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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Directing Actors: creating memorable performances for film & television / Judith Weston
ISBN 10 0-941188-24-8
ISBN 13 978-0-941188-24-1
1. Motion pictures--Production and direction. 2. Television—Production and direction.
The Digital Videomaker’s
Guide Shaking the Money Tree
Film Directing: Shot by Shot
Film Directing: Cinematic Motion
Fade In: The Screenwriting
The Writer’s Journey
Producer to Producer
Film & Video
Financing Film & Video
Marketing Film &
The Independent Film & Videomaker’s Guide
FOR FILM AND
BY JUDITH WESTON
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Directors in Jeop a rdy
Actors: The Mysterious
“Other” The Cra ft of Directin g
Rela tionship Wha t Do Actors
W a n t?
Wha t Is In This Book?
RESU LT DIRECTION AND QU ICK FIXES
Ten Exa mp les of Result Direction
F a c ts
I ma g e s
Physica l Ta sks
Questions, Questions, Questions
MOMENT BY MOMENT
Fe a r a n d
Con trol Risk
M o me n t B y M o me n t
Idiosyn cra sy
Con centra tion
III. LISTENING AND
AC TORS’ Questions Opp osites CHOICES .IV.
EVENTS AND THROU GHLINES VI: ACTORS’ RESOU RCES AND TRAINING Memory (Person a l Exp erience) Observa tion Ima gin a tion Immedia te Exp erience Sen sory Life Feelin gs Tea chers & Gurus Stretching Sta ge Acting vs. Film a n d Television Actin g Professiona lism VII: SCRIPT ANALYSIS .Judgment Need Spine O bje ctive Action V e rb Uncons cious O bje ctive s Choos ing O bje ctive s I ma g e s Obsta cle F a c ts Sense Of Belief Adjustmen ts Subtext Physica l Life Wha t Do You Mea n “Sp ecific”? V: STRU CTU RE: TRANSITIONS.
Prep a ring For The First Rea d The Writer-Director Editin g Sta ge Directions First Imp ressions: Cha rt .
O wning The Characte rs Paraphras ing “It’s Jus t…” and “I Ass ume …” The Te chnique O f Thre e Poss ible The Re ality (Fact) Be hind The Words More Re ading Ide as The Immuta bles: Fa cts a n d Ima ges: Cha rt 2 Facts and Evide nce Q ue s tions Re s e arch Image s and Ass ociations Imaginative Choice s : Chart 3 His tory/Backs tory What Jus t Happe ne d O bje ctive /Inte ntion/Nee d Iss ue s /What’s At Stake /The Proble m/The O bs tacle Action Ve rbs A d ju s t m e n t s Su b t e x t Phys ical Life Events: Cha rt 4 Wha t The Scrip t Is About Sp i n e Summa ry .
VIII: CASTING IX: REHEARSAL Rehea rsa l Pla n Full Ca st Rea dThrough Scen e Rehea rsa l O pe ning Re marks Firs t Re ading O f Sce ne Through Line s .
Laye rs Working In Be ats Rehea rsa l Guidelines Imp rov Blockin g: Physica l Objects a n d Physica l Activity Resista nces Ep isodic Television Summa ry X: SHOOTING EPILOGU E APPENDIX A: CHILDREN AND NONPROFESSIONAL ACTORS APPENDIX B: COMEDY APPENDIX C: SHORT LIST OF ACTION VERBS SAMPLE SIMPLE OBJECTIVES MORE ACTION VERBS FILMOGRAPHY BIBLIOGRAPHY FU RTHER ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .
students began encouraging me to write a book. She made me understand that finding and illuminating the truest truth in a moment on stage or film was a calling of the highest nobility — that it was worth doing. my first teacher. Lesley Robson-Foster and Peter Entell — shared with me their workshop notes as support and assistance toward the notion of a book based on my workshops for directors. to allow himself or herself to be on the other side. of Michael’s office. Esther Ingendahl. I am always moved that students put themselves in my care and allow themselves to go places and do things they may have never done before. Claudia Luther. her interdiction of “pedestrian” choices. Her fierce insistence on the truth of the moment. Jose Quintero. to partake in the vulnerable condition of the actor. and pushed me to bring my coaching for directors to the “second level” with workshops in Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Jack Garfein. They have truly taught the teacher as least as much as I taught them. Leslee Dennis. Frank Beacham was the first with this idea. Carol S. Stella Adler. and most especially my champion. Bruce Muller. Cathy Fitzpatrick. I love and thank each one of them individually. the source of my happiness and light of my life. my family. and teacher. I am grateful to Dr. John Hoskins. All the wonderful actors I have worked with as colleagues or taught as students have contributed mightily to this book as well. and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for everything — for being the genuine article. Joe Syracuse. Harold Clurman. . her passion for acting and for actors. And she encouraged me to believe that I might have something to offer the world as an actor.ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This book would not exist without some five hundred or so directors who have taken the Acting for Directors course and the Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques workshops. all my friends. who brought my workshops to Europe. imprinted me forever. It takes courage for a director to study acting. Robert Goldsby. Wendy Phillips. director. Ken Lee. and especially for his patience and support when the writing took a little longer than we thought it would. insightful. which was incredibly useful. Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse also gave me crucial notes on the manuscript and helped in about a hundred other ways as well. A number of students — including Paivi Hartzell. that it increased the value of life on our planet. they were trusting and eager to learn. enthusiasm. for believing in me. this began a long and fruitful association with the Rockport Maine Film and Television Workshops. was a constant source of assistance. Joy Stilley. Soon after I started teaching Acting for Directors. Irene Oppenheim. generous. Paul Richards. Wendell Phillips. Pico Berkowitch. Stoll. Especially Jean Shelton. invaluable feedback from those people who read all or part of the book in manuscript: Amy Klitsner. I received tireless. for trusting his intuition. and John Hoskins. especially the first one. Gerald Hiken. Lillian Loran. as have all the students in my Acting for Non-Actors classes. John Heller made a tape of one of my workshops. and tact. Finally. Even when I was completely unknown as a teacher. Angela Paton. Frank also introduced me to David Lyman. They constantly pushed me to define everything and to create tools that would be specifically useful for directors. my husband. as did Sharon Rosner. I want to thank the teachers from whom I studied acting and directing: Jean Shelton. Polly Platt. the one who made me fall in love with acting. her love of good writing. In Rockport I met Claude (Pico) Berkowitch and Bertrand Theubet. But none of this was anything like a book until Michael Wiese came along.
” “How do I establish credibility with the actors on the ftrst day of rehearsal?” “Sometimes I can tell that something is untruthful or not working. and the actor said. arduous preparation — and then you get to jump off a cliff without any expectations about whether it’s going to work or not. Arriving at simple solutions takes a lot of work. they won’t take direction. where should we put the main energy?” “I didn’t want it to go that way. but in order to learn to direct the short way.” “On a television series. and say.INTRODUCTION DIRECTORS IN JEOPARDY “I knew exactly what I wanted. Or it may mean that you are in the grip of the learning curve — which is always two steps forward. She did it her way and that was that. get them there and keep them there?” “I think I talk too much. If you happened to do it well the first time and thereafter you struggle.” “How much should I tell them? How much should they tell me?” “Sometimes under the pressure of being on the set. the performance doesn’t work anymore?” “The actors loved me and I felt very comfortable on the set. two steps back!). . but I couldn’t verbalize it clearly. there is a lot of exhilarating.” “I think I over direct.” “The actor was a star and she wouldn’t rehearse. but then I don’t know what to do.” “I thought I was describing it exactly as I wanted it. then practice a lot until you can do it faster. ‘Yes. you first need to learn how to do it the long way. tell them too much.” “I think I overrehearsed. I was exhausted. It’s easy for me to direct someone right out of the role. There isn’t any kind of blueprint for working with actors that you can decide on ahead of time. once I got to the set. wouldn’t take direction. there is a craft. There really aren’t shortcuts.’ and then he didn’t do anything like what we’d talked about.” But there are principles. it may mean you had no craft. So I just kept repeating the direction and the performance got worse and worse. the one word that brings his performance to life.” “The production and ftnancing problems took up so much of my energy that. it’s hard to see the performance — I can’t see what’s happening in front of me. “I’m going to do exactly this and exactly that and it’s all going to work.” “Where is the button you press to achieve results fast?” “What do you do when you give a direction that worked in rehearsal and now that it’s time to shoot the scene. ready to be in the moment when you get the actors there. one step back (unless it is one step forward. ready to throw out every scrap of your preparation if you need to. only beginner’s luck. I had no energy for the moment.” “When we don’t have time. but I had no choice. the regulars already know their characters. I understand.” “How do I keep performance consistent.” Directors want short answers to these questions. but when I got to the editing room it was all crap.” “How do you rehearse? When do you say what?” “I need to know how to give the actor an on-the-spot solution.
Directors who are highly gifted visually and completely at ease with the camera are sometimes uncomfortable with dialogue. Why? Because. it’s the white-water rafting of entertainment jobs. There is often a feeling on film and television sets that. Indeed.known actors and directors are disappointed when they finally work together. The horror stories of breakdowns in communication between actors and directors are legion. calling on you to commit every resource and stretch yourself to the limit. And communication problems are not limited to low-paid. most do not have a reliable technique for working with actors. After all. The entertainment industry is conflicted in its attitude toward actors — actors are both fawned over. It’s not unusual for actors to be dismayed at how little directors know about them. who have had rehearsal experience. It’s easy to see how this can happen when inexperienced directors are paired with experienced. It captures your full attention at every moment. the worst thing about lowbudget films is usually the acting. right? Writers who turn to directing often become troubled and impatient with actors because the lines when spoken don’t come out exactly as the writer imagined they would. Most directors know that they could benefit from better communication with actors. embarrassed about asking for help. every time the director took him aside. Sometimes well. I find that many directors I meet. compared to the expertise and long hours required of the crew members. as a result. that it’s a matter of instinct and intuition. knowing nothing about techniques of directing actors. what actors do is not really work.ACTORS: THE MYSTERIOUS “OTHER” Directing film or television is a high-stakes occupation. the excitement they feel about a new project tightens into anxiety when it comes to working with actors. with the exception of the handful of filmmakers with a background in theater or live television. Actors are an irrational and baffling “other. First-time directors typically put a lot of care into getting the most production value for the money they have available. including talented and successful ones. And I am sorry to say that it is my observation that students can graduate even from prestigious film schools. inexperienced directors. and looked down upon. loud enough for the crew to hear. anybody who can walk and talk at the same time could do it.” Many directors come from a technical background and know very little about how actors work. are practically rudderless when it comes to directing actors. But for many directors. I heard one story of a major star with a tough-guy image who. “You want me to suck what?” Now maybe the veteran actor was trying to relax the young director by teasing him out of some of his earnestness — or maybe he was crudely letting the poor fellow know how stupid he thought the director’s input was. Directors who have come up from the production side of film may even have a prejudice against actors. most people seem to believe that directing actors can’t be taught. . would look up and say. and hence with actors. but very little care and preparation into guiding the performances. high-profile actors. that you either have it or you don’t. and worse.
I’ve also taught throughout the country as well as abroad. but you have a choice. It does not need to be mystified. These principles and tools are simple. the ability to see the darker side of life is an asset not just for directing dramatic and tragic movies. one at a time. I often tell my students that whatever problems their actors present them with — whether the actor is objecting to a line of dialogue or a piece of staging or the color of a wig or is forgetting his lines or hates her costar — they should say to themselves. but also for directing comedy. to go with me.” This is hard for a lot of people. however. You’ve got to completely let go of doing things “right. do well on tests. they’re looking for performance. If the producer of your feature film tells you she can’t get the money for the project unless you accept a certain actor in the lead role — perhaps an actor you think is wrong for the part — you must make the choice to work with that actor or give yourself permission to walk off the project. your own and others’. an artist needs to get kind of excited by mistakes. first with a monologue and then with scenes. they are objective and usable. but in the sense of simple = basic. But a director who is negative or who projects his own insecurities onto his actors is very bad news. Sometimes people get worried. they are meant to open up for you your own priceless intuition. since comedy often has pain inside it. mistakes are nearly always a bad thing. When I teach my class I take the students through a series of exercises. to follow our dreams into the entertainment industry. “I’m glad this happened!” And mean it! I offer you the exhilarating prospect of never again saying these four words: “I had no choice. You have chosen a profession where mistakes are not always bad. They are not esoteric or fuzzy-headed. you might have to give something up for it. It makes you perfectionist. and impress their classmates. to not make a mistake. they’re looking for the way to do it right. script analysis and rehearsal techniques for directors. You will make mistakes. and have found that children everywhere basically are taught to please the teacher.THE CRAFT OF DIRECTING Directing actors can be taught as a craft. worried. it can jolt our attention away from preconceived ideas and into the present. we were built that way. Artists tend by nature to be dark. Moreover. you might have to sacrifice a special effect or an expensive location. They are not meant to be a cookbook. you can find the time and money for it. and we ought to listen to it. For brain surgeons or airplane pilots. but . But for those of us lucky enough. If anything. the person in charge. What you as a director. I want to change your minds around a bit. it can open us to a new creative path. This is not bad. it seems to go against all of our education. not in the sense of simple = stupid. Not that I encourage you to renege on your promises or give your word frivolously. even if something seems a little strange. I have evolved a set of principles and an assortment of tools which are the subject of this book.” Our jobs in the entertainment industry always allow us creative choice. Because with each exercise we isolate some element of acting technique and examine its usefulness for directors. They’re looking for results. must learn how to do is to bring creativity and a positive approach to mistakes. There is no cookbook. If you wish you can think of them as a set of rules — they are that followable. and I ask them to be patient with me. Although I’ve been teaching mainly in Los Angeles. If you want a rehearsal period. superstitious creatures. Over the years that I have been teaching my courses in acting. foolish enough. it makes you care. Sometimes a mistake is our subconscious speaking. a mistake can be a blessing in disguise. We are mistake-making creatures.
tackling disappointments with the sensibility that you are sticking with it out of choice gives you your freedom. Some students tell me that the ideas and techniques I put forward seem at first radical and destabilizing. One . And without freedom there can be no creativity.
But you can’t decide to be inspired. then you already know how important it is to keep learning and growing. Just one warning: I’m not going to teach you how to be “commercial. Once you get on the inside. the proposals and exercises of this book are intended to challenge. In order to access your intuition. You need to recognize and reject pedestrian and obvious and clichéd choices. probably more work than you realized was involved in directing. Technique does two wonderful things: it gives you something to fall back on. not until the weekend box office figures are printed in the newspaper on Monday morning. you will feel liberated. makes you choose — and then you are ready for inspiration. learn the rules. you may confuse intuition with assumptions. But I’m going to take you through it. and it aerates your brain. The purpose of technique is to prepare the ground for inspiration. makes you think. You can’t be a good director without good instincts. And if you are among the happy few who already have a directing technique that works. I don’t intend to dampen or make you distrust your intuition.young writer said she found the things I was saying “counter-intuitive. but then I realized that many people mistake opinion for intuition. So I invite you to break habit. In other words. No one knows what’s commercial anyway. should inspiration decide to strike. and awaken your intuition at a new. This takes work.” At first I was surprised. Every rule I will give you can be broken. and stretch your skills and imagination. that intuition requires no reflection. Technique is not an end in itself. you may mistake prejudice for vision. people who claim they can assure you commercial success are not to be trusted. And if you try to be inspired. There is no recipe I can give you that will guarantee you’ll have a good movie. When you are working well. they require no reflection. step by step. you are in the safest place for trusting your instincts. . to get beyond your prejudices and assumptions. the strain of the effort only creates tension. and should be broken if breaking it makes the movie better. you need to get below your preconceived ideas and access your deepest resources. Sometimes people think intuition is the first idea that comes to you. In this business. deeper level. Opinions are easy to have. When you are not working well. This is not the case. to go below the surface.” Trying to be commercial is just an excuse for not doing the hard work of being original. refresh. something to do while you are waiting for inspiration. taking you farther and farther away from the effortlessness that characterizes inspiration. for you. Everybody knows what to do when inspired! That’s true by definition. Then forget them. I invite you to question conventional wisdom.
