Originally published on Backstage
Actors want someone who can see the big picture, who motivates and inspires their film crew and actors alike. And who can communicate their vision well.
If you’re an aspiring director, my advice would be to get into some acting classes. Learn how actors think and you’re practically guaranteed to get the best performances out of an actor you work with on a film. But here are a few specific qualities you can apply to really get amazing performances.
1. Actors want a director they can trust
Director, Fritz Lang, is rumored to have had live explosives on his sets, real guns and bullets in scenes, and little respect for his actors. Actress Brigitte Helm, who wore The Machine Man costume for Metropolis received several cuts and bruises because of her wardrobe and even caught on fire in one scene.
Yes, this was back in the 1920’s but there are still directors working now who have exposed themselves to actresses just to get a specific performance. This is no longer acting. And it definitely isn’t creating a trusting environment for creativity to come to life.
As a director, do what you can to keep the set as safe as possible. Make sure your AD is getting the actors off set between setups so they’re not surrounded by the chaos. The more you can create a healthy working relationship the better. Get to know them and be liberal in giving them feedback about what you liked about their take on a particular scene. Laugh with them, create memories.
2. Actors want a director who can communicate well
“Yeah that was great, do that again.” This is something I hear a lot from directors. I think I’ve even said it as a director a time or two. But it’s not helpful communication. Yes, we should be encouraging actors that their performances are great, but don’t just tell them to do that again. If you need another take, and don’t want them to change their performance either remind them of the direction you just gave to get them to that place, or tell them you’re “going again for safety” or “for technical reasons”.
“I want you to be happy, but sad.” This is an actual piece of direction I received once. Imagine my confusion when suddenly I had to be both happy and sad in the same instant. It doesn’t work.
When giving direction to actors, please do not give them an emotion to play. Give them the reasons behind an emotion. If you’re going for the emotion you’re going to miss out on the inner life of the character and even if you get an actor who still makes it work, that’s requiring a lot more energy for them to figure out exactly what you mean.
Instead of an emotion, give them a verb: “I want you to tease them here” or “Use those words to prod them for the truth”.
3. Actors want a director who will let them play
Be a director who gives room for the actors you work with to be co-creators with you. Yes, you have the overall vision, but when you give them room to explore different levels of the character you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by what they have to offer. Some of favourite moments in classic films come from directors who work with the actors to create.
Most of all, have fun on set. You as a director set the tone and atmosphere for both the cast and film crew, so why not making it a place where creativity can flourish.