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Directing Solitary Actors


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#1 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 12:19 AM

Hey everybody. I'm new to these amazing boards, and I'm really anxious to get some more dialogue going in the "directors corner".

In my upcoming feature, I have a few crucial scenes involving actors by themselves. Does anybody have any tips for giving the actor solid direction, even though he doesn't have somebody to play off? Action Verbs are more difficult to use because the action is all internalized.

A specific example from the script: A man in his late twenties knows that he is responsible for the shooting of two people. He speeds away from the scene, happy about what he did, but he slowly begins to regret it, and ends up in tears. In the next scene, we find out that he made the right choice, turned around, and went back to help the kids he hurt.

Obviously, I'm trying to avoid saying things like "start happy, then be sad".

Any ideas on directing this transition?
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#2 Helene Adler

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:05 AM

Hi

In the sequence that you described I would be more concerned with how I framed and lit the shot. I would use simple action words such as "Pensive" but I would add a decisive direction in which the character would look for it to create the particular feel that I would want to create.
Before I'd do any of this I'd make sure that the actor understood the scene fully and I would show them how I would frame it in a proper storyboard. If that didn't work I would get film examples with a similar feel.
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#3 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 03:18 AM

Does anybody have any tips for giving the actor solid direction, even though he doesn't have somebody to play off? Action Verbs are more difficult to use because the action is all internalized.

I would say that first you need to put more effort into visualizing what you want from your actors, specifically, how you want them to behave, what actions they need to perform, and what beats or moments you need from them to make the story work on screen. Make a list of those beats, where one moment logically leads to the next one until you have a chain of moments starting at the beginning of the scene and ending where you want it to. If the actors are well-trained, then they've probably already done this with their scripts. Which is great, but it's what you need for the scene that matters in the end.

Once you can clearly visualize what you want from them, then you can let them rehearse. Give them the background info, a rough version of the set, and some props to work with. Watch them as they go through their beats and if you see a transition that you don't like, stop them right there and suggest an alternate beat. "Can you play this as if...?" Give the actors playable actions, physical things to do (ie. walk to the fridge and open the door, start cooking an egg on the stove, etc). How they then perform those actions will indicate their emotional state. Even if the beats are emotional and thus internal (and aren't they always, anyway?), they still need to be manifested physically so that the audience can see them - this is the actor's job, to translate emotions into physical actions. To use the previous example, if your character is distracted and distraught, he might burn the eggs and throw the pan into the sink, cursing. That says it all, and you didn't need to tell the actor: "be distraught." The audience got it.

Once you go through the whole scene and the actor has each moment locked down, then do a final rehearsal all the way through to commit the scene to their memory. This way, the actor has a backbone for his performance that he can riff off of once you start shooting, and you have all the moments that you need for the scene to work. At least, that's how I like to do it, but everyone's got their own method.

Edited by Satsuki Murashige, 26 May 2008 - 03:21 AM.

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#4 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 03:52 AM

Satsuki,

So what you're saying is, instead of another actor, they can use objects or their environment to play off of... something I knew, but never applied to this situation.

Maybe in the car example, his emotions could be manifested through his use of the steering-wheel, the radio, or his interaction with other cars?

Anyway, good advice, thanks for getting me thinking...
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#5 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:01 AM

In my upcoming feature, I have a few crucial scenes involving actors by themselves. Does anybody have any tips for giving the actor solid direction, even though he doesn't have somebody to play off? Action Verbs are more difficult to use because the action is all internalized.


We all know that Actors are averse to being told how to feel in scenes...this probably stems from their artsy nature and their desire to have "artistic freedom" and not be told what to do which is why they are actors in the first place...otherwise they might be bank tellers or food servers. However, I once read a humorous book on filmmaking that basically said "don't tell actors what to do but keep telling them it didn't feel right for you until they happen to do it the way you intended in the first place." I have tried this and by golly it works! The caveat is to do this in rehearsal as opposed to during shooting so you don't waste takes and film.

Also, consider your finished product for this scene instead of just the cinematography. One technique I have observed in movies that struck me emotionally is that they ALL had good music. The scene you described could be very powerful if you have the right music track for it. You would be surprised at how much of a factor music can play in movies if you utilize it correctly. (Maybe I'm saying this because I was a musician before I was ever a filmmaker.)
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#6 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:05 AM

So what you're saying is, instead of another actor, they can use objects or their environment to play off of... something I knew, but never applied to this situation.

