The Mystery of How to Become an Actor’s Director

Feb 25, 2018

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You may have heard actors in interviews talk about their experiences working with different directors. It’s a very common interview question and something that filmmakers tend to really want to hear about. I know that when I hear an interviewer ask an actor what was it like to work with a director I will always sit at the edge of my seat and listen closely. I want to get a sense if the actors enjoyed working with the director, felt challenged, admired them or outright hated them.  I’ve been on sets (some of these sets were ones where I even wrote the script) where the actors truly despise the director. The truth is that it’s not necessary for actors to really like a director for them to make a good film.

Stanley Kubrik was infamous for pushing his actors to the edge of sanity to get the roles he wanted. Just the sheer number of takes he required from some of his actors would be enough to drive people mad. Harvey Keitel even quit working with Kubrik after only a day when he realized how many takes Kurbik was going to deman of his actors.

Kubrik, however, was never referred to as an “actor’s director.” He was visionary, he was authoritarian, he was a genius, but never an “actor’s director.” That’s a term you will hear from time to time and something I usually aspire to be myself. I can’t say that I’m known as an actor’s director but I cherish great actors so much that it’s something that I always think about when approaching my work. So what exactly is an actor’s director?

The Different Types of Directors

After a director gets over the hump of being a “new” director people often tend to ask how they work on set. Actors will ask other actors, their agents or even crew members what a person is like. Every director is different in the way they approach their set. I’m going to use some terms here to define the different types of directors I’ve had experiences working with but it’s important to note that these are terms I am making up. Other than “actor’s director” there’s really no common language that people use to describe directors.

The Camera Director
Some directors come from a crew background and they really communicate better with the crew than they do with the actors. You’ll see this often when a cameraman moves up to DP and then starts directing. He shouts out a lot of technical terms, is specific about his lenses and makes technical suggestions on the lighting more than he talks to the actors about their performance. Also, one thing you’ll notice with actors who have more of a crew background is they tend to forget to run a rehearsal and the actors are a bit lost when the cameras start to role. Sometimes they end up with a great performance and sometimes they don’t. Usually their shots are lit beautifully though.

FX Heavy Directors
There are a handful of directors who come from the VFX world or focus very heavily on vfx work in their stories that everything becomes subservient to getting what they need in post. Sometimes these directors have been around long enough to know what they need to do to make everyone feel comfortable and collaborative on set but more often than note these directors feel like computer programmers on set and the actors end up feeling more like props than performers.

The A**hole
There are some directors who have a “vision” that’s so specific and don’t know quite how to get what they want so they start blaming people. They blame the crew, they yell at their actors, they fight with their DP and sometimes storm off set. Unless you’re movies consistently make over $100M these directors are often not ones who work much (at least not with the same crew).

The Exacting Director
There are directors who are super super super specific with what they want from their actors. They storyboard every frame and use their boards as gospel. The Cohen Brothers are like this, Ridley Scott is like this. I’ve heard the Cohen brothers say that they rely so much on their boards because their not creative or spontaneous enough to work it out on set – which I’m thinking is somewhat false modesty. Ridely Scott, on the other hand, says that he’s specific because he knows what he wants and that’s what a director should be like. Although movies from these directors are usually amazing the vigorous restrictions they put on their talent also take them out of the “actor’s director” camp.

The Actor’s Director
The actor’s director is that director where the actors feel like the performance is primary. That everything is subservient to the performance of the actor. They spend more time thinking about character, blocking, vocal pitch etc. than they do about anything else. The truth though is that it’s very difficult if not impossible to be like that without sacrificing everything else that goes into making a picture.

If you put performance before everything that means that the script can change, the picture can go out of focus, lighting set-ups have to be fast and minimal, you have to allow for improvisation and as many takes as the cast wants or needs, and precise camera movement is almost impossible.

The only director I can think of who actually fits all the criteria of an actor’s director is John Cassavetes. His image would often stay out of focus if it was the best take, he would let the actors improvise, he would challenge them, let them do multiple takes, almost always favored a locked off camera or hand-held – everything was about the actor.  And while his films are amazing studies of performance I have to admit that even as a cinephile, I have a hard time getting through them.

So how are some directors known as an actor’s director without sacrificing every other aspect of their film?

What Do Actors Look for in a Director?