either to follow poor direction or to direct themselves. they seem to speak and move out of the character’s impulses and needs. they seem to be improvising. He watches himself. resources. “Yes. The actor is exposed. and training. You are the one who gets to say. You are the protector. Is the director supposed to monitor the actor in each and every choice? Is the director supposed to guide the actor through Method “emotional memory” exercises? If the actor is having problems. that’s okay. and knowledge. who has to say. They are two separate skills. and the act of selfmonitoring distorts what is monitored. Sometimes directors ask me why I want them to know so much about actors. Because if he is doing someone else’s job as well as his own. and simple choices without knowing whether they are working or not. To the general public it probably looks as though the actor must be just like the character and must not have had to do any work to play the role. This is not good. He depends on the director to stand in for the audience and to tell him whether his efforts succeed. he can’t surrender his full attention to his own job. often frustrating but potentially exhilarating relationship: the director is the viewer and the actor is the viewed. This is especially poignant because his own job precisely is to surrender. a miracle. Print. If he watches himself. Inexperienced actors subjected to poor direction often flounder. If the actor determines that the director can’t tell good work from bad or doesn’t understand the script or doesn’t know how to tell a story with a camera. The success of his contribution hinges on his ability and willingness to allow himself to be viewed without being able to view himself. they seem to “become” the character. he cannot evaluate his own performance. . They don’t look rehearsed. One of the things this book will do is to investigate the actor’s world. Here is the crux of this sometimes painful.” It’s a giant responsibility. such a seamless portrayal is a touch of the divine. vulnerable. To people knowledgeable about the demands of performing. his tools. they seem to be speaking their own words. let’s take it again. If he watches himself. should the director give acting lessons on the set? How much responsibility does the director have for the performances? Acting and directing are two very different jobs. Experienced actors working with a bad director are aware of the dilemma and make a choice. impulses. the relationship of viewer/viewed is broken and the magic is lost. You must make sure the work is good and that the actor looks good. their feelings well up strong and apparently unbidden. the actor retreats from the actor-director relationship and starts to monitor his own performance. it shows. only you can say whether the work is good enough. His central paradox is that this dependence frees him. It is exactly because I think the director and the actor each should be — must be — free to do his own work that I believe directors should know more about actors and acting.” or “No. This means he must surrender completely to feelings. Their technique is invisible. It’s hard for a director who has never acted to understand its magnitude. he directs himself. Rigorous technique and careful detail go into such performances. to live truthfully moment by moment in a structure of created circumstances. intelligence. and so you have to know what is good work and what isn’t. Sometimes very intelligent actors hold back until they decide if they can trust your taste.THE ACTOR-DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP The very best actors make it look easy. This is why even actors themselves don’t automatically know how to direct other actors.
it’s not actually your job to make the acting better.If you understand the script. know how to tell a story filmically. . and the actor is floundering anyway. can tell good acting from bad. It’s the actor’s job to find his performance and to adjust it if you ask him and to make those adjustments believably.
on the actordirector relationship: “I’ve often described [it] as sexual. This is because we are not dealing with chemistry formulas here. and if you knew how to help them — wouldn’t that be great? You could help each other. each prepares. working with talented actors on a high level of creativity.” Or Donald Sutherland. going places. You may come up with the insight that turns a competent performance into an indelible one — you may be present and midwifing the creation of a character who continues to live in the audience’s mind long after the movie is over. Then something new comes out of that. they can establish a level of communication at which only a word need be spoken. Actor and director must respect each other’s creative territory. once they cast an actor. we are dealing with human beings. The happiest response an actor can make to one of your directorial suggestions is. sparking and challenging each other’s ideas and imaginations. in a LosAngelesTimes interview: “Actors are always at the mercy of the integrity of the director. they face each other and give each other everything. each brings to the table his best understanding of the script and his own sovereign imagination.” and you’ll say. Always you must let actors know that whatever level of risk you are asking of them. they are throwing away the potential for an unself-conscious performance. it’s time to engage. and surprise each other. making discoveries. The actor has a responsibility — and prerogative — to create truthful behavior while following direction and fulfilling the requirements of the script.” The director’s main responsibility — and prerogative — is telling the story. This can be addictive.” Actors refuse direction at their peril. Jessica Lange. or separately. in rehearsal. that solves all kinds of problems. you are willing to take yourself. And directors. staging the physical movements of the actors) is part of the director’s job but a lot of times the actors will help you with blocking. should surrender the role to that actor. They’ll say. “That gives me an idea for something to work on. Actor and director are thesis and antithesis. Unlocking the subworld of the script.e. blocking (i.” This is the good stuff. and sometimes you leap into the abyss and it doesn’t pay off. if you saw them having trouble getting where they need to go. For example. People who are fearful of intimacy and confrontation should probably not become directors. I’m his concubine. “Wow. It’s more like a synthesis. even from each other. yet cannot find a way to execute it and still be truthful to her impulses and understandings.But if you are the viewer and they are the viewed. Sometimes you have to adjust or even let go of your ideas about the character if they finally don’t sit truthfully on the actor.. and wants to please you. This means finding a structure to the script and setting up the events so that they are at once surprising and inevitable. Actor and director can do this work together. The level of trust required for this work is breathtaking. they can keep secrets from the other actors. It’s a leap of faith. You give the actor direction in order that the actor’s actions and interactions illuminate and create those events. I don’t like to use the word “compromise” because that suggests that both of you are settling for something less than what you desire and believe in. “I have an impulse to move over there on that line. At this point the actor and director can clash — or they can collaborate. ideas for the characterization that are perhaps better than either one of you thought of separately. On a practical level this could mean that an actor agrees that your direction is logical and apt. also in the Times. . you must cease judging. shouldn’t you be able to tell actors when their performance is not good enough? And if you saw them floundering.
A director with actual insight is a bonus.WHAT DO ACTORS WANT? Here are the things that actors need from a director. and when what the actor is doing tells the story. In other words. If any. confusing direction. the worst sin a director can commit is to be satisfied with less than the very best the actor has to offer. and that the characters and the events that befall them spring to life in your imagination. In any case. the actors must have confidence that you understand the script. but they love it. to grow and to learn.” . “I learned from working with her. Then. they want to be pushed. actors don’t expect it. and that is to say when the performance has life. brief. your understanding must be communicated: they need clear. To a really good actor. playable direction. Equally important. First.” They want you to know when to say “Print” and not give up until you get there. knowing when to say “Print. Last but best. it’s icing on the cake.” or “He got me to do things I didn’t know I could do. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they don’t want vague. they need freedom and permission to explore the implications of your direction and to make it their own. The highest praise an actor can give a director is to say. Actors are usually better off left on their own than trying to follow confusing direction. they must feel that your ideas are intelligent and imaginative and that you know what the movie is about.
effective tools that you can use immediately. and making it your own and believing in your gift and giving your actors everything you have to give. I even have charts that you can fill out if you find them helpful. Where to put the camera is not dealt with in this book at all. with passion. The techniques and principles I will outline have to do with understanding human behavior and applying that understanding to scripts and rehearsal situations. You do have a choice about whether or not to develop the talent you have. learning how to collaborate and challenge each other and grow together — that is. having some talent and some good luck. Scaling the heights of the actor-director relationship. I plan to give you simple. Knowing when to say “Print” is something I don’t think you can learn from any book. but this book will give you some food for thought. We are looking at ways to trigger your understanding. You don’t have a choice about how much talent you are born with — that’s already been taken care of. but the purpose of this work is not to fill out charts. setting aside decisions about F-stops and special effects and dipping into these areas can be intimidating. becoming an “actor’s director” — will mean taking everything you learn from me and from all your other teachers and from everything you know about life. I am going to assume that you already have some knowledge of the technical side of filmmaking. . with love. with humility — and then. It isn’t a question of merely memorizing a jargon. It is easy to find yourself setting aside time for script analysis and ending up staring at the page with nothing coming to you. to awaken your powers of suggestibility and invention. practical alternatives to procrastination and despair. and ideas for what to look for as you practice and study and make mistakes and develop this skill. insight and ideas. My techniques will give you some simple.WHAT IS IN THIS BOOK Understanding the script and giving actors playable direction and freedom to explore and permission to make your direction their own are the main concerns of this book. There is no cookbook. Of course actors also need you to know where to put the camera and how to tell a story filmically. They are all geared toward making your direction briefer and more loaded. For directors with extensive technical background.
it was years before I really understood what was so bad about being “general. they hear in their heads the lines read with a certain inflection. they see the same expressions. They see with their mind’s eye the face of the character (usually that of a particular A-list actor). These terms are slippery.” And the problems of definition are compounded because within the acting and directing communities. No matter how many times they read the script. They call this their “vision” of the script. playable direction. and movements. “How can this be made dramatic?” or “How can this be made fanny?” rather than “What clues does this give me to what the movie is about and what the characters are doing to solve their predicaments?” It causes you to make your artistic choices based on what you know about other movies rather than on what you know about life. inflections. i. . because I think most directors think they have a very clear picture in their minds of exactly how they want the movie to look and sound. Result-oriented direction attempts to shape the actor’s performance by describing the result you are after. It also leads to directing the actors with what is known as “result” direction.. how you want it to end up looking or sounding. The close kin to result direction is general direction.” Then they get down to the “real work” of making budgets and deciding on lenses. It causes you to look at a line and say to yourself. they project specific facial expressions and movements. I remember that when I was first studying acting.e. but are not really sure what it is. I expect this to come as a surprise to many of you. Most people while reading a script watch a miniature movie version of it projected on the inside of their foreheads. the terms are sometimes used differently. Perhaps the gamest way to tackle the issue is to start by giving examples. The preferable alternative to result direction or general direction is speciftc. They are difficult to define.RESULT DIRECTION AND QUICK FIXES The biggest complaint I hear from actors is that directors don’t know what they want. It denies any life to the characters beyond the four edges of the script’s pages. It’s like insisting that the earth is flat and that people (characters) who walk off the edge just disappear. four-cornered movie screen. The problem is directors who don’t know how to prepare. Why is this so bad? Because it limits you to the images of the script that fit onto a flat. Many directors have heard of result direction and been terrorized by warnings of its evils. and they consider the time spent in such fantasy their “creative preparation.
Paradoxically.. Directors are relieved — the actor has “nailed it. It is death to an actor’s gifts to put his concentration on the effect he is having on the audience. Actors call this “pulling out the old bag of tricks. consequently the effort itself is the effect that finally reads. surprise. sultry. moment-by-moment connection to the material and the other actors. 2) “Can you take it down?” Or. we want to ask the actors for more than what is facile for them. Describing to the actors the “mood” of a scene or the movie falls into this category. “Take it down” may mean that the actor .” or “I need you to be more dangerous. because the actor has begun to watch himself. efforts to “be” light and frothy can prove heavy-handed. Instructions of this ilk — such as “This scene should be funny. Here are ten examples of result direction: 1) “Can you make it more quirky?” Telling the actor what effect you want him to have on the audience is a perfect example of directing by describing a result. “Can you give it more energy?” These are the commonest requests actors get from directors. and insight. Sometimes very experienced actors have worked out sets of prearranged adjustments that they can produce at will. and what the performance looks like. The director wants him to do something different from what he is doing — what can it be? From this point the actor-director relationship dissolves into a guessing game. They have a facility for coming up with a precise mood or some other result on demand. electric. to worry about how he is doing.” or “Can you give him an epic quality?” — make an actor’s heart sink. e. distant. the actors’ eagerness to please you by coming up with the desired effect has caused them to concentrate on the effort itself. What’s wrong with these directions is that they are vague or general.Okay.” For example.” But such facility can come to substitute for a genuine. because the direction is so vague. actors who try to play a mood can end up evoking exactly the opposite of what the director was hoping for: efforts to “look” serious often produce an unintentionally comical effect. etc. you might ask the actors to play the scene “as if the first person who makes a mistake in table manners will be sentenced to a prison term. If we want a performance of freshness. If you want the actors’ help in evoking a particular mood.” An extreme example of an actor overusing her bag of tricks might be an actor typecast as a stock character old maid in movies of the thirties and forties playing every role pursing her lips as if she is constantly sucking on a lemon.g. you might try instead an imaginative adjustment. if you wanted a “chilly” atmosphere in a family dinner scene. An adjustment can be an “as if. The actor tries something — is this it? Usually it never is. This is because the attention is wrongly placed.
not listening to the other actors. “More .is overacting. or should make another choice.
we would prefer not to feel nervous at an important meeting. not the inflection. As soon as an actor tries to have a feeling. but sometimes the line reading makes no sense to the actor. For the line “You always do that. is what the director should be communicating to the actor. Asking for “more energy” can cause them simply to add emphasis to the uninteresting choice they have already made. worried.” or “You always do that.’” This is called giving the actor a line reading. not a real person. How can that be a good thing for an actor to do? 3) “Don’t say. resentful. or what state of mind to be in — for example. The worst problem with giving line readings is that they may signify that the director doesn’t really know what the line means. and dampen their expressive fires. disappointed. he looks like an actor. “Take it down” may be interpreted as a request to flatten their affect or say the line in a monotone.’ It should be. you want to be able to do more to clarify the direction than just repeat the line reading over and over. and repeat back the line with the new inflection but without any life behind it.” “You always do that. An actor caught trying to have a feeling is not believable. The meaning of the line. when responding to these directions. that is. ‘You always do that. Watching an actor crank up his feelings is stressful to the audience and distracts them from the story. or the actor is not listening or needs a different choice. . angry. telling the actor what inflection to give to a line. or what the scene is about.” there are at least four different line readings. or what the intention of the character is.” “You always do that. disapproving — is a very usual way that direction is given. without inner life. frightened.” Telling the actor what feeling the character should be having. 4) “I think [the character] is disappointed. if he asks you what it means. excited. one problem is that the actor might obey you. can fall into bad traps. ‘You always do that. not to feel upset when an ex-lover and new spouse appear unexpectedly at a party. It may seem radical of me to tell you not to do it.energy” could mean that the acting is flat. But it is not actually a playable direction. It is the actor’s prerogative to create the delivery that conveys the meaning that the director wants. And actors.” And the different readings make the line mean different things. But who knows? It’s too vague — too general — to be sure what the director is objecting to. because there are four different words you can inflect: “You always do that. People in real life often find our feelings are obstacles to what we want to accomplish. What’s wrong with giving line readings? Well. Of course it is their job to give it life. not to feel angry and disappointed with our loved ones. or result. or produces a feeling on demand. in love. annoyed.
This idea is sometimes very hard for people to take in. and we can’t choose our feelings.A playable choice must be choosable. but I want you to think about it: We don’t get .
all feeling gets shut down. and then disappearing just when you want them. as well as much of the general population. as in “Don’t play it so angry. when one feeling is held back. The director is in a position to do violence to the actor’s delicate emotional mechanisms. there is a danger of their acting becoming indulgent and actorish.” the temptation is to push. to overact. It will be a major purpose of this book to suggest ways to approach that emotional life that are not so result-oriented as telling the actor what feeling to have.to decide how to feel. for example in response to the direction “Don’t play it so angry. Actors need to have their feelings available to them. Whenever they try to have feelings because they think the character should have them. Bad actors. Again. as in response to a direction to “be more nervous. a person can be crying one minute and laughing the next. and deliver a particular reaction simply because one wishes to do so is at variance with our life experience. Emotion and impulse are the very province of the actor. go to great lengths to make the world believe they feel something that they don’t actually feel.” This is an extension of telling the actor what emotion to have — telling her what reaction to have. It can have a shrinking effect on actors to tell them their emotions are wrong. In real life we may wish we could plan our reactions — we may wish we could react calmly to bad news. They may not believe it themselves — they may even ask you what emotion you want them to have — but as soon as you start envisioning the characters in terms of what emotion they should be having. Clearly. or because the director tells them that the character should have them. The ability to be emotionally free and available to many subtleties of feeling is central to her talent. you get angry. In fact the more you let yourself feel whatever you are actually feeling. but we can’t selectively shut down just one feeling. When they try to have “more” feeling. you are losing the chance for a genuinely exciting emotional event to take place. this is not a desirable condition for an actor. At the very least a smidgen of selfconsciousness is bound to creep into the performance. The character’s emotional life is not off-limits to the director. But feelings are pesky critters. Of course feelings can be hidden or repressed. the more available you are to a new feeling.” they may simply shut down or become cautious. This goes double for actors. cropping up inconveniently. 5) “When she tells you that she doesn’t have the money.” When actors try to have “less” feeling. or laugh merrily when a client or boss tells an unfunny . the notion that one can decide on. And the thing both terrible and wonderful about feelings is that they change. For some reason we humans don’t much like this about ourselves. You have seen it in real life. The emotional events of the script and each character’s participation in them are very much within the province of the director. aim for. but most of the time no one is fooled.
however gracefully or subtly we may manage to deal with them.joke — but it is the very nature of such occurrences that they take us by surprise. In a script these little or big surprises are the emotional transitions of the movie. For .
it is tedious and longwinded. When the director.” This is what I call a fully loaded emotional map. You may be asking yourself. emotional maps look innocuous enough. Emotional mapping is almost always a superficial analysis of the script. Emotional mapping causes so many problems! First of all. predictable.e. 6) “When the scene starts he is worried because she is late. do know. so they don’t know what they are going to do or say when it does. It can’t flow. commonly passes for an understanding of what the script is about. believably and fully is the actor’s most difficult task. or explaining their psychology — is likewise. don’t they? In fact. an uncreative waste of time. telegraphed. more muscular ways to evoke characterizations than the convolutions of emotional maps. at best. indicated — or flat.. At first glance. Now gossip in real life can be harmless and fun. contrived. Gossiping about characters — i. it takes us out of the story. It is the place where the acting is most likely to go sour and start to look like acting — when the transitions are labored. out of his prearranged idea of what the scene is supposed to look like. mapping their emotional terrain. but then disappointed because she hasn’t got the money. the characters don’t know what is going to happen to them. The actors. and it can be harmful. I want you to learn briefer. or forced. but it is not productive. tells the actor to react this way or that on a certain line so it can look like the movie he has running in his head. Directors need always to be concerned with ways to save time. It gives a performance the texture of real life when the reactions are spontaneous and idiosyncratic. In a movie. Whenever we (the audience) catch the actors working on their next reaction. of course. anticipated. and then he becomes suspicious that she might be holding out on him. usually no more than a regurgitation of the plot or dialogue. Actors respond best to direction that is simple and to the point. Emotional mapping.an actor. When actors try to follow an emotional map. the character’s transitions — her reactions to the emotional events — are the trickiest part of acting. not there. He is relieved when she arrives. economically. Mapping the emotional terrain of a character is my own term for what is sometimes called explaining the character or psychologizing the character. Getting to the emotional transitions of a role cleanly. because it has no through-line. the performance degenerates into an emotional connect-the-dots drawing. or explaining the character’s psychology. outlining all the feelings and reactions you have decided the character is supposed to have in the scene. It’s called gossip. the actor is being asked for a result at the very moment that connection to a process instead of a result would be the most valuable for her. people in real life talk about each other like this too. . what could be wrong with this? How else would you describe a character’s behavior? Everybody talks about characters this way.
