6 Directing Tips from Actors

Recently I watched a video on YouTube which asks the question any aspiring/working director should want to know from an actor: what do you want from a director?

I’ve done a lot of research on directing since I started filming my own short screenplays a few years back and what fascinates me most is how to inspire actors. I love crafting beautiful shots and making a visually pleasing film but what I believe a director should focus on more than anything is the performance.

So when I research directing I hold a heavy bias on reading about how to direct actors and what actors want from a director to make their performance powerful. The video above asks twenty-one accomplished actors what they want from a director and here is a summary of what they want to see:

1. Clarity

I put this at number one because several of the actors brought this trait up so it’s worth paying extra attention to. In the video, Meryl Streep mentions that she wants a director to be clear with his direction, even if he is uncertain of what he wants to see. This is powerful advice from arguably the greatest actress in the business today because what I’ve found directing on set is that I don’t always have the answers. Sometimes I’ll watch a take and just know it’s not right but am not certain of how to make it better. Streep is saying that this is ok and a director should just vocalize he wants to see something else but he’s not sure what it is. The result could surprise both the actor and director and get the perfect take of a performance.

Rebecca Hall goes on to say that a director should have “a clear way of saying something that evokes a creative emotion.” Directing requires tricky use of language. There will be times when you know exactly what you want from an actor but vocalizing it could leave the actor dumbfounded. Communicating your direction is one of the hardest parts of the game. You must do so by being distinct, precise, simple, and clear with what you want to see yet you must say so in a way that can draw a creative response from the actor.

This is why a director should never recite a line the way he thinks it should be read. This only leads to an actor trying to robot-mimic your dialect. This is very non-creative and will leave you with stale delivery. Give tips on what emotion to evoke and they might recite a line better than you imagined.

2. Trust

One of the bonds I always want between me and an actor is unwavering trust. If an actor doesn’t trust their director, they begin to direct themselves and wonder how they’re expressions look on film or how their lines sound. This stifles their creativity and prohibits them from letting loose and living in the moment which is imperative to unique performances. Let the actor know they can trust your opinion and that you will not allow them to look bad.

Unusually an actor is a stranger at first. Trust takes time to accrue. Time to build a relationship is almost never available before filming. Never fear, Paul Giamatti claims that he will always trust a director from the get go. He respects that they are a professional and are good at their job so he trusts them outright until he is given a reason not to. Do NOT give an actor a reason not to trust you. A director and an actor are in a relationship. Remember that. Just because the relationship only lasts the duration of the project doesn’t mean you should treat it with any less respect than you do your relationship with your parent, spouse, or best friend. You do not want to hurt the bond or demean the relationship under any circumstances.

3. Passion

If you don’t have passion for a project you’re working on, you either need to immediately remove yourself from that project or seriously reconsider your career choice. Directing is a tough job and it literally demands your full commitment and enthusiasm to complete the 12+ hour days while overseeing the entire project, managing performances, accruing research, and every other painstaking task required to turn a script into a film.

Natalie Portman is possibly my favorite actress so I was delighted to see her in the video even though I was disappointed her clip was relatively small. But she made a good point that the audience is seeing the film through the director’s eyes so it is imperative that the director be an active character in the story. This means the director needs a full commitment to the project.

Actress Elena Anaya stunned me when she mentioned that actors can get very “lonely” when they feel it is their job to boost the film if the director is not taking the time to progress the story or explain the events properly. She believes passion lies in the director’s ability to unfold the story for the audience. A wonderful point made.

4. Collaboration

A film production is quite possibly one of the most beautiful examples of humans working together and intertwining talents in order to achieve a mutual conclusion: a final cut of a film. Collaboration is an almost obvious trait between director and actor. Rosamund Pike mentions that a character is created by three people: writer, director, and actor. Collaboration is needed from all three to give birth to a memorable character.

Jeremy Renner hammers in a tip I’ve read constantly that a director should never have an idea for the story or character set in stone. He should have many ideas and be flexible to changing those ideas on the spot if a better idea comes into play. Staying open leaves avenues to freshness and uniqueness. Never tell an actor every little thing he should do in a scene. It’s their job to fill in the blanks. “Give me parameters, don’t micromanage” said Renner. In regards to collaboration, Laurence Fishburne said “step back and allow me to swing.”

This video surprised me in a sense because some actors weren’t huge fans of collaboration. Willem Dafoe said he likes collaboration but over the years he’s realized he likes coming to a director’s vision of the character even more. He said, “going towards something that isn’t mine, there’s a process that fuels what you’re doing.”

Rosamund Pike believes that she is chosen for a part because the director picked her as the person to play his vision of a role so it’s her job to become that vision. “If you really trust a director, you trust his vision,” she said.

5. Courage

Noomi Rapace, star of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo franchise mentions that she wants “courage” in a director.

“The worst thing a director can be is cowardly and tasteless,” said actor Oliver Isaac.

Directors cannot afford to be timid. They’re operating on time restraints, budget restraints, and all the pressure in the world while still trying to be creative and achieve their vision. This makes courage and boldness a job requirement. You need to be able to tell actors, who are very strong willed people also by necessity, that they are doing something wrong. You need to stand up to producers and studio heads at times to ensure your vision is not being skewed beyond recognition. It can be a very scary and disheartening position to be in.

6. Efficiency

I think one of the best bits of advice comes at the very end of the video from Morgan Freeman in regards to working with director Clint Eastwood. Freeman mentions that he believes Eastwood is one of the best directors in the business because he is quick and he isn’t wasteful. Freeman expresses displeasure with a director that does 17-18 takes.

“What’s wrong?” Freeman asks. “If there’s something wrong with the camera, fix it. If there’s something wrong with my performance, tell me. Don’t just keep saying ‘let’s do it again.’”

I’ve been on sets were directors trademark phrase is “let’s do it again” and I think I get more annoyed than the actors. I always read that a director should mention some kind of feedback after every take. This is the logical way to get the least amount of takes before the desired performance is captured.

As mentioned before, filmmaking comes with many time and financial restraints. Always be as efficient as possible and try to not waste anything. Don’t waste people’s time, don’t waste money, don’t waste film, don’t waste daylight, don’t waste your breath, don’t waste anything. By doing so you’ll find that you’re a director many people will want to work with, including actors because they felt their time was used wisely, producers because they felt their money was put in the right places, and crew members because they see that you’re a director that knows what he’s doing and is on top of the ball.

Do as much prep work as possible on shot lists and scene analysis before shooting. Get rehearsal dates in if possible; whatever it takes to make the actual filming go as smoothly as possible.


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