Every actor craves a dexterous director—someone to trust with creating a safe creative space, to guide a performance, to “speak actor,” and to build something worthy in the editing room. What follows is a brief examination of the masters who developed their own cinematic languages, given us iconic visual compositions, and most importantly, developed great if not long-lasting relationships with their casts—plus how they did it. Where some began as actors and transitioned behind the scenes, others juggled both roles.
Here we examine the links between them, their personal approaches to the actor, and their major contributions to cinema. Learn about Wes Anderson’s on-set vibe, Ava DuVernay’s knack for cultivating intimacy, Jean-Luc Godard’s guerilla approach to shooting, and maybe which type of direction you respond to and why.
For historical and periodic context, as well as to better be able to make correlations between some revered directors and their predecessors, we’ve listed them in chronological order, based on the year they released their first feature film. The list is a small smattering of some of those who paved the road for those who came after.
Click below to jump to any director’s section!
- Alfred Hitchcock (1925–1976)
- William Wyler (1926–1970)
- Orson Welles (1938–1984)
- Akira Kurosawa (1943–1998)
- Elia Kazan (1945–1976)
- Stanley Kubrick (1953–1999)
- Andrei Tarkovsky (1956–1986)
- Jean-Luc Godard (1960–present)
- Mike Nichols (1967–2007)
- David Lynch (1977–present)
- Spike Lee (1983–present)
- Quentin Tarantino (1992–present)
- Wes Anderson (1996–present)
- Ava DuVernay (2010–present)
“All actors are cattle,” Hitchcock once said. The statement would later prompt one of his stars, Carole Lombard, to set up a livestock corral on the set of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” populated by three young calves; each had the name of an actor on the film hanging around its neck.
Hitchcock’s relationship with performers was notoriously contentious, but at his core, Hitchcock loved actors who were as dedicated to their craft as he was. Hitchcock began his love affair with film when it was still silent, before the studio system and before actors were put on a money-making pedestal. In an interview with French director François Truffaut, he specifically addresses the quote that received so much backlash from the Hollywood community, and details the types of actors whose behavior “tarred others [in their profession] with the same brush.” He recalls experiences of having to rush his scenes in the theater to accommodate an actor’s leisurely lunch, or eavesdropping on two female actors lamenting their “filming” duties: “One would say to the other, ‘What are you doing now, dear?’ And the other would say, ‘Oh, I’m filming,’ ” he recounts. “And she would use a tone of voice as though she was saying, ‘Oh, oh, I’m slumming. Which brings us to the point of those people who come into our business...into our medium for money only.” Ultimately, it wasn’t actors he didn’t like, it was the ones in show business for reasons different than his own (namely fame and profit), whose egos could become a barrier on set. Maintaining complete control over his crafting a performance in the moment carried weight for Hitchcock—it ensured he had something to work with in the editing room.
His directorial style was straightforward. He often evoked real emotions from his actors, which matched the character’s to get the take he needed: “If he wanted you to be angry he would sometimes provoke you to a state of anger,” said Diane Baker (“Marnie,” 1964). “I remember one scene where I had to be strong and furious. He just stood there and wouldn’t look at me or wouldn’t talk to me before the take.... Later on, I realized it was all a tactic, but it added an extra element to the scene.”
When Method actor Montgomery Clift questioned whether his guilt-ridden Roman Catholic character would look up at a building while crossing the street, Hitchcock made very clear Clift’s opinion wasn’t taking the bigger picture into consideration. The look mattered to the build-up to a specific moment that fit into his larger directorial vision. It was this attention to detail and a storytelling method tailored precisely to celluloid tricks that have rendered Hitchcock a legend.
He’s a director for the obsessed; both his subjects and his fans are enamored with one element of his films or another, but the beauty of his artistry lies in the myriad ways his work can be read. During a speech at the American Film Institute in 1979, Truffaut summed up his love for the director this way: “In America, you respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We [the French] respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love.”
It may feel cliché to begin with his most lauded work, but the director’s undisputed masterpiece “Psycho” is as good a place as any to begin your experience with the thriller king. His use of the camera is simply superb. And once you’ve watched that, check out the documentary “78/52” for a full breakdown of the iconic murder shower scene’s complexity.
