Twenty mistakes of a director

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From Art of Directing Actors book, by Ernest Goodman.

Here, I give you twenty examples of Result-Oriented and General Directions, examples from real life and what not to do when you direct. These mistakes do happen on professional film sets and theater stages, and even well-experienced directors can sometimes make these errors. Actors as well as directors would be best served to know these examples too.

Before you turn to the next chapters, take a moment to read through the following twenty scenarios. Information provided here is important in order to understand basic principles of directing actors. Even though presented explanations are relatively short, we will detail out all samples in the next chapters. The concept of Result-Oriented and General Directing is difficult to get without careful studying these examples. From the educational stem point, learning of the techniques of directing actors starting from the common errors is very effective.

1. Can you say it louder, quieter?

It is okay if the director asks this, but it should be asked of all actors on the film set or theater stage rather than focusing on just one. Why?…because asking only one specific actor to “act louder” (or quieter) is not a direction at all, because you are asking a Result from the actor. Instead of giving this direction to the actors use the objectives, action verbs, images and adjustments or other director’s techniques. For instance, if you want from the actor a more intense performance, try different objectives or another action verb rather than asking him to say it louder (See Tool # 3 Action Verbs or Actions).

Usually it takes a significant amount of time for an actor to create a character. Sometimes it can take three months, sometimes even more. When the character has been created and the actor is performing, he/she is concentrating on him/herself and at that time, loses contact with the partner. Listening is a most important skill of an actor. Stanislavski called it “communion” between actors. It is also known as chemistry. It is very important to have that chemistry connecting actors in order to make the scene truthful, and to stir feelings and emotions. Keeping actors connected is crucial for the director and any direction that risks destroying this communion risks ruining the movie as well. One of the characteristics that distinguish a good movie from a bad one is the strong connections and engagement of actors with each other.

Again, it is absolutely okay when the director asks all actors to make it louder/quieter. But this is not considered to be proper as a direction.

2. Cry, yell, shout!

Telling an actor to cry, yell, etc. are too general to be playable. Calling for a specific emotion is the utterly perfect example of where the director is asking for a Result. In most situations, it is very difficult, even impossible, to get believable acting this way. Although common among amateur directors, this is not a playable direction. Stanislavski, Chekhov, Meisner, Strasberg, etc. as well as other prominent and successful modern day directors agree on this. There can be thousands of reasons to cry, such as be you lost your wallet, or your child, or your job. The back-story of the character can vary significantly; and each time it will be a different feeling, and with different emotions.

There is an important rule: an audience should cry after watching a performance, your actors shouldn’t. Did you get it? The viewer may be impressed and attached to the performance even without exposing over-the-top emotions from the actors (they should not over-act).

3. The director reads the lines out loud and then wants the actor to say the lines with the inflection and intonation the director gave it, asking the actor to repeat it…

In this scenario the director is expressing total disrespect for the actor, his preparation, skill, and training. Aside from asking for a Result from the actor, the director is ignoring the creative contribution and components of the actor’s profession. This is so called “line reading”, avoid it and use an action verb or other methods instead.

The look and sound of the actor’s expression must be unpredictable and sovereign. Emotions, impulses and feelings are spontaneous and they don’t come from the head, they come from the heart. Leave all emotions and feelings to the actor.

Harold Clurman, in his book On Directing, describes this type of scenario. He had a private conversation with Stanislavski on this same subject and subsequently concludes that demonstration can be used, but not for this purpose. Proper use of demonstration or line reading is not for copying by the actor, but rather that the director wants to communicate to the actor in order to find the intention of the speech. For instance, the demonstration can be used as the way of finding out the proper objectives for the actor.

Instead of giving an intonation to the actors use the objectives, action verbs and adjustments as your tool.

4. A director asks an actor to repeat or copy the performance of another actor.

Truthful emotions are only what we want from actors. This type of direction will never give you that. Real emotions are spontaneous and cannot be copied and generated on demand. You can ask this from an actor if you are working, or have worked with him/her previously, and then ask for a repeat of something that was done in another scene or another film by him. But again, don’t ask the actor to play a specific emotion.

