Working with actors can be hard; sometimes because of who you have as talent, and sometimes, because you aren't sure what you are doing or how to talk to them. But it's really a lot easier than we make it out to be. There's just a lot to it.
In the next few posts in this category, I will be examining some of the things I've discovered from both sides of the lens.
PART I- Intentions, Tone, and Explanation
Directing should be a conversation between yourself and the actors.
One of the things I've learned from being both behind the camera as director and being in front of the camera as an actor, is that there has to be a balance of how much information we give the talent or actors. Too much information, or too much direction, can make the actor or talent feel self conscious, worry too much about what they are doing and how, and can also make them feel like they are just there to go through the motions. If you really care about performance (and you should if you are going to call yourself a director), you need to let the actors have room to breathe and find interesting things with the character. Let them play. You are there to help them understand the character, the motivations and intentions you would like them to have in the scene, and most importantly, explain the tone and the emotion of the scene and the arc of the film and character to them as you see it.
QUICK TIP: A great way to do this is to create a mood book, tone book or sizzle reel. A mood book is a collection of images and sometimes music or film clips to help establish a general sense of tone, mood and ambiance that you want the film to have. A tone reel is pretty much the same thing, just more of a slideshow with music playing over top- sometimes storyboards and pictures close to what the shots of certain scenes might be are used, along with music that might be similar in tone to what is used or created for the film (or in some cases, inspired the film). A sizzle reel is taking clips of existing film or television, cutting it together to produce something akin to a trailer demonstrating the look, feel and tone of your film before you shoot it.
Now, explain your vision to everyone involved, and talk to the cast about it. But don't act like you know all the answers to the script, even if you wrote it. You don't. You may think you do, but you don't. Actors will find questions you've never even thought of to ask. They will find intentions and motivations and needs and wants and desires for the character that you didn't see. Or maybe you did and they saw it differently. Allow yourself to think critically about what they are bringing to you. I would never shut down someone's idea completely from the start. I would want to hear why they are asking the questions or thinking of playing a part a certain way; even if it is contrary to what I see for the scene or the arc of the story. It may not work, but to explore that ground is a good thing because you may find something in there. And if it is contrary to what's happening in the scene, how could it affect the intentions of that character later in the story? Could it change things for the better?
I'll give you an example (as best I can without spoiling the film). During pre-production, leading up to The Good Fight, I had in my head some choices that our main character "Will" would make. Carter Bratton, our actor portraying Will, called me often to discuss the characters and his choices. Carter couldn't make amends with the choices Will was written to make, and how he saw the choices Will should make. We talked this over for weeks. Finally, it was about finding a way to explain what I had in my head to him, and him explaining what he had in his, and we found a common ground, and some more believable reasons for the choices. Did any of these end up being said on screen? No. None of the dialogue changed. But Carter had his intentions, and he ran with them. And THAT showed on screen for the reasons Will made the choices he did. Through Carter's expressions, and at times, stoic expressionlessness, we were able to see a glimpse of what Will was thinking. And isn't it more interesting to have an idea of what a character might be thinking than for him to come out and say "I'm thinking about <insert thoughts here>."? So we discussed this more on set, and solidified our plan, and that gave a real natural feeling to the scene and the flow of the dialogue. You could see the characters IN the scene, and them thinking about the situation, not about how to move on a cue, or to say a certain line this way vs. that way. Through our discussion, Carter was able to PLAY.
Allow yourself to be open to some collaboration with the actors. But if their ideas are not right for the scene, explain to them why, and what you saw for the scene and how it all fits into the puzzle, and why playing it the way you had imagined it is important. But if you are open to that collaboration, maybe you will find some key moments for the character that can make him or her more interesting, or give us new insight or create a new motive for their actions.
I cannot stress enough how important explaining the tone and feel of the scene/film is to actors. I was recently on a shoot where the tone and mood wasn't really established until the cutting room. Sometimes that can happen, sure. But what never really happened was getting any kind of insight as to what type of film this might be. The script read one way; it ended up being a totally different tone. In the end, the film played well, but some of the performances felt a bit off. Had all of the performances been aligned, even if the overall feeling of the film was idiosyncratic to the tone of the performances, it may have worked better because it would have seemed intentional, instead of it feeling a bit like some of the actors were in different films.
As far as managing the performance goes, this comes from a couple of things. Explaining your expectations for the scene regarding tone/mood, pacing, and overall emotions. Explain where it fits into the story, and how. Explain where the characters have just come from and what they want/need from the scene that mostly goes unsaid. Then step back and allow the actors to do what they do. You will notice that if you have explained things well enough, if you have discussed WITH the actors enough, that they will have the same level of confidence as you.
There will be more to come with this topic, but for now- is there anything you would like to add about intentions, tone, and explanation?