There’s little debating that Wyler knew how to draw a performance out of an actor for the camera to capture. The director hit his stride in the ’40s where his films garnered the most consecutive acting nominations at the Oscars in history. Beginning with 1941’s “The Little Foxes,” which landed three, the following year brought five nominations with two wins for “Mrs. Miniver,” followed by “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946, which landed two nominations with as many wins. Over the span of his career, he would go on to direct 14 performances to Oscar gold including ones for Audrey Hepburn (“Roman Holiday,” 1953), Charlton Heston (“Ben-Hur,” 1959), and Barbra Streisand, who tied with Katharine Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”) for “Funny Girl” in 1968.
Wyler was known to be a perfectionist, which earned him the nickname “40-Take-Wyler.” He was relentless in his pursuit of emotional depth and complexity and was skilled at taking from both the stage and literature for his films (“The Letter” starring Bette Davis; Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour”). “While it may not be possible to detect a signature style,” wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “Wyler was a master of resonant, complex composition.” Highlighting 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” made with “Citizen Kane” cinematographer Gregg Toland, Scott points to its final scene as proof: “[It contains] scenes whose depth and breadth seem to exceed the camera's capabilities. At the end, the entwined and diverging fates of all six principal characters—three returned servicemen and the women who love them—are resolved in a single shot that is as bustling with information and as delicately poised as a Renaissance painting.” On that note, make “Best Years” your first Wyler film.
Welles’ career burned bright and fast. He made his big debut in 1941 at age 25 with an unprecedented contract with RKO Pictures and died broke and alone in 1985. But Welles is credited with making arguably the best film of all time: “Citizen Kane.” While he went on to make 12 more films, “Kane” casts a long shadow on the rest of his work; cinematic innovations—including dragging film across a concrete floor to give news footage an aged look—a thinly veiled but powerful criticism of capitalism by way of real-life businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, plus a brilliant use of shadows and light, make the film’s mark on history indelible. For more on Welles’ approach to luminance, check out this video using various scenes from “Citizen Kane” as examples:
As a director, he never again achieved the complete creative control he did with “Kane,” which included “final cut” of the film—a privilege held only by Charlie Chaplin at the time—but directing, he said, was the only job he loved in show business. In the chair, he was insatiable and completely obsessed with the visual tricks only cinema could provide. With his cast, he rewrote dialogue on the spot as he did with “Touch of Evil,” and was known to hold rehearsals prior to filming (another rarity of the time). He believed in inhabiting a character completely. “Acting is like sculpture,” he said. “It’s what you take away from yourself to reveal the truth of what you’re doing that makes a performance. A performance when it deserves to be considered great or important is almost entirely made up of the actor himself.”
For an introduction to Welles without the pressure of an expectation like “this is the best film ever,” start with “Lady From Shanghai” (1947), a thrilling, pulpy noir starring his then-wife Rita Hayworth. With this film, in particular, one can see the seams connecting Welles to a then-oppressive Hollywood system. Many of the film’s notes on greed, fear of confinement, and heroism parallel Welles’ own experiences in Hollywood and marriage for that matter. The problems he depicted on film manifested in life, for example, when the studio decided in the 11th hour to chop and change of the film’s cut. Technically speaking, despite some haywire plot points, it contains some of Welles’ most cinematic shots (the hall of mirrors in particular), which have become so iconic, they’ve been dissected and parodied endlessly.
Kurosawa’s reach goes from Tarantino to Spike Lee. Plain and simple, the Japanese director is a virtuoso of the cinematic art and a pioneer of action films. His approach to camera movement, lighting, set design, and performance has given us some of the most influential films to date.
Beginning with his technical work, Kurosawa’s fluidity with camera movements meant he was nimble enough to go from a close-up to a full shot, to an over-the-shoulder shot in a single seamless take. Because he acted as his own editor, he’d take that camera or character movement and use it both to distract the audience from the cut and to keep the pace moving. On the whole, Kurosawa keeps the motion in a motion picture, turning to action (either from his actors or his set) before dialogue. Pick any scene from any of his films and notice his use of momentum, cuts, and scene changes. They almost always have sensual and tactile elements (rain, wind) for the audience to experience, ranging from the overt to the more subtle.
Check out this video on how his use of visual focus magnifies the emotional weight the protagonists of his 1954 film “Seven Samurai” must face. It also provides great reference points for more modern-day action films. (If you’d rather see the film first before getting into a technical analysis of it, save this breakdown for later. Spoilers abound.)
