reveal themselves in some way.” In another approach, rather than have the actors who showed up for the role of James Dean for the TV movie James Dean, Mark Rydell instead asked them about their parents. That, as he noted, is “The quickest way to find out about a person.”

Once casting is set, you let yourself obsess over these new people in your life—even if it’s not the person you thought you wanted. Abandon any fantasies you had about how the lines will be read; instead, let yourself appreciate the surprising ways that the actor’s depth of imagination will connect with the story.

A Note on Stars

Always treat stars as individuals and actors first. Let the relationship they build with you be non-judgmental and informed by merit rather than by reputation. Don’t look at them as a threat or a source of stress. In The Godfather (1972), James Caan noted that “Everyone wants to conquer Brando—Francis just talked to him.” Jez Butterworth notes of Birthday Girl (2001) that “Nicole [Kidman] and I sort of had a little aside, and I said ‘Look, I’ve directed lots of actors before, but I’ve never directed a movie star. Is it any different?’ She said no, and that was that, really.”

If and when an experienced actor has signed onto your movie, be sure to watch all of their films. For example, Anthony Hopkins directed, starred in, and even wrote the music for the film August (1996). How could a director possibly know Hopkins well enough to direct him if he hasn’t see this film? Always study actors’ performances in film and television work. Look for the performances you like, and note what is missing from performances you like less. File this information, however, before filming. It is important to begin your relationship with them with a “beginner’s mind.”