One of these keys actors use to connect to their character’s through-line is a .The through-line is the way that actors believably connect to the character’s emotional reality.
We can’t decide which ones will work unless we try them out with actors.” It never works. or simple intention.” You are giving them the opportunity to change. Just think of New Year’s resolutions: sometimes people make a resolution that they are going to become “a nicer person.” and the male “to get her to take care of him. In this scenario. so I’m going to refer you to a list in the Appendix called Sample Simple Objectives. and the intention is what he is doing to get it. but because this is a book. 7) “This is how I see the character…” Talking about the character in terms of “what the character is like” is unproductive. showing the audience the character’s inner life rather than living it. Let’s take two possible interpretations of the imaginary scene.” and the male “to get her to hit him. she starts to telegraph them.” It is more helpful (and indeed more accurate) to say.” In a second interpretation. . versus direction that is result-oriented and intellectual. such as an understanding of what the character needs or wants.” or “more decisive. let’s say the woman is not to blame for the missing money and the man is taking out his frustrations on her.” The purpose of this simplistic example is only to begin discussion about the difference between direction that is experiential. This kind of direction is both result-oriented and general. later.) At the moment. If the actor’s transitions become rooted in intellectualization rather than experience. Rather than drawing an emotional map.” that is. But briefly. the work becomes forced or mechanical. “You’re a bad person. we don’t get to decide how or what to be. Using that interpretation. an objective is what the character wants from the other character. you already know how ineffective it is to criticize someone’s character. in other words to tell someone. I will be talking lots more about intention and objective. the man wants to trust her but she doesn’t care much about him. a director can better serve the actor by discussing the character’s intention or objective. from which to make a proper scene analysis. the female could have the objective “to get him to put his arms around her. the female could want “to make him cry. let’s pretend that the imaginary emotional map I outlined in the heading of this section (“he is worried because she is late. such as emotional maps. In the same way that we don’t get to decide how to feel.” etc. In the first interpretation.sense of objective. I’d love to give you an example of how this works. does it? If you have ever studied communication skills. “You did a bad thing. or need. or push. A director who is interested in having good acting in his movie will do everything he can to prevent this. (All we can do here is come up with candidates for appropriate choices of objectives. or even a set of facts. we don’t have a script. and perhaps has betrayed him.) is a real scene and think about some possible objectives that might make it work. The actor falls into what is called “indicating.
To use our New Year’s resolution example. they can pay attention to detail.Although people cannot change who they are. they can change what they do. a person could .
8) “Can you play him aggressive. but they are not actually able to do two things at once. I don’t even like the term “in character” because it sounds static. But if actors keep getting result direction thrown at them just before the camera is about to roll. Acting becomes an obligation. but in reality they are asking for something completely confusing and unplayable. who will be? No one is born bad. it’s complex. We’ll investigate this issue more fully in Chapters on Actor’s Choices and Script Analysis. The actor and director need to break down their ideas about the character into a series of playable tasks. Characters get to be who they are because of the needs they have. Judgment is the most dangerous consequence of deciding “what the character is like. a burden. Our indecisive person might need to do some research into decisionmaking skills.” These are negative judgments on the character. the director. and the actor together create a character who. yet curious. there may not be time to make it playable. People are surely complex. “He’s a nebbish.” Or. allowing him to have needs and make choices . The ones that do nothing but exhort the reader to have more self-esteem are worse than useless. “He’s stupid. but determined.” “He is defensive yet vulnerable. This takes insight and knowledge of human behavior. has both good and bad sides. a “character in the sky” that the actor feels she must live up to or become.” If the actor is not on the character’s side. Likewise for an actor.resolve to write more thank-you notes. The character becomes some sort of Platonic ideal. of course there isn’t only one way of creating complexity in a character — after all. The writer. and at the end of the year he might feel like a “nicer” person. An actor can’t play two things at once.” Or. The two things cancel each other out. Or they may rapidly alternate what they are doing from one thing to another. placing him in a situation.” “She is in love with him. and it takes time. Now. It is the actor’s job to translate the director’s result-oriented direction into playable tasks.” Or. they approach the character experientially.” “She is catatonic. So it helps a lot if the director gives direction in playable terms. trying to be “what the character is like” usually produces stress and self-doubt. “She’s a castrator. The good self-help books are very task-oriented. But that’s not the same thing as being “cautious yet cheerful” at the same time. They may say one thing while doing another. Or the actor ends up faking one or both of them.” Or. the things that happen to them.” Directors think that by giving a direction like this they are calling attention to the complexity of the character. like all of us. but pleasant?” You could call this the fine wine direction — “This character is frightened. 9) “He’s a punk. they add strain and self-doubt to the reader’s burdens. “She’s self-destructive. but doesn’t want to hurt her sister. and the choices they make.
to decide who is . The audience gets to make the judgments.and not judging him.
And of course serious drama loses any opportunity for insight or revelation when good and evil are portrayed without ambiguity. energy.” or “I’m the villain. because you must have the style. and trusts the script. it is just as important to find a central humanity to the character as when you are directing naturalistic drama. strong. It may cause an instant loss of faith in the director or. But. And it applies to all genres of movies.weak. The audience wants to participate in the emotional events of the movie. he allows each actor to prepare a fully realized character. When the actor judges a character and telegraphs to the audience. This is boring. When he speaks to each actor. Clint Eastwood portrays the hero as a man with many misgivings about the rightness of his actions. in his preparation. It is very disappointing for a good actor to work with a director who judges the characters. etc. a slow erosion of any chance to collaborate and create. Villains portrayed as recognizably human are far more frightening than cardboard cutouts. while maintaining the integrity of the characterization. in which the actors will be showing us the end of the movie at the beginning. 10) “Let’s give [this character] a hostile edge. this is exactly why people say that comedy is harder to do than drama. or the lovers are going to get together — even if the movie is a “character piece” and all its events are private and emotional.” he is playing a caricature — who can care what happens to him? When the director directs by telling the actors: “You are the hero. you may say. This idea is central to the artist-audience relationship.” he is setting up a situation in which there can be no suspense. Even if you are directing physical comedy or liveaction characters based on cartoon figures. and special skills needed for the particular genre. ambitious.” and “You are the villain. The director. at the least. what about comedy? fantasy? action-adventure? — where there is fun in the stereotypes and in the certainty that the hero will prevail. should approach each character as if he were going to play that character himself. he takes the side of that character. “I’m the good guy. Well. he allows himself to believe in each character’s reality.” . This accounts for the success of the movie “The Unforgiven”: Gene Hackman plays the cruel sheriff as a regular guy who is doing his job. Suspense is delicious to an audience. Heroes whom we see making choices and coping with problems are more appealing than formula heroes. The performances of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in “Batman Returns” and of Claus Maria Brandauer as the villain of “Never Say Never Again” show that it is possible to meet the demands of a genre movie without caricature. to feel something happen to the characters right in front of them. allows the characters to honestly conflict with each other. The basic posture of the audience is what happens next? This is true even if we know that the hero is going to win. This is more likely to happen if there is in the characters some complexity and ambiguity.” “I’m the loser. lazy.
talking about the character in .I’m talking here about attitude. deciding the attitude.
terms of his attitude. a tender attitude toward his sister. etc. but by getting under the characters’ skins and into their subworld. Most of the time when directors give result direction or general direction. that is. The first thing a director should learn. deciding the character has a wary attitude toward his brother. with no connection to the other actor or to the words or situation of the character. canned attitude or unction. The way to create an exciting and unpredictable performance is not by playing attitude. If you are going to give result direction. overlaying their words and movements with a predetermined. People confuse attitude with “edge. When you ask for a general result. it’s very helpful at least to give the actor enough time to make the translation. a hostile attitude toward his father. perhaps to mention.” they are referring to something exciting and unpredictable. They are not listening to each other.” By “playing attitude” I mean the difference between doing something and showing something. My impression is that most often when people talk about “edge. They haven’t gone beneath the most obvious. actors emoting. for example. Whether your ideas are superficial or profound. surface possibilities of the script. “I know I’m asking for a result here and you’re going to have to find something playable. posturing. or whether they are just saying lines at each other. you need to understand that you are asking the actors first to figure out what you meant. and the first-last-and-always thing he should look for from his actors. they are showing us their performance. telegraphing the dramatic moments and forcing the humor. it means that the only ideas they have are clichés. a clichéd villain.” . if you frame them in terms of result. whether they are genuinely affecting each other in the moment. and second to translate your wishes into something playable. When actors play attitude they are posturing. Nothing makes a performance look more amateurish than a failure to listen and engage with the other actors.” Edge has become a catch-all phrase. is whether they are listening. The very grave danger in asking actors for an attitude is that in attempting to do as you ask they may start “playing attitude. Characters and relationships created this way tend to be generic and formulaic. and by setting up an atmosphere of creative trust and freedom where the actors can engage and play off each other. the worst thing that can happen is that you might get what you have asked for: a generic brother-sister relationship. Playing attitude is analogous to talking at someone rather than talking to someone. People often think that deciding the character’s attitude is the way to develop the relationships of the script. This is vague and general. something that works for you. The choices themselves are pedestrian and uninspiring. Playing attitude is playing at the character.
you want to save time on the set. it is vitally important that you spend time ahead of shooting to prepare and to know your script and characters inside and out. and to learn how to give direction in playable terms.If. It’s not just a question of . on the other hand.
abrasive. viciously. sadly. a quick grammar review. their close kin. seductive. They describe the thing (noun) or activity (verb) itself. result direction in the way you talk to actors about their characters: train yourself to notice when you are using adjectives and explanations. abrasively. Examples of adverbs are: happily. Adjectives are modifiers of nouns. it’s a different way to approach a created reality. are modifiers of verbs. Examples of adjectives are: happy. beautiful. sweet. Now. casual. First. seductively. angrily. sweetly. beautifully. bitter. casually. and adverbs. what’s wrong with adjectives? . vicious. sad. But I can give you a quick way to spot general. angry. bitterly.vocabulary.
believable characterization. for example. interpretive. it became socially gauche to go into such personal detail. In order to create an alive. They are a shortcut. we feel the bed move under our bodies.ADJECTIVES Adjectives are static. hear. After about four months. static. for example by telling him. a social necessity. a step removed from primary experience. What other people see is only the tip of the iceberg. intellectualizing. Many directors. So you can see how communication can get all bollixed up if people rely on adjectives. and even to avoid them altogether. he will have one of two reactions. Likewise explanations. They . behavior that one person considers “friendly” may be seen as “sexual” or even “aggressive” by someone else. Los Angelenos would describe their earthquake experiences to each other in great sensory detail. not like that. smell. You can easily get off on the wrong foot with an actor by critiquing his performance using adjectives. taste. the actor needs insight into how the character experiences life. subjective. in language that is experiential. psychologizing) have all the bad attributes of adjectives: glib. car alarms. They serve our social needs to summarize. and categorizing. Primary experience is the experience of our five senses. Explanations (emotional maps. because their script analysis has consisted of passively watching the movie in their head. have only such superficial descriptions of the characters available to them. When we are in the middle of an earthquake we hear very specifically the sounds of breaking glass.” What if the actor thinks he already was playing it sexy? If so.” But the actor needs to access exactly such primary experience. so instructions that summarize or intellectualize primary experience lead the actor away from the tools of his trade. “I’m not sexy enough for this role. “No. what we see. our eyes strain in the pitch darkness to pick out shapes. superficial. to intellectualize emotion. they describe someone else’s impression of the character. For about four months after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. The director doesn’t think I’m sexy. Play it sexy. Using adjectives to describe a character may tell the actor more about your personality than about the character’s. so now when someone asks us about the earthquake we summarize the experience by calling it “scary” or “weird.” Or he will make a mental note about you: “What’s wrong with this guy? He doesn’t know sexy when he sees it. not descriptive. The essence of a person is not other people’s descriptions of her. And besides they are too logical. we may suddenly drench in sweat — our sensory life is alive to detail. to categorize experience. It’s a good idea to be suspicious of adjectives (and adverbs). Adjectives are subjective. We know from real life that people’s interpretations of behavior vary widely. thinking. and touch.” Adjectives are generalizations. too dead-on. Either he will start to doubt himself. and therefore not ideal communication tools.
. illuminate. Lawyers and accountants should explain things. and let the audience draw their own conclusions. juxtapose.are not creative. artists are here to suggest.
and objective and specific rather than subjective and general. and also because I wanted you to read the chapter and I knew a chapter titled “Quick Fixes” would be the first thing you would read. Instead of adjectives and explanations. because verbs. events. and kinetic (physical tasks). They are keys to the characters’ subworld. facts. images. so it is active and dynamic rather than static. dynamic (events). sensory (images). . facts. The actor “nails it” in rehearsal or on the first take. images. And if they do stop working. They are more specific than adjectives and explanations. Everyone involved is mystified and depressed. that is. images. facts. and the performance vanishes. events. I want to start you out with five powerful tools you can use to shape performances — verbs. generates behavior in the actor. the situation is less hopeless. I shouldn’t give you the impression that result direction never works. and physical life.Good direction. facts. They help your imagination kick in. playable direction. and physical tasks are the quickest fixes I can think of. and physical tasks. events. are useful script analysis tools. no matter where I placed it in the book! Verbs. but then another take may be needed for some other reason. Now I call this chapter “Quick Fixes” because verbs. objective (facts). and physical tasks are more playable than adjectives and explanations because they are choosable and repeatable. in addition to being good language for direction. Specific. sensory rather than intellectual. But when it works it usually works just once. you will have new ideas to replace the ones that don’t work. events. images. They work because they are active (verbs). because sometimes it does. Once you are alive and active in the subworld of the script. but they are less likely to. playable choices can also stop working unexpectedly.
so they are active rather than static. something you do to someone else. There are two lists in the Appendix.” An action verb is a transitive verb. To accuse is an example of an action verb. to tease. not if it is done physically. it is a piece of blocking or “business. For instance. It has an emotional component in that accusing is an emotional transaction between two people. Of course we know from life that sometimes when a person is mad at someone who is not present.) But the action verb “to accuse” does also have a physical component. an action verb has both an emotional and a physical component. but although it is an activity. to beg. is not an action verb. it doesn’t take an object. they describe experience rather than a conclusion about experience. but not an action verb. to punish. To walk also is a verb. to complain. It takes an object. What if. believing in someone is not something that I do to him. in that it is something you do in the other person’s presence. of lying. although there is an object.” since it isn’t something you do to someone else. are not necessarily any more helpful than adjectives. not something I do to someone else. Stunts must always be carefully choreographed and staged. The helpful verbs I call “action verbs. to soothe — all are possible action verbs for this situation. So the action verb for A toward B might be “to accuse. we still have work to do to figure out A’s action verb toward B.” but it also might be something else. rather than a physical one. State-of-mind verbs.) The words defensive and angry are not verbs (they are adjectives). to resent. to believe is a verb. which will tell us what is the emotional transaction of the scene. Why shouldn’t the same be true for directors? Actions speak louder than words. To convince.VERBS Anyone who has taken a writing course has heard the teacher say that writers should whenever possible select verbs over adjectives and adverbs. of underhanded behavior. it’s more how I feel about him. is still a state of mind. Not all verbs are helpful in this context. in a theatrical context. since C is not present. whereas an action verb is something that when it works has great spontaneity. So that “to strike” functions as an action verb in this context only if it is done with the voice and subtext. you accuse someone else of something.” Actually it’s a stunt. such as to like. Verbs describe what someone is doing. whatever. to fear. a Short List of Action Verbs and a list of More Action Verbs. he takes out his anger on the person who is present. a verb that takes an object. in this definition it is not an “action verb. Let’s say you find yourself inclined to describe a character by saying he is . A raises the accusation that C has stolen money from him? Although A is accusing C. (Physically striking another person. (I suppose a case could be made that “to walk [someone] through [a new task or exercise]” is an action verb. a condition. even “to believe in” someone. because what I believe is a description of my state of mind. Typically. during a conversation with B.
” See if you can translate that into a verb by consulting the Short List.“being defensive. you might find yourself . Now you might say that the right verb is not on that list.