While renowned for his photographic dexterity, the director also relied heavily on his cast to capture his desired mood by requiring them to be fully present in his environment. “The worst thing an actor can do is show his awareness of the camera,” Kurosawa said in his book “Something Like an Autobiography.” “Often when an actor hears the call ‘Roll ’em’ he will tense up, alter his sight lines and present himself very unnaturally. This self-consciousness shows very clearly to the camera’s eye. I always say, ‘Just talk to the actor playing opposite. This isn’t like the stage, where you have to speak your lines to the audience. There’s no need to look at the camera.’ But when he knows where the camera is, the actor invariably, without knowing it, turns one-third to halfway in its direction. With multiple moving cameras, however, the actor has no time to figure out which one is shooting him.” (Spike Lee often utilizes this tactic.) He would often ask his actors to pick one gesture that represents their character and repeat it throughout the film.
Kurosawa’s international breakout came with “Rashôman” (1951), and he followed up the success with “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo” in 1961. Start with the latter to get a fun but shorter feel for his style; it’s a clear precursor to western cinema. If you’re a “Star Wars” fan, watching “Hidden Fortress” might be more appealing as the parallels between Kurosawa and George Lucas are palpable. Bring this introductory trio home with a viewing of “Seven Samurai.”
An early director of Method actors and co-founder of the Actors Studio, Kazan brought a realness out of his performers that was never before seen. “The Method is terribly human, profoundly human,” he said in an interview before his death in 2003. According to Kazan, Method focused on the dignity of human emotion rather than the “showing off,” as he described it, usually akin to the classical actor’s performance. While he found “artistic fulfillment” in the theater with Tony-winning Broadway shows such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and “All My Sons,” he found commercial and monetary success in film.
He can count Marlon Brando and James Dean among his on-screen protegés, and films like “East of Eden,” “On the Waterfront”—his artistic response to naming names for the Hollywood Blacklist during the McCarthy era—and the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” among his biggest successes. With the latter, for example, he led the assault on censorship of adult themes, which was common in pre–World War I Hollywood.
His methods with actors were questionable (he often pitted cast members against each other to capture “real emotion”), there’s no doubt that his directorial focus on emotion and pathos fostered career-defining performances from some of the best.
Here’s Christopher Plummer, who worked with Kazan in the theater, talking about a particularly tough scene between James Dean and Raymond Massey in “East of Eden”:
For an introduction to some of Kazan’s best work, watch Brando in “On the Waterfront.” (If you want some historical context before tucking in to watch, check out this article from the New York Times Magazine on the McCarthy era, Kazan, and this film in particular). For a still-brilliant but oft-overlooked example of Kazan’s talent with actors, watch Montgomery Clift give a beautifully raw performance in “Wild River.”
He’s been described as an obsessive, complicated, controlling, a perfectionist. According to Malcolm McDowell who starred in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), Kubrick often didn’t know what he wanted but he knew what he didn’t.
His approach to filmmaking was thus that anyone who wishes to understand just how dedicated he was to the process need only look at the care he took to make sure it came across the way he intended when it came to elements like lighting, costumes, and color grading. See below a letter he sent to all the projectionists screening 1975’s “Barry Lyndon.”
It’s well documented that Kubrick’s methods for pulling performances out of actors were questionable at best. Shelley Duvall, for example, set the world record for number of takes for one scene—127—where she fended off “The Shining” co-star Jack Nicholson with a bat. She was so exhausted by the end of the film’s yearlong production, she reportedly started losing her hair.
Kubrick always expected his cast to come prepared to deliver their choices. When McDowell asked for some direction on a specific scene, Kubrick’s response? “I’m not RADA,” referring to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. While the number of takes was out of the cast’s control evidently, their choices weren’t. If you were on Kubrick’s set, it was because he trusted you to do the job; it was his biggest requirement when casting. Ryan O’Neal, who appeared in “Barry Lyndon,” said he had a great vocabulary with actors when it came to communicating what he needed from them.
Kubrick is one of the few directors whose canon expresses a beautiful trajectory in the maturation of an auteur. Consider going through his work chronologically beginning with “Fear and Desire” (1953) and ending with “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). Some cinephiles would argue that Kubrick’s singular approach doesn’t crystalize until “Paths of Glory” (1957), but take your pick and be the judge.
Few have used cinema as a poetic tool, drawing on solitary images to express universal messages, quite like Tarkovsky. A Soviet, Cold War–era filmmaker, he took themes of time, loss, and mortality and turned them into ethereal and atmospheric experiences. Almost tactile in his approach to composition and imagery, his films are more experienced and felt than intellectually digested.
His directorial style encompasses a mixture of long takes and superb sound design that often accentuates or intensifies a meaningful sound for a character. While his take on the actor’s role in a film was slightly puritanical, his directorial vision was clear enough to lead his cast into a truly emotional experience belonging entirely to the character.
