Tools as a DirectorWhen Directors are asked what makes any given scene or shot successful, the responses are as varied as the personalities of the Directors themselves.  One thing most successful Directors agree upon is that being well prepared ahead of time with a solid vision of the scene is absolutely necessary.  The Director needs to approach rehearsals and the subsequent shooting with a solid idea in his, or her, head of both the emotion and the action of the events as they are to be used to portray the storyline in the scene.

As the Director approaches the first rehearsals, they should have several solutions in mind to meet the needs of their specific vision.  Each solution needs its own rhythm and feel, drawn from both the details related in the script, and the emotional content and action as seen by the Director.  Each solution should specific in the Director’s mind, but alternatives should also be available as the scene develops through rehearsal.  There are specific tools available to assist the Director and the actors in successfully achieving this vision.  By addressing and utilizing each tool, they can be that much more successful in reaching the Director’s goals.

Tool #1:  Listening & Engaging

The ability to listen and engage each other is not only important for the actors, but also extremely important between the actors and the Director.  Some have said that even if the only thing that is accomplished in the rehearsal is successful listening and engagement, then the rehearsal was still worthwhile.  The Director should be able to listen to the actors’ feedback and input, as well as their emotional response to a scene.  In turn, the actors need to be able to listen to the Director with enough understanding of the subject matter, and an open enough mind to take proper direction.

As a Director, it is your responsibility to see that the actors are listening to each other and successfully engaging each other both emotionally and verbally; if not you must find a solution.  For instance, if an actor is failing to successfully engage another during a dialog, encourage them to listen more carefully to the lines of their partner, and challenge them to be more sensitive to the emotion behind those lines.  In order to correctly engage another, they must be fully aware of the other’s chosen emotional direction so they can choose their own.  In order to do this they first need to listen.  Once you feel that they are listening to each other, encourage them to use what the other doing, and expand on that.

Tool #2: Using Objectives and Intentions

Encouraging your actors to be sensitive to their character’s objectives and intentions during any given scene will make both their individual performances, and the scene as a whole, more successful.

The objectives can be seen as the specific goals the character wants to achieve both physically and emotionally.  If the objective of the first character is to persuade the second to react in a certain way, then the actor needs to have that firmly in their mind.  The intentions can almost be seen as the ways to achieve the objectives.  In the example above, if the first character chooses to try to persuade the second by subtle reasoning as the intension, it may work better to change that intension to a more volatile, or pleading, approach.  Neither the objective nor the intension is always apparent in the written dialog.  That is where you as a Director become important.

First, ask the actor what they think their character’s objective is in the scene and make sure you agree.  Always remember that the objective may not be literal, or expressly written in the plotlines, it should be a personal choice reflected by the relationships between the characters.  Watch the actor’s first attempt at the scene and gauge their intension.  Does it work?  If not, suggest ways to change their approach.  Remember to keep it fluid so that one objective flows into the other.

Tool #3: Watching for Obstacles that can be exploited

Scenes that become flat or devoid of conflict or emotion can often be rescued by locating and exploiting an obstacle.  What this means is that your actors need to be aware of the consequences, both physical and emotional, that their character may suffer if their objectives are not met.  This perceived threat is the obstacle, and the closer the character can come to apparent failure caused by the obstacle, the more tension that can be created.  Especially in the case of drama, there is a certain required amount of tension to successfully achieve objectives.

When a scene appears over-acted and unconvincing, it is often because the actors are not aware of the real obstacles to their character’s objectives or goals for the scene.  If they have no actual obstacles, many actors will try to create tension and drama out of thin air.  This would be like trying to “twang” a guitar string that is not tied down on either end.  A typical viewer will notice this, even if they cannot pinpoint why the scene is not working for them.  Again, as the Director, it is your job to find and explain these obstacles to your actors so they can use them to create tension in the scene and heighten the interest of the viewer.

Tool #4: Character Outline and Associations

Before attempting any scenes your actors need to have a solid grasp of their character, and his or her associations with the other characters.  First encourage them to develop an outline, or image of their individual character.  Some of this will be provided by actual script content and description, and the rest can be inferred or implied.  You may ask your actor to list any actual character descriptions from the script itself, and then fill in the blanks from their own observations.

Have them really trust their own intuition on this, having them come up with examples from people and situations in their own life.  Encourage them to compare and contrast their character’s image and outline and their own.  One mistake frequently made by new Casting Directors is choosing actors too similar to their character.  In certain cases, this can encourage laziness in acting technique.

As a director, by supporting an actor’s development of their character outline or image, you can help them to not only be more believable, but also more interesting.  Once their character is solid, the associations between their character and others can be worked on.  Each character has associations with others based on their actual dialog in the script, and any other history or descriptions provided.