Right. Another way of saying it is that the actor makes their interior state visible to the audience through behavior, so think of behaviors that would indicate their emotional state. And make them BIG and unusual! Don't make "cheap choices", as my old acting teacher used to say; avoid cliches. And the stronger and more specific the behavior, the more interesting it will seem to the audience. What's more interesting to watch, "Jake twiddles the radio dial and gives up on finding something interesting", OR "Jake punches the radio and breaks his hand, screams, and stamps on the brakes, spinning the car out into the busy intersection"? ;)
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#7 Jim Keller

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Posted 27 May 2008 - 07:15 PM

I'm of the opinion that the very best way to direct an actor is not the one you find in the textbooks, and it's simply this: Share your analysis of the scene.

You see, every actor will use a different technique. Learning to act is like going to the eye doctor. The eye doctor puts a lens in front of your eyes and says, "Is that better or worse?" An actor will try a method acting class and if it makes his acting better, he will go that route. If it makes it worse, he may find a Chekhov class, or a Meisner class, etc. And to make matters worse, I've never met a professional actor who uses one and only one technique. Most study them all, taking a little of this and a little of that, depending on what works for them. Unless you wanted to make a detailed study of all of them, and then ask the actor what unique combination of all the above he uses, you're simply not going to be able to talk to an actor in "his language."

Remember that most of the "how to direct actors" textbooks out there are written by frustrated actors, who seem to think it's the director's job to know how to act. It isn't. Your job is to unify the work of all the artists working on the project, and you can correctly expect them all to know how to do their job. "Action verbs" will work great for someone with method training, but will make an English technical actor roll his eyes at you. Describing what you need the actor to do physically may work great for the technical actor, but the method actor will stare blankly, with no idea how to make his body do that.

But, if you can sit down and say, "Here's my interpretation of the scene, and these are the beats we need to hit," any competent, professional actor should be able to then translate that into his or her own personal technique.

Saying "I need you sad" doesn't work because it's devoid of the analysis. Sad how? Sad why? Doesn't matter the technique, the actor is still shooting in the dark. But if you say "I think his transition from happy to sad is in this part of the scene, and it's probably linked to his speech on page 23, where the author makes the point about personal responsibility and establishes that it's an issue he's always struggled with" you've started a discussion with the actor in very concrete, script-based language that you can both agree on.

He may be a technical actor who will say, "So, you're thinking a subtle change in facial expression?" or he may be a psychological actor who'll say "So, he starts remembering his childhood?" -- then you know more about what sort of actor he is and can decide how to answer him. Either way you're now engaging him in a way that makes him feel like you're speaking his language, even though you're instead using the universal language of script analysis.
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#8 Robert Sawin

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Posted 22 September 2008 - 01:56 AM

Hey everybody. I'm new to these amazing boards, and I'm really anxious to get some more dialogue going in the "directors corner".

In my upcoming feature, I have a few crucial scenes involving actors by themselves. Does anybody have any tips for giving the actor solid direction, even though he doesn't have somebody to play off? Action Verbs are more difficult to use because the action is all internalized.

A specific example from the script: A man in his late twenties knows that he is responsible for the shooting of two people. He speeds away from the scene, happy about what he did, but he slowly begins to regret it, and ends up in tears. In the next scene, we find out that he made the right choice, turned around, and went back to help the kids he hurt.

Obviously, I'm trying to avoid saying things like "start happy, then be sad".

Any ideas on directing this transition?


is a good idea to figure out how particular actor actress likes to work. I would observe them first forget about having a preconceived idea as to how he would like to direct them. That's what casting is for. The reality is you need to mold the scene to them. Let them act you just help them and guide them. be there audience and never use the word "No." don't be afraid to act out the scene yourself find the boundaries you think you might come across like live-action movement seems natural. Make sure that they have an idea of what a character's back story entails let them interpret their character's emotions. This will make your job as director incredibly more simple.

trip...
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#9 Alex Ellerman

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Posted 22 September 2008 - 07:03 AM

how much directing of a solitary actor do you really need to do? discretion is the better part of valor. I think someone knows how to feel sad, for instance. I would read Eisenstein on montages and i would resist the temptation to over-direct.
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#10 Paul Bruening

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Posted 22 September 2008 - 01:36 PM

Hey Jake,

I enjoyed your contributions on the Fargo thread. You're getting a variety of perspectives so far. I'm not sure how well these will amalgamate into a unified directorial style. Directing is subject to style. You can't use stylistic elements that aren't already in your personal character. What are YOUR strengths in terms of communicating delicate emotions to another person in a kind-of intimate fashion. Directing with actors is a little bit like seduction. A little bit like confession. A little bit like destruction. But, all of that for the sake of creation.

No matter what methods you use, you will have to keep the viewer in mind. Remember them? The audience? Kinda' funky having to do something that will get its significant effect months or years later and you won't even be there to see them react. Does your viewer have the ability to understand what you want to communicate? If they do, you only have to indicate what you want them feel. They'll take your cue and have that feeling. There's no particular need to let the actors ham the feelings to death. The movie can provide the cues for the feelings. The audience can provide the actual substance of feeling. For the actors, less is more.