“[The actor’s] sole task,” according to Tarkovsky, “is to lead us nearer to life itself, i.e., to be genuine, truthful, and natural. Nothing more, and nothing less.” The director took the spirit of living in the moment to the literal sense of the word, often keeping a script’s final scenes from his actors to capture the uncertainty of life itself in their performances. A purist to his core, Tarkovsky believed professional actors to be ones willing to trust his vision without meddling in it or trying to build a final picture of the film.
For a pure Tarkovskian introduction to cinema, watch 1979’s “Stalker,” one of his 10 films. The film makes overt references to the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing plants, the barren towns that surrounded them, and the often disfigured children who lived on their outskirts—a dark and true introduction. See below for a quick preview:
Jean-Luc Godard (1960–present)
A film critic turned cinematic pioneer of the French New Wave of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Godard is often referred to by self-professed cinema nerds, but rarely with the widespread praise or breadth of repertoire knowledge as the filmmakers he influenced (think: Scorsese, Kubrick, and Tarantino—to name a few). He didn’t just eschew classic cinematic technique, he did so with flair and with unprecedented cleverness. For example, to manipulate the perception of time passing, he implemented the first use of jump cuts in his touchstone 1960 picture “Breathless”; the tension-building technique would later go on to be used in iconic films like “Goodfellas” (Great example featuring Ray Liotta here) and “2011: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Watch below for a great transitional jump cut that conveys centuries’ worth of time passing.
Standard film elements like the establishing shot and transitions were also taken out of the Godard equation. The auteur often shot with non-professional actors on location in the streets of Paris. His muses included Anna Karina (an almost unrivaled actor-director, romantic-professional pairing) and Brigitte Bardot. He rarely if ever used the formalized version of a complete script, opting instead to present his actors with bits of prepared text, which was then rehearsed and said specifically how he’d requested, according to Karina.
“We appreciated that what we were doing was different through the way Jean-Luc directed us, physically,” she said in a 2016 interview with the New York Times. “In older Hollywood movies, a character will make an entrance, close a door, light a cigarette, sit down, have a drink. In Jean-Luc’s movies, you were doing everything at once, and sometimes you wouldn’t shut the door all the way. Sometimes your cigarette wouldn’t light on the first try. You were always moving through the scene in an active way that was more like being than acting.”
At age 86, Godard is still working, currently filming “Le livre d’image” (“The Picture Book”) according to IMDb. Begin your Godard journey with his first and most well-known work, “Breathless”; it’s the perfect introduction to his directorial sensibilities. If you like what you see, follow it up with “Alphaville” (1965) a surreal dystopian drama starring Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Akim Tamiroff.
A decade after releasing his final film, the helmer responsible for “The Graduate” continues to be revered as the ultimate actor’s director. Nichols was an undisputed master of human behavior, capable of distilling a character’s sprawling identity into a couple of hours on the screen or stage. He was described as an observer on the outskirts of Hollywood, a trait some attributed to his being born in Berlin and moving to America at the age of 7. It was that outsider’s perspective that many saw as an advantage, and might’ve been what made him able to so perfectly capture the “quintessentially American” life for a classic like “The Graduate.”
Before he died in 2014, Nichols achieved EGOT status, directing 22 Broadway plays (with nine Tony wins) and 20 films (with five Oscar nominations and one win). His work has been hailed by the likes of David O. Russell and Marc Webb as the reason they wanted to make movies in the first place.
Nichols’ brilliant career consisted of a series of jumps from the stage to the screen and back again. He began as a theater performer, writing and improvising skits alongside Elaine May before studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York. (For a little taste of what he and May were like in front of the camera, check out this series of Tax Day PSAs from the Academy archive):
His first film was an adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. When casting, he sometimes hired nonactors like Art Garfunkel and made them shine in films like “Catch-22”; then he cast them alongside giants like Jack Nicholson (“Carnal Knowledge”). Great actors always wanted to work with him, perhaps because he understood them.
“It’s the most mysterious thing, acting. And the people who can really do it, the thing that characterizes them every time—all of them—is that they can’t and won’t talk about it,” he once said in an interview. “They won’t go near it.”
How did he develop such a deep relationship with actors? “You spend time together, you and the actors and the writer—God willing, the writer is alive—and the designers in different segments,” he told the Los Angeles Times’ Susan King in 2010. “You spend some weeks together, to begin with just finding the answers to several questions—What is this about? And if it is about X, what is X really like in life?”
