Directors are idiots. And I should know, I’m one of them. We’re idiots because, with few exceptions—and when it comes to actors—we have no idea what we’re doing. Actors reading this will nod, but they’re going to need strategies to make sure their performances look cinematic even in the hands of the most well-intentioned yet misguided directors.
Here are three directors to avoid if you can, and three ways to work with them if you can’t.
The explainer. This director doesn’t give directions. This director gives dissertations. He or she explains everything about the story, the character, the relationships, the backstory, and never gives a direction. This director knows exactly what he or she wants and no idea how to get it. The problem is this director doesn’t give the scene a spine, and the spine holds the scene together—makes it cinematic.
How to work with this director: Listen for the main thing the director says drives your character. Imagine what it would sound like in an action scene. When you play your dialogue, play it as the action scene version. You’ll look dynamic, the scene will have a spine, and the director will have at least one strong option to take into editing, which makes you look great.
The so-called collaborator. This director has no idea what he or she wants. He or she is nice, listens, gives you freedom to do what you want and is dangerous. It’s like the captain of a ship leaving the sailing of his or her vessel up to the ship. And the story is a sea of treacherous waters. You will love working with this director and hate what ends up on screen.
How to work with this director: Don’t take the bait. Instead, ask your director for three qualities that describe your character. Capture one quality with your eyes, another with your voice, and the third with your body. Once the director sees the foundational character you’ve created, he or she will have plenty of ideas what to do with it.
The one-word wonder. This director will come at you with inspiring directions like, “Can you be happier?” or “Can you be sadder?” or “More intense!” And I”m sure all actors out there know this old favorite: “Can you be bigger?”
How to work with this director: Think of a situation we would all recognize that captures the essence of the one-word direction, and play the scene as if it was that situation. If the director says, “more intense,” play the scene like you’re trying to rescue someone from a burning building. If the director says, “Can you be more in love with him?” play the scene as if you’re begging the love of your life to run away with you.
The good—and bad—news is that those directors will want to work with you over and over again.
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John Swanbeck directed the existential film comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. He is currently scripting a new comedy with the original writer of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” His stage productions have appeared in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. His highly acclaimed e-book for actors “John Swanbeck's: How to Steal the Scene & End Up Playing the Lead” is available now on Amazon and iTunes. His company BlueSwanFilms is producing the animated series “Newbie” and the live comedy show The BlueSwanFilms Traveling Comedy Show. John is also the creator and writer of the comic strip “The Daily Life of 'Pants’ ”. For John’s on-camera workshops email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow John on Twitter @CleverActorTips and visit BlueSwanFilms.Com.
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