Working with Actors for Film
By Clive Davies-Frayne | 05-Mar-2006
The first thing any director intending work with actors on a film needs to understand is that acting for film is the most technically demanding and often least rewarding work an actor will do (not financially, but in terms of satisfaction with the actual process).
To understand it helps to compare the work with an actor's job in theatre. On stage an actor will take between two to six weeks rehearsing a play, get familiar with the character, the plot, the set and then perform the piece from beginning to end in one uninterrupted flow. So, when in scene four the actor is telling his friend that he's just been told that his sister is really his mother, the actor has just experienced that scene immediately before hand. To get to this performance the actor will have been guided by a director who is primary training has been in literature and acting (And will probably be an actor themselves)
In comparison when working on a film, the actor is usually given a day's rehearsal (if that), no time to prepare or get familiar with the character; is required to do the same scene over and over again (identically) and this is all done in wrong order – which means that on the first day the actor is supposed to bring forth a believable emotional response at the climax of the film but hasn't acted in any of the scenes leading up to this moment, yet. On top of that the vast majority of the day isn't spend performing, but sitting around waiting for technicians to do stuff that seems to take forever; during which time the actor may well be learning lines for their next production. To get through this complex procedure the actor is likely to be directed by someone who can tell you the compression rate of every current video codec and who's current reading is "Advanced FCP editing techniques" but is unlikely to ever have read anything in their life about either acting or acting technique.
It's no wonder that often both film directors and actors complain about how unpleasant the process is.
To break down some of the problems I've written out a workflow, for dealing with actors, which gives them a framework to work within and also helps the director and actor communicate in way that make things better, rather than making things worse.
The Read Through
(Goal to get the actors familiar with the story and each of their journeys through it)
Like all of these stages, the more you put into them the more you get out. For a read through you assemble your entire cast with copies of the script, and sit them round a huge table with lots of coffee, water and pens. (Actors always forget to bring pens)
The cast then sits and reads the script. On a practical level it helps to have an assistant read in the directions. Sometimes the director wants to set the scene by explaining what the film is about, sometimes not. There are bonuses either way, if you explain the actors get an immediate understanding of your take on the film; if you don't, they come to the script fresh and with their own perspective.
On the surface it doesn't seem like a lot is happening, but actually the read through sets the tone for the whole film and defines the working relationship between the actors and the director.
During the read through the director should take script notes, noting down lines that just didn't work, sequences that could be tightened and any areas where the actors seemed to not understand what they were saying.
Having read the script through once, the director should go round each of their actors and ask them to give the rest of the group their initial take on the character they are playing and also identify any scenes where they don't understand why the story unfolds the way it does. Before anything else happens give the actors a fifteen-minute break. You do this so that individual actors can come and talk to you. As this one on one time is the key to directing it's vital that you do talk to them and listen to their questions/observations and even more importantly that you respond to what they are saying. The most likely topic of conversation is going to be questions about "motivation." Motivation is a key word in acting technique, but in real terms all the actor is asking, is "Why does my character say that or do that?" When responding to these kinds of questions the answers you need to give have to about why the character does it, not why it's important to the plot. If Jim is going to blow up the Unitarian Church in scene seven it needs to be because he: a) Hates the sound of hymns, b) Was molested by a preacher or c) Because he's dyslexic and thought it was the home of the Unabomber. What you can't tell the actor is: he does it because you thought it would look cool to blow up a church.
Having done all of this you go back to the start and begin again, taking the film scene by scene. In other words: read though a scene, get the cast to talk about it and also feed in any observations that you have.
At the very least I would expect this process to tale one day; however, like I said the more time you put in the better the work you get out. If you can I'd take at least two day to do this process over and over, and if you can even longer. In ideal world I'd expect the actors to be at the point where they are ninety percent "off book" (this means not referring to the script, or working from memory).
It also helps to have a clear space at the end of the room where the actors can "stand the script up" (actors terminology for the process of actually physically acting the scene out as opposed to just reading). Lots of actors can't even start to get the sense of a script until it's stood up and others need to get it intellectually before they do. You have to give space for both kinds. It's also important to get a sense during this process of how each individual actor works. They are all different and require different input. It's during the read through that you start to get this understanding. So, for instance, if you've got a method actor they may need to talk to you about the "back story" (This is the character's personal history that extends right back to their childhood). If, however, you've got an actor whose training is primarily Laban they will want to talk about the body language of the character; how they hold themselves, how they walk. And, if you've got someone who has just read David Mammet's "Truth and Lies" they not want to talk to you at all, and if they do it will probably about how you want a particular line read. Where this gets tricky is in understanding that in any room of twenty actors there are twenty ways of working and a good director understands that what works for one person doesn't work for another. The good news is that the one thing that almost all actors seem to need is a closer working relationship with the director and the only way to establish this is to give good quality one-on-one time with them during the whole process.
