Directing – Set Politics and Working with the Talent

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by Kevin Woods

So, the script is ready, the locations secured, the budget is finalized, and the crew is in place. Looks like you are ready to shoot your movie. But whether this is your first time helming a movie, or if you are an experienced director, one thing is certain: you have to be able to communicate your vision to the actors and actresses on your production to help ensure a successful shoot.

This begins at casting. As the director, it is your responsibility to work with your casting director to put together a top notch cast. Professionalism and courtesy is a must when deciding who will fill a particular role. When auditioning potential actors for a part, be sure to watch for certain characteristics which could help or hinder the production. Overly broad body movements, which is usually a sign of stage experience, can be corrected easily with a few words. Annunciation is important, as is the ability to remember lines.

Listen carefully to each performer, watching for nervous or bad habits such as overexpression of emotions, mumbling, inability to make eye contact, and nervous twitching.

“It really begins in the casting phase. I try to get a sense of the person and how well we relate. If we ‘click’ at the audition, that’s a good sign,” says Kenneth J. Hall, whose works have included directing “The Halfway House” as well as writing a number of films, including Full Moon’s popular “Puppet Master.”

“Once they are cast, I try to give each actor my overall vision for the film. When working in genre films, this is not always easy unless the actor happens to be a fan also. If they’re not, it’s my job to present a clear picture of what I want, even if it’s to someone who doesn’t share my frame of reference.”

Chad Hendricks, director of “KrackerJack’d,” sees the audition process as a chance to weed out potential trouble on the set. “I’d rather work with a first-time actor and first-class person before I’d use a first-class a–hole. Directing is about people skills.”

Once you have your cast in place it is important to get to know each member of the cast. Set up times to rehearse so that your cast will be able to meet. “I like to do a table reading with the principle cast before shooting,” says Hall. “I try to keep the atmosphere as light as possible… It also gives them an opportunity to see and hear how their character fits into the overall script, since actors tend to focus mostly on their role.”

Having the actors meet up for rehearsals and read-through’s as often as possible during pre-production can alleviate some of the pressure on the director. It allows actors the opportunity to bond and memorize their lines. If your schedule doesn’t permit but one rehearsal, set aside the time after the read through to answer any questions the cast might have. It may be the only opportunity you get to help guide your actors to a better performance. “Once I get on set, there’s never enough time to work individually with an actor,” says Hall. “That’s why the time spent with them in pre- production is so critical.”

Now comes the fun part: production. As your cast and crew arrive on the set for the first day of principal photography, be sure to begin the day with a speech to thank everyone for their participation. Building morale on the set is very important, and as captain of the ship, the director needs to keep spirits high.

There are 3 simple rules when beginning to direct actors.

1. Know what you want.
2. Know what you need.
3. Know what the difference is.

“Good actors need to be able to escape into another realm,” says Dante Tomaselli (‘Horror,’ ‘Satan’s Playground’). “A healthy imagination is key. And concentration. They also have to be totally dedicated. There’s got to be a lot of passion emanating from the actor. It’s a tangible thing, really, everyone can see it.”

Actors may have trouble finding their character, even after numerous rehearsals. It becomes your job to guide them in the right direction. “I try to focus on what the actor needs to do as opposed to why. In other words, if you can get them to do something without understanding the reason behind it, you can make it work,” Hall suggests.

Adam Minarovich, director of “Buy Sell Kill: A Flea Market Story,” can sympathize with an actor’s plight, as he is also an actor. “I never down an actor’s performance, even if I think it was terrible or WAY off. I always say, ‘That was pretty cool, but let’s try it this way too just in case in doesn’t work.’… Usually I write the scripts I am directing, so I use that as an excuse to act out what I was trying to write and blame my bad writing for not being able to tell the motivations I was looking for.”

Other times, you may find yourself working with a difficult actor. Try to remain calm and not lose patience. As Tomaselli suggests, sometimes having another crew member speak to the actor can be more beneficial. “I try not to ever get angry. I try. Because that creates even more tension. I’m inclined to have my Assistant Director take care of a situation like this. Time is precious and I can only allocate a certain percentage to each performer… or I’d never finish the day’s shoot. I usually have a very competent Assistant Director who can work through kinks with the poorly behaved performer when I’m at wit’s end.”
Chad Hendricks has another suggestion when dealing with difficult actors, one that could benefit the entire production. “Actually a difficult actor is just someone who can’t grasp dialogue or where you want them to go,” says Hendricks. “So keep the conversation light, hype them up… let them ad lib… give them a freebie once you get what you want and then you might end up with a bonus performance!”

