Posted in Filmmaking

Helpful Tips for the Aspiring Film Director

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In my early years of film production, many people have told me that my work would be a lot better if I had better actors. I always attributed these comments to the fact that I must not have the best actors in my movies. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve realized that it’s typically not the actors who are amateurish; it’s my skills as a director. Delia Salvi’s book Friendly Enemies ultimately helped me both inside and outside of film school, and I have since felt much more confident about my relationship with actors. The book is easy to read and is filled with page after page of useful commentary and activities. I particularly like the layout of the book with its three wholly different but all necessary sections.

Understand the Needs of the Actor

The first section starts as an introduction, then takes the reader through basic understanding of both the actor and the director. This is important because before one sets out to direct a play or a movie, one must be in touch with himself and understand the needs of an actor. An important issue brought up in the first chapter is that there are many different actors that a director will encounter. Not any two actors are the same. One might work with two actors in a scene, and one will be an intellectual actor, and the other may be an intuitive actor. The director has to bring his strengths to the scene by working in two very different ways for both people.

While the director is responsible for dozens of different things during a production, he must also be aware of the actors’ needs, such as energy, rehearsal time, and good old-fashioned trust. On previous projects, I’ve never allowed my actors to take their time to find the characters, as I’m always moving so fast. Now I know that I need to gain trust from my actors by allowing them time to find what they need to give good performances.

Find Your Voice as a Storyteller

Probably the most enlightening chapter of the early part of the book is the chapter on getting to know thyself as a director. While it’s important to learn everything I can about actors, it’s more important to learn exactly who I am as a director and what I’m trying to set out to do. I’ve always felt a little nervous around actors, because I feel like I might say the wrong thing, I might lose trust and I might not get the best performance. This chapter of the book has a lot of interesting material to say about directing for results. This style of directing doesn’t work because it doesn’t allow the actor to realize how he or she is getting to that result. This note about directing may have been the most helpful aspect of this book because I have directed for results throughout the years, especially when I don’t really know what to say to the actor, and I now know that directing for results is wrong in every way. The actor needs to know where he or she is going and can’t be sad or excited just because I need him or her to be.

Also important is the chapter on the actor’s language; after all, we need to know that language. All the info about personalization and substitution and sense memory need to be ingrained in the brain because they’re essential to know for the acting process. I’ve also really come to love improvisations, and further chapters on preparation, casting, and resolving problems on set are filled with a ton of useful tidbits and tools that I will be looking back at as I embark on future films.

Analyze the Characters

The second section of the book takes a specific look at Elia Kazan’s director’s notes for On the Waterfront. This section is fantastic because it takes the tools and practice demonstrated earlier in the book and puts them to good use for the reader. Particularly when it comes to preparation of a scene through use of actions and beats, the scene in question is important to read for any director. First of all, the chapter goes through a tremendously thorough character analysis for both Terry and Edie. It goes through character motivations, relationships, backgrounds, etc. The way I see it, the more I know about my characters in my film through this kind of breakdown, the better prepared I’ll be on set when actors are asking me questions. There won’t be anything I can’t answer. Then the chapter features a scripted version of the scene, along with beats and actions for the actors. This example serves as great food for thought for any future complicated scene I write for a film.

Tell the Truth

The third and final section of the book features conversations with directors and actors. Instead of only one writer telling the reader how everything is the entire way through, she features interviews with people in the industry and get their feedback on certain topics she has already touched on earlier in the book. I was particularly fond of the interview with director Todd Holland. As a director, I find much more interest in drama/suspense storylines than comedy. I don’t think I’m good at making comedic films and work mostly in the more dramatic kind of fare. Holland says something interesting about the genres in that when it comes to comedy, which he himself didn’t think he was very good at, there needs to be even more truth in the performances than in drama and suspense. Also, it’s harder to be cinematic in comedy because the hilarity doesn’t ensue if there are too many camera tricks.

85% of Directing is Casting the Right Actors!

I was also fascinated by Alexander Payne’s interview. A terrific director — all of his films are excellent — he knows first-hand how to get great performances from his actors, and his candid commentary about working with actors and casting directors is very interesting. He talks about a scene he did with Reese Witherspoon in Election where she had to cry, to get somewhere deeply emotional inside herself. Even though she had gone through way too many takes than she could really handle, he made her do one more, and this technique worked because Witherspoon was so frustrated with having to do another take that the performance really shined, and this take is in the film. I also enjoyed his discussion on how he works in auditions, as sometimes he’ll give the casting director the direction, not the actor. He takes the casting process very seriously. It has been said that casting is 85% of directing, and the sooner all directors realize that, the better off they will be.

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