AuthorityThe backbone of successful directing is to ask questions and tell stories. A former student referred to this tactic as “stealth directing,” because it unobtrusively guides the actors, who come to feel that the proposed idea was their own; it enables rather than instructs, which empowers the actor. The greatest virtue of stealth directing is the engagement it creates among the director and the actors-a creative milieu in which to collaborate and create original ideas.

This technique does not mean that the director can arrive at the rehearsal set unprepared. And it is not the same as the educational strategy teachers often employ, asking a question to which they already know the answer. The purpose is to initiate bonding and to form creative inroads that allow actors to feel comfortable sharing their ideas.

Telling stories is a good way to bring the actors to the same creative arena as the director. Stories make characters human and alive and bring depth to performances. Including persuasive emotional and personal details, stories begin with phrases such as, “It’s like when” or “This reminds me of.” The stories should always be true stories because they will reveal private and subconscious personal associations with the material. By telling stories, directors encourage actors to tell stories and to share and examine the unconscious and personal associations that guide their performance.

When stealth directing, if you notice actors’ attention waning, stop telling your story. You should probably change the subject, invoking the word “or” to help segue into a new direction, as in, “Or—let’s just try it,” “Or—maybe the other way is better,” and “Or—what do you think?” Always defer to collaboration over instruction.

Language of Permission

Using stories and personal details as a foundation, it is much easier to introduce suggestions casually, using phrases like, “Why don’t we try,” “I was just thinking,” “It’s okay to do,” or “You know what might work?” This casualness does not mean that the director has relinquished commitment to vision; it represents flexibility, a desire to collaborate with actors, and willingness to improve said vision.

Try using “glass half-full” rhetorical strategies to turn suggestions into praise. For example, say, “It’s alright to go faster” rather than “That’s too slow.” Instead of direct commands, couch your approach as encouragement. Rather than you offering directives, suggest that the actress give herself permission to react, keeping control of the performance in her hands. Instead of saying, “Do such-and-such,” say “See if you have an impulse to do such-and-such.” Always praise good takes and rehearsals with statements like “Things are going great,” or “We’re on the right track,” but never go overboard with something like, “That was perfect, ” to avoid situations where the situation ends up not being perfect, forcing you to go back on your comment.

Also, remember that observations are less confrontational and more successful as collaboration elements than giving comments as types of belief statements. Most people are more comfortable hearing, “I observed,” and reacting with an open mind, whereas “I believe,” usually instigates a counter-belief statement, and neither person really listens to what the other is saying. Above all, believe in the language of permission. Don’t use it unless you actually mean it; actors will sense the deception.

Sharing Your Visions

“Any actor—De Niro down to me—is looking for a good director to direct you” (Ben Stiller)

What does Ben Stiller mean when he says he wants a director to direct him? What he is not asking for is micromanagement; he is asking for a director who has done their homework. Good directing and commitment to vision is not about giving orders; it is about connecting with actors on an emotional level, having insight into the characters and events in the script, and demonstrating good taste and judgment.

An actor wants to know that the director can competently stage and photograph a scene in such a way that the acting is optimized upon delivery to the audience. Most of all, an actor wants a director who actually knows what the script is about. A director’s sense of events in each scene must be iron-clad and must be a story he believes in passionately, deeply, and personally, that has attained imaginative truth.
Directors, while embracing their own imaginative truth, should always approach a scene with alternative visions waiting in the wings.

This might seem to contradict commitment to one true vision; however, it is counterproductive for a director to assume that each actor will share his or her vision. Approaching a scene with alternatives queued for engagement demonstrates willingness to collaborate but also leaves the direction of the scene flexible enough so that actors feel empowered to pursue their own emotional relationship with the subject matter. Only when everyone is connected with the material can a director find a solution that allows truth and revelation to flourish.

Encouraging through Feedback

All actors need honest and accurate feedback from the director following every take. As Susan Sarandon puts it, an actor must “Be able to make mistakes. If I have to watch myself, then I don’t think I can come up with any interesting possibilities.” It is the director’s job to harness talent through responses that guide and encourage the actor’s natural abilities.

There is never one right response, however. Some actors need constant reassurance and feedback; others are looking for a director who drops concise, insightful suggestions at the right time, then stepping back, letting the actor parse out what needs to happen. Of course, as a director, finding that right one liner takes practice and time, along with trial and error, but that is what rehearsal is for!