There is one exception: if an imitation of other actor’s performance is the part of your plot this is only situation when you can give this type of direction to your actor. For instance, in Due Date Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) successfully copied opening monologue from The Godfather, parodying Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), because it was a part of the story. In the film Ethan shows his acting skills to his new friends by reading lines of Don Corleone’s monologue.

Often, aspiring directors, after reading a script, watch a mini movie virtually projected inside their heads. They see the faces of their heroes, usually played by an A-list of Hollywood actors, they call it “creative vision”. These directors hear, in their heads, the lines usually read with the right intonation and specific facial expressions. This is not a good thing.

Why is this approach so bad? This type of vision is limited and flat. It denies and eliminates all creative efforts of actors. Such “creative vision” does not work because it is made by artistic choices based on what directors know about another movie rather than on what actors can deliver to you as independent artists.

We need to realize that actors are real people, and they cannot truly duplicate other actor’s performance. If they try to repeat and copy emotions and reactions, it takes the truth out of your movie. The actors will appear to have phony emotions, thereby leaving the audience cold. Emotions, impulses, feelings, reactions and responses are spontaneous and they don’t come from the head, they come from the heart. Leave all emotions and feelings to the actor. Let him be in the moment and create all necessary conditions. It’s better to help him to be a real person that gets you a truth in the scene. If you want your actor to be natural, or aggressive, etc., give him different objectives, images, action verbs or use other methods (tools), and you will ultimately get what you want.

For more see Tools of a Director.

5. Can you do it funny, unusual or quirky?

Asking for a certain effect, such as “I want to make this scene funny,” “I want you to be more frightening, dangerous, horrible, and/or ridiculous, etc…” are all asking for one thing: a Result from the actor. Why is this wrong, you may ask? First, because when an actor considers your directions, he first begins by thinking about your request. He then begins to realize himself in the scene, that is, he begins to think about how he looks. This thinking about how he looks induces a self-consciousness which causes problems not only for beginning actors, but for experienced ones as well. Self-consciousness can lead to acting that is not truthful or believable and thereby destroys what the director is trying to create. Secondly, when drawing attention to himself, the actor loses the necessary contact with the partner in the scene. This happens because of a basic rule of psychophysiology: a person cannot simultaneously perform several actions. He can only be mindful of a single action in each given moment. By giving these kind of instructions, the director takes away some of the actor’s energy, distracting him from the requirements and objectives necessary to play the scene right.

In poor quality TV shows or low quality films, actors can be seen talking together without any real sense of connection between them. You get the feeling that the actors are not listening to each other and thereby not in communion (Stanislavski). The actor is talking to the director, the camera, and/or the audience which results in a meager performance (and consequently a poor quality TV show or movie). Listening is one of most important skills of an actor. Actors must communicate with each other solidly. When an actor focuses on the other character, it makes the performance alive.

If a director asks the actors for a specific effect on the audience or mood of the scene, a paradoxical effect takes place…the scene becomes unreal. Instead, use methods such as:

                (1) Super objective and scene objective

                (2) Action verbs or actions

                (3) Images

                (3) Facts, given circumstances

                (4) Psychological gesture

For more see Tools of a Director.

6. I want you to emphasize on the word “killed” or “love”, etc.

This is about dictating an actor’s intonation as well as in the example # 4.

“What’s the problem?” you may ask. The biggest problem is that the actor may agree with you and play it as you ask. In the end such type of directing will not produce a truthful performance. Do you want this? I don’t think so.

Again, the look and sound of the actor’s expression must be spontaneous and sovereign. Tremendous acting is unpredictable. Emotions, impulses and feelings are unplanned and they don’t come from the head, they come from the heart. Leave all emotions and feelings to the actor, because it will produce a better performance and hence a better film, TV show or play.