That’s how I came up with those ideas. they might warn the person conveying the information not to persist.” one of the following: to complain. I am thinking about the defensive behaviors I have seen in life (including of course the ones I have committed myself). to belittle. Use a verb instead of an emotion. I will be talking more about structure in later chapters. hence action verbs create an emotional event. in place of the direction to “be defensive. and not quite as muscular and immediate as the verbs on the Short List. something happens-. intention and are a very useful way to structure a characterization as well as a way to structure a scene. or to warn. we can decide what to do. using improv and gibberish. but I have found it helpful to ask students. something that we are doing. but they are also important to the basic understanding of a character. they might belittle the source of the information. I have them play the action to . In an exercise I use in my Acting for Directors classes I ask the students to practice action verbs from the Short List. Using action verbs instead of adjectives is a way of approaching the emotional center of a scene in a way that is experiential and playable rather than descriptive and result-oriented. Verbs can be used as a quick fix. a playable choice and a playable direction. The action verbs describe an emotional transaction when people do things to each other. out of my imagination and my life experiences. So I might suggest. Although we can’t decide how to feel. to start with the Short List and at least for a while restrict themselves to it. we will be even better positioned to pick suitable candidates. objective. need. Verbs belong to the constellation of through-line. These are verbs and they do take an object. They are a little bit intellectualized. however. so they are candidates. This makes the verb. Do you see how these verbs are specific? How in a situation where time is short. I certainly don’t claim that the Short List (or even the longer list of More Action Verbs) comprises all of human behavior. You see. When people are feeling defensive it is usually because something is coming at them that they don’t like. What we do affects our feelings and can create feeling. So they try to deflect attention from the information that is coming in. This allows the actors to affect each other and thus to create the emotional events of the scene. perhaps information they don’t want to face. for instance. There are different ways they might accomplish this: they might complain about being picked on unfairly. It’s like a musician sticking to scales when she is first learning a new instrument. they could fix a performance? The great thing about verbs is that they focus the actors’ attentions on their scene partner.inclined to say that the appropriate verb translation for “being defensive” is to defend or to protect or to deflect. Of course when we have the script and can make a proper script analysis (Cha p ter VII). when they are learning to use more verbs. Here I want to give you a short list of ways that verbs can be alternatives to common result directions. When.
a subtext. A critical point: When the actor is playing an attitude. we can’t control it. though. Use a verb instead of an attitude. self-righteousness — one can’t always predict what the feeling will be. The extra mental exertion is good for you! Directing is not supposed to be easy. Superior actors will not be harmed by your using verbs instead of adjectives. thus: “Am I being sexy enough?” Or. anger. and a scene come alive. It also allows you the director to be more active in the collaboration. punish might be the most intense. whereas we can control what we do.” Actors actually hear directors saying things like. right before your eyes! So instead of asking an actor to “play it sexy” (adjective).” Can you hear how hard it would be to interpret this direction? Verbs can help. a n d complain the least intense. you can’t be sure until you try it. I had an acting teacher who used to exhort us: “You’re actors. where “x” milliliters of hydrochloric acid combined with “x” milliliters of bleach will always turn the litmus paper a certain color. . what happens next. The audience wants to feel things themselves! That’s what they pay for! It’s not what Jessica Lange is feeling in “Blue Sky” that makes her performance so thrilling.conscious and stagy. if they do it honestly. It could be hurt. in other words. that it will take more thought on your part to articulate precisely what it is that you want using verbs instead of adjectives. It’s not a chemistry formula. do you want the actor to punish? to warn? to complain? Each of those verbs would give a different level of intensity to the line. Now. but not for our feelings. “Is this enough anger?” When his concentration is on himself. there is a tiny voice running in his mind.accuse. Use a verb instead of “take it down” or “give it more energy. you might suggest that she “accuse” or “punish” him (verbs). but not that mean. Again. This shift in concentration allows and encourages the actors to listen and to engage. The audience is not drawn to a story by what an actor is feeling. his acting becomes self. because what we feel is not our fault. damn it — not feelers!” How about remembering it this way: We can be put in jail for our actions. you might ask him “to flirt” with her (verb). his concentration is on himself. instead of asking an actor to “be more angry” (adjective). you will be better able to bring the script to life and guide and shepherd your vision. When you are active and alive in the process. they are often surprised to find themselves feeling something. it’s what she is doing. and less experienced actors may very well be helped. but rather by what the character does with the feeling. An actor who is floundering may find the right track. you should be mean to him. You may notice. “Yes.
” It can sap actors’ energy to be constantly told to “take it down” instead of a more specific direction. . It can make them feel that you don’t care if they commit.Asking an actor to coax rather than demand might be another way to getting them to “take it down.
to let it happen. whine. They psychologize the character to death. I pondered it without understanding for a long time. Use a verb instead of a judgment. nobody asks if he’s the type!” Actually. Gene Hackman is a master at this. Indeed. this statement. Perhaps she cajoles. may start to feel that the director does not really know what he is talking about. in a lot of her movies. “take it down” is exactly the right direction when it is given as a permission not to push or force. Sometimes. You’ll hear them say: “My character would never manipulate — she’s too nice. Actors and directors who get bogged down in “what the character is like” miss entirely what a tangle of opposites humans really are. goads. which he repeated often.” And sometimes an actor is “hovering” over his performance and needs to let it go. let it all be there. Don’t waste time wrestling over what the character’s personality is. in which case “Give it more energy” would be almost the right thing to say. when they hear them over and over in situations that are not at all alike. and finally punishes (for example. If he does it. of course. then he would do it! We are what we do. Bette Davis in — well. seduce — not all at once but in very quick succession. give some thought to the specific behavior of a manipulative person. He can charm. In real life we do lots of things that are inexplicable to others and to ourselves. Use a verb instead of describing “what the character is like” or “how I see the character. “My character wouldn’t flirt — he’s uptight about his sexuality. demand. as in “It’s okay to relax.” I had an acting teacher who used to say. challenge. but let’s say opposite one of her worthiest adversaries. Claude Rains.that you don’t want them to engage.” Or. “If a man is standing on his head in the middle of the road. Actors sometimes resist this idea. piling convolution upon convolution. . This makes his characters complex and unpredictable. changing intentions (verbs) in the wink of an eye. Instead of denouncing a character as manipulative. begs. arguing over whether the character “would do” such and such a thing. in “Deception”). My point is that these two phrases are overused and actors. you don’t need to show us what you are feeling. What I know now years later is that actors and directors waste a lot of energy and time gossiping about the characters. What makes a character complex is that he does different things at different times. actors and directors who get bogged down in explanations have a terrible time when they want to describe a complex character. just do it.” News flash: Uptight people flirt! Nice people manipulate! Proud people beg! Shy people brag! People are complex. Use a verb instead of a line reading. was a riddle to me.
Harold Clurman. in his book On Directing. he calls “demonstrating” for the actor. What I have called giving a line reading. describes this technique. and he disarmingly .
There are good directors who are not verbally quick. The important thing here is not that you are required to come up with and articulate the correct action verb for every intention that you want the actor to express. But Clurman is careful to point out that when he demonstrates a line to an actor. i.admits to demonstrating “more than I believe fitting or desirable. I don’t want you just to get slick at translating adjectives and line readings into verbs. . Although I believe that adding more verbs and weeding out adjectives from your vocabulary will help you articulate your ideas.e.. Sometimes a line reading is finally the only way you can convey the meaning of the line.” Of course this happens to all directors. Line readings are not actually so very bad as long as you do understand what the line means. coming up on the spot with the appropriate action verb when you are in the thick of rehearsal or shooting is not always possible. An intention is another term for what I have called an action verb. and Clurman even treats us to a private conversation he had on this subject with Constantin Stanislavsky himself. but that you can give more specific. Now. it’s not because he wants the actor to say the line with the inflection he gave it. more followable direction when you understand that what you are looking for is not really an inflection but the intention of the line. but that he wants to communicate to the actor a sense of the intention of the speech. what intention it carries.
backstory facts and events that can be deduced from the script. interpretative. That’s an example of a fact.) Every woman I know. I asked the actress playing Sally what she thought were the facts of the scene. that is. and often they are more eloquent than explanations. Adding the embellishment waters down the direction. imaginative backstory choices. They have a tendency to want to embellish them with explanations. Saying that a character “can’t express his feelings” is an example of a psychological explanation. factual backstory and the events of the script. The honeymoon letters. Doesn’t that fact evoke her nature more vividly than the psychological description that “she is very attached to her mother”? Even a full explanation of the origins of this attachment would just get long-winded and intellectual. “He doesn’t express his feelings.” (I have added italics to the unnecessary embellishment. The power of an explanation rests with the persuasive abilities of the explainer. Sally and her friend Marie are discussing Marie’s married boyfriend. and facts that are not in the script. and she disapproves. are more eloquent. A more helpful place to start our explorations into this character would be to note as a fact. Script Analysis is something that many directors fear and avoid. but actually they are blurring it. created universe — can be truly magical. unadorned. and imaginative backstory choices that develop the skeleton of backstory facts into a rich. I was working with two acting students on a scene from the movie “When Harry Met Sally”. Don’t embellish the facts with explanations. She said.FACTS Directors and actors all too often underestimate the power of facts.” She wrote a letter to her mother every day of her honeymoon. it is not playable. would have some reaction. Determining the facts that are in a script is an important focus of Script Analysis. Even if it is true (and to me the phrase is glib and lacks the ring of truth). Directors often think they are sharpening the focus by adding the explanation of the character’s state of mind. Use facts instead of psychologizing. if her best girlfriend was dating a married man. There are two kinds of facts that are useful to directors and actors: facts that are in the script. But script facts of all kinds — backstory facts that are stated in the script. Use facts instead of “what the character is like. Facts speak for themselves. facts are objective. that is. “Sally’s best friend is dating a married man. The situation itself is more vivid and evocative than its embellishment. without needing to be instructed to have one. Explanations weaken facts because explanations are subjective.” .
I decided to screen for the class the movie “On the Waterfront.In one of my courses at the Rockport Maine Film and Television Workshops.” In the class discussion the next .
. At this point we look at Edie.” But look at the evidence. sheltered by a doting father. educated by nuns. There is a scene about half way through the movie in which Edie comes up to Terry’s pigeon cote on the roof and they have a conversation.” Instead of saying. we were going over the events of the movie in order to determine the spine of the character Edie (Eva Marie Saint). that I think closes the book on this bit of detective work. the morning after her first sexual experience. Use facts instead of attitudes. The great thing about facts is that. what does that suggest has already been lost? Of course having Edie wear a slip in that scene may not have been in the original script. because Edie was “not like that. but never tries to cover herself. Here is the fact we should look at: the next day they are both coming to talk to the priest! This is evidence that something happened on the roof that was troubling. he listens to the answer. it may have been a directorial choice. they are based on evidence and deduction. later in the movie. If we look back at the scene and decide that nothing troubling happened in the scene. Since she does not seem to fear the loss of Terry’s respect. It takes more thought. make an appointment to meet with her confessor. You may be able to find out how the actor arrived at his choice. If you have a disagreement with an actor.day.” that a girl “like Edie” in middle-class America in the 1950s “wouldn’t do that. . Several insisted that the scene in question had not ended in sex. she is in her slip. The priest mentions that Edie has an appointment with him and is on her way. you can’t argue with ’em. We were listing some facts of Edie’s background. The next scene after the fade-out has Terry coming to talk to the priest. Facts are a potent weapon in script analysis. Use facts instead of a judgment. and then be able to discuss the problem more fruitfully. “After he asks a question. more imagination. e. I mentioned to the class that one of the facts we had to look at concerning Edie is that she has sex with Terry when she actually has only known him a short time. “He’s a likable guy. When Terry breaks down her door to see her. say that “she poured paint on the windshield of her ex-lover’s car. Students took issue with me. that she has been kept from the world of the docks by her father. and realize that a girl with that background might. Instead of describing a character as “a bitch.” you might say. the scene ends in a kiss and a fade-out. who used his savings to send her to Catholic schools.” since those are factual statements of behavior that many people find likable.g. to think up facts that describe a character. go over the facts of the scene together.” or “He looks you right in the eye. as the saying goes. This is in fact how directorial choices are made. then something troubling must have happened after the scene ended. There is evidence.” you might invent a backstory fact. She screams at him to get out.
Let’s say that the boss only appears in this scene. You could add texture to a sketchy characterization of the boss by asking the question. but only means that a previous conversation has taken place. “She poured paint on the windshield of her ex-lover’s car.People see the line “I already told you that.” instead of “She’s a bitch. Once you decide that the line “I already told you that” doesn’t connote any particular attitude. more vivid performances will result. Could she have had a good reason for pouring the paint? Maybe she’s not a bitch at all! At least that’s what you want the actor playing her to feel. Imaginative backstory facts are sometimes called adjustments. who was told the information and yet is asking about it again. then you start to have some curiosity about this previous conversation. Fresher. The audience can decide for themselves. You start to come up with ideas that may lead to insight. You shouldn’t jump to that conclusion.” and they immediately hear in their mind an attitude and tone of exasperation. An imaginative adjustment can be used to add a layer or a twist to the inner life and imagined given circumstances of the character. In this case it might be phrased as a “what if?” Let’s take as an example a scene in which an employee is told by his boss that he has been terminated. not believe character A? Or not listen? Was she distracted by some other secret concern? Facts and questions will begin to create a set of given circumstances that generate behavior that implies a point of view.” your statement opens the door to some questions. that people don’t always remember a previous conversation accurately. From there. Coming up with facts can lead us into interesting areas. It dawns on you. the speaker may think he spoke on this particular subject. but really only skirted the issue. Once you’ve described a character by saying. “What if her own father had been fired from his job when she was a child?” . Period. from your own experience and understanding of life. What you should get from that line is factual information: there has been a previous conversation between these two characters. you may ask questions: How many previous conversations? What was actually said? Under what conditions? Did character B. expecting a hint to be understood as a request.
which become the images of the script’s subworld. says. when all you really desire is to be outdoors. telling the actor this will not be helpful. a phrase from an old song can return us to the delicate yearnings of a long-ago love. I don’t mean only visual images. but the experiences of all our five senses.” Val. who by adding sensory detail can make us feel as if we are actually there where the story is happening. it kept . For example. hear. I was directing for a workshop a scene from “Orpheus Descending” by Tennessee Williams (made into the movie “The Fugitive Kind”). “I wish I was dead. The kinds of images that speak to the actor are 1) the images of the text.” After a few rehearsals I was not happy with what the actor was doing with this line. that is. lady. Images can call forth expressive behavior from an actor and make his deep emotions available. A successful storyteller is one who can make images come alive. smell. while an important part of filmmaking. “No you don’t. is not useful to the actor because it is a result. In later chapters I’ll talk more about how exploration of the images of the text can deepen and expand your understanding of the script. the images created by the words of the script. To give you an example of images in the text. reading the news can make us weep or rage if we allow ourselves to see and touch the misery we are reading about. Sensory memories are powerful evokers of emotion and subtext. Here are a few ways that directors can use images that spring from the character’s subworld to open up and tap into the actor’s emotional resources and help her connect her own imagination to the imagined world of the script. what we see.” This line is full of images: “outdoors” is an image. who thinks she is alone. It would be more helpful to put the character in a situation (a set of facts) that might produce the behavior you want to photograph. At the beginning of the scene Lady. with sensations that include sound and smell and tactile sensations as well as visual information. The director’s image. steps out of the shadows and says. and touch. taste. loneliness. Use images instead of asking for emotions. the picture he wants to convey to the audience. “shirt off is an image with many associations. The memory of the smell of baking bread can whisk us back to the kitchen of our youth. even the two verbs “desire” and “suffer” carry images. and 2) the images that the actor brings to the script. “two-week vacation” is an image with memories of many emotional colors for most people.IMAGES By images. who has overheard her. If you want a certain shot to convey to the audience an image of. let’s take this line (from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”): “To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation. Images (as well as facts) are the tools of the storyteller. because you would be asking for a result. say. with your shirt off.
Use images as imaginative adjustments. What about this: “The adjustment is that you realize that she has betrayed you and you decide to kill her. an attitude. even common. “Yes. perhaps that of the door closing on the child’s father as he leaves her there. “Have you ever seen a dead person?” His eyes shifted. suspicious. Use images instead of explanations. he began to speak the line with more emphasis. or the last light of his attempt at a smile. A way to use an adjustment if you want the actor to play the character with more “cheer” might be to suggest that she take the adjustment that everything the character opposite her is saying is really good news. rather than anything a person was actually saying to another person. Such images live with people (characters) the rest of their lives. a person still young — not all made up in a funeral casket. direct. he was adding a fake urgency to a moment for which he had not yet found an emotional reality. the first time that I saw the dead body of a friend. We did not discuss it again. Picturing it in my mind would make it easy for me to assure someone that it was a state that one does not really desire. which only made things worse. he said quietly. a quick fix. an adjustment can be a junior image. you could invoke an image. looked him in the eye and asked. self-destructive — whatever. Directors who can communicate with actors on the level of these images can get actors to do anything. and emotionally full. Sometimes it is confused with attitude.” This is definitely not a playable adjustment. But I know that for myself. Access to such images is one of an actor’s most important tools. But instead of spending hours psychologizing (intellectualizing) the character’s deep emotions. so I don’t know what interior adjustment he made. it’s possible. to hear a director telling an actor to use “a cheerful adjustment. In addition to the “what if?” imaginative backstory adjustments described under “Facts” above. but a disguised emotional map.” After that his delivery of the line was honest. inward it seemed. You might find yourself wanting to explain to the actor the character in terms of the psychological effects of her abandonment — withdrawn. on an impulse. Summoning the images associated with important events much more closely approximates the workings of these events on actual human psyches than explaining their effects. The term adjustment is used differently by different people.” But cheerful is an adjective.” I said. “Let’s run the scene. a brief metaphor. Finally I took him aside and. It .sounding like a line in a play. Let’s say you are directing a movie with a main character whose backstory is that at the age of four she was left with an unpleasant relative for six months during her mother’s hospitalization for polio. not really a playable adjustment. Sometimes it is misused. When I mentioned to him that I thought the moment was not yet fulfilled. but lying on a gurney in an emergency ward — created an unforgettable image.