Blocking and Rehearsals
For me this is the most exciting part of the process. This where the film really comes to life and for the actor this is where the real work happens. If you talk to any actor they will admit to you that the rehearsal process is their favourite part of any acting role. This is because this is when they get to uncover and create the character that they are playing. For an actor that is exciting; it should be the best part for any writer director as well, because it's when the honing of the story takes place.
However, before you can get to working with the actors you've got some homework to do. You need to go to the locations you are going to use and create measured floor-plans of the places you are going to work in. It's also a good idea to take lots of digital photographs and arrange them onto sheets of card to show the actors what the room, street, log cabin looks like.
Hire a big hall, larger than your biggest location (if possible) and then the day before starting rehearsal go in with your plans and transfer the information onto the floor using tape. (If can't imagine this, rent "Dogsville" – Lars Von Trier turned this way of marking up into his sets for that film and it's a perfect way of understanding the process).
The other thing you'll need to do is write up a rehearsal schedule, which means that your actors don't spend a lot of time sitting around waiting to work. This means that you'll end up working out of sequence, but the read through process should have solved many of those issues.
There is no such thing as too much rehearsal. For a feature I'd try to budget in a week, or at least three weekends. I know that most productions are lucky to get a day, but you can't spend too much time on this and the less experienced the cast the more time they need.
The way to go at the process is to start by reading the scene through again, to refresh the actor's memory. Then you want to "stand it up." Standing it up is the first part of the blocking process. Blocking is when you work out the movement within the scene. As much as possible you want to put any physical objects that will be in the set into your rehearsal space. So if there's table in the corner, put in a table.
When you first stand the piece up the actors will still probably be "on book" (books in hand). The first run through you should let them interrupt the scene as they see if from the page; let them work it out and answer any questions they have. The other option is walk them through the scene describing the action and then let them try it. You have to judge your actors; some appreciate having you walk it through, some really resent it.
What you are doing during the first walk through is watching intently. You need to be able to give coherent feedback at the end of it. You look for two things:
1) Moments that you really liked
2) Moments where the actors looked uncomfortable
The fist bit is fairly easy. The second bit is more difficult. There is however a golden rule:
When an actor is unsure of what they're doing they fall back on habitual acting tricks to get them through.
This is why the most often acting instruction given on set is "Stop acting." A piece of feedback that is worst than useless because it fails to understand the issue.
If an actor is unsure, they will tend to overact and become self-conscious.
The most common mistake made during blocking out is not realising that people are always doing something and doing it for a reason. So right now I'm typing and at the same time watching an episode of Millennium. Now, if my wife walked in and wanted to talk to me she'd have to work to get my head out of the laptop, during the conversation my focus would be drawn to the TV. Now that's an easy scene to block because although we're delivering the dialogue it exists within other needs that are motivating us. Now as an actor playing me typing, I would make the actor playing my wife work to get my attention. I wouldn't have time to be self-conscious because I'm immersed in what I'm doing. This needs to be true of every moment and uncovering the motivation of a character in every moment is what the rehearsal process is all about.
The other thing to remember is that in the early scenes the job is to help the actors find the character. Early in the process you have to give the actors room to try different things.
Things that help are spending some time with each actor working on how their character walks, talking to them what kind of voice the character has, what can be uncovered from the text about how they use language. Then feed this back into a scene that you've already run a few times.
The way that you talk to your actors during this process is massively important. You have to give them clear, useful feedback. If you get it wrong you can make things worse rather than better. The first tip is that regardless of how bad a run through is, you've got to find something positive to say; even if it's only " I really like the way you made eye contact during that run through … however," and then you talk to them the stuff that didn't work, but again don't be critical, use phrases like "I wasn't completely convinced by the way you entered the room, how did it feel to you?" Usually the actor will respond by admitting they don't really understand what the character is doing at that point and you can give them some back story, which will help the actor try something different.
The other thing that is really important is that you get into the habit of taking the actor to one side and giving them their feedback one-to-one. If you give someone notes in front of their peers they won't here you because they'll be obsessing that everyone is thinking that they can't act, which will then become a self fulfilling prophecy. It's good to establish this protocol in the rehearsal process, as it makes the actor confident and comfortable; both of which are good things.
