Programs Tue 6.30.2015

Mastering the Mysteries of Directing Actors

An actor’s relationship with the director is a crucial ingredient to the magic on screen—one that’s as delicate as it is vital. That relationship can be fraught with misunderstanding and miscommunication. When Adrienne Weiss first started working with actors she didn’t actually know how she was getting good performances; she seemed to have a natural intuition for it. Over the years Weiss has created a tool kit for directors, a distillation of theory and practical experience. She founded a consulting firm, DirectingActors, and has a team of coaches who also teach her techniques. Weiss has consulted directors on films such as The Bad Intentions, May in the Summer, The Abolitionists and TV series such as 30 RockIn TreatmentDamages, and Grey’s Anatomy.  Next Wednesday, July 8 at 6:30 pm will be sharing some of that well-honed expertise at a Film Independent workshop: Director’s Toolkit 2015: The Essential Tools for Getting Great Performances. Here, she gives a preview of what’s in store.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you get involved with filmmaking?
I always loved working with actors and I went to Yale where there were a lot of opportunities to direct plays. When I graduated I came to New York and started a theatre company. Through talking to the actors in the company, I started to realize that a lot of film directors were not working with their actors in the most skillful way. A lot of directors either wouldn’t talk to them at all because they were just focusing on the visuals or they would talk in ways that weren’t helpful. I started to be aware that there was a gap. Then I started to crew on short films and I saw with my own eyes the enormous amount of time, energy and resources that went into gathering everything that it takes to make a film. But then, at the critical moment, the director and actor just did not understand each other. I literally had a flash one morning and thought, maybe I can teach this!

What are some common challenges and mistakes director’s face when working with actors?
One of the traps directors can fall into is that they know what they want but they only describe explicit emotions to the actor. For instance they’ll say: “you are really upset here or you are really happy.” The problem with that is that it’s generic. It puts the actor in a very inauthentic position because they are working from the outside. The more effective way to do it is giving them specific facts that would lead them to feeling that emotion. Instead of saying: “you are really upset,” you could say “you just found out that your best friend stole your boyfriend and they ran off to Hawaii together.” It’s so much more powerful because it gives the actor roots. In a tree, you can’t actually see the roots but that’s where a tree takes its nourishment from. So if you are really specific about the roots of a character that’s where they can draw from, it induces the emotion of a scene. 

Should directors take acting classes?
I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but to be honest, I never did a lot of that. I think there is some value to getting a taste of what acting is like, primarily because as soon as you are in the position of being an actor you viscerally realize how vulnerable it is to be in front of the camera therefore you acquire a bigger sensitivity when working with them. It also helps to have access to your emotions as a director. One of the mistakes that directors fall into is that they speak about what they want in a scene in a very flat way. If you want emotion out of the actor, you should speak to them in an emotional manner because it catalyzes them express themselves with emotion.

Do you remember any specific moment where you saw a clear change in a actor due to direction?
I was teaching at NYU grad school and a director presented a scene and it wasn’t really working. I went to talk to the actor and then suddenly the scene worked. Afterwards the director came up to me and said: “I don’t really understand, I said the same thing you did to the actor. What made the difference?” So we went to the actor and she thought about it for a second and said: “it was the way she said it.”

How important is prep and rehearsals?
Every single project is different in terms of what type of rehearsal you would want and how much time you need. But in general you need some type of experience to make the actors become really familiar and comfortable with each other and within the dynamics of the relationships. This doesn’t have to be done with the actual scripted scene. For instance if you had a brother and sister in a film, you could do a lot of improvs with them having different experiences as brother and sister. That’s another way to create “roots.” Or if you have a character who’s never met anyone before, then you might want to keep them isolated and just work with them on the backstory of their character and then they just meet fresh the people for real.

Any tips for low budget filmmakers working with amateur actors?
All the same things that work or don’t work with actors apply to non-actors. I think the critical thing is in the casting process, making sure that the person can connect emotionally and be active in pursuing what they want in a scene. I am a big fan of Bob Fosse and a couple of years ago I was consulting on a film that Alan Heim, the editor from All That Jazz was editing. I got to spend some time with him and I was asking him how Bob Fosse worked with actors. Alan told me that in All That Jazz there’s a subplot where the main character is in an editing room with his editor. And it turns out that Bob had cast his real editor to play the part. And they shot the scene and when they were looking at it in the real editing room, the acting was terrible. Bob was getting very agitated and upset watching the footage. Finally Alan said “Bob, it’s ok, I’m not an actor.” And Bob said: “No, but you are a human being. I should be able to get a performance out of a human being.”
No matter what problem you have with an actor, you can count on the fact that they are a human being. So if you can connect to that person and get them to connect to their humanity you can get a really beautiful moment from that scene.

What are some of the resources you offer as an advisor?
Sometimes people hire me to help them prep for specific difficult scenes or a particular character relation. But sometimes  I’ve come on board for the whole project where I’ve done consulting and casting. I also help with the screenplay, making the screenplay become more compelling for actors. A lot of the same tools for making a scene work for actors have the same application to writing. Sometimes a scene lacks clear conflict, stakes or escalation. So it can become very difficult to act that scene well. A lot of the time I’ll work with the director to re-write the script and make it more emotionally accessible. I’ll also help with prep. Coming up with compelling and applicable backstories; what led this person to the place they are. Some project I’ve even been consulting in the editing room. It changes depending on each project.

I also regularly teach “Directing Actors” workshops for directors in LA, NY and London. You can get details about the workshops at www.directingactors.com, as well as through my Twitter and Facebook.

Lorena Alvarado / Film Independent Blogger