For example. . Or you might speak to the actors separately and ask one of them to make an adjustment as if the other character has bad breath. Or you might ask actors to play a business meeting as if it is a children’s play sword ftght. a love scene: you might ask the actors to play it as if it is a business deal. A quick imaginative adjustment of this type can bring spark to a scene that is playing too deadon.often takes the form as if.
and so that the audience remains throughout the movie in that delicious state of anticipation of what happens next. whereas telling them you want the scene to be poignant or giving them an emotional map will be subtly less exciting and less generative of good acting. Even when you know how to articulate the events. every decision she makes about the film must be based on what the movie is about. and the director is a storyteller. the “movie” love scene. A director needs to be on the lookout for the fake confrontation. moment-by-moment acting that creates a genuine and dynamic sense of event. What I mean by “event” is not the same as plot or incident. We don’t want to indicate the event. Sidney Lumet says in his book Ma kingMovies that what the movie is about — some people call this the movie’s theme — is the central thing a director needs to feel and understand. I’ll be talking more in the next chapter about ways to ask for.EVENTS Every scene has a central event. a trick. Creating the events of the script is the most important job of the director for two reasons: 1) Because the events of a script tell its story. a seduction. bringing them to full and vivid life is not necessarily easy. Telling the actors that the scene is about a fight between two people who used to love each other can help them rally the personal and imaginative resources they need to create the poignancy you are looking for in the scene. such as a fight. a negotiation. and the director is the shepherd and guardian of the movie’s theme. It takes imagination and insight and thinking to change your perception of a scene from an adjective or an emotional map to a sense of event. or it may be that one character makes another character blush. the clichéd apology. we want to make it happen in the here and now and let the audience in on it. . and encourage the honest. a healing. The central event of a scene may be that one galaxy overthrows another galaxy’s way of life. I will discuss event and theme farther in the Script Analysis chapter. but for now I want to mention that talking about the event of a scene is a useful way of communicating with actors. Luckily the process itself is invigorating and stimulating. The events must unfold emotionally and filmically so that they are at once surprising and inevitable. 2) Because the events of the movie tell us what the movie is about. but is more like an emotional event. recognize.
Finally (the scene took place in a kitchen) the director said. he seduces the other actor. emotionally stagnant in the actor’s predetermined idea of how the line should be said. When the actor or actors are concentrating on a physical problem or task. just like after a demanding physical task. and the scene played simply and naturally. Having a very simple. The scene was stuck. Even if he is getting result direction. And the simplest thing you could ask an actor to do would be a physical task. Because then the actor can concentrate on what he is doing. to no avail. such as a verb. Verbs are an emotional and imaginative extension of physical tasks. Whenever actors are struggling. like making a sandwich or potting a plant. The more physical the verb is the better. She kept telling him so. putting his concentration on the other actor. not a physical one. because he lets the lines come out of the physical task.” As soon as he had a physical problem — the stuck refrigerator door — to put his attention on. he automatically translates the result into a playable task. And let’s let the refrigerator door be a little stuck.PHYSICAL TASKS The thrust of all these alternatives to result direction has been to look for ways to ask the actor to do something rather than to ask him to be something. A physical task takes the actor’s concentration off the lines. the words were freed from the actor’s preconceived notion. . and allow himself to be in the moment. He works moment by moment. for example. A measure of how skilled an actor is is how effectively he can make that psychological leap so that an imaginative choice has a sense of task. getting him to feel punished is a task. Concentration on an imaginative task. If you want to punish someone. or image. if told to be angrier. rehearsed-looking. I was told a story of one director of a major motion picture who was having trouble with a direction to an actor: She wanted him to play the scene less seductively. takes the actor off the lines and into a created reality. so his behavior can be natural and spontaneous. fact. physical thing to do brings down the level of stress so they can rally their concentration and confidence. their concentration can give the scene a sense of its emotional problem. But if the imaginative task gets too intellectualized or self-conscious. it is helpful to make your direction as simple and as physical as possible. Concentration on the lines — on remembering them or on delivering them the “right” way — makes a performance stiff. At this point I ought to talk about verbs again. Afterward he feels tired. then a physical task may be useful. “Why don’t you go to the refrigerator and look for a snack during this conversation. only it is a psychological task. too dead-on to the lines. The actor lets the lines come out of the imaginative task rather than out of a preconceived idea of how they should sound. if told to be sexier. he starts punishing the other character.
Actors do it to themselves! Actors routinely come into casting sessions and immediately ask. Sometimes very smart directors tell an actor “I don’t know” even when they do know. and emotionally honest work. and yet feels firmly supported by a smart. events. . only to have the actor respond. an image. You can learn how to give direction in such a way that the actor ends up feeling that his performance is his own. John Cassavetes was like that — notorious for refusing to tell actors how to play their roles — but not because he hadn’t done his homework and didn’t know and understand the characters inside and out himself. In order to get the use of the full creative potential of your actors you must be prepared for some of the answers to these questions not to be the ones you were expecting. to make them their own. but by asking questions. physical tasks — function best in the form of questions to the actor: “Do you think these characters have ever pulled off a robbery before?” “Do you think he wants to pick a fight or is he hoping she will stay calm?” “What if the character is lying when she says this line?” “What if she just received a crank phone call?” “What does the image ‘cherry orchard’ conjure up for you?” “What’s important about this scene?” “Do you have any impulse to turn away from her when she says that?” Sometimes “I don’t know” is the smartest thing a director can say to an actor. You have to give up your character-in-the-sky and the version of the film you have running on the inside of your forehead. When an actor asks you a question. Look for the experience. All the devices I have been discussing — verbs. Or a question. answer with a fact. unguarded. the process. who can offer the crucial “quick fix” because she has done the groundwork.QUESTIONS. facts. He wanted only fresh. QUESTIONS “Do you want it seductive? I can do seductive. specific direction that with care and feeling creates the images and factual circumstances of the character’s situation. or a physical task. an event. Preferably a question. Rather because he wanted actors to find the characters themselves. well-prepared director with an authentic authority. a verb. even if he asks you for an adjective. images. QUESTIONS. “You mean you want it more sarcastic?” or “You want me to pump it up?” He has fallen into “playing the result. Don’t allow your idea to be reduced to its lowest common denominator. Have faith. rather than the result. The very best way to direct is not by giving direction at all.” Directors are not the only ones who give actors result direction.” Don’t be discouraged. “What’s this character like?” In rehearsal or on the set you might give a solid.
If you confine yourself to learning only the things you are sure you will use. he should force himself on stage or before the camera so he knows this experientially. still fear actors instead of embracing them as comrades in a task. and examples will be specific suggestions of ways directors can connect and collaborate more deeply with actors to make their movies better and their own job more creatively rewarding. too. bring them to that state of relaxation where their creative faculties are released… “All in all he must know enough in all these areas so his actors trust him completely. which is bounty. At one period of his growth. even inspire the actor. . to introduce you to the craft of acting and some ways that actors work. You may feel that I am telling you more than you as a director need to know. its history and its techniques.MOMENT BY MOMENT “Of course the film director should know acting. “Some directors.” — Elia Kazan These next chapters will be a journey inside the actor’s world. how to put him or her at their ease. you are running amok of the very first principle of creativity. The more he knows about acting. the more at ease he will be with actors. I am a great believer in knowing more than you need to know. Needless to say he must also know how to make an actor seem not to act. Interwoven with theory. Think of it as bounty. and very famous ones. observations. My approach is intended for directors with a thirst to understand and build a trust with actors. The director must know how to stimulate. Creativity is bountiful.
accurate. The actor’s face. he will be gripped thus by self-consciousness. reactions. . body. He looks to the director for this. existential reassurance and validation is nearly inexhaustible. the more frightened he is. He is positive he really can’t do it.FEAR AND CONTROL “Almost every actor goes into almost every picture very frightened. Paradoxically the craving to perform well and feel this freeness can trick them into holding on. His mantra unwittingly becomes: “How am I doing? Am I saying this right? Does the audience get it? Does everybody like me?” Unless the actor finds some other thing to be gripped by. a technique that has worked a hundred times won’t work any more. They may be afraid of sounding foolish.” — Paul Mazursky Actors are in an unrelenting existential spin. Sometimes asking an actor how she works can be a good way to begin collaborative discussions about the work at hand. which exactly makes all chances for a vivid. and attitudes in order to show the audience the feelings. thin. especially with an “outsider. it lacks texture and spontaneity. A good performance is a thrilling experience — it feels like flying. Honest praise is as necessary to him as water. actorish. or from fear that his preparation is inadequate. Self-conscious acting is fussy. And it only happens if they let go and float free. And so is forthright. Or they may be superstitious about exposing such subterranean material to the light of day — afraid that once revealed. reactions. he may start to push or indicate. into reserving a corner of their concentration so they can check on and control their performance. Sometimes actors don’t want to discuss their methods. Without a compelling focus for his attention. Indicating or telegraphing or playing a result occurs when the actor pretends to have feelings. afraid of becoming self-conscious. His thirst for a core. When an actor is self-conscious. how painful it is to hear criticism. that he will do it wrong. Indicating shows up as a “false note. how easy it is to doubt oneself. and attitudes he has decided are right for the character. the actor’s attention turns to his own anxieties. and constructive criticism.” It may result from wrong-headed or inadequate preparation.” which is how they often regard the director. spontaneous performance disappear. because it means that he is uncomfortable about being watched. strained. But not necessarily. and feelings are exposed. voice. The bigger the star.” The antidote is to put his concentration someplace other than on himself. It is important for directors to understand how wildly frightening acting can be. thoughts. how vulnerable you are when you’re up there. Self-consciousness is a great problem for an actor. or that the audience “isn’t getting it.
or reluctance to find disagreeable behavior truthfully in himself—or plain squeamishness — may cause him to resist the role. Success can be an enemy to an actor’s creativity. they are hungry to perform. And I would come in every day and I would have some story why this woman got so biased. An actor must allow himself to be watched. they may become cautious. there needs to be risk. it is much better acting than cautious acting. If the director doesn’t tell them. But if an actor takes a big risk and it doesn’t work. flawed. rather than a risk-taking stance.” When the acting has risk. danger. it looks much worse than cautious acting. transformed by the created reality of the script. They don’t “put out. In order to bring a character to life. mistake. like an athlete. Lesser actors hide. I mentioned in the first chapter the dangers of judging a character. they live to compete. A big risk that doesn’t work is called overacting. They are grateful. They refrain from giving over their whole. They make a safe choice. Fear of hurting his self-image with the audience. Cautious acting is not very good acting because in real life people incautiously make a lot of mistakes. it makes drama more moving. most private self. mystery more suspenseful.” “It was physically impossible… I just got to that scene and I would vomit. idiosyncrasy. adventure more thrilling. Great actors love to give. serendipity. A great dramatic actor allows the world to watch his deepest. comedy more surprising. one has something to lose and can easily fall into a protective. surprise.RISK “I send the actors out to suffer for me every day.” — Jean Renoir When actors can’t trust the director for honest and competent feedback. It is so acutely embarrassing to actors to be caught overacting that many would rather give a flat performance than a risk-taking one. idiosyncratic selves to every role. Actors can be so afraid of looking bad that they make choices they know are wrong for the character. what could have happened…” Apparently the director could see that . These things give a performance the texture of real life — and “edge. They need the director to tell them these things. in an interview on the Bravo Channel series “Inside the Actors Studio. love to perform.” Because here’s one of life’s little unfairnesses: If an actor takes a big risk and it works. As soon as one has success.” spoke of the distress she felt on the set of “A Patch of Blue” when she — in her own life a fierce advocate who had participated in civil rights marches — had to play a racist and include a line added to the original script in which she called Sidney Poitier a “nigger. how she turned out like this. They rely on formula or cliché in devising their characterizations. and become cautious. they may feel they must watch the performance themselves. Shelley Winters. but it is equally dangerous to sentimentalize a character. Good actors are not offended when a director catches a false note and informs the actor that he seems to have lost his center of truth or isn’t listening and has crossed the line into overacting.
together with Poitier. Actors often have their own highly private routines to get themselves below the social mask and ready to perform. and are in it together. As long as you break down the barriers. genuine response to a question or remark or event. They’re naked. It sounds really corny but it’s true. They may feel their work vis-àvis acting is done once they have cast someone whose bag of tricks includes an ability to hit a set of predetermined emotional notes on command. then out of that nakedness will come something good. He. Many directors are impressed with an actor’s “bag of tricks” — an actor who can cry on cue or go from zero to towering rage in sixty seconds. to look like a living person in a situation rather than an actor in a movie an actor has to get below the social mask. including those of actors. This is not as easy as it sounds. Good roles are rare. Even the most ordinary activities. Directors. ready to put out. A big enemy of risk is the pressure to do it “right. it really is. Without this stripping down to essentials. without guilt — with the hollow moral center of a bigot.” — Adrian Lyne The best work happens when actors are caught in unguarded moments of simplicity and truth. Whether the script is naturalistic or fantastical. We all are. Actors are expected — and expect themselves — to “nail it” right away. You get very close doing movies. convinced her to take the bigger risk of facing and finding truthfully the behavior of a person without self-awareness. she goes through her emotional and imaginative storage banks to get herself connected . and often are lacking in understanding or patience regarding acting as a process. Glenn Close calls this stripping down a process of giving herself permission to “disturb the molecules” in the air around her. say. especially the big screen.what the actor thought were attempts to humanize the character were really resistances to the truth of the script and that she was on the road to sentimentalizing the character by injecting an awareness of guilt into the character’s behavior. that the fear of making a mistake rules most creative decisions. television so driven by ratings. She won her second Oscar for that role. giving a simple. cooking a dinner. There’s not a lot that’s left unsaid when you go in the trailer with them. They mistakenly put their concentration on making the producer think they can do it right the first time rather than on a creative choice. and more honest. when they are scripted in a movie. require the actor to perform on himself a stripping of the social veneer. “Any director’s job is to make an actor understand that you’re giving everything of yourself to a part… It’s kind of a love aftair.” Even if the subject matter of the movie is not painful or difficult. But I want to encourage you to look for something deeper. fresher. and as actors age the parts get smaller. in order to read and come alive on the screen. Sally Field says that as soon as she knows she is going to be in a movie — no matter whether it is a big emotional role or a lightweight comedy — she begins a process that she calls “rawing myself up.” Movies have gotten so expensive. are always looking for an instant result. ready to disturb molecules. they’re stark fucking naked. the actor will have no screen presence. it seems. competition is fierce.
phone messages. a time when an insensitive response can kill your chances for trust and collaboration — or. takes a risk. There is no one thing I can tell you that is the right thing to say at these times. .to whatever for her is basic about life. It’s a way of turning off the “automatic pilot” that gets one through the routine of daily life.” This is the ground on which the director must meet the actor if he wants to have an actor-director relationship based on trust and collaboration. etc. These are the times when the director. It is a process of disobligating herself to the social realm so she can enter the creative realm. if you see and acknowledge the actor’s psychic nakedness. so that she can be “in the moment. when. After the best takes. you can forge an unshakable connection. to separate herself from mundane concerns. This is a moment of truth for the director. too. the ones in which the actor is the most unguarded. on the other hand. such as fax machines. the actor may feel destabilized and raw.
Permission is the powerful weapon of the director. It’s all rooted in who you are. It keeps the actor from “acting with a capital A. your thought. During a superior performance the actor often feels that he inhabits the character’s skin. The audience may feel that too. honest acting is the biggest risk. feel with his own feelings. see with his own eyes.. more humor. Then from his study of the script. because being honest means the actor has to use himself. which will be the only place he can find the “more” that the director is asking for. Your skin is what you manipulate to create the illusion of being someone else. touch with his own skin. make it more honest in order to get out of the way of his deeper resources.” In other words. more sex. your imagination.” The actor must start with himself. Simple. then she can give her direction in the form of permission for the actor to go to the places he needs for the role. is “in the moment” but has brought choices and understandings to the role that create a sense of belief in the script. He makes the character his own. A wonderful side benefit is that when actors are working honestly. Working honestly opens up corners of his brain and psyche so that memories. you can see how the idea of listening “in character” adds an element of strain.HONESTY “You put your energy. or were you listening as yourself?” If you think about this (you can try it yourself at home). stop “acting with a capital A. with your own ears — a simple task — is relaxing. “Were you listening in character. your spirit into something. i. understandings. What this really means is that he is inhabiting his own skin. He asks them to sit and listen for one minute to the traffic outside the building. I want to encourage you as directors to seek out and recognize honesty in a performance. they keep coming up with new ideas. that he has “become” the character. If the director understands this too. Actors in their work must be more deeply truthful than what passes for honest behavior in the regular world. Some actors do all their script analysis this way — connecting in a relaxed way to whatever they understand about the script and trusting that as they commit honestly to what they understand. whatever — what he really needs to do is get simpler. he asks them. At the end of the minute. centering. The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner has an exercise he does with a group of students. he must hear with his own ears. more elemental.” — Ralph Fiennes Contrary to popular belief. and inventions start coming to him that he didn’t even know he had.e. acting is not pretending or faking. make his work personal. Listening as yourself. And that costs you every time. A really good actor understands that when a director asks him for “more” — more anger. impulses and understandings start to bubble up from inside him. more grief. This is called working organically. do less. their .
