12 Essentials of Directing Actors

Movie director.In watching and chatting with numerous actors and directors over the years, I’ve learned a few things that directors do poorly and several they do well. During this time frame the ideals have changed within the production world, so I’m writing only those key points that relate to actors giving a truthful performance. I hope directors will find these recommendations helpful.

  1. TAKE AN ACTING CLASS. Actors are vulnerable and sensitive people who need encouragement and an understanding director.  The best way to inspire great performances is by understanding the acting process. To keep up with the latest trends, I take acting or an improvisational class every so often.
  2. MAKE A CONNECTION. An actor’s job is intense and exposed, which can cause them to feel overly sensitive or vulnerable. The director needs to come along side of them as a trusted advisor. Actors rarely need to be challenged or have an authority figure bear down on them, as most self-critique or compare themselves to their own detriment.
  3. KILL CRITICAL SPEAK. The director owns the set and must stop any cast or crew from saying anything negative to actors. Direction must only come from the director who fully understands the vision and can give proper and affirming recognition. If anyone on the set feels a need to make suggestions or confer with the director about someone’s performance, it must be done in private, if at all. The director MUST protect the actors.
  4. ASK QUESTIONS. The last thing an actor needs on set is an authoritarian or a director that bellows out commands or instructions. Each actor is an expert at her character and because the director is focused on everything, the professional actor will maintain that expert status. It’s therefore prudent for the director to change the actor’s performance inductively by asking questions. By drawing the actor into the thinking process, she is able to discover for herself what the character needs to do. This activity strengthens the actor’s ownership of the character and enhances her performance.
  5. TREAT ACTORS EQUALLY. An actor’s emotions can take its toll throughout the shooting day. Great directors try to keep an eye on each actor’s emotional status and take specific time to remind her that she is liked and respected. The director is a powerful leader that must share this treatment equally with all actors to maintain a mutually warm environment from which the actors can safely perform.  Leaving an actor out of this personalized attention can send her reeling out of control.
  6. BE COURTEOUS. Directors can raise the performance bar by being courteous and avoid the common mistake of telling an actor how she blew it. By saying, “What was that? You can’t bellow out your lines. Let’s do another take and give me less,” the director increases the actor’s fear and stiffens her next take. Instead, a director might consider saying, “I’d like to try something a little different on this next take. I wonder if you could maintain your emotional intensity and drench the other character with a dangerous calm.” This gives the actor more to work with and inspires creativity and performance.
  7. AVOID COMMON ACTING PROBLEMS. Acting is self-conscious and self-judgmental, which many times can cause an actor to act from her head instead of her heart. The director must work with the actor to make sure she is focused on the character and not herself. This approach will avoid numerous problems that typically rise during any given shooting day and help to draw out an honest or truthful performance.
  8. PROMOTE RELAXATION AND FOCUS. Relaxation is important to make sure the actor doesn’t project her voice as if on a stage. It will also impact the way she carries herself. When a scene calls for tension, it will naturally grow from the relaxed state and appear in her hands, walk, voice and face. Anytime anxiety creeps in, the actor becomes stilted in her performance. A director can improve the performance by reminding the actor of what she’s done well. Even redirecting her focus off of her feelings and back onto the character will reduce the temporary lack in confidence.
  9. CLARIFY SUBTEXT. Reviewing subtext during rehearsal will help an actor focus on each line, glance or action. Every element of her performance must lead to her character’s super objective or what she is fighting for. The subtext can be clarified with a verb to be played, a character she plays to, and an intended effect that her character wants as the outcome.
  10. KILL ANTICIPATION. It is difficult for a director to have an actor play a part “naturally” in a specific way, as the mere mention of doing it naturally makes the performance stilted. Within that moment the actor gets trapped in her head and starts to anticipate a line or action. She might also purposely hold back in an attempt to be more natural, which creates an awkward lag and reveals that the actor has done this moment several before in rehearsal. One of the best ways to avoid this conundrum is to walk the actor through the character’s thinking process, while salting in moment-by-moment clues as the performance unfolds – Just like in real life.
  11. KILL INDICATING. It’s common for an actor to increase the visible size of her performance in hopes of reaching the audience or allowing them to see her character’s personality. Unfortunately, the lens is only kind to subtle performance and the actor finds herself overworking and destroying her character in the process. Having the actor think about a secret or some internal struggle during the performance, allows the audience to see that there is more depth to the character without an over-the-top performance. Giving direction to the actor as if you’re speaking to the character also generates this subtle secrecy effect.
  12. SPEAK IN VERBS. Many actors memorize certain actions to help them “do business” during their scene and it weakens their performance because it doesn’t naturally flow from the character. Instead of having an actor pull something out of her bag of tricks, the director can share verbs that stimulate creative ideas that develop new actions based solely on the character. An example might come from a script line like, “She keeps up with her dodging in and out of shadows.” The immediate thought an actor might come up with is moving from tree to tree peering around as she tries to keep up with the other character. However, the director can bring to bear an arsenal of variations on this movement by asking the actor to “trail” the other character. Or, he can step up the intensity with each word suggested: follow, track, pursue, hunt, stalk, or chase. Each verb intensifying the action and giving a new mental picture for the actor to perform.