When speaking to Backstage in May of 2017, David Hyde Pierce remembered a note Nichols gave him during the Broadway run of “Monty Python’s Spamalot”: “He came back about a month into the Broadway run and said, ‘It’s really great, really funny. Now that you’ve figured out exactly how to get your laughs’—what he called ‘your favorite squeak and turn’—‘don’t do that.’ It freed us all up,” Pierce explained.
“You have no idea what you might discover if you just give yourself the freedom to go out there and let it happen. If we’re lucky, we have a very, very long run. And if we figure everything out, if we have all our squeaks and turns set up early in the run, it’s going to get stale very quickly.”
A master of surrealist mood-making, Lynch’s style teeters between the horrific and the sublime. His best-known projects, “Mulholland Drive,” “Blue Velvet,” and of course “Twin Peaks,” grab onto the subconscious, dream-like state and push it into the mundane worlds of his protagonists, injecting their day to day with a nightmarish reality we love. It’s precisely this skill that someone like David Foster Wallace highlighted as the filmmaker’s genius. The man defies convention, expertly using elements like color scheme, sound design, and lighting to craft a world both strange and familiar.
“No one breaks boundaries like that,” Lynch’s long-time acting muse Laura Dern told Backstage. “There are so few artists in any art form that make their imprint everywhere they look. David is building a lamp, painting a backdrop, rewriting something, setting up a shot, and mixing up a color that he thinks is the lip color he wants because it doesn’t exist—that’s David in an hour on a set.”
However, the director has appeared more often in front of the camera than behind it, making him well equipped to work with his cast. He casts solely on headshots and the feeling they evoke; he never auditions, according to his long-time CD Johanna Ray. His notes onset are often visual metaphors. “Walk like a broken doll,” he once told Laura Elena Harring (“Mulholland Drive”) when she was meant to be playing tormented and wounded. While he’s skilled as a director in regards to thinking outside the box when building performances, his talent may lie in his ability to perfectly match actor to role.
“Blue Velvet” is arguably Lynch’s best work and a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the auteur. Be sure to watch it more than once with some time in between. Lynchian themes often take multiple viewings to emerge and then codify.
This auteur’s style is all-encompassing by definition and distinction. Audiences know when they’re watching one of his nine feature-length films, described as whimsical, twee, and idiosyncratic. He’s a six-time Oscar nominee, and continues to push his perfectly crafted heightened realities further—and more deftly—as his career progresses. After two decades in the game, it’s become increasingly clear: filmmaking serves as an extension of Anderson’s dreamscape and we’re just living in it.
For production on “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” he secured a hotel on the border of Germany and Poland populated only by his cast and crew where they all lived for the duration of shooting. (There are no trailers on Anderson’s sets.) He hired an artist to paint each cast member in costume—not for use in the film, but to be hung in the actors’ rooms for mood maintenance.Willem Dafoe joked the experience felt like being in a retirement home for actors where the hair and makeup department was occupied by the same place as the breakfast counter (it allowed for the robe-clad cast to saunter from the makeup chair for a croissant).
While his actors confirm he’s a demanding director on set—he does many takes and requires precise adherence to script and placement of props and actors—the process is rewarding enough to keep them returning. Anderson stalwarts include Dafoe, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson (who he went to college with). “He’s sweet, but he’s tough in his tenacity,” Dafoe said in an interview with the Daily Beast. “On some level, a director has to be a good general. And he’s a beautiful general. The troops love him and he’s clear about what he has to do.”
Anderson is nothing if not clear about his vision; his genius, however, may lie in his ability to be flexible in his filmmaking process. Much of his best (and later on, signature) style is the result of a happy accident, taking surprises and incorporating them into the narrative. His first stylized tracking shot, for example, was done to avoid mud.
“[The aquarium groundbreaking shot in ‘Rushmore’] was originally meant to be a more subdued shot facing the athletic field,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York Magazine. “The day before shooting there was a torrential rain that turned the field to mud. Anderson turned the camera around and shot toward the bleachers instead, and compensated for the less attractive background by moving the camera in an intricate pattern and filling the background and foreground with action.” The result was so appealing to Anderson, he continued to do it.
Lee hit the ground running with his first feature-length film “She’s Gotta Have It,” back in 1986, and went on to direct such New York City-centric masterpieces as “Do the Right Thing,” “Summer of Sam,” and “25th Hour,” and later “Malcolm X” and “Inside Man.” This director’s adept at toeing the line on pressing issues without veering into the didactic and brings a particular brand of activism, politics, and pop art that’s made him synonymous with black and specifically Brooklyn culture. He’s worked several times over with Oscar nominee Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Laurence Fishburne, and Giancarlo Esposito.