7. The character should be frightened, aggressive, kind, angry, etc.

Please drill this into your memory that any directions like:

            “be aggressive” ,

            “be natural”,

            “be kind” ,

or almost anything else after “ be” does not work at all. Again, this yields disconnection, destroys chemistry, and produces self-consciousness on the part of your actor, and in the end, it’s too general direction.

When you tell the actor what kind of feelings and emotions he must feel, or what his mental state should be in the scene, you are making a mistake. Even if you want it in your film (understandably it’s your movie and you want to see it exactly how you want) don’t do it, please. As soon as the actor tries to be frightened, be angry, be excited, or be in love, he will look like an actor, not a real person. People in everyday life will behave differently. An ordinary individual would prefer not to be nervous during an important meeting, or even choose not to get upset if his girlfriend, for example, is cheating on him. Stereotypes and clichés of behavior do not help to make the valuable film or theater performance.

8. Interact with the audience, make them cry, feel attached, feel impressed!

When you ask an actor to make your audience cry, you are asking for a certain effect from the viewer. According to Stanislavski, acting is living of the actor under imaginary circumstances. By including the audience in the imaginary circumstances, you can create a bad connection between actors (because they think about how they look and they try to effect the audience.) As a result, your actors will look like actors not like real people.

Stanislavski said that the story is created in the minds of the audience, not in minds of the actors. The audience’s perception of your movie or play should not be a factor in the minds of the actors. The actor’s job is to be focused on his objective or other direction (here and now) rather than on the thoughts about how it will be perceived by the audience. If you see that the actors are trying to work on the perceptions on the viewer, explain this conception to them.

9. When he tells you that he has no money, you need to get angry…

This is a flashy example of the Result-Oriented Directing. If you instruct your actor using a phrase like –“When he tells you that he has no money, you need to get angry, you are dictating a reaction to the lines of another actor, giving him a specific emotion to play out. This is a self-destructing bomb for your film, a common mistake of aspiring directors, so called a “planned response” (anticipation).

Sometimes actors agree on when and how they will perform particularly within the scene. Unfortunately, the outcome of this scene, due to the unreal emotion, will be unnatural and fake. Imagine if one actor is silent and waits for his turn; the look on his face says that he just holds everything till his partner will finish the sentence. Furthermore the actor delays with a ready reaction, or prepared emotion. Frequently actors discuss with each other all reactions and responses to be happened in the scene. They even may agree how to reply in certain situations. Please, do not allow it. If you see this, find ways to eliminate it immediately and politely.

In our everyday life, we typically don’t prepare our responses and so they shouldn’t be planned or anticipated by your actors. While certainly emotional events are important elements of scenes, make sure that these reactions are unpredictable and not intentional. For the most part, they should be natural. Any anticipation is obvious and visible to the viewer and makes your film tacky.

A primary goal for the director in the film or theater is how to stir up real emotions and feelings. Different directors in their practice solve the problem of anticipation variously. The most real behavior is not planned, it’s a spontaneous one. This is difficult to achieve and sometimes the director will use unusual ways to get it. Woody Allen is known for doing this at times. An actor is not given lines from the script to say in response to his partner, he is just asked to react (without any lines in his head)…, and it works. Because an actor does not know what his partner will say to him, the response is fresh and unpredictable. If it mastered properly, this technique can give you an incredible performance. In this case we will only have one take – but emotion is alive and natural. In practice, this method is complex but it works.

Andrew Tarkovsky (1932-1986) a great Russian filmmaker, writer, film editor, film theorist, theater and opera director also only gave pieces, not the entire script to the actors. He was successful and achieved great acclaim. When actor does not know what he will hear from the other actor, because he has only parts of the script it makes his reactions fresh and unplanned.

It is not necessary to use such extreme methods (Allen and Tarkovsky). You can get a great performance using the classic methods of directing. Ordinary objective, action verb or improvisation techniques can give you a powerful and intense scene, rather than a planned response.

10. Okay, I want you to be mad in the beginning of the scene, and as you open the door to the kitchen you see your girlfriend, you look happy…On the line ‘I like you…’ you should smile and go to her to give her a warm hug.