If I were to add a “don’t” to the list for amateur directors, I’d have to recommend NOT ever demonstrating how you’d like something played. This act instantly reduces the director’s credibility to zero and he doesn’t get what he’s asks for, as his performance never plays out the way it was in his head. It is also insulting to the actor who is the expert on her character, who would never do things like the director demonstrated. This is not to take away from the director showing an actor their blocking, as he walks the actor down the path, while discussing the character’s motivation.

The key is to remember that the actor is an expert at her character and the director can’t be due to his high level of knowledge on the entire picture. However, the director will know what works and what doesn’t and must use questions to help the actor create variations of performance until the director gets what will work best on screen – Something the actor trusts the director to accomplish.

Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers
Illustration © shambulin – Fotolia.com

The Angle of Story

In talking with numerous filmmakers, preachers and teachers, I’ve found that all of them have some form of a story to share. They are filled with ideas that will help guide individuals down a recommended path in life and consider things and issues they may have never taken time to address had it not been for their story. But I find one thing perplexing about these master storytellers that most have in common, they typically tell the first version of the story they come up with.

Every valuable story has a right to be shared, but not every perspective on that story will yield the greatest benefit for the viewer or reader. Exploring multiple angles on the same story might open the eyes of its author to key subtleties or nuances that will leverage an emotion or touch a chord in the audiences’ life, empowering them to change.

Playing around with various perspectives or angles on a story takes significant work and shifts the author’s perspective from enjoying their own cool story to making sure the audience in directly benefiting from having heard or seen it. It’s all about taking the audience on a trip to consider an “argument” that stirs their souls and engages their minds.

Unfortunately, our society is geared toward massive amounts of information, compared to one or two high quality products. Authors are forced to make choices that generate a living, over creating a story that changes the way an entire generation thinks. Today, sheer quantity dominates quality. That’s not to say there aren’t a few new thoughts out there, but few are releasing products of any consequence.

I’ve been working on and off with a feature film script titled “Steele Blue.” It started out as an action film because I was in the mood to write some cool action sequences. There was little story involved, as it was an action romp. Then a friend asked me some questions about the characters and as I explained who they were, my friend was fascinated and wanted to know more. I changed the script to bring out those characteristics that were intriguing.

This led to another rewrite, as some of the scenes weren’t conducive to drawing out the key points of the characters. It forced me to shift from an action film to the genre of adventure. Once there, the characters came to life and others were intrigued by, not only the characters, but by certain curious items I alluded to in their relationships.

Another set of rewrites was engaged to explore the relationships that perked the interest. In doing so, I found that the story would be better served as a drama. After choosing to focus more on the heart of one character and exploring what her decisions would be in unique circumstances, I shifted the drama to include some comedy, adventure and a few thrills.

The story is still the same, but its told from such a significantly different angle of interest that I can’t wait to see the audiences’ reaction. To wet your whistle a bit, the story is about a maverick detective who hits the streets to protect her teenage son from the drug lord she’s falling in love with. The key question the action plot raises is whether or not she’ll get her man as a cop or a lover.

Had I not explored the various angles on how to tell the story, I would never have come up with the inner conflict that the main character faces. Its an intriguing question about the choices we make. Will it be a choice of doing what feels right or the more difficult choice of doing what is right? That is the question every one of us face in our society today. And, my choice is to tell this new version of the story and see what types of future choices the audience makes.

By taking a look at the same story from different characters or perspectives, opens the writer up to numerous creative opportunities to create a story that has never been done before. It also allows the writer to explore life issues that can only be handled indirectly without offense. This allows the audience to stretch their thinking and find new ways to grow who they are. All of these pros make for a great story and outcome.