Do not fret over the eloquence of your direction. Take a chance on revealing both your intelligence and feelings at the same time. Also keep in mind that eloquence takes surprising forms and may be less a matter of rhetorical skill and more a sense of honesty and emotional connection. In fact, eloquence is much more likely when unplanned, and even silence, when well-placed, can be eloquent.

While communication happens often through language, never forget that gestures and facial expressions shape subtext. Additionally, always be aware that your facial expressions in front of the actors—whether directed at them or not—will be interpreted as commentary on their performance. A director once described a shoot he was doing with Sophia Loren, where he’d made a gesture of exasperation at something entirely unrelated to the scene; after the second take, Loren approached the director and asked, “Was that better?” She assumed his frustration was directed at her and interpreted it as a response to her performance. So remember: a director’s every move in the presence of an actor is experienced as direction!

Creating Safe Environments

“[Great directors] make an environment comfortable enough for you to create from within.” (Helen Mirren)

Directors communicate with actors in two primary ways: personally, as a colleague or supervisor, and imaginatively, via discussions about the character the actor is playing.

Personal communication is automatically intimate because actors are more vulnerable and emotional than most. The relationship created is a special and dependent one, where the actor trusts the director to see, even when the actor is too close to the character to make objective judgments. In the best-case scenario, actors and directors communicate heart-to-heart to overcome hurdles, clichés, mannerisms, and find unguarded moments of experience and response.

Imaginative connections are also intimate connections because they create life. A character is not a machine or a widget to be programmed; it represents an imagined person coming to life, almost like giving birth. There is a special, nigh sacred responsibility that comes along with this that the director and actor share.

Throughout these levels of communication, however, one thing is paramount: the actor must feel safe. This does not mean pampering or indulging the actor, who is attuned to truth and will see through deception; it means facilitating true and unguarded honesty. An actor must feel that a director will not sacrifice the film for an inferior performance and, as such, can act unreservedly, feeling that mistakes will become moments of learning rather than disgrace.

The director is also responsible for making the set a place where craft is respected and work comes first. Film crews, when left to their own devices, can be unkind to actors, sometimes ridiculing them. This can poison the environment on set. In order to avoid this, the director must find ways to make each member of the crew a collaborator in the production. By encouraging all crew members to have a stake in the performance, they are less likely to backbite and more conscious of how the film succeeds or fails as a joint effort. Always remember that it is the director’s—not the actor’s—place to create a gossip-free zone where both actors and crew feel and provide respect for each other.

In order to feel safe, an actor needs to feel that their fellow actors are serious and dedicated. Directors can encourage this by making sure everything happening on set is about work. This is, however, a multivalent task. For example, When Kathy Bates complained to Rob Reiner on the set of Misery (1990) that James Caan was not listening to her, Reiner reminded her that the character he was playing was also a bad listener, and to use that to inform her own performance.

Some actors have a thicker skin than others, and their definition of a “safety zone” is a little different. For example, on the set of Terms of Endearment (1983), Jack Nicholson told James Brooks “You can say anything to me, don’t worry about how you put it, don’t worry about sounding stupid.” This was initially reassuring; however, Brooks was taken off guard when he discovered that this meant Nicholson reserved the right to say anything as well. For Nicholson, safety meant open and uncensored dialogue, which in turn spurred his creativity. When a director can find what works and tolerate—even rejoice—in an actor’s freedom to be himself on set, the actor responds by feeling comfortable taking risks in his performance.

Nothing makes an actor feel safer, however, than when a director makes her believe that she is the best of all possible actors for this role. Even if you did not choose the actors, even if you had to cast the producer’s daughter—even if, as in television, the cast was chosen will before you were chosen—you must “love the one you are with.” In other words, commit to believing that your actors are the best and appreciate the unique contributions they bring to the project. There is no other option, frankly, and if you cannot make this choice in good conscience, you should give yourself permission to decline the project.

Finally, never forget that it is often directors who make actors great. For example, who would remember James Dean if it weren’t for Elia Kazan? Dean was not a particularly experienced actor; in fact, he frequently violated the two fundamental rules of acting (remember your lines and stay in the camera frame). Additionally, he often improved lines as well as movement, running afoul of other directors, acting coaches, and even other actors. Yet, Kazan’s exceptional skill as a director saw Dean’s potential, and worked to create a set where that potential could be realized.