Lee’s known for his tight crops on actors’ faces, profile shots, and extreme angles that give audiences another perspective. He’s worked with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson on six films and often employs his film school students to work on his projects. He’s one of the only black directors to break out of the comedic sphere to create work in the same vein as Woody Allen and Orson Welles.
When it comes to working with his actors, Lee puts full faith in his cast once they’ve been hired. As told to Backstage by DeWanda Wise, the star if his TV series adaptation of “She’s Gotta Have It,” “He shapes and molds and sculpts but it’s not acting school. He’s not there to pull a performance out of you.” Actors are expected to come prepared with choices and their own interpretation of the character they’re playing.
“Do the Right Thing”... and kick off your education with the director’s first masterpiece: A sumptuous, Brooklyn-set film starring Lee, Danny Aiello, Esposito, John Turturro, and Ossie Davis that deals with racial tensions on the hottest day of the year. It’s a perfect example of Lee’s fearless approach to sensitive topics.
Sometimes it takes generations for directors to get turned into nouns—Hitchcockian, Lynchian, Orwellian—but in the case of this writer-director, “Tarantino-esque” emerged less than three decades after he hit the indie film circuit with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992. Perhaps it’s his singular writing style that includes words like “beseech” (delivered by his standard retinue of actors in all sincerity) before it serves up spitfire dialogues punctuated with graphic violence and profanity—just after a banal conversation about the quality of coffee. Or maybe it’s his near-obsessive penchant for incorporating easter eggs and visual nods to other cult classics in his films. Tarantino is nothing if not fun.
With character-driven plots, Tarantino says his typical casting list is much longer than the boilerplate collection casting directors often bring to the writer-director’s filmmaking table. He does, however, have his favorites; repeat castings include Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Uma Thurman, and Michael Madsen.)
His specificity when it comes to the characters he’s created—often larger than life nihilists with a penchant for pitch-black humor—is an actor’s dream. He’s done much of the work for his cast, developing detailed backstories for them to dive into. Rest assured if there’s ever a question about a character’s motivation, fears, or favorite cereal, Tarantino, having built them from the ground up, can answer it. And if he can’t he’ll figure it out and get back to you. “I’m like, ‘What color was my suit when I died in another life?’ ” explained Channing Tatum, who worked on “The Hateful Eight.” “And he’s like, ‘I’m gonna take some time and think about that and come back to you,’ and he does. He comes back with like, a five-page report.” If you stay true to your character (and stick to the script), you’ll thrive under the direction of a film genius like Tarantino.
Catch “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” to see a filmmaker at the top of his game narratively, visually, and in regards to casting (Thurman is phenomenal). It’s a great taste of Tarantino’s masterful pacing and a glimpse at just how stylized he can get.
DuVernay is such an extraordinary writer-director, fellow directors and actors alike seek her guidance. Such was the case for David
Oyelowo, star of the directorial effort that put her on the map: “Selma.” “Certainly as an actor, [you need] to feel like you can place yourself in a director’s hands even when you don’t fully understand what is being asked of you, which is certainly the case with myself and Ava,” he told Backstage. DuVernay’s approach to actors is a mix of collaboration and firm direction and fosters an environment of trust often by asking for an actor’s input at crucial moments. When planning the blocking for a scene, for example, she’ll ask for input and ensure an actor’s comfortable with the movement before solidifying it. Because she also tackles her own scripts—as she’s done for all her features apart from “Selma,” for which she wrote Martin Luther King’s speeches—and she comes from an indie film background, DuVernay brings a depth to her filmmaking that feels authentic. She’s known for bringing an intimacy to her sets and screens built through hands-on collaboration with her cast and knowing when to come in close with or without the camera.
Between 2015’s “Selma,” her TV series “Queen Sugar,” her production company ARRAY, her Oscar-nominated documentary “13th,” and landing the largest budget a black woman director has ever received for “A Wrinkle in Time,” DuVernay has continued to elevate her status as a history-maker.
For a proper introduction, look no further than “Middle of Nowhere,” DuVernay’s first collaboration with Oyelowo, co-starring Emayatzy Corinealdi and Omari Hardwick. It’s a great setup both for DuVernay’s quiet brilliance when it comes to framing her scenes, but also for big themes that come up again in her work like justice system reform and the smallness of leaning into the casual beauty of human connection. Oh, and casting immensely talented actors of color.
Find your ideal director! Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!