As I said in a previous chapter, professional actors would not even understand what the director wants at all if they were directed with the above example. It is very difficult to create a flow of emotions truthfully thinking about every expressions requested from the director.

Judith Weston, in her book Directing Actors, calls this kind of planned response an “emotional map”, and it is a typical Result-Oriented direction. One more example of such approach: “the character comes through the door, turns his head and his face shows that he is tearing, and then later, crying loudly. Then, when he goes into the kitchen, approaches his wife and becomes aggressive”. This is an emotional mapping.

This erroneous type of directing happens if the director has in his mind a set of predefined gestures, or emotions that are copied from well-known films, with John Travolta, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, etc. Okay, it is good to know what kind of scene you are going for, but don’t carry through with this. A way better to have a plan of your movie which includes the various “battletested” methods of directing actors: objectives, action verbs, images, given circumstances, rather than emotions. Remember you can’t plan responses, all of them must be spontaneous. If you demand them from the actor, the actor will put his focus there, and the performance will not be real, not believable. In other words, it is better to create the conditions that bring forth natural emotions. Most well-known acting and directing teachers around the world today teach that emotional mapping doesn’t work and it is not playable.

Sometimes the emotional map is already incorporated in the script. The director’s first step in working with a script is to delete any emotional words from that script: no adjectives, no adverbs and no generalizations. It’s often recommended that the director not meet with the screenwriter, as this will help keep from the director free of any emotional descriptions of scenes and characters. A movie is best started from scratch because you, the director, and your actors are independent creators of the film. Judith Weston said that the script is only a blueprint of the movie and it is the director’s job to bring it to life.

11. This is exactly how I see the character…

If director says that, he is giving a Result-Oriented Direction. If the actor lives on stage and act like a real person, he cannot and should not, copy a behavior. It will show through as fake and forced. The experienced actor, in every take, will perform differently. There will be different thoughts, different emotions, different reactions and feelings. His behavior is, to some extent, unpredictable and spontaneous. And as the director, if you give direction to copy a behavior, you will have one unsuccessful take after another. It’s not uncommon for amateur actors to make it very similar from take to take; most students’ movies show that. On the contrary, professional actors behave differently in each take. Each performance in the theater will be different even if it will be done the same day. That is the “moment by moment” principle in acting. Acting in the moment, believing in the given circumstances, an actor lives his own life in the imaginary world. He generates his own feelings each time. The actor is not living the life of the character; the actor is living his own life in the character.

12. Can you do it with more (or less) energy?

I have heard many times when directors tell to the actors “take it down”, “make it little down”, “make it little up”, etc.

We can tune up or down our car radio in order to have more or less “energy”. But in the world of generating of human feelings by the actors such approach leads to the fake emotions. Once again, this is too general, too vague. This type of direction is not workable for the same reasons as stated above: loosing connections between actors and creating a self-consciousness in the actors that leads to unbelievable acting/overacting. As soon as an actor tries to give “more energy” or “less energy”, he looks like an actor, nor a real person.

When you want more or less intense emotions use different action verb, objective, adjustment or other technique (See the Chapter 13 Tool # 3 Action Verbs or Actions).

Acting is not faking or pretending. As a director, it is important to understand how actors work. John Travolta, in an interview with the New Yorker in 1995 said “It doesn’t take much for a thought to be seen. I keep having to talk directors out of talking me into overacting. I say ‘You won’t see it on the set. You will see it in the editing room’.” It becomes clear that overacting is more visible in the editing room. In the editing room, you can see how it looks fake when an actor intentionally pushes emotions.

13. I like the way you played it today, save and keep it, don’t do anything else and play it just the same on the set.

This is one more way to kill a movie. Again, it is an example of Result Direction because of reasons stated above. An actor cannot/should not copy himself. If he does, it is as if he is imitating someone else and his emotions will show as false.

