How to direct film actors forcing a performance?

– Posted in: Directing Performance

All directors should take acting classes and participate “silly” acting exercises.

I say silly, because I felt incredibly silly when I began doing them.

I’m much more comfortable observing emotion with a camera than I am exploring it in an acting exercise. I want to be clear, the exercises are not silly, they are very powerful. I’m the one who’s silly, taking myself too seriously.

After fifteen years of being away, I’m back in acting class. I never was and will likely never be a great actor, but I enjoy it and it helps me be a better director, which is why I’m trying to convince you to take a class.

I’ve seen and heard many filmmakers direct film actors and ask for another take without having a clue how to communicate what they want from the actor. This is frustrating for both the actor and the director, and it doesn’t need to be. Actors are not programmable computers.

It’s not ok to give a line reading or to ask them to do endless takes without giving them meaningful direction. Wanting the actor to make it sound the way it’s playing in your head will not produce believable scenes.

Authentic scenes come from connecting with emotions and desires.

If you’re interested in directing with authenticity, here’s a quick story that illustrates a powerful technique. It starts with an acting exercise and ends with me sharing another skill for your director’s toolbox.

Our instructor, Lora Lee Ecobelli of Blue Horse Repertory, had us in a circle of about twelve other actors.

We were told to make eye contact with everyone.

Right away, I was feeling silly, but I threw myself into the mix. I began looking into the eyes of the other actors. I worked on just taking them in, and the more I looked everyone in the eye, the more connected I felt. I could feel a change taking place.

We continued by engaging in a give and receive exercise.

  • We were handed a tennis ball and told to make eye contact and give the tennis ball to the person to our right.
  • We were asked to have an intention in mind as we made eye contact and to share this intention as we released the ball.
  • Then, staying connected to this intention, and any of their own feelings the person having received the ball would then repeat the exercise and pass the ball on.

When this went well, it was easy to see others making a connection and the emotional exchange felt real. We could see subtle feelings being exchanged in a somewhat unremarkable but authentic way.

But, when this went bad, it came off as forced and showy.

The actor thought about what he wanted to intend and then proceeded to “act” the intention. It was forced and it lacked any real connection. The intent seemed to be to make the moment remarkable and memorable. The desire to “act” made the moment feel fake. It had the outward appearance of being real, but the moment was manufactured instead of arising organically from feeling. The difference is huge!

This exercise is hard.

As actors, we all want to emote when we perform.

We want our moments to be significant, but this works against truth. Audiences subconsciously pick this up, and as a director you need to be deliberate about making this conscious. You need to see a fake moment and know what to do to correct it.

These skills are not easy to cultivate, but you must develop a sensitive ear and awareness for truth. The camera has this awareness and magnifies it.

Truth, or the lack thereof, is blown up so big the audience can feel it in their bones. – tweet that  😀

When it’s good, it’s authentic and seamless.

But when it’s bad, even a little, it puts a ripple in the moment and the audience feels it. Too many ripples and the audience will no longer suspend disbelief. The audiences will walk away saying “I don’t know what it was, but it just didn’t feel right.”

Directing Tip

If your actors are forcing a moment, ask them to focus on what they want from the other actor. Everybody wants something. Everyone has an intent and objective when they interact with someone else. If you and the actor are in agreement of what the objective is:

  • Ask them to put more energy into just connecting with the other character.
  • Ask them to look at the other character with this objective (intent) in mind and receive whatever they are giving you.
  • Consider having them improvise this during a rehearsal with the camera off, but don’t really turn it off. Yes, I know it’s lying, but they’ll be happy you did.
  • Ask them to paraphrase the lines with the objective in mind.
  • Ask them to simply look into each other’s eyes and when a feeling comes up, just say the words without worrying about the intent to act them out.
  • Ask them to just lend themselves to the moment and trust that the lines will have the right intent.
  • Ask them to trust that you’ll make sure the scene feels real. Tell them you are the director, and it’s your job to watch their performance. They are free to watch the other actor.

Actors want to trust that you know what you’re doing and that you’ll make them look good.  All they need to do is give and receive and you will do the rest.

Why do you think acting classes are important for directors?

Leave a comment and tell me what you think. Learning is more fun with friends.

Let’s engage!

Got A Film Idea?

If you liked this blog, I’ve got few more that focus on understanding story form a directors POV. Check out these links.

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What Does Your Audience Want from Your Film?

Directors – Do you throttle the drama in your story?