A useful place to start is with the script. Is it even possible to communicate dependably in movie terms what the writer has on the page. A script can be an explanatory device. A movie must be an expository device. You can't always expose in moving pictures what can all too easily be explained in a written script. If the scene is necessary but unworkable, rewrite it. In terms of essential ranking the script isn't God; the director is.

Just rambling. Probably, not helping.
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#11 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 23 September 2008 - 03:34 AM

Don't "direct" unless you have too. Actors usually tear up the scenery with monologues so you may end up using the word "less" a lot because they often like to emote when they get the chance so your direction might be as simple as pull it inside or try fighting against the emotion, but if you have problems and they're just not giving you what you need, let them improvise then pull them back to the text once they've got something going AND be open to what they're doing with the character after all, it's their character, don't just decide there is only one way of doing the speech and that's it. Your actors, if they're good actors, should know their characters inside and out and have DEFINITE ideas about what they want to do with their lines so you should try and listen to what they have to say.

But sometimes a character will get stale and mechanical after they've rehearse it and lived with it for a time, or have done several takes back to back so you may have to shake things up a bit (Of course SOME actors don't even get started until the 6th take so you also need to know how your actor works). If you want to throw them off so they have to be real, try asking them to do it a different way than the way they've planned and rehearsed it.

The main thing with actors and monologues is to give them the freedom and confidence to let them forget about themselves and believe what they're doing, this is of course if you want them comfortable. Some actors need to be pushed off balance for some scenes so in that case you do what you gotta do to get the scene. There is no one way and what will work for one actor at any given moment may not work in the next or for another actor.

One thing you will have to be aware of is that every time you change angles, you're gonna throw your actor off because you'll have to stop him in the middle of what he's doing and make them wait while you move the camera and possibly re-light all the while trying to stay in character so I would HIGHLY recommend you let them do the whole thing in a master without ANY interruption just to give them a chance to get through it once, then shoot your coverage even if you're not going to use a lot of the master. It will help give your actors reference points to go back to while you're shooting coverage and your monologue should maintain a more even flow once edited.

The BIGGEST problem with in-experienced directors is the feel they MUST DIRECT, rather than trusting the people they hire and letting them do their job. Worry more about where you're gonna place that camera and how you're gonna cut the scene together than IF your actors are gonna screw up.....because they will BUT the great thing about film is they can do it again and you can take the good part of the first take and the good part of the third take and the last little bit of the sixth take, making sure it's all lit and framed well, add a little music and whola, suddenly this guy looks like a Olivier. Cast well, create a good working environment and trust your people and they won't let you down. B)
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#12 Joe Giambrone

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Posted 13 October 2008 - 05:13 PM

"A man in his late twenties knows..."

That's not a screenplay.

That's your first problem.

How does he "know", or rather more importantly, how does the audience/reader "know?"

Square one: learn how to write for the screen.

There are a million ways he can "know" something, and a million variations on what he "knows" vs. what the audience "knows." You need to commit it to paper.
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#13 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 13 October 2008 - 06:26 PM

? Are you kidding? That's a summary of the scene... not the screenplay. We know what he knows, because we just saw him shoot two teenagers in the chest. Now we're to the scene where he begins to regret his decision, and we get to watch him decide if he should go back to help them.

It has been "committed to paper" for a year and a half now my friend.

My question was regarding how to direct an actor making these choices without another actor to play off of. If you have a suggestion for me, wonderful. If not, quit posting.

Square one: show some respect.
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#14 Adam Orton

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Posted 21 October 2008 - 03:59 PM

My question was regarding how to direct an actor making these choices without another actor to play off of.


The two most important tools for directing an actor are: Action verbs and METAPHORS.

For a single character scene, use a metaphor. I think some people call them "as-if's".

And I know exactly what you're going through. I even asked a fellow actor for some help. I shot a short film a few month ago where an old man returns to the memory of a lost loved one. This is revealed by his character literally stepping foot on the lawn of the home he used to live in when his girlfriend died. Stepping foot onto the lawn was supposed to be strange and unnerving for his character, so I gave him a metaphor: "As if you're a scrawny young boy being called off the bench to fill in for the quarterback."

I was amazed at how well the actor instantly understood what I was getting at. If I had said, "Be nervous", it wouldn't have provided as good of a response. In fact, I avoided talking about the scene's "mood" or "feeling" at all just to keep his mind clear.

Remember, always give actors something tangible and real to work off of.

Edited by Adam Orton, 21 October 2008 - 04:00 PM.

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