Other actors prefer to do their script investigations via their .understanding will deepen without effort.
too. One way to talk about this is to ask an actor to keep it simple. by which is meant emotional honesty. Then she says. actors can easily trip over the line. It contains a sentiment that most women can find honestly with ease. I want to encourage you to prefer from your actors emotional honesty over showy emotional pyrotechnics. as the only man who really saw who she was. So I asked him to come early to the next rehearsal.intelligence and then find and fill their organic center. he confided to me that he thought I would have to cut the line because he knew it would make him too self-conscious to say it in front of an audience. . even if he had never said “I love you” in real life (as I suspected was the case). Don’t try to make it mean any more than that. ‘I love you. Sam. There is a monologue I use in my classes from “The Last Picture Show” in which Lois describes her nowdeceased lover. while they are rehearsing and investigating. Such work pays off in the end. “I love you. “I respect you. Sometimes directors find actors who work organically disturbing. and I asked him to tell me how he felt about me.” I was once directing a young actor in a play in which he had to say “I love you” to another character. Some lines are more difficult than others to find honestly.” Then I said. his performance in that scene was the most beautiful thing in the show. you see. “Now I want you to say the words of the script. as though they don’t know what they’re doing. You wouldn’t believe how I’ve looked. I think you’re a good director. Both Hume Cronyn and Paul Newman have described their own methods as being of the latter type (sometimes called “working from the outside in”) and each has expressed admiration for his wife (Jessica Tandy and Joanne Woodward. his imagination could be engaged and his performance became a creative thing. “Simple” for actors is a shorthand for emotional simplicity. What they are doing is organically adding layers. which caused him to seem somewhat socially inept).” When we opened. Such actors may look. From that point of honest connection. “I’ve looked. with me in the audience. He said.’ but let yourself mean what you just said to me. I had given him permission. respectively) for working more organically (also known as “working from the inside out”).” Students never have any trouble delivering that line believably. This particular actor always worked with scrupulous honesty (he was incapable of lying in the regular world as well. Their rhythms and line readings may seem wrong for performance. On the other hand. to feel that whatever he could bring in his own person was adequate to the role. I had him stand on the stage.
they create a screen presence. intellectualizing our feelings and sensations. when something painful or upsetting happens and we don’t feel sad or angry until later — then we are not in the moment. To enter the created realm one must be — is allowed to be — free of the social realm. disobligated from concerns with result.” It makes a performance breathtakingly simple. and the created (creative) realm. You may also know the expression in connection with athletics. When the actor deliberately tries for such flickers of expression. . where we live and work day to day. The concerns and obligations of the social realm do not apply to the created realm.” — Marlon Brando. calculating the effect of our behavior on others. “Moment-by-moment” work makes an actor look lifelike and natural even in an extreme plot situation — like Nicholas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas” or Jessica Lange in “Blue Sky. when. obeying only the deepest and most private truths. confident. Moment-by-moment work is responsible for the tiny flickers of expression that make an actor’s face seem alive in between the words. uncensored. to the words and subtext of the script. They are separate. being in the moment in real life is pretty rare. But it is available on a regular basis if you are an actor. following impulses. He speaks with a “real voice. stutter. like nonintersecting sets. For an artist there are two worlds — the social realm. When an actor is “in the moment. He is available.” He inhabits his own skin. deliberately tries to hesitate. to his own interior world of impulse and feeling and imaginative choices. When we watch ourselves. Mannered acting. and alert.MOMENT BY MOMENT “Just because they say ‘Action’ doesn’t mean you have to do anything. when we censor ourselves and choose our words and actions to meet social rules and expectations. He is responsive to the physical world around him. In everyday life not many of us live moment by moment all the time. takes the audience out of the story. wink or grimace. When we are “in our heads” instead of in our bodies. There is “somebody home” when you look in his eyes. reported by Al Pacino You’ve probably heard the expression “in the moment” or “moment-by-moment work” applied to actors. or certain spiritual disciplines or the pop psychology of the seventies.” he is relaxed. in the moment.” not an “actor voice. Come to think of it. the acting becomes mannered. our concentration is on the anxiety or anticipation we feel toward an activity in the future — then we are not in the moment. and unfussy — like Jean-Louis Tritingant in “Red” or John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty. and to the behavior of the other actors. they confer star quality. But when such flickers occur “in the moment” they make screen magic. by calling attention to the affectations of the actor.” It gives him ease and watchability — like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” or Tom Hanks in almost anything. clean. while we are involved in one activity.
and understandings will be believable on the screen. It would be ludicrous to suggest that this can be taught in a book.” It seems to me that “thinking loud” has to mean that the actor trusts whatever he is thinking and feeling to be adequate to the moment. drawing a blank. his face. the actor lets go of his preparation and allows it to be there. critical. skill being what you do with your talent) in “trusting the moment” while a camera is rolling ensures that his feelings.” Shelley Winters quotes director George Stevens as having told her that film acting is “talking soft and thinking loud. He said. which led to Travolta’s “Pulp Fiction” role and his return to artistic. It means that whatever preparation an actor does for a role is done ahead of time. whet your appetites for further study. they begin to push. impulses.” Of course there is talent involved here. John Travolta is quoted: “It doesn’t take much for a thought to be seen.” according to Travolta. impulses) and the truth of his instincts. Tarrantino bombarded Travolta with his detailed acquaintance with the minutia of Travolta’s career and with his enthusiasm for the actor’s talent. They continue to trust the process. force. and it will read.’ I have an ability to be it. feelings. It has to do with trust. just saying words. Both men have described it publicly. “Quentin let me have it. I keep having to talk directors out of talking me into overacting. You’ll see it in the editing room.e. Travolta’s quote earlier suggests that a lot of directors are in the dark as to the importance of moment-by-moment work and as to what it even looks like. This is where the fearlessness comes in! Good actors. An actor’s talent has to do with the expressiveness of his instrument (i.. and box office preeminence. there’s a risk that the preparation won’t work and the actor will be out there alone. But I want to open your minds a little. But his skill (skill being different from talent. continue to work properly. They look like actors. and prepare you for the idea that momentby-moment work is worth making sacrifices for. Actors call it “trusting the moment. reworking their preparation and then jumping into the abyss of moment-bymoment work. with no inner life. and I see it as a model for the creative potential of the actor-director relationship. which is given to you. Or not! You see. I say. Travolta’s talent is the well he has to draw from — in his case. Directors can help actors trust their moment-by-moment connections. with nothing happening. “And then. reach for. ‘You won’t see it on the set.In a 1995 NewYorker interview. ‘What did you do? Don’t you remember what Pauline Kael said about . I have been fascinated by the articles describing the first meeting of Quentin Tarrantino and John Travolta. Once the camera starts to roll or the curtain goes up. It has to do with fearlessness. a deep well indeed. “In the moment” for actors has to do with freedom. even after the harrowing experience of a mid-performance loss of concentration. When actors lose trust in the process. body. too. voice. or indicate what the character is thinking and feeling. It has to do with the actor not watching himself. and the audience becomes distanced from them and from the stories they are enacting.
You can’t make conscious choices about what to have going on in your subconscious. but Cukor kept exhorting. Jack Lemmon. This type of actor-director communication (as long. Jesus Christ. pleading with him to do less. sweetie” bullshit) can get an actor “connected up” to his deepest resources and free him to trust the moment and not to “act with a capital A. “That’s what I want!” Moment-by-moment work is lost as soon as the actor “puts anything on it” — my teacher Jean Shelton used to call it an “unction. as it is heartfelt and true and not just Hollywood “love you. “The best actors are children and dogs because they’re not acting at all. “If I do any less. the real him.” Lemmon tried to comply. rather than trusting the preparation and letting the lines bubble up from and come out of whatever impulse and feeling have been stirred up by the preparation. I won’t be doing anything at all!” Cukor replied. It means playing attitude or faking emotion — laying the attitude or emotion on top of the lines. his core being and his shining talent. It is not possible to decide to play a character whose subconscious mind is doing such. This is an extremely radical idea. of course.” The word “unction” is kin to “unguent” an oil that lies on top of something and is not incorporated organically. it’s the very definition of the thing that it is not conscious and not available to conscious control. I must have been a fucking good actor!” The director here has done three things: 1) he has let the actor know that he sees him.” It gives him a deep confidence. He tells a story about working with George Cukor.” Lemmon snapped back. right? So doesn’t that mean that she should be thinking the character’s thoughts and feeling the character’s feelings? Not precisely. So the actor must allow the character to borrow her own subconscious.” — Helen Mirren The actor who is “in the moment” is thinking real thoughts and feeling real feelings right in front of us. Then life between the lines can kick in and the actor can be a bridge between the words which are said and the words which are not said — the subworld. gives another clue as to how a director can help.and-such.you? What Truffaut said about you? Don’t you know what you mean to the American cinema? John. 2) he has let the actor know he knows the difference between work which connects with that core and work which does not connect with that core. He was telling me I’d had a promise like no one else’s… I was devastated. 3) he has let the actor know that his commitment is to that core and to his own core. who kept asking him not to “act. “I can’t do less. But I also thought. . Because after all. in an A&E Channel Biography. the actor is playing a character. I invite you to allow characters to have a subconscious — even to have free will (or at least as much free will as any of us have). what did you do?’ I was hurt — but moved.
and doing. In order to have . You know they say that what we see of an iceberg is only ten percent.Think of an iceberg. the words that people say represent about ten percent of what’s going on with them. The other ninety percent is the subworld. People are like that. feeling. the other ninety percent is below water. what they’re thinking. too.
her actions may come out of the subconscious soup rather than the conscious mind. and yet their line readings may still be coming out differently from the way you heard them in your head. This doesn’t mean necessarily that the character knows what she is doing. images. makes mistakes. The specifics of the script are allowed rather than enforced. This does not negate the actor’s responsibility to the script. . rather than telegraphing to us that the character has made a mistake or choice or win or loss. To keep from freaking out when this happens. takes wins and losses right in the scene as we are watching. The actor. And he has ways to guide the performance in another direction if he wishes. When a director does his script analysis homework deeply and properly. This exactly means that actors may be following your direction. we need access to that subworld. he is not threatened when the actors breathe life into the characters. behaves in the moment right in front of us. In bringing up the subject of free will. rather than because the actor learned a line and rehearsed some blocking. Then the circumstances and images of the script can interweave with and be informed by the free subconscious inventions of the actor. you as the director must feel and believe in the independent life of the characters. and the requirements of the script. Giving a character free will means that the character makes choices. and events of the script.fall-bodied characters. But I want to open the possibility of connecting to the script not as an obligation but as an opportunity to be enriched and enlivened by the facts. I don’t mean to raise a philosophical argument. It means that the character says a line or makes a movement because she had an impulse or a need to do so.
” “Charley. Being “in the moment” means.IDIOSYNCRASY “The good actors. and said exactly whatever popped into my head — and it always worked out. I began to experience being in the moment.” “Lilies of the Field. precisely and faithfully. You feel deeply relaxed and confident. I expect it feels something like what athletes describe as being “in the zone. How does one stay in the moment? Here are four suggestions: 1) Be strict about following your whims. This is terribly unfair. You are not thinking about your next line. the professional actors — usually those are synonymous words — are like trained racehorses. the less likely it was to happen. They’re nervous and skittish. that you follow your whims without any concern about whether people will approve of you — and then they approve of you anyway! Good actors are disciplined about following their whims. who are standoffish or touchy or loud or engage in bizarre rituals to make themselves ready to work. and yet you know you are going to say it. It does not mean allowing the concerns of the shoot to . But maintaining a tension-free set does not mean allowing the atmosphere to be dominated by social concerns. I was hooked. Technicians on a set can be ruthless in their condemnation of actors who don’t meet social norms.” I was a young adult in the seventies and I remember well its emphasis on being “grounded. exactly what I felt like doing. In interviews most of the directors that I respect say that it is important to them to maintain a set free of tension. Of course.” I tried to will myself into the “moment.” it was the nearest thing to a state of grace. I soon found out that it was hit-or-miss. director of “Requiem for a Heavyweight. and the more I tried to be in the moment. This can make them difficult to be around. It’s my job to make it as easy as possible for them and to try and get their complete confidence in me.” — Ralph Nelson. From the very first class that I taught. It was actually only when I became an acting teacher that I fully understood this. People who do not follow their whims sometimes feel threatened by people who do. Now I do not feel that actors or anyone else on a set or in any line of work should be indulged if their behavior is abusive. when I was “in the moment.” You are not consciously in control. to draw the line as to what behavior will be permitted for the sake of creative freedom and what will be discouraged or diverted so that everyone can be relaxed and undistracted in the performance of their jobs. I always followed the whim of the moment. When I became an actor. On a set it is up to the director to set the tone. When the thing was working.” living “in the here and now” — “in the moment. it wasn’t always working.” but the effort of will never got me there. but you are not out of control. They’re high-strung.” I knew I was one of the many middle-class intellectuals who lived “in my head. for one thing. It was exhilarating — a high more powerful and more enchanting than any drug. I always did.
are potential energy. This is what actors are talking about when they say. To be in the moment. something unusual happens — a line is dropped. an actor can fall into wishing or pretending to feel relaxed and confident when he does not. which in normal life reveals itself as neurosis. this can be a good thing. an idea could come to him right in the middle of the performance — and you don’t want him to stop when this happens! This is gold. a prop breaks or is missing. who may fear that stage fright will make him look unprofessional. In order not to worry the director. or insight. Strangely enough. Suppressing or manipulating real feeling does nothing to release the actor’s instrument from stasis. Directors often panic at any sign of insecurity on the part of the actor.” that you make this request because you wish and intend to allow them to be alive and responsive to life in and around them. And our work centers not in the social realm but in the creative realm. “I’m just not there. Not necessarily because you are going to use the take with the sneeze (although who knows?). all resistances. It only makes him more tense. unfortunately. This is not helpful. anger or fear. This can be horrifying for the actor. the only feeling an actor has honestly is anxiety. When people are very tired.” All fears. buried pain. can. Even if an actor is very tired. I don’t know what I’m doing. If an actor comes up to you and says. and emotional resources are not available to him. This is the famous joke about actors: “Use it!” In the midst of terrible personal tragedy. be turned into energy and finally artistry. which permits free and unconventional behavior when it will further the work.” The proper concern of the shoot is always the work. you want them to keep going until you say “Cut. Deep-seated. “I feel terrible. he can’t possibly go “moment by moment” because his sensory. . this untoward. “I’m glad this happened!” If you can’t manage that at first.” But feelings are energy. In order to stay responsive to stimuli that are appropriate to the performance the actor must take the whole kaboodle and stay responsive to stimuli that are not appropriate. a sneeze comes on.” the best response is.revolve around whether everybody likes each other or is unfailingly “nice. It is important to make it clear to the actors that no matter what happens. When an actor is tense or in denial of his feelings. they often loosen emotional armor and are able to be more relaxed and in the moment. Tension causes a constriction of all reflexes and sensation. intuitive. the actor needs to be connected to his own feelings. including our inner vision. an association. Quite the contrary. try “I’m glad you told me. but because an event/mistake could happen to the actor interiorly — a memory. unexpected event brings all the actors to life. and that you are watching their performances so they don’t have to. 2) Feel your feelings. Even fear can be used. while the camera is running. the actor brightens up: “I can use this when I play Miss Julie!” Sometimes. Sometimes. with the tools of the actor.
to break through the armor that is blocking his feelings.Sometimes to get the juices going. the actor does calisthenics or breathing exercises or yelling. Or sometimes he .
Staying in the moment is not for sissies. The main reason why I am taking so much time to suggest ways to stay in the moment is that directors should do it too.” These approaches may work if the actor gives himself — and is given — freedom. they won’t work if their secret purpose is to manipulate or force a particular feeling. A mistake is a moment when we see the abyss open beneath our feet. In beginning acting classes often the best moment of a scene is the moment when a student forgets a line. rather than because it is in the script. until he feels the feeling he has decided is “right” for the character. As a way of encouraging the actor to follow impulses. During one “Acting for Directors” session in Europe. The look of concentration on his face is real — possibly the only real moment of the scene. I was suddenly overcome by a spell of homesickness and despair. 4) Forgive yourself for mistakes. moves because he has somewhere to go.” In fact. because the director told him to. This idea is not the same as allowing the actor to wait around or torment himself until he is “in character. he can remember them easily. This notion of not moving or speaking unless the actor feels like it rather has to do with giving the actor permission to follow an interior sense of timing and impulse. It relaxes them. I find it very helpful to remind students before scenes they present in class: “Don’t say the lines unless you feel like it. I . I allowed myself this thought: “If it is really important to me to do so. I find it helpful to make this reminder every single time. Good actors use these moments.” if he takes my permission to heart. these glimpses of the abyss. I find that they don’t get tired of hearing it. What is risk but freedom to make mistakes? We are mistake-making creatures.goes off quietly by himself for introspection in order to locate his real feelings — this is what is meant by getting “centered. Staying in the moment takes a lot of courage and faith on both the part of the actor and the part of the director. It gives permission. 3) Don’t move or speak unless you feel like it. or because it is his turn.” that is. The idea is that the actor speaks because he has something to say. And I am not suggesting that scripts should be improvised on camera or that blocking and camera moves should not be set and the actors allowed to roam. as soon as I tell him. to ground themselves in the here and now. “I don’t care if you get the lines right. I often find that when an actor is having a hard time remembering lines that I know he has worked hard on learning. And directors can help by giving actors unconditional love and freedom to make mistakes.