14. You are weak (strong)!

Sometimes the director will give the actor the direction of “you are weak!” Let’s try to imagine what then happens inside the actors head. He may think: “I am weak, because I am sick with a cold” or “I am weak because I lost blood” or “I am weak because I just ran marathon” or “I am weak because I am tired of dealing with my unhappy wife (husband).” I can continue this list of reasons for being weak to infinity. Do you get how ambiguous and uncertain this direction can be? This instruction does not work because it is too vague and general.

15. Play the character as aggressive but friendly!

For example, you are giving instructions like “the character is frightened, but determined…” or ”He’s strong, but vulnerable…” They include two directions. Often contradictory, all of them are an example of Result Directing. Following two opposite directions together is difficult and usually, you will never get even one of them. If you want to create a complicated character, it is better to use other methods (tools), and it must be started long before the shootings.

16. He is a dumb, he is a bad man, he is a freak, he is a self-destructive, he is a dictator…

All of these illustrations are judgments. A principle of the theater or film directing is that an actor should not think about the assessment of the movie or stage play by the audience. The audience will judge a film at will and the actor should not see the movie from the of the audience’s viewpoint. Audiences are unalike and everyone will see it differently, in their own way. If you try to impose on the actor judgments that you want the audience feel about a character, you are asking for a Result from the actors.

We cannot tell an actor that you are “good” or “bad”. According to Stanislavski ”If you play the protagonist, you try to find something bad in his character, and if you play the villain/antagonist, you try to find the good features inside your character”. As it is in real life, who can say to himself that I am “bad”, or I am “good”? In the art of directing, only the audience can make the judgments, thinking the character is “good” or “bad”. The actor should avoid any assessments about his character. That is why descriptive adjectives or adverbs are not an effective tool of a director.

17. The character has to be on the edge of hostility!

In this case, the director is trying to control the level of the actor’s psychological state. For example, you say to the actress “be sexy” andshe begins to think, “I have been already playing being sexy”. With this, we have two possible outcomes: either the actress thinks “am I sexy enough for the role?…because the director doesn’t see me as sexy” or, “what’s up with the director in that he thinks I’m not sexy?” Adverbs, adjectives, judgments, generalizations are never an effective direction.

According to the prominent Russian director, G.A. Tovstonogov, the best direction for the actors is “action” or “doing”. (see the chapter Tools of a Director) Action and doing create a specific goal for the actor. Actors then have an objective for each scene. The objective can also be changed during the scene to make the film or theater performance more dynamic. For example John White, the protagonist, wants to convince her to sign the contract. Then, he wants to seduce someone else. These directions are not Result-Oriented Directing, because the director does not call for a specific emotion. Directors will use methods that allow the actors to act in a real life-like manner through following their objectives, and allowing the space for the connections between actors.

18. The walking style must be that of a police officer, a soldier, ninja, lawyer, etc.

When the director tries to suggest a body movement and/or style of walking, it is called an Actor’s Stamp. The actor’s stamp is weak and a slightly built character using only a few external characteristics of certain kind of people. When the actor creates a character and applies clichés of behavior, the character looks weak. Developing a character takes time. When the actor applies stereotypes, a meager character is developed, acting becomes a low-grade movie performance.

19. Look at him/her with aggression!

When the director tries to control facial expressions, again, this is asking for a specific Result, also known as “old cliché” directing. Like the Actor’s Stamp, enforcing actor’s reactions creates a weak looking character. Generally, the face expressions of a person must be sovereign and unpredictable; they are a natural result of inner feelings.

20. You are an Italian mafia guy, a Russian mobster, etc…

This is another example of the Actor’s Stamp. By predetermining his look, an actor loses his connection to his objective, he look like actor, and someone who is imitating somebody else. Acting is not imitation. We passed through this way of directing and acting 100 years ago, dropping the Art of Performance, and came into the era of the Art of Living. Creating such characters as one of Italian mafia or Russian mobster is much more complicated and it takes months to do properly. You cannot just ask actors play them right way. But by using the art of performance, actors can successfully play it. Sometimes pretending looks good for stand-up comedy or sitcom, but not for a serious movie. It is always looks phony when an actor tries to imitate a personality without deep development of the character.




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