Most importantly, do not cede authority on the set. Be fair, be confident, and allow the actors to do their job. But do not allow yourself to lose face in front of your crew. Otherwise, a seemingly successful shoot will deteriorate into chaos. The crew must be respectful of the director, and in turn, you should be respectful to the crew. But be firm. Do not allow your actors to run over you. If you run into a problem with an actor not being able to take your directions, try to remain calm. Ask the actor to come speak with you privately. “I’ve seen directors yell at actors telling them not to question them but just do as they say. I think you can get much better results if you get the actor’s trust,” says Hall.

“Basically, I try to create an atmosphere where there is a lot of support from… not just me, but the crew and producers. The actor should feel safe in this environment. I like to keep a light set,” explains Tomaselli. And if that doesn’t work? “Well, I would have to take them aside, to a very private space, and unleash my angry persona. Since I barely ever show rage on the set, it would most likely be effective. They’d never want to see me angry again!”

Hall takes a different approach when working with two or more actors who cannot get along. “I would take each person aside and remind them of what they need to be doing. It wouldn’t be about the other person or trying to fix a problem. It would be about getting them to ignore anything personal that was going on and concentrate on the work. I never berate someone in front of the company. In fact, even one-on-one, I try to be as nice and considerate as I can be. Remember, criticism alone is unproductive if it’s not constructive. An old adage I like to quote is ‘Pain is temporary; film is forever.’”

However, as the director, you must not be afraid to replace actors, even if it means a temporary setback on the production. A production requires a lot of sacrifice from a lot of people, but it is not fair to the people doing their job well to have to work with a difficult or unprofessional actor. This holds true if the actor is not giving the performance necessary to his/her part. Editing can fix a lot in post, but not bad performances.

“I can usually calm two people down with my humor,” says Minarovich. “Making them laugh at the bad or sticky situations always helps. Don’t get frustrated and make it worse. Stay calm and douse the situation. However, some people will always be impossible to work with. If you catch it early enough, fire them ASAP. They are a virus, and virus’s always spread fast. If you are
too into the shoot to fire them, separate them or sever them from the rest of the cast before it spreads and figure out a way to shoot them with as least many people around as you can afford.”

“What’s my motivation?” The classic line that every director will eventually hear in one form or another. And it is an important question to cover, as actors may need reinforcement from their director that they are performing adequately. There are some necessary tools that must be utilized to motivate your performers, one of which is trust. “Establishing trust is a key element,” states Kenneth Hall. “Actors will bare their emotions (and even their bodies) in front of my camera as long as I provide a safe atmosphere for them, no matter how foolish they may feel. They trust me to guide their performance in a way that we will all be happy and proud of.”

Hendricks suggests another route. “Set a mood… make them mad, lie to them, make them laugh, manipulate their mood if they aren’t there yet. It’s about getting your actors where they need to be mentally.”

Know the script and know the characters so that, if need be, you can give a backstory. The actors can only perform what’s on paper, but sometimes the scene can be played a lot differently if the performer has proper motivation.

“Sometimes, in special cases, when a scene calls for it, it might work best to make an actor feel insecure… and not safe at all,” says Tomaselli. “Do whatever works, really. There are no absolutes.”

When an actor feels comfortable in his/her role, they may want to take liberties with their character. Sometimes this is a good thing, and other times it can be detrimental to the story. When dealing with this kind of situation, it is advisable to speak to the actor to find a happy medium. Whether shooting film or digital video the problem can be easily corrected by having the performer do it their way, then once again doing it your way, without eating up your stock. It also helps when editing having different approaches to the same scene. Who knows? The actor’s portrayal might work better in the finished product.

However, if the problem persists and is not beneficial to the production, Hendricks suggests this: “Always stick to your guns and the script, ‘cause they’ll swear they have ‘cooler’ ideas on the spot than you did over 2 to 6 weeks of writing and research. In the end, get your shots, don’t take anything personal, and have fun.”

“I always applaud the performance,” states Minarovich. “People are working on my movies for next to nothing, so I don’t want to piss anyone off. Again, I blame it on the writing and say let’s try it a different way.”

Let the actors discover things for themselves. Guide them, but do not smother them. Get to know them so they trust you. Support them, but be stern when necessary. Another old saying is “a happy set is a productive set”, and that is true. Be the rock of the production, confident and sure. Your work attitude will rub off on your cast and crew.

Good luck!

Directing – Set Politics and Working with the Talent

Independent filmmaker and writer Kevin Woods was dubbed the “indie horror specialist” on due to his work in the horror genre. Several of his films, including Buy Sell Kill: A Flea Market Story (2004), Wiseguys vs. Zombies (2003), and Bath (2009), were featured in the South Carolina State Museum yearlong exhibit on film titled, “Hollywood Comes To South Carolina: A Century of Filmmaking in the Palmetto State”.


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