Copyright © 2011 By CJ Powers
Photo © janaka Dharmasena – Fotolia.com

Freedom from Beating Yourself Up

Everyone has experienced the deep cutting pain after saying the wrong thing to their boss’s boss or a loved one. It is that gut wrenching experience that causes us to condemn ourselves and feel terrible for 3-5 days. It’s also that dreaded pain that seems to resurrect itself at the most inopportune time years down the road, causing us to cringe once again – Always wondering if we’ll ever be good enough to get away from that dreaded feeling.

There are days when I feel like I’m destined to relive that nightmare over and over again. Those are the days when emotional and mental freedom becomes a greater desire than anything else in my life. After all, I get tired of being the weakest link in relationships or at work.

However, my viewpoint is distorted, as would yours be if you found yourself at the other end of self-condemnation. My friends actually have a healthier view of who I am and will clearly tell you that I’m my own worst enemy. The amount of pressure I put on myself to be perfect, when perfection is unobtainable, is absolutely ridiculous. But, I was fortunate last Wednesday night to finally understand why the problem exists and how to correct it.

My friend Scott, who is the CEO/President of Heritage Counseling Center, gave a talk that I attended on “Mindfulness.” He shared the exact steps I needed to disarm those recurring nightmares and I thought it was valuable enough to share with you.

To gain the freedom from beating ourselves up, we have to address the following:

1. Understand What’s at Stake: The answer is simply our pride. While I know that sounds a little odd, especially when we find our activity of choice in certain circumstances to be that of cutting ourselves down, the principles make sense. We find it important to protect who we are, causing our natural reaction to be one of defensiveness.

2. Let Down Your Guard: When we are defensive, we are not able to receive the assistance that will make us a better person. We block the truth from entering our lives, thereby hindering our ability to get past our recurring struggles. Once we get past it, we can change the behaviors causing our problems.

3. Accept Who You Are – The Good and the Bad: Instead of holding ourselves to a high unobtainable standard, we need to accept who we are. We need to accept that God made us exactly how He wants us to be for His purposes. The good to reflect His glory and the bad to allow Him to demonstrate His love so others can understand who He is.

To accomplish these three steps, we need to understand how our mind works. To start with, when an emotional moment hits our lives, we have a visceral or knee jerk response – A strong feeling hits us. This feeling is neutral, not good or bad. Its sole purpose is to inform us that the situation has triggered something important deep inside of our hearts. It is a warning flag that we have an unresolved issue that needs our focus, in order to understand what is truly important to us. It will also help us to make the right decision in how to proceed through the circumstance.

What fascinated me, was Scott’s comment that it isn’t until we judge our feelings that we place ourselves in a tailspin leading to self-condemnation. In other words, our tendency is to judge ourselves based on the feelings we incurred. That’s right, we take the neutral feeling used to alert us that the outcome to our situation is important to us, and we judge it to be good or bad, instead of taking time for introspection and addressing the situation without condemnation.

The feeling is neutral and it’s our judgment that turns it into a good or bad scenario. Once it is a bad scenario in our minds, we suffer with it until we find a way to disarm it. But, what would happen if we didn’t judge it? If we just viewed our emotions as a flag encouraging us to reflect on our circumstance and make a decision based on who we are, we would be able to accomplish great growth with less pain.

According to Scott, by accepting our situation without judgment, allows us to face the condition in a healthy manner, which produces growth. Demonstrating a high level of acceptance toward ourselves diminishes defensiveness. Without defensiveness, we open our hearts to the truth, and emotional and mental health. In facing the truth, we are able to receive grace and accept the good and the bad choices we make.

We no longer see ourselves as something terrible to avoid, but rather as a person who has behaviors that can be improved. Self-condemnation falls to the wayside and we find ourselves living life to the fullest. We become truly whole and healthy. More importantly, we learn how to not react or judge other’s bad behaviors, allowing us to give them grace in their hour of need. We become Christ like, but still not perfect.

Accepting ourselves doesn’t suggest that we approve of the situation or behavior, nor does it mean we agree with it. Instead, acceptance means that we don’t judge ourselves, cutting us off from truth and healing. Acceptance allows us to live life with happiness, while always addressing important issues residing in our heart, empowering us to change our behaviors to match up with who God really made us to be. There is no longer any condemnation.

The next time I face a situation that generates a feeling, I will not judge the feeling, but look inside of myself and find what is truly important to me. Then I’ll bring my future behaviors into alignment. Once I’m whole, I’ll be able to show grace to those struggling with unaddressed feelings.

I will truly be free from beating myself up.

Copyright © 2011 By CJ Powers
Photo © Mat Hayward – Fotolia.com