WANT TO GET A GOOD PERFORMANCE? YOUR ACTORS CAN ACTUALLY HELP.
If you’re like most directors, you’re not an actor. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. You’re probably not a plumber, either.
The thing is, when a director hires a plumber, he’s usually pretty good about describing the situation and letting the plumber figure out the best way to solve it. So how come so many directors can’t do that with actors?
In my experience (which is vast, by the way) directors fall into two categories: good ones and crappy ones. I’ll get to the good ones in a minute, but there are two main ways for directors to be crappy. They’re either like Richard Nixon or they’re like George W. Bush.
Nixon was famous for micromanaging. Rather than hiring good people and trusting them to do their best, he’d get caught up in stuff he had no business dealing with. Like, well, plumbers.
Bush, on the other hand, was no Nixon. The guy was on vacation at either his ranch in Crawford or Camp David almost 1000 days of his eight-year presidency, leaving the important stuff to take care of itself.
What does this have to do with actors?
Let’s say you want your actor to look surprised. If you’re Nixon, you show him what surprised looks like. You probably cock your head and raise an eyebrow because that’s what surprised always looks like.
Two problems. One is that that’s not what surprised always looks like. The other is that you trying to look surprised may or may not look like you think it does. Especially since you’re not an actor.
So what you end up with is a performance that people buy only because they’re very forgiving and know vaguely what you’re aiming at because so many other directors before you have failed in the same way.
If you’re Bush, you trust in God. You don’t tell your actor anything, hoping that he’ll know what to do.
I’ve heard stories of directors who never, and when I say never, I mean NEVER say a single word to the actors on their sets. That’s not directing. That’s watching. And yet you’d be surprised how many directors turn this vice into a virtue, bragging (or let’s be honest, having other people brag on their behalf) about how much film they shot.
So what does a good director do?
A good director treats the actors like professionals, and before you get all up in arms about how actors are like babies and can’t do anything by themselves, let me point out that if you’re working with stupid actors it’s because you’re the one casting them. Actors, like plumbers, presidents, and yes, even directors, run the gamut from stupid to smart. Your job is to cast the smart ones. The ones that have training and instincts. The ones who take their jobs seriously. And then your job is to communicate what you’re looking for and help them give it to you.
Good actors will astonish you with their ability to communicate complex emotions with nothing more than a look. But only when you do a good job letting them know exactly what you want.
Good actors in the hands of a bad director will either take it upon themselves to gild the turd you’re crafting or will throw up their hands, take the paycheck, and hope that they don’t get tainted by your stink.
A particularly good example of that is Gone In 60 Seconds, which features some of the finest actors of our time regurgitating dialogue without any meaning and performing actions without any motivation.
Directing is communicating. If you can’t communicate with your actors, you can’t communicate with your audience. Period.