For example, information provided in the script may allow the viewer to know that two characters are brother and sister.  Dialog between the two could provide facts to support the two have a troubled relationship.  That is where the literal input from the script ends.  To fine-tune the association between the two characters it is necessary for the Director and the actors to discuss the objectives and intensions involved.

Tool #5: Script and Line Analysis

Although it is not a good idea to rely completely on the script for direction, it is an absolute necessity to begin there at the very least.  The script provides you, as the Director, with a wealth of information.  The most obvious information provided by the script is, of course, is the storyline or plot, and a description of the action.  What separates a really great script from a mediocre or poor script is the use of language or words as dialog or narration, description of places or events and so on.  A great Director sees a great screenwriter’s use of words and exploits them.  This starts with a line-by-line analysis.

Within the script is the factual information that you and your actors need to create their character outlines and images.  First is the back-story, or the history of the character before the events contained in the main scenes of the movie.  Then there is the constantly changing immediate history, these are the facts revealed in events leading up to the scene being shot presently.

The immediate history is important to remember because films are usually shot out of sequence.  In other words, unlike theatrical plays in which the audience watches the scenes unfold one after the other in a timeline, in film the viewer watches the scenes unfold in a similar fashion, but they are most likely not shot that way.  Scenes in film are shot in order of convenience, for instance all shorts for one certain location are usually done at once, even though the shots may actually occur in the film separated by days weeks or years.

When preparing your actors for shooting a scene make sure they are aware of all facts leading up to the scene without overburdening the actors with too much.  Often times being aware of the emotionally pertinent information, and any facts that will generate of motivate specific behavior is enough.  In certain situations, it is not even necessary for the actor to know the general plot of the film to successfully act in a scene.  A simple example of this would be the non-principle actors and extras in the big union riot scene in the movie Hoffa.

Director Danny DeVito would not have considered it necessary for his extras and non-principles to know all the specifics of the plot to act in this scene.  As long as they knew their own character’s motivation for the scene and whom they were to associate with, that would be enough for each shot.  This motivational process is also called adjustment and is another important tool discussed later.

When you are doing a line-by-line analysis of the script, another thing to be aware of, and to make your actors aware of, is the meaning behind each line.  Is the line an original or new thought from the character or are they responding to another character’s behavior, or something that has been done to their character by another earlier in the plotline.  If the line should stand out or jump off the page, figure out why.

These lines are sometimes known as “mysterious lines”.  Encourage your actors to embrace the mystery of these lines.  When coming up with a reason for the line, have them choose more than one and then work on developing it during rehearsal.  Use these “mysterious lines” to create a question in your viewers mind.  This is another way of creating tension and drama.

The last thing to look out for when you are using the script analysis tool is lines that provide transitions in the action or emotion of your characters within the scenes.  Lines that facilitate these transitions are called through-lines.  The key here is to make sure these transitions are not intellectual, but are a product of an actual set of experiences.  Remember that sometimes the most interesting transitions are not logical, but random-seeming.  This is especially true in some of the more modern styles of comedy.

Tool #6:  Motivational Adjustments

The process of using an associated feeling or situation as motivation for a scene is also called adjustment.  Similar to what used to be called “method-acting,” actors can use actual emotions and situations from their own experiences to enhance their performance.  Viewers can sense what is real to them and if your actors can present a scene with genuine emotion and behavior, the viewer will be satisfied.

Sometimes it is easier, for example, in The Rainmaker directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Matt Damon plays a character that is intimidated by John Voight’s character.  In this case, Damon actually felt a bit intimidated by Voight as an older and more experienced actor, so he could use these feelings already present and expand on them.  This provided him with a base from which he could develop realistic-appearing emotions.

Tool #7:  Rhythm and Timing

The last, and in a way most important, tool is utilizing rhythm in your scene.  There are several aspects to the rhythm of a scene.  There is a definite series of segments, sometimes known as beats, which are created naturally by both the written words of the script and the delivery choice of the line by the actor.  The scene flows from beat-to-beat, and the series of words and pauses flows in each causing a definite rhythm.

You can with your actors on each beat as well as each scene.  Try a different rhythm each time.  For instance, the increase of the timing of a pause may cause an increase in tension, which we have already discussed as being desirable in creating drama.  Encourage your actors to experiment, sometimes only a slight change in the timing or rhythm can help support the emotion or action of a scene.

The above tools are effective in any genre of film.  Remember a good and effective Director not only shares an emotional bond with his or her actors, but also knows when to pull back from that bond and guide, sometimes with a heavy hand.  Utilize these tools in both rehearsal and actual shooting, and always allow your actors to grow in their character.