The most important component of an actor’s director is that the actors love working with them. So what do actors look for in a director to have a great experience? The truth is it’s different for every actor. I’ve worked with veteran actors like Jack McGee who never needed a single note. Jack came to set prepared, knew the character better than I did in many ways and often had ideas on how to make the scene more dynamic. With Jack I felt like I was in acting class. It was just a pleasure to watch him work.  I think he enjoyed working with me because I saw that he knew his stuff and just stayed out of his way.

That’s a huge part of being an actor’s director. You have to be able to know when an actor doesn’t need anything. If they’re doing well or get it in one or two takes then leave it alone!

Other actors I’ve worked with (some who’ve been working for over thirty years) need TONS of notes and direction to get them into a place where they own the role. Those actors are usually looking for feedback from the director to know when they’ve nailed it. You have to give out the compliments with those actors enough so they can grow confident that they’ve found the role.

Interesting aside: It becomes quite difficult when you have someone who’s good on the first take and someone who’s their best at the seventh take working in the same scene together.

The biggest thing that actor’s want from a director is someone who knows how to get the best performance out of them. And since every actor’s process is different the most important thing a director can do is know when they’ve got it. They have to know when to move on and when to do one more take.

Casting is an Important Part of Being an Actor’s Director

Another key factor to being an actor’s director is hiring a great cast. Not only do great actors make for great performances (duh) but great actors want to work with other great actors. If they show up to set or the table read and everyone is Oscar-caliber they already look at the director as a genius who values good performance and 90% of the work is done.

Not Every Script is Good for an Actor’s Director

It should be obvious but since I don’t take anything for granted I do want to mention that not every script is right for an actor’s director. Even if you cast amazing actors and give them as many takes as they want or need to get that great performance, if the movie is an fx heavy explosion-riddled action flick the chances of it demanding a huge range from each actor is pretty slim. Part of the thing that makes a director achieve the moniker of actors director is the canon of films they chose to direct. Mike Nichols is perhaps my favorite director and was well known for the way he worked with actors. If you look at his body of work you’ll find that each film, even his comedies, had roles with amazing range and were characters actors would love to play.

Leaving an Impression on Your Actors

If you have an actor who is good from take one without any direction how do you still leave an impression on them that you’re an actor’s director? This is the part that evaded me personally for the longest time until I figured out that a lot of your direction actually happens before the movie and between takes.

When you’re directing a movie you’re really building a relationship with your cast as a director. Sometimes those relationships can be very friendly and intimate and other times they can be very professional and distant depending on their style as well as how busy you are on set.

One thing that I’ve found is that every time I take my actors aside and ask them about some of their favorite performances in films the nature of our relationship changes dramatically. Actors are artists and artists love to talk about their craft. If you start a conversation with them about who they admire and find a common ground it can make a big difference in the way they perceive you as a director.

If you’re working on a bare-bones set where you are short-staffed and always pressed for time you might not have the luxury of long rehearsal periods (or any rehearsals for that matter). You might find yourself constantly switching from acting coach to production designer to DP – and it’s hard for anyone to see you as anything but a busy multi-hyphenate who’s trying to make a movie happen.

Where you can make a mark are on the off beats. When you’re waiting for someone to set that light, at lunch, during hair and make-up. Bring up films you’ve seen, talk about your craft articulately. Always bring up the performances you admire and why. When you can talk about other films and performances you admire and why you are framing people to think of you as an actor’s director.

Wrapping Things Up

There is no real one thing that makes a director an actor’s director but really an overall sense that you put the performance as primary. Part of the job of a director though is to be able to work with all different kinds of actors with varying backgrounds on the same project.  

If you get a reputation for being an actor’s director you’ll find that better actors will want to work with you over time and it will elevate your projects in amazing ways. I’ve seen great actors rip apart monologues I’ve written for them, changing key lines to really make the scene sing. The amount of things great actors can do to take your project from mediocre to legendary is incredible and having a reputation as someone who respects their contributions is going to further your career faster than almost anything else.

In a nutshell, give the actors whatever they need to get a good performance out of them, always keep your cool, be a nice person, and talk about all the great performances in film that you admire and you’ll be well on your way to developing a reputation of an actor’s director that will spread like wild-fire in the artist community.

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