I relaxed. I could give them back their money. of course. and go home tomorrow. I didn’t quit. change my plane ticket.” As soon as I said that to myself.could quit. but I felt my real feelings. Allowing .
And it made me know that I was staying out of choice. not obligation. .myself to feel as though I could quit was rejuvenating.
free of obligation. he would say. and I tried to do the same. Paradoxically. Let’s say an actor playing Hamlet suddenly starts noticing that a wrinkle in his sock is rubbing irritatingly against his foot during shooting. actors need to stay within the camera frame and make very exact moves so the camera can follow and photograph them. the need to do things “right. to the moment. Obligation is absolutely always the enemy of art — how could it be otherwise? One of my acting teachers years ago. in other words letting the words come out through the sensation of the wrinkle.” — Diane Keaton In order to work well actors need a tremendous amount of freedom. In order to trust their impulses they need support. might actually result in a better performance than if he tries to ignore the sensation and struggles to look as if he is thinking about his (Hamlet’s) murdered father! I know this sounds like a bizarre lapse in concentration. deliriously. When I was taking classes from Gerald Hiken. free of tension. I don’t like too much direction myself. He was inviting us to release ourselves from the obligation to entertain. it stops me from thinking or feeling… If somebody talks to me too much I clam up. he’s always about loosening it up. stop doing it ‘right’! It’s better to . which is all the more important precisely because the actor has such strict logistical parameters to follow. Wendell Phillips. They need to be relaxed. strained concentration on the “right” thing. Giving his full inner attention to the discomfort of the wrinkle. relaxed concentration on the “wrong” thing than a tense. in other words. only then could we surrender fully. not the bad luck of an “inappropriate” reality. and he starts wishing or pretending that the sock problem were not there. but when I became a teacher myself I saw how profound it was. it requires a strict discipline on the part of actors to maintain their interior freedom. But the only thing really that makes the sock distracting rather than enriching to the performance is if the actor starts worrying that the sock is ruining his performance. Now of course. “Do it wrong! Whatever you do. It is the reaching for or pretending to that connection that does the harm.FREEDOM “On the set. It is the denial of present physical reality that takes him out of the moment. for God’s sake. [Woody Allen] leaves actors alone. The freedom I am talking about is an interior freedom. used to say. if his attention goes to the audience (do they get it? do they like me? am I doing this right?).” servicing the script is so inappropriate to acting that it is better for an actor to place a full. “Dare to be boring!” We students made fun of him behind his back for such a ridiculous precept. A genuine imaginative or personal connection to the situation of a person whose father has been murdered would of course be beneficial to a performance of Hamlet. It turns out that obligation. and the work was bad.
do it wrong than to do it right!” He would then ask the student. “Okay. what’s the right way .
and most inventive imagination. the audience. had nothing to lose.” we. And it allows humor. .” “All right. What is the behavior of a self-centered person? Sometimes. For an actor. than when he is tight and strained.to play your role?” And she would say (for instance). in order to access his truest truths. An actor is more believable and more engrossing when he is free and present in the moment. desperately holding on to the “right” emotion or attitude. actors protect their own performance by being completely free and present and unself-conscious. Nothing is less entertaining than an actor who is straining to be funny. The magnificent paradox is that if an actor is free and uncensored.” Gerry would say. and move as directed. “Go ahead! Think your most private. “let’s run the scene again. it can make even a sweet Lady Macbeth believable. anything he does! Freedom gives his voice and person authenticity. do it loving and playful. Not only that. A performance without freedom is a humorless one. their inner life is very free and uncensored. this arrogance and freedom must apply interiorly to his unspoken thoughts and feelings. but a thousand percent better. A director who understands this can get his actors to do anything because they will know that you are willing to protect their performance by allowing them to be free and real and in the moment no matter what else you ask of them. who must say the lines as written. instead of trying to play that judgment. Paradoxically. an actor needs freedom. humor is bound to bubble up. If it appears that a character is self-centered. I have seen it over and over again as an acting teacher — that the solution to most blockages for actors is more freedom. There is a kind of arrogance to the uncensored creativity of an artist. the magic. Disobligation is that powerful.moment performance just because the actor. since they are unconcerned with the feelings and needs of others. He must give himself what Stanislavsky called “solitude in public” an unconcern for what anybody thinks of him. but sometimes more freedom is the right choice for a character.” And damned if it wouldn’t come out better! Not just a little bit better. in order to come up with ideas. released from obligation to do it right. It would have the revelation. Gerry would constantly egg us on. This time. In order to inhabit his own body while making choices. “Lady Macbeth is very angry and contemptuous of her husband because he’s getting cold feet about the murder they’ve planned. will believe anything he tells us. uninterested in whether or not the audience “gets it. the actor asks himself. even if his emotion or attitude is “wrong” for the scene. embarrassing thoughts right in front of them!” He meant the audience. Anytime in real life that people are loose and free. of a moment-by. deepest feelings.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get the attention of a child by coaxing. begging. and to have fun. such as a mood or emotion or judgment. The point of concentration may have to do with the actor’s choices or it may be something in the here-and-now immediate reality.” it might be helpful to ask him. Gold Medal Figureskating Champion Actors need concentration. Many people have the idea that you can’t concentrate unless you are relaxed. magical. but it’s really the other way around: having a simple task to concentrate on is relaxing. replace superstition and mysticism. When an actor is concentrated on her own private created reality. only that he is concentrating on something. does not replace good instincts. Sean Penn. the portrayal is seamless. or it may be on the wrinkle in his sock. or the . and finds the thing to concentrate on. If the work is properly done. of course. and if the task fascinates and energizes you. Or they may concentrate on their appearance. It doesn’t really work. if the actor is playing Hamlet. and if you unselfconsciously allow the child to watch and partake of your fascination and energy. Craft does. his concentration may be on Hamlet’s dead father. A good actor thinks of her craft not as something she has to do. but concentration is not an abstract item. There is no concentration without something that is being concentrated on. Finding a compelling.” he stated. When actors do not have a reliable craft they may put their concentration on the wrong thing. whose performance in “Dead Man Walking” unquestionably meets the standards of “seamless acting.” — Oksana Bayul. the audience will want to get in on it. So sometimes people get the idea that such performances are created without technique. no one can see the technique. This is the function of concentration in an actor’s relationship to the audience. but as something she gets to do.” said in an interview for National Public Radio after the movie’s release that all his work is built on a steady accumulation of detail that he arrives at through his craft. When acting is good. their clothes. however. When a director hears an actor agonizing. This is the actor’s solitude in public. “What are you concentrating on?” Concentration doesn’t exist by itself. or demanding that she pay attention to you. Good acting doesn’t look like acting. It’s like stepping through the looking glass. “I could do nothing without my craft. does it? But if you are deeply involved in some task of your own. that on some magical occasions the actor simply “becomes” the character. singular point of concentration or attention unlocks the actor’s imagination and opens for her the created reality. the audience won’t be able to tell which the actor is concentrating on. Craft — or technique — is the way the actor marshals her concentration.CONCENTRATION “ I only want to skate a clean program. Craft. In other words. “I can’t get my concentration. They may concentrate on producing a given effect. the child will soon come to your side. say fixing a clock.
Or their concentration may be on .image that they think the audience expects of them.
A “re-performance” will be bad. takes the performer out of the moment. “That was perfect.” trying to control the result. And then he lets go. This is an existential truth. Every event. This will be a disaster. As a young acting student. Sometimes actors start to think that the goal of their preparation is to get to that altered state. and causes the pitcher or actor to “lose his stuff. controlling — aiming. A wrong place for an actor to put her concentration is on trying to be in the zone. every moment in life.doing it “right” for daddy/mommy director (that’s you). It’s almost a kind of altered state. he lets the character hear it. If the actor tries to “re-perform” she will only be straining. objective. it might be a good time to take him aside and ask him.” The strangeness of this remark caused it to stick in my mind. they might put their concentration on re. a cough or sneeze of a technician. Concentration cannot be commanded. “What’s wrong with aiming? How can he throw the ball over the plate if he doesn’t aim?” I sensed somehow that the answer was important so I pondered it until I realized that it was like acting — the pitcher works on his mechanics (for the actor. gripped by the created reality. on playable choices and on physical life.” Everybody knows what to do when he or she is in the zone. to re-perform a good pitch or a good take. or given circumstance he has chosen is not strong or specific enough. If a director observes an actor agonizing because he can’t shut out present reality in order to feel the created reality. He’s starting to aim the ball. When a director tells an actor. “What are you concentrating on?” Perhaps the image. “They’re going to have to take that pitcher out. He shuts nothing out. and you follow them. and by asking him questions you can guide him to a juicier choice. If they have done a good audition or good rehearsal or good first take. concentrating on listening. They may be playing a hot summer scene in the middle of winter and not even feel the cold. automatically makes the performance self-conscious. The performance may well be fresher and more honest if he lets the distractions in instead of fighting them. You don’t have to think about what to do. and I kept asking myself. they often don’t notice anything outside of that created reality. I didn’t know much about baseball. But you can’t aim for the zone. if he hears the airplane or the breathing of the camera operator or the creak of his shoes. When acting is good and the actors are in the moment. Trying to do it “right.performing that earlier work. once it passes. Or perhaps the best course will be to assure him that you would rather have him in the here and now than torturing and manipulating himself. enjoying solitude in public. he uses everything to keep himself in the moment and give his performance the texture of life. Do it again just like that. only invited. this means script analysis and rehearsal of playable choices) ahead of time and he creates a connection to the strike zone (the actor’s “sense of belief in the created reality”). . We cannot have our lives back after we have lived them. A good actor follows the rules.” he is asking for something that is just not going to happen. I once heard a radio baseball announcer observe to his partner. when inspiration is striking. you feel impulses. An airplane overhead. will go unheard. is over.
Now what I said here about not aiming for an altered state may seem contradictory to .
” director Frank Capra would simply change the line. In the next rehearsal or performance or take they may try to play that rhythm. Does it sound like it would be easy to mistake one for the other? Well. Getting stuck in a preconceived line reading is the worst thing that can happen to an actor. These tactics are designed to keep the actors from falling into line readings — preconceived ways of delivering the lines. because the actors are playing the poetry instead of letting the lines mean something and playing the situation. What can I say? Piercing the social mask frees the actor and is a good thing. sort of like a person who always seems to be speaking in quotation marks. If the actors started sounding “canned” or “rehearsed. He does this. It puts a little frame around each line. like Charles Bronson or Frank Sinatra. he has the lines read to him over an earpiece. his subtext and his situation. When actors play the poetry or play the rhythm. a director who.e. to an actor. It’s because the actor loses track of what the character is talking about and why — i. get paid so much. But I want to give you some feel for the kinds of things that can go wrong — do go wrong even for the best actors once in a while — so you have an understanding that they are failures of technique and not mystical emanations. If actors use . refuse to do more than one take. to keep from getting stale. in order to keep their deliveries fresh. who know the difference. the audience can’t even make sense of the words. who has an overruling passion for the honest creativity of actors. This makes a performance stagy. does not require the actors to say the same lines in every setup of the same scene. aiming for an altered state creates strain and is a bad thing. “Learn the lines and don’t bump into the furniture” — Spencer Tracy When a performance needs to be repeated and lines delivered over and over again — in rehearsal or in coverage — each time they must be spoken as if for the first time. Marlon Brando no longer learns lines. Let me take just one minute to explain why a rhythm is not playable. The extreme opposite of working in the moment is to decide ahead of time how the line is going to be spoken. Of course. it is. a wonderful creature. Robert Altman. Many actors and directors are opposed to rehearsal for this reason. When two actors are in the zone together — when they are “cooking” — they often feel a kind of rhythm to it. he says. watching from the other side of the camera. pat. The reason I discuss this in a book for directors is not because you are expected to always know exactly what’s wrong with a performance and be able to tell the actor how to fix it.. This is (one reason) why the really good actors. This is why many people find performances of Shakespeare incomprehensible. But a rhythm is not a playable tool for an actor so the relationship will lose the life it had when they first “discovered” the rhythm.what I said earlier about actors needing to go below the social mask in order to work well. is able to troubleshoot these delicate areas is. to orchestrate a performance by deciding on and then delivering a set of line readings. Some actors.
eavesdrop on ordinary people in conversation. Some lines fall especially easily into this trap. images.” and we automatically hear an attitude. if the actor attempts to give the line more spark he only succeeds in adding emphasis. intentions. Because once the line reading is set. Doing this is not the same as learning them with a particular line reading. they may fall into them. and associations as they bring them off the page and into their experience. Sometimes it gets so bad that an actor who habitually locks into line readings will actually lose his place and think the wrong line was spoken. subtext. merely repeats himself in a louder voice. It won’t have had much life to begin with either because the set cadence prevents him from being affected by his partner or by his impulses of the moment. When the actor repeats a line every time in a set cadence. which gives a set cadence or intonation to the lines. if an actor opposite him changes the way she says a line! Taking the lines off the page includes taking them off their punctuation.” (or. “I believe that truth and justice will prevail. then rehearsal is a very bad idea indeed. The worst thing about line readings is that they are so often accompanied by a superficial understanding of the line. What this means is that he put the meaning of the character’s images and situation ahead of the author’s punctuation. but unless they apply craft deliberately not to set them. Most modern actors do not deliberately set line readings.rehearsal to set line readings. But in order to bring lines off the page and into life the actor must wrest from them their punctuation. when attempting to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand English. check out Spencer Tracy’s opening soliloquy in the original “Father of the Bride. Sort of like the stereotypical American who. These things don’t necessarily — and in fact don’t usually — occur at periods and commas. All of us have a tendency to fit new things into the familiar.” It’s easy to see that in a modern . he will have nothing he can do with the line except try to convince us that it is true. Overacting can easily follow from getting stuck playing set line readings or punctuation. In real life we do not pause necessarily at periods and commas. an actor may learn the line with the cadence “You always do that. the line will automatically have less and less life every time it is spoken. Unless an actor commits to the subworld of the character. Without even realizing he is doing this.” One of the things people often say about Tracy’s work in general is that he gave his speeches unexpected readings and rhythms. We pause when we need to take a breath. If you need further proof that abandoning punctuation sounds more natural. We see the line “You always do that. an example might be. Many actors do their work on a role as they are memorizing their lines. “You always do that”) and after a while the cadence becomes the line for him. If you want an example of how this works. In older movies of the thirties and forties. and so he falls into protesting or urging the line on us. adjustments. It is necessary to have punctuation in a script because punctuation makes it easier to read. finding beats. or to think of what to say next.
But current .movie such a line would sound foolish or phony unless it was spoken with heavy subtext.
we recognize that they are “protesting too much” — and probably lying. when people are trying to convince you of the truth of their words. But an actor who works “moment by moment” won’t lock himself into a line reading at all.movies have their own clichés. and an actor with a wide range might be able to be convincing no matter what the reading. my own least favorite is. But in real life. “You just don’t get it. Not all actors who choose or fall into line readings pick the most obvious. delivered without subtext — will sound forced and untrue. “You’ll never get away with this!” Any of these lines delivered in order to make us believe that the information in it is true — in other words. An actor of greater imagination might make a more off-beat choice. pedestrian choice. trying to convince us that it is true. So how will he know how to say it? . do you?” And writers seem never to tire of the line. Sometimes actors get confused and think they are being honest when they are really urging the line on us.
LISTENING AND TALKING “Somewhere along the line. It absolutely prevents overacting. the actor may do what is called “anticipating. That was probably the most important thing I ever learned. The scene is the underlying event to which the words are clues. identify with the characters and suspend their disbelief in even the most outrageous situations. You don’t see this much in movies that are actually released or television programs that get aired. not to entertain. a scene if something happens to the characters. Listening is the best technique an actor has for anchoring himself in the moment. the comedy becomes forced and a terrible strain to watch. it is essential that the actors listen. And to … listen to other people when they’re talking.’ not to perform. It’s what makes a performance look “natural. When the actors are listening to each other. Without listening a dramatic scene is just “my turn to talk.” — Dennis Franz. Now it stands to reason that it is the director’s job to make sure that there is a scene and not just words being spoken.” This means she may actually react (with a pre-decided reaction) to the other actor’s line before that actor even delivers it. Hence a good director will make sure that the actors are listening to each other. someone — I can’t remember who it was — told me to stop acting with a capital ‘A. It also keeps his choices from becoming mechanical or forced. When the actors listen to each other and play the situations. If you are directing drama. it is essential that the actors listen. the audience can hear the lines. When actors in a comedy are not listening. Listening to the other person(s) in the scene gives an actor a simple task and a focus for his attention. The words that characters speak to each other are not the scene. “NYPD Blue” Probably the most powerful and also the most readily available tool an actor has for staying in the moment is the other actor in the scene.” Listening allows the actors to affect each other and thus to create moments — tiny electric connections that make the emotional events of a scene. your turn to talk”. It looks so bad that even if a director is so tense or unsophisticated that he doesn’t notice it (“anticipating” is one . Listening relaxes actors. just to be. We only have an event — that is. and you want the audience to engage with the characters and their predicaments and adventures. In the worst cases of non-listening. If you have a funny script to direct and you don’t want it ruined. it becomes a scene about two actors’ performances instead of a scene about a relationship and an event in that relationship. when they start to play the punchlines or the schtick instead of playing the situations. something can happen because they can affect each other. not to be big.
