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Learning a New Language

If you've ever found yourself befuddled trying to take direction on the set, you'll be happy to know that some directors—not satisfied with what they've learned in film school (or on the job) about working with actors—are taking independent acting classes, either as observers or as participants. Others hire coaches. These conscientious directors arrive with an armload of questions: "How do I get this actor to not do the things he always does?" "How do I verbalize what I want so they understand?" "What do I do in a rehearsal?" "How do I make the actors relax and bond?" They leave with a newfound understanding of how to get the performance they want from their actors, while maintaining a good relationship.

For example, when Terry Zwigoff wanted to know more about acting before shooting Ghost World, Francis Ford Coppola recommended San Francisco teacher Jean Shelton; Coppola has often sat in on Shelton's classes in the past. Zwigoff ended up staying in her class for three years and taking other classes, as well. "I don't know how I could have [made Ghost World] without this," he recently told Back Stage West reporter Jamie Painter Young. "Just to get the actors to relax, listen to each other, and actually affect each other, there are a number of techniques you have to learn, and they don't all work on every actor."

In fact, recently so many film directors have been auditing Shelton's classes that she started hands-on classes just for them. In four sessions, she teaches them the basics: listening, improv, objectives, beats, personalization, Stanislavski's "magic if." Then they direct the school's advanced actors in scenes. Afterward, she and the actors critique the directors, and the directors discuss their problems.

"I tend to be easier on them than on the actors," said Shelton, who's known as a no-nonsense teacher. "I think they're more fearful." She noted two directors' quirks that can be problematic: They tend to be very theoretical, and they work the actors to death as they try to make up their minds about what they want, without having a true overview of the scene. Chris Cooper (the military-minded next-door neighbor in American Beauty) once told a director, "Tell me what you want and I'll do it, but it needs to be direct and simple." Shelton helps directors find the meat in a scene, and be direct and simple with the actors.

She also helps directors recognize good acting. "A lot of times they cast for personality or type, but they don't know enough about acting to know if a person's directable," said Shelton. And she teaches them to have respect for the actor, "which means not just being nice and going out for drinks, but being able to speak in craftsman's terms. And how to not overwork actors so they get stale and dry and don't have any fresh impulses." She notes that sometimes directors seem to think an actor is a machine: "Try this, try that, try the other."

Rejecting Results

Judith Weston, a Los Angeles teacher who holds three-day acting workshops just for directors, observed that sometimes directors think they've communicated with the actors but find out they haven't. In her book Directing Actors, she wrote, "The biggest complaint I hear from actors is that directors don't know what they want. Most directors think they have a very clear picture… of exactly how they want the movie to look and sound." That, of course, is part of the problem: Directors have a result in mind—or think they do, anyway—but actors approach their work as a process.

Directors, Weston told me, tend to talk too much: "[They] over-explain the psychology of the character until it doesn't sound like a real human being anymore. They start out thinking they'll be clear, and the actor doesn't respond to it at all. Then they have no option but to say over and over again, 'She's angry but she still loves him,' while the actor looks at them blankly."

"Is that because they don't know the actor's language?" I asked.

"They think they don't know the language," said Weston, "but the problem is actually that they haven't understood who the characters are as people. They have this idea of the result—how this line should be spoken, what the expression on the actor's face should be. But they don't know what would stimulate the character's situation, or needs. Actors don't care about jargon. They just want something that feels real."

So Weston teaches the directors about subtext and choices, through work on monologues, scenes, improv, and various exercises. She also teaches them what listening is, using an abbreviated version of Sandy Meisner's repetition exercises. To understand one of Stella Adler's main tenets—that acting is about doing, not emoting—they do a version of the ABC exercise (playing a variety of specific actions while saying "ABC" instead of memorized dialogue). They also work on sense memory and personal substitution exercises à la Strasberg.

I asked Weston what the hardest things are for directors to learn. "Creating a subtext, making a choice, and having the words flow out of that instead of having a [preconceived] idea of how the lines should be said," she replied.

And what are the most important things they need to learn? "Listening," she said. "They get this idea that they have to control everything, be stronger and smarter than everybody on the set. Then they lose their ability to see and hear. I think it's fear that makes them do that—they're afraid they'll let everybody down by not being in control. They need to really listen and understand what the actor is saying. The actor might say one thing and mean something completely different, just like in real life, except that actors have more subjective personalities and are more sensitive to subtext. An actor will say something, and the director thinks, I have to fix that, when in reality they'd be better off asking more questions about the problem."

Horse Whisperers

Los Angeles teachers D.W. Brown and Joanne Baron coach directors and teach acting classes that directors often attend. Actors tell Brown and Baron that directors are general and result-oriented, giving orders like "Get angry." Said Brown, "Someone's talent is like a horse, a bit wild. Directors know very little about that horse that the actor is dealing with."

Baron added, "Many directors are visual and they can't communicate what they need. Or they're result-oriented. The actor will say, 'You just told me to cry, but what are you getting at?'"

Brown and Baron teach directors to tell the actor exactly what they're after. But, said Brown, "This can be difficult, because the director may not really know. They have a vague idea. They can't put it into a simple verb, or an objective."

"More times than not they know only what they don't want," noted Baron.

"I've heard actors complain that directors get defensive and angry when they try to collaborate with them," said Brown. Baron, an actor, agreed; at a recent audition, when she asked a director, "What should I do here?" he snapped, "Do whatever you want!"

She noted that when Sam Raimi came to them for coaching (when directing The Gift), he wanted to understand not only how to communicate with actors but also about set comportment. To Baron, directing is a psychological as well as an artistic job. She and Brown explained to Raimi that actors often need encouragement, a helping hand. "Directors may not understand how delicate the actor's psyche is," said Baron. "If directors get barking-orderish or ignore them, they're capable of becoming insecure and bombing out." Added Brown, "The important thing is for a director to be not a traffic cop but part of the process."

From his own directing experience, Brown is sympathetic with the director's dilemma: "It's difficult in the hothouse pressurized environment [of a shoot] to move it along, to be relaxed and specific and tell people what you want, especially with star personalities. You start talking to a star and you feel like you're telling them they don't know what they're doing."

Baron encourages directors to find a "marvelous mentor or [workshop] environment." But if you can't find someone like director Sydney Pollack (who studied acting with Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and then became his assistant) to apprentice with, she said, you'll have to learn the hard way, by trial and error, unless you take a class that can offer more detailed work than what you're likely to get in a film-school acting class.

While more and more directors, one hopes, are following the example of such folks as Coppola, Zwigoff, Raimi, Pollack, and Mark Rydell (who also studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, as well as at Juilliard and the Actor's Studio), actors must be self-reliant on the set and do their best to direct themselves. BSW

Judith Weston Acting Studio: (310) 392-2444; Weston will also teach a class for directors at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, Sept. 15-17.

Joanne Baron and D.W. Brown Studio: (310) 451-3311.

Jean Shelton Actors Lab in San Francisco: (415) 433-1226; L.A. lab: (310) 312-5325.

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