Some Notes On Directing

In this article I will offer my opinions on what makes for effective directing. Like the actor the director needs to employ certain necessary skills to be able to get the most out of his/her actors. The knowledgeable director can and will find a way to communicate clearly what he wants in a scene.

Directing, like acting, requires specific skills. Many early directors like John Ford learned their craft during the silent screen era. Others like Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols gained experience working in theatre and then transitioned to film.

Some directors have a remarkable visual sense and great knowledge when it comes to lighting and lenses. But when it comes to communicating with actors they are at a loss. Getting down to the crux of what they want poses a problem and can result in fractious relationships. So what skills are vital if the filmmaking, or stage experience is to be fruitful?

Breaking down the script is every bit as important for the director as it is for the actor. Specific tools i.e. understanding objectives, motives, relationships, stakes/urgency, beats, super-objectives, imagination, parallels, is not a matter of guess work. The director has to have a concrete and specific understanding of every character in the script so that if and when the actor is having difficulty finding their way the director can jump in and provide the necessary assist.

The director must have a keen eye when it comes to casting. The actor(s) that you are hiring must have the temperament and imagination to play the specific role for which they are being cast. Warren Beatty wanted to play the lead role of “Stavros” in Elia Kazan’s “America, America” but Kazan didn’t think him right for the part. Conversely he saw Brando as his first choice to play “Stanley” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Terry” in “On The Waterfront”. He knew that the character had to be inside the actor. It was not an abstraction.

A good director must be a keen observer of human behavior. They must be able to light a fire under the actor when they sense that they are not achieving the desired result. If you are unable to communicate what you want from your actors, chances are you won’t get it.

You will have to develop an instinctive sense of when to hold back and allow the actors to find their way. Some result oriented directors are too quick to jump in and tell the actors “how” to play the scene.

Patience and a good ear will enable the skilled director to guide the actors through a scene without “laying it all out”. Listening is every bit as important for the director as it is for the actor. When the actor is struggling with the “words” the director will need to encourage their actors to improvise from “beat” to “beat” as a means of gaining a clear understanding of what the scene requires. Allowing them to work with subtext, using their own words and actions, will enable them to go back to the script with renewed confidence and their work will take on a vitality that was missing.

Good directors don’t over speak. They get to the point and communicate specifically in actions i.e. seduce, threaten, tease, plead, intimidate, what they want. Going on and on ad nauseum is confusing and unnecessary. If you have hired someone because you trust that they can do the work then allow them to do just that.

Avoid line readings at all cost. The line reading extinguishes the flame that is necessary for the improvisational feel of the scene to take place. The director has to leave room for the unexpected to occur. Encourage them to take risks and be sure to make a note of it when they do.

Don’t stress “feeling”. Most actors tense up at the mere suggestion of the word. Encourage them to do more if you feel they are holding back. Provide examples that can illuminate what you want but keep it short and sweet. Actions provoke feelings so make sure that they are doing fully and you will (with skilled actors) get the desired results.

Create a relaxed environment that fosters creativity. In my experience most people are at their best when they are not wound up tight as a drum. It is difficult to achieve results when the people around you are fearful and in a constant state of tension. By all means say what you want, but do it so that you can be heard. You don’t want your actors to shut down due to a lack of communication. You want them open, available, receptive and responsive. When they have gained your trust they will move mountains for you. You can gain that trust by demonstrating that you are a consummate professional with knowledge of your craft and a sincere desire to work with them not against them.