Becoming a More Effective DirectorWhat does it mean to be effective as an artist?  Whether you are a painter, a dancer, actor or musician, your art can only become truly effective if it touches another human being on a level beyond that of the cerebral.  Touching your observers intellectually, perhaps even persuading them to think in a way that is completely out-of-character for them can be an important component in effective artwork; but I would argue that for art to be truly effective it must touch us on a level both intellectual and emotional.  In fact, some of the most memorable pieces, for me, are the ones that move me emotionally without my complete understanding.

The first time I heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as a young adult, a lump formed unbidden in my throat, and even though I had always been emotionally sensitive to certain music, I could not understand why I reacted so strongly to this specific work.  I later found out that my Mother used to play this piece when I was very young, and I subconsciously associated it with a very strong sense of love and security.  In this case, obviously,  Beethoven did not intend this effect specifically – but if, say, a musician knew of my history and wanted to create a memorable performance for me, they might chose this piece and adjust the performance to touch these memories.  This practice of associating emotions with facts and referencing these facts from the memories of the observer is just one way an artist can become more effective.  In this article, these and other methods will be discussed in more detail.

One of your goals as a director is to help your actors portray their characters so realistically that the viewers forget they are watching a portrayal.  You, your actors, and the audience, the viewers, are given a story to follow.  This story comes to you in the form of a script, and within that script are a set of facts.  The facts included in the script are just a starting point, though, a place for you and your actors to begin.  For example, in the movie The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s screenplay (yes, Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote it) called for the character Luca Brasi to present Don Corleone with a formal thank-you speech at his daughter’s wedding ceremony.

These were the facts presented in the script, along with the description that the simple-minded but fiercely devoted Luca stand outside the house and rehearse his speech to himself in a halting self-conscious manner.  Martin Scorsese chose to use an inexperienced local mafia hood to play Luca Brasi and basically filmed him rehearsing his lines.  The fact that the character was being portrayed by someone inexperienced, and not used to delivering lines, made the fact that Luca was supposed to be nervous and not used to speaking formally to his Don, believable.  In this case, it was not necessary for Scorsese to manipulate the facts, but sometimes it is.

When the viewer can associate the facts presented with experiences from their own memories, certain feeling can be evoked, as mentioned earlier.  Creating personal associations can be tricky, though.  Ask any police detective or lawyer how dependable the memory really is.  A person’s memory can be selective, and not everyone has the same experiences in their memories, so it is the director’s job to help keep the associations general and raw enough so the majority can make the association.  When it comes to the actors, associations are powerful tools for evoking natural emotion in a performance also.

Using the method of adjusting the facts in certain ways, you as the director can help the actors to reach that place that makes their art truly effective for the viewer.  One way to make an adjustment is by using a What if. . .  statement.  By doing this, you are helping the actor make an association from a place in their imagination.  For instance if the facts in the script call for the character to wave goodbye to his son as he was driven off to college in a taxi.  If you needed more separation anxiety from the character, you may direct your actor to play the scene by saying What if he was being taken away to prison for life.

A similar adjustment is the As if. . . statement.  Both of these can be used to shift the meanings of facts and situations.  As an example, a character who smiles as if they are happy can be shifted to one who smiles as if they are crazy.  Both are smiling, but the shift or adjustment in the association changes the meaning.  Both As if. . . and What if. . . statements assist the actor in using their imagination and their memory to re-create emotions that the viewer will recognize as being real and convincing.

An adjustment can often be what the character is seeing, hearing, or experiencing.  This can be the same, or different from what another sees, hears, or experiences.  For example if a young woman looks in the mirror, what she sees there is not what, say, her boyfriend sees.  His perception is distorted by his feelings for her, just as hers is distorted (or adjusted) by her sense of self-esteem.  Add an illness like anorexia (eg: What if she is anorexic?) and you have an even different adjustment.  Alternatively, in the case of an actor portraying a character that is well known by the public, an as if. . . adjustment could be based on an observation of the real person’s behavior.

One of the major concerns of a director should be that the portrayal of the facts of the script or screenplay is honest and original.  Any of these methods can be used to get your actors closer to this.  Another statement that can be used as a method of association is the very direct; It’s like when. . . statement.  This one allows the director to make a specific association.  A director might say, “It’s like when someone insults you in front of your friends and you can’t think of a good comeback, that’s the look I want.”

One of the common problems directors run into when trying to create drama is a lack of tension, or that edge-of-your-seat feeling that a good thriller always needs.  One method of achieving this that is often used, but fails, is for the director to ask the actors to “up the performance”, or “give me more urgency!”  There are definitely times to allow your actors to make some choices in how they approach a scene, but in most cases if you make vague, artsy requests you will get nothing near what you want.  It is not necessary to treat them like children, but make your requests specific.

If you need more tension or urgency in a scene, you must raise the stakes a little.  This phrase comes from gambling, playing Poker specifically, and the analogy is a good one.  The stakes in a Poker game are the bets, and if the tension felt before winning or losing a pot when the stakes are single dollar bills is mild, then by raising the stakes to say, 100-dollar bills, then there would obviously be an increase in tension.  Keeping this in mind, as a director you can raise the stakes for your actors a number of ways to increase tension in a scene.

One way is to create, or point out obstacles or problems within the scene.  These can be between a character and their surroundings, a character and another or even a character and themselves.  A problem needs to be solved, and an obstacle needs to be passed or gotten around.  Both stand between the character and their goal, and the struggle to achieve this goal creates the tension or drama.  Help your actors to discover their goals in a scene, and identify any obstacles standing in the way of those goals.  Some may be factual, written into the script; some may be emotional and may involve some imagination.  If a scene lacks tension, part of your direction may involve the actual creation of a problem for your actors to solve, the harder the problem, the more tension involved.

Some of the last methods used in direction to make the art of the scene more realistic and effective involve the physical.  Too many times the physical is either over emphasized, or overlooked in direction.  When speaking of the physical we are talking about both the blocking of movement and action, and the actual physical delivery of lines.  As mentioned earlier, sometimes when making suggestions you need to be specific.  For instance asking an actor to make their line sound more sincere will probably get you something exactly opposite of what you want.  It may be necessary to actually give them some physical delivery suggestions.  If you need to, tell an actor when to insert a pause in the line delivery for emphasis, do not hesitate.

In directing, the word physical is usually used to describe blockingBlocking is the director’s practice of instructing the actors how and where to move in the scene.  “Say this line, then take two steps to the left and scream.”  This is an example of a blocking or staging direction.

Use blocking to help free your actors emotionally as well as just to assist in the story telling.  Try not to block your actors just to keep them busy, but also try not to allow your actors too much freedom in their blocking, or they may make that same mistake.  This also goes for gestures or small physical movements or looks.  It may be useful to have your actor use hand motions to emphasize a set of lines.  Maybe the character is a little loopy or flaky and hand-gestures could help get this across.  On the other hand, too many gestures from the wrong type of character can be distracting.  Knowing when and if gestures should be used is one of those details in direction that experience will make better.

All these above methods serve to make your direction more effective.  When this happens, your actors become more convincing and your viewers are satisfied.  All this serves to make the art better as a whole.  When striving to make your art as effective as possible and your art is that of direction, arm yourself with the tools and methods that improve your work and you will not go wrong.