I think that for me I always establish early on that everything that goes into the film should come from the text. It's good to give the actors some leeway, but you also need to establish that their job isn't to rewrite the script. It's a delicate balance, but my experience is that the actors work best if the boss dog runs the show.
In terms of danger signals, the one to watch for is "My character wouldn't say that!" this has to be dealt with and the way to do it to get the actor to justify their position by referring to the script. If establish early on that the script is God then this easy. Sometimes they're right, and there is an inconsistency that needs to be solved, but sometimes it's just another misinterpretation that needs clarifying.
The other thing that needs to be established and enforced is working discipline. Your actors need to know that you don't tolerate lateness (unless they've phoned ahead and let you know what their very good reason is). Every actor in my region knows that I fire people who are late to rehearsal, so now I don't have to push that one so hard. Like everything else this has to be done one to one. The great thing is that because you've established this as working practice for non-discipline things, the actors don't get shamed in front of their colleagues.
Once the early work of helping the actor find the character is done the task of blocking the scenes can really get underway.
(As a director this when I make my shot choices, I tend to shoot around my actors blocking rather than blocking the actors to suit my story-board) This is a style choice, but an important one because by imposing particular movements on the actors instead of discovering how the scene can best be played tends to make the actor's job harder.
The key to good blocking is to keep the actor's focussed on their objectives in the scene. Nine times out of ten if the actor focuses on their objective the blocking and the performances become natural.
Finally, don't let any false moment pass. Keep on working until it comes right. By doing this you'll discover that almost any actor can give you a great performance, all they need is good direction. And by good direction it's simply helping them uncover the truth in the scene by noticing when they are scared/unsure and helping them find a way of making it work. Ninety percent of this is about building their self-confidence and more importantly their confidence in your knowledge of the script and your abilities to guide them to a quality of work they didn't know they were capable of.
On Set – Line ups and solving performance problems
If you've done the work during the read-through and rehearsal your actors should arrive with a good knowledge of their character, a high degree of confidence in their abilities and a belief in you as their director. This is a great way to start a movie, because on set you're going to have to deal with a myriad of practical issues and your primary concerns are going to transfer from the cast to the crew, for much of the time.
However, the trick with this is to remember that the film happens in front of the camera and at the end of the day the actors are the most important piece of kit on the lot. If the camera breaks down half way through a shoot you can replace it. If your lead actor breaks down, the whole film is knackered.
So, on set regardless of how busy you are make time to greet the cast when they arrive in the morning, talk over with them what scenes you're doing and deal with any questions they have. The first day on set they'll be lots of questions, many of which are really about pre-performance nerves; so the key is to reassure them, but not get tied down into detailed conversations. The other practical thing to deal with on the first day is to introduce the actors to the 1st AD. Up to now the actors have had complete access to you when ever they wanted, now this has to change and the communications protocol becomes that if they're not on set and have any questions, they go to the 1st AD and not directly to you. This doesn't mean that you can't go and chat to them, but you make the choice of when and where that happens. Most actors respond well to this because they've already established a relationship with you, you're obviously very busy and important during the shoot and it feels more professional for them and strangely enough the more professionally the shoot is run, the more the actors enjoy the process. The other thing that gets covered in the morning briefing is what the set protocols are. By this I mean where the actors will wait when not working, why they have to have their mobile phones switched off, what it means when someone hollers "quiet on set"; this is particularly valuable if you've got cast who've never been on a film set before. It's also a good idea to point out any health and safety issues, like watching underfoot for cables and not getting too close to lights. Personally, I don't like to have performers cluttering up the set when other people are working, but you have to decide for yourself whether you want them to be able to see the film getting made or whether you want to key people on set to a minimum. Once you've finished the briefing get the actors through make-up and wardrobe. You'll probably want to step in and check people as they go through this process, wardrobe sometimes gives people clothing that is going to get in the way of a particular piece of action and as your actor now have a feel for their character you may have to work with them to get this part right.
When the set and crew are ready it's time to do your first line up. This should be a simple process where the actors come in, see the minor differences between the rehearsal space and actual set and make minor adjustments to how the action works. This means that you can concentrate on talking to the DOP, lighting team and sound recordist about how the scene is going to be shot.
In the line up I start by reminding the actors of how we approached the scene in rehearsal and then asking them just to walk through the action. If there are any obvious alterations to the blocking this is when they will show up, but nine times out of ten the actors will adjust it themselves. What you are looking to do is establish the timing of the scene and to establish precise marks for the actors to hit when the action takes place. The marks are important because the DOP will set their camera positions to hit those marks. Once this is established the line up is done and the camera and lighting team can rig for the first set-up. The crew may well need the cast around to make sure that the light is hitting the right points, that the camera is at the right height (this is the primary work of stand-ins for stars on big budget movies). Personally, I like to give a little space to the cast at this point and concentrate on getting the set-up right. Some actors need to go into themselves to prepare at this point, some like to chatter nervously and personally I don't like to be around either process.
