(Above Photo by Milo Bauman. IG @milojbauman)
A Directing Tip from Orson Welles
Written By Fred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D.
Many years ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with the late Orson Welles. We got along very well, and he invited only me and the assistant cameraman to join him at his private table during lunches. During one of those intervals, he shared some career tips with me. I did not take notes— that would have been rude since this was a friendly conversation and not an interview on the record. I will paraphrase the gist of it.
Working with some actors can be frustrating. Coming from a live theatre or radio background, too many of them really overact even doing the slightest bits. Supporting cast and extras are usually the worst. They want to milk every second of screen time and turn even the slightest stage direction into a Shakespearean melodrama.
The trick is to give everyone something to dwell on, rehearse in their minds, and then, turn into their Academy performance. What they don’t know is that you are never going to use it.
Let me give you an example.
You have an actor. In the scene, he is supposed to put down his pen, stand up, mumble a line, and just walk out of the room, closing the door behind him. Really nothing much.
Not Hamlet making a grand speech!
I show him the door frame. Tell him to take a breath and think carefully about why his character is going to give everything up and exit without saying anything. Think how if and when he turns that doorknob, passes through that doorway and walks away, he is making a critical decision that may come back to haunt him later. Hesitate, before turning the doorknob. Think, and then, do it with quiet intent.
Now, when I shoot the scene, this actor has his mind wrapped around the great performance he will give at the doorway. All I wanted was for him to just get up and leave. We will be cutting long before he even makes it to the doorway, but I will keep the camera rolling so that he doesn’t realize it. He will be concentrating so hard on the doorknob that everything else he does will come off as natural.
That same method applies even more in documentaries when you work with non-actors who are overly self-conscious. Give them something to focus on outside the boundaries of the shot. Find something for them to aim for after the action you really need to capture. Someone exits their office and walks down the hallway. Easy, until they overthink it. So, you explain to them that they have to go to the vending machine, fumble in their pocket for change, realize that they don’t have enough coins, and then, give up on the vending machine and continue to walk towards the exit. They will no longer be robotic in exiting their office and walking. Because they are obsessed with their “performance” at the vending machine.
Let your actors have their great moment on film. Then just leave it on the floor next to the Moviola.
Fred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D. is a highly experienced and award-winning professional sound mixer (retired) whose decades of work included features, episodic TV series, national TV commercials, corporate, and government. A member of the Cinema Audio Society and the University Film & Video Association, Fred holds doctorate, graduate, and undergraduate degrees in filmmaking; has published more than 250 technical articles along with textbooks, instruction manuals, and hosts an educational website. Fred, recently retired, is professor emeritus at California State University Northridge.
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