On Directing Actors: You Don't Have to be a Jerk

This past weekend my wife was watching a TLC reality show called The Model Life, and I ended up watching it with her. It's another competition in the America's Next Top Model vein, where runway beauties vie for their big break. You'd think a show like this would be as compelling as watching grass grow, but it was better than expected. Unlike Top Model, these girls were from all over the globe and it was pretty fascinating to see what they had to endure, and what I learned as a filmmaker.

The scene in question was a bikini shoot with the girls modeling in front of a white background, which totally isolated them in the picture. No background to blend into or complement them, they were left literally bare to the camera, with only their talent to rescue them. You really felt how exposed they were, but the real terror came in the form of the woman directing the shoot.

Just behind the photographer was an older woman in charge. She was pretty merciless with her comments, and when she wasn't getting what she wanted, she let them know, sending one running to the bathroom in tears. This must be why even these gorgeous women have esteem issues. When someone in an authority position criticizes them (and not constructively), they crack. Being practically naked makes them even more vulnerable, and more sensitive to attack.

Watching that, I thought about the relationship of trust between actor and director. You are asking your talent to go to a fictitious place in their mind, in unfamiliar surroundings and in front of total strangers who could be invading what is normally a personal space. Not to mention what the alien-like camera must feel like watching their every move. In other words, this isn't a normal environment, and can be extremely uncomfortable.

When all goes well, it's easy to maintain order. When nothing goes right (and there are always problems on a shoot) tempers will flare, and you feel like you're going crazy. So what happens when on top of all this your talent doesn't deliver the performance you need? When everything is finally working, your actor screws up or is uninspired. Now what?

I'm a director who likes to work with actors. I want them to do well. Their performance is a reflection on me and my movie. If they are not doing what I want, I have three options. I can (a) freak out and demand they give me what I'm "asking" for. (b) Do nothing and hope they improve with subsequent takes. And finally (c), pull them aside and do a one-on-one to help them get to where they need to be.

In my humble experience, freaking out is never an option, especially if you want to keep making movies for little or no money. Who would want to go through that for mere meals and copy? Doing nothing will just make you angrier and imply to the talent that what they are doing is fine--another bad idea. Only you can figure out how to help your actors in a given situation, but communicating with them (away from a potentially embarrassing scenario) is the only way to do that.

Remember, acting is a hard job. Show your talent respect (hey, you picked them for the role), and they will respond. Work productively with them and they will work productively with you. I realize that all directors are control freaks. They have to be. But you don't have to be a jerk about it. And if anyone runs crying from your set, you'd better be the first one to follow them.