When it's rigged, bring the cast back in and run your first camera rehearsal. The purpose of the camera rehearsal is primarily to make sure that the camera movements/set up are right. It's the first time that you get to scene as it actually going to exist on tape/film.
With that sorted it's worth running a few additional runs of the piece where you're fixing minor performance issues.
To do this some directors like to call their direction in from their chair, which is the fastest way of doing it and the only way if it relates to position (you want to judge the changes in the monitor). However, in my opinion, the only way to give notes is to go over to the actor and talk to them quietly one-to-one. It's works out faster in the long run than calling instructions in because you get more effective results, which means less takes to get the job done.
When everything is looking the way you want it, it's time for the first take. By now it should just be a case of rolling the camera and letting it happen, as far as the performances are concerned, but usually there will still be minor alterations during the master take. However, once a good master take is down, the rest of the process is really about quality control. One thing that I always do is if I think a cast member is 90% there, but aren't quite hitting it I'll say "That take was perfect, excellent. Look we'll just take another couple of takes for safety, but from a performance point of view we've got it." What tends to happen then, is that the pressure comes off the cast and slightly more relaxed they give even better performances on the safety takes. (Of course if they don't you just keep working them and remind them that you need about three good takes to be safe).
At the end of each scene, when it's in the can make sure that you go up to each actor in the scene and give them some positive praise, and make it about something in particular. "I really liked the relationship between you and Trish in that scene" or "I really liked how you brought out the sulkiness of your character in that scene." Actors need post performance reassurance and it's an investment on what they do next.
As you can see, by running proper read throughs and rehearsals the time on set is used more efficiently (all in all this approach can make huge saving on your production, providing you aren't paying some megastar a fortune for rehearsal time.
Fixing performance problems
In my experience most of these issues should get resolved in rehearsal; however, with small roles some times the blocking and rehearsal gets done on set, so you need tools for sorting out bad performances quickly and effortlessly. Plus, there are also always going to be occasions when your well rehearsed actors loose the plot.
So, here are some techniques to get you out of trouble with a scene.
Problem – The relationship between two characters isn't believable.
Sometimes this is just a matter of discussing the situation with the actors and getting them to talk about their character's relationship to one another. This doesn't always work though, because not all actors operate on an intellectual level. So, one thing that does work is getting the actors to work alone improvising scenes from their shared history that aren't in the film. For example, you have a Mother and Son who are supposed to be close but obviously just don't click together. Get them to improvise two or three key scenes from their joint history. Another approach is to ask them to stay in character all day and interact with each other as Mother and Son.
Problem – The lines should be highly emotional, but seem flat.
Sometimes actors have real problems getting any energy into their lines. The easiest way to overcome this is to get them to deliver their lines whilst holding a chair above their heads, or to get them to deliver their line whilst trying to push you down the room (you resist their pushes and make them work at it). Amazingly this almost always changes the dynamic, leading to more animated performances.
Problem – The actor can't get the line right no matter how hard they try.
Sometimes even with the best actor this happens, for whatever reason they can't deliver the line the way it's supposed to work. So even though they understand the character, the character's objective in the scene and the motivation the line just won't come out right. The actor is just mangling it.
There are also times when you haven't got time to piss about discussing the role, like when you're loosing the light. So, you have to have a twenty second line fixing solution.
The first thing to understand is that a sentence is a complete unit and when speaking a sentence there should be only one word stressed. Here's an example:
Your mother wasn't like this; she was a kind woman.
By changing the word that's stressed you can change the emotional content of the sentence. Try these different versions.
Your mother wasn't like this; she was a kind woman. (So that means someone is denying that the Mother was unkind)
Your mother wasn't like this; she was a kind woman. (This is someone accusing someone of not being as kind as her mother)
Your mother wasn't like this; she was a kind woman. (This reading means the Mother used to be kind, but isn't at the moment)
Where possible this approach needs to be done to one side with the actor, going over the possible stress choices and jointly deciding which way to go with it. However, when the light is fading sometimes the only choice is to ask the actor to deliver the line in a particular way, with a particular stress point. When ever possible do this by asking the actor to stress a particular line, don't deliver the line for them and expect them to mimic it (unless all else has failed and time is against you).
I hope these techniques help.