Jr.. Wood.of the acting problems in the movies of Edward D. for example) someone on the set — or .
And allows her lines to be informed by that attention. Actors can get stuck selling the surface of the lines if they think listening is merely responding to what they hear the other actor say.” The term “communion” calls attention to the deepness of the experience as well as to the fact that listening makes the audience feel the actors are communicating with each other rather than delivering lines to each other. his facial expressions also come out of his interest in the response of the other actor. This is a subtle distinction that absolutely differentiates really good actors from mediocre ones. When an actor is listening. It is a surrender. for your turn to talk. If the actor becomes concerned with his own response (perhaps in reaction to a result direction. we are checking. first I ask each student to make eye contact with his partner. even on his smell. Now this is key. on his body. it is the talent for listening. “I think you should get angry . Listening is not simply hearing the words the other actor says and responding to them — it is allowing one’s concentration to be on the response of the other actor. out of her interest in the response of the other actor. dictated by that attention. The lines come out of her attention to the other actor. evaluating. In fact Stanislavsky uses the term “communion” to describe what I am calling “listening.” they are listening. the little lines around his mouth.” When we use our eyes in the regular way.” — Morgan Freeman You might think listening would be automatic. But the eye contact I am asking for is a giving and a receiving. a tiny leap of faith. They think that as long as they are not committing the cardinal sin of “anticipating. “I think that if you have a talent for acting. The actors hear each other’s lines — doesn’t that mean that they are listening? But we are not talking about ordinary listening. In my Acting for Directors class I begin with a listening exercise. The eye contact I am asking them to make is different from regular “looking. It exactly means that the actor puts more attention on the other actor than on her own performance. It’s not just listening for your cue.in the editing room — will usually spot it. it is a special attention paid to the other person. categorizing — this is not a bad thing to do when you are driving a car. It is a term of art. on him physically — on the expression in his eyes. Eye contact is very helpful to listening. for instance. The actor is required to listen more deeply than we usually do in real life. So actors can fool themselves into thinking that they are listening when they are really only playing the surface of the lines. it is using your eyes in the sense that the eyes are windows of the soul. for example. on the sound of his voice as well as the words he is saying. rather than out of a decision how to say them. Presumably the scene is written so that it sounds like the characters are listening and responding to each other the lines answer each other.
when she says X”) there is a tiny hardening in his face. an invisible veil in front of his expression. but it is easier with it. Of course true listening can happen without eye contact. And .
There can be a nagging fear for actors that by listening. You may have noticed that the new Screen Actors Guild awards include awards for Ensemble Acting in every category. According to his book Ma kin gMovies. Attempting to give their performances variety and colors. Romantic leads don’t have to sleep together — they don’t even have to like each other — as long as they listen. your job is cut in half there’s so much in his eyes. “All you have to do is look at Anthony Hopkins’ eyes and you get so much. And not being a trained actor. Sometimes they are fearful of being caught staring at the other actor. highly regarded actors think they have to screen out the other actor in order to maintain the luster of their individual performance. they “play off” each other. generous. Cary Grant had chemistry with more leading ladies than probably any other actor in the history of movies — because he always listened. relaxed concentration on his partner. He was lovely. Actors themselves call a fellow actor who is a good listener unselfish. And it is simple. Ensemble acting puts the story ahead of showy individual performances. Sometimes they don’t like what the other actor is doing and think that if they listen to him it will bring their performance down. It’s a wonderful thing.” that an actor “can only be as great as the actors around him. the actor puts her full attention on the other actor. When it came time to film his big emotional scene the only direction Lumet gave Holden was to look in Faye Dunaway’s eyes for the whole scene and never to look away. They are caught in the misunderstanding I described . moving. they devise elaborate affectations of response that bear no relation to true listening. Sidney Lumet noticed. They could not be more mistaken. A reviewer called Emma Thompson’s performance in “Sense and Sensibility” “considerate” — I think he perceived that she always listens. Some successful.eye contact is very underrated as an acting tool. Whatever her preparation.” that Holden rarely made eye contact with his acting partners. Emotion poured out of Holden. always put his full. they worry that full eye contact would not be natural-looking. I look at them. “Ensemble acting” is another name for listening. and I say the words. This is because actors know.” — Joan Allen “[Candace Bergen] has the most beautiful eyes. When actors are said to have “chemistry” together. when he was working with William Holden on “Network.” Spencer Tracy is known as the “actor’s actor” because he always listened. But sometimes actors don’t listen.” — Garry Marshall Listening is sure-fire. Sometimes actors are working so hard on their inner life that they forget about the other actor. I’ll go right into her eyes when I’m lost. and allows the audience to relax and enjoy the movie. True listening can be frightening to actors. by submitting themselves to the ensemble. it is the best tool an actor has. they are giving something up. it means that they listen to each other. as John Travolta said in his Golden Globe acceptance speech for “Get Shorty. they engage.
each actor bears individual responsibility. It is astonishing to me that nowadays so many directors — including directors who should know better — position themselves at the video monitor while a scene is shooting. First of all. Spencer Tracy — all actors of superior listening skills — seem simply to be the character. The actor starts worrying: “Am I as angry as the director wants me to be? Did I have the right reaction. if you know what to look for. you have the secret! You can see it on the set. It is the attention. Superior listening skills are invisible to the untrained eye. For this. without all the actors giving to each other. etc. rather than on a playable choice. You’ll see it in the editing room. You as the director are in a position to turn a group of actors into an ensemble. “When all else fails. And you need to be able to spot resistances to listening because if even one of the actors is not listening you have no scene. the concentration on the response of the other actor. substance.” It’s the simplest. Dennis Hopper. only two performances. while directing Robert Duvall in “Colors.” it’s a bit intimidating. Result-oriented direction takes the actor’s concentration off his partner and puts it squarely on himself. . You’re not going to like hearing this. his performance is ruined. surest way for an actor to improve his own performance. Actors like James Garner. My best advice to young actors is always. Of course sometimes the reason actors are not listening is because they are trying to follow a result-oriented direction. which can connect him to the other actor.above: that of thinking that listening is no more than hearing the other actor’s lines and inflections. But when the other actors are also listening. And the scene itself turns into a scene about two actors instead of a scene about whatever the script is about.. are also giving. they don’t appreciate the source of the tiny emotional events that read like gangbusters on the big screen. the right expression? Did I say the line right? Was I quirky enough?” When his concentration is focused thus on his performance. When John Travolta says that a director “won’t see it on the set.” was terrified because it didn’t look like Duvall was doing anything! It looked boring! Fortunately he was more terrified of looking foolish by telling a superior actor like Duvall to do “more. but really superior work cannot take place. It can be hard for an inexperienced director to tell if actors are listening. Peter Falk. Mary Tyler Moore. honest understanding of the circumstances of the script — then really superior work can take place. with no visible craft. you must ask for it. humor. etc.” so he didn’t say anything — because in the rushes. make the other guy look good. suspense. You must be next to the camera. The main reason why directors don’t see “it” on the set is that they don’t understand about listening. and are in addition connected up to their simple. Listening does not detract from an actor’s performance — it enriches the texture. No. Now that you know about listening. it was all there. but it’s my job to tell you: You can’t tell from the video monitor whether the actors are listening. And without that. an actor who listens and who meets the demands of the role may stand out and still look good. isn’t it? Makes you feel left out.
In student films and first features this is the most glaring defect. Likewise when actors are overacting. . because of technical demands. I’m not saying that you should block every scene so that the actors are always looking at each other. “walking through it. And if there is no relationship. there is no relationship. the actors’ eye. So in close-ups equally as in two-shots and masters the actor must be listening. “I had no choice. which they figure the actor can create all by himself. Sometimes the director of photography will tell you that in order to get the two-shot you want.” while it may be showy and impressive. Your reasons for deciding to arrange the shot this way may be important enough to you that you decide to forego the freshness that two engaged actors (provided they really are engaged. to watch the impressive acting. Problems of pace and timing. the thing that is wrong is the actors were not listening to each other. there is nothing to watch in a two-shot. false notes.” Directors often want to know how to work with actors who have been trained in different ways. Listening makes the audience care about the characters and what happens to them. If the actors are not listening in a two-shot or master. and feels something about what he is saying. But a performance in which the actor is acting “all by himself. when you get to the editing room. stiff. his inner life. I’m talking about scenes which are staged so that the characters are meant to be looking at each other but. cold. But you should understand that you are making a choice. takes the audience out of the story. the sense that the character is thinking about what to say next. a trade-off. Listening gives life and colors and expression to the close-ups. cardboard-y. the actors playing the characters cannot. and are really playing off each other. and not just “acting all by themselves” even though they are standing face-to-face) can give the scene. lapses in energy.lines will need to be elsewhere than looking at each other. Sometimes a shot is so tight or so complicated that there is no room for the other actor to stand in the eyeline of the actor whose close-up is being shot. If. you don’t see “it” — you don’t see the relationship or the emotional events of the scene — then what? The one thing I don’t want you to do at that point is say.” “phoning it in. lack of “build” to a scene. In most movies where the acting is bad. The answer is simple: get them to talk and listen to each other.watching their naked faces.” actors who seem to be “in different movies” — all these are examples of problems that usually are listening problems. keep each one from acting “all by himself and screening the other one out”. the shot will turn out to be unusable because if there is no listening. get them to put their concentration on each other. But listening is also crucial to a close-up. When directors tell actors to “do less” what they probably should be telling them is to listen more. actors who are flat. People think of the close-up as the chance to see the character’s reactions. Listening creates the tiny expressive movements.
How can directors learn to tell whether actors are listening? No book can give you .
And you need to be able to see and feel it not just on a movie screen but while it is happening in front of you. One is a studied casual attitude. Each take the actor does of a scene has to be slightly different if the actor is listening. and soft. Sidney Lumet says in his book Ma king Movies that he can tell if the acting in a take is good enough or not by simply watching in a relaxed way. I tell you this flat out. and… never to plan how I would say a line. let’s take it easy. it’s not really listening. The other is an overwrought pop-eyed intense thing. they are good listeners without having to think about it. the readings of the lines are likely to come out differently from the way you heard them in your head.” “Communicate. relaxed. able to receive.” “I like it when you play off each other.” “Stay with each other. the actors who understand its magic are truly liberated by the simple act of putting more concentration on the person they are talking to than on themselves. their performances on each take are going to be slightly different. “It took me years to understand fully why [my teacher] was right. as I mentioned above. you need to monitor whether they are listening. be affected by her. Most actors are aware of listening as a technique and make a habit of reminding themselves to listen. by saying something like. Here’s another way to tell whether the actors are listening: When actors listen.this skill. It can help a lot if the director.” Then while you are watching the actors work.” — Vanessa Redgrave Some actors are “naturals. just connect with each other. This is how you will be able to catch false moments.” “You can pay attention to each other. When actors are not listening. they might fall into exaggerated or fake listening. you as the director need to talk to them about it. is being able to go with whatever comes up from other actors or the director at each moment of a performance and not to try to force a repetition of something that went well the day before. It takes tremendous courage and skill to trust this process. This idea is frightening to directors. Your eyes must be open. it’s an attitude of listening. you need to be able to listen. There is an ease to real listening.” “Watch her eyes.” “Let yourself hear what she’s saying. mentions it in some nonthreatening way. If you want good acting. If told that they have not been listening. Here are some examples of how to ask the actors to listen more: “Give the lines to each other. before rehearsal and before each shot. There are two kinds of fake listening.” “It’s okay to engage.” “Keep it simple.” that is. some actors understand the term “listening” incorrectly. You may not want to use the term itself because. In other words.… The real work of acting is letting go. You can relax. only to think of the situation. Then whenever his attention wanders. Let yourselves connect. and listen to the other actors… What is hard.” “Play off her energy. too. And there’s more: If the actors are listening. and really has to be worked at. . what’s wrong with this is its strain. you must favor listening over preconceived line readings.” “It’s okay to relax. “No need to push.” “Just talk and listen. he knows the actors are not engaged and the take is not good enough. you need to be in the moment. You need to be able to see and feel it.
in a 1994 New York Magazine article. in her interview for the program “Inside the Actors Studio. Be a person. It’s depressing. that giving themselves over to the other actor is neglecting their responsibilities to their character. If you are more deeply into rehearsal or shooting and the actors are losing their connection. thinking that relating to the other actor’s wooden performance will bring hers down. Woody Allen. concern yourself with what your partner is feeling.” These are ways of saying. And of course the scene itself (the director’s responsibility) will get even worse if she stops listening too. “Keep it simple.” Glenn Close. but mostly it is for the actors. In a deteriorating situation like this. You can let what she’s doing feed you. A director needs to deal with these situations delicately.” “You don’t need to screen her out.” “Keep your attention on her. You can trust it. You need to assure her that if she continues to work full out and to stay engaged that you will make sure that the scene works.” “Don’t worry about what you’re feeling. “Bring your day in with you. because it is a way to “let them talk. you might try: “I think this is the kind of script that only works if we have ensemble playing. to connect.” “You two have everything you need. disclosed that the reason he uses one wide shot for most of his whole scenes is partly because it is quicker and cheaper. Sometimes she tries to “save” her performance by pulling back. It’s okay to talk and listen.Don’t say the lines until you feel like saying them. everything you are saying is true.” Sometimes actors have a false sense of responsibility: they feel.” “I think you’re getting worried about your performance. Producer Polly Platt reported to me that director James Brooks says to his actors. .” “It’s okay to put your concentration on each other. And then you have to do it. even unconsciously. not a character. it’s very internal. lesser actor is doing. Let it out.” This is language of permission rather than enforcement. Usually the problem is that the lesser actor is “acting with a capital A” and you need to get him to be simpler and more present in the moment so he can put attention on his partner.” said that Mike Nichols’ words were. Actually she will save her performance by continuing to give and to listen. It’s all there. Don’t act with a capital A. You need to do something to change what the other. check out her response. you might take the more experienced or better actor aside and tell her frankly your concerns. It’s almost a case of “How can something that feels this good (as listening) be good for you?” You can be the one to give the actors permission to let go. because the listening actor knows her chances for a really great performance are going down the drain.” “The listening is really all I care about.” It can be hard for an actor who listens and gives to work opposite an actor who is not listening. that they’re not doing their job unless they hang on to their preparation. You can give it to each other now. or the better actor will start to lose faith in you. “Just remember.” “I believe you but you’re keeping it all inside. enlist her help so she doesn’t feel left out to dry by the other actor’s “nobody home”-ness.” and to allow overlapping. I know you can get the rest of it. give it to the other actor.
even if earlier you had agreed on a .You might do this by changing the interpretation of the character.
And I can always find a way to give direction that doesn’t damage their confidence. When I give direction. I always look for the way to concentrate on what is going right instead of what is going wrong. you may be saying to yourself. Or you might be able to say directly (but privately) to him. It’s not believable. sure.” If you are desperate you might even try an outright trick. .certain interpretation. and even a lot of experienced ones. even an attack on his personality.” Anything to encourage the actor to relax and stop acting up a storm and instead put his concentration on his partner should be done. to offer guidance and encouragement instead of criticism and commands. I believe that the condition of relaxed and vibrant listening is a natural condition. I need you to help me here. such as: “You’re doing great. this could cause him to shrink. I urge you to investigate this farther in your own work and perhaps in a class situation. “Just talk and listen. It takes great concentration and skill on the part of directors to be able to tell whether true listening is taking place instead of actors just saying lines because it is their turn. What’s the big deal?” It is one of those things that is simple but not easy. but I’m worried about your partner. to see the glass half full instead of half empty. When I am directing. the only reason why I would engage in such a tactic is because I love actors and I trust the process. Inexperienced directors. And it takes a director secure in his talent and skills to be able to put concerns for listening ahead of concerns for hearing the lines come out the way he expects them to. like change his personality. “You’re doing too much acting.” My own teacher Jean Shelton used to say this to us until we were tired of hearing it. It makes me nervous to put such a thing in print. but they work. and that if I give permission and confidence to the actors they will open toward it as a flower toward the sun. because the last thing I want to do is encourage arrogance in young directors toward actors. I get laughed at for the circumlocutions of my “relentlessly positive” adjustments. Probably the most important difference between a good director and a mediocre director is whether she can tell if the actors are listening. “Okay. When actors are struggling. It can take discipline on the part of the actors to put concentration on the other actor and not be distracted from listening by concerns for making the “right” effect. I am always trying to make what I am asking the actor to do sound to him like something he can do rather than like something he can’t do. Try to help her stay loose. An actor may hear a flat statement that he is not listening as an accusation. This belief of mine allows me to always see their resistances and acting problems as things that are in the way of their true selves rather than character flaws. even though I am like a dog with a bone when it comes to not giving up on something I think is important. do not realize how important listening is. Even as you are reading this.
Talk to a person. Be a person. not a character.Sidney Lumet uses this expression as well. . Listen to a person.
Some of the things I say in this book are controversial. It is the most important thing a director should be looking for. but this is not. Even if they don’t always do it.Listening is the most important element of performance. Every good director and every good actor agree on this point. they know they should. .
and the actor’s inner freedom. It may not be possible for an actor to engage and .ACTORS’ CHOICES “Most actors’ problems.” but adding a few “terms of art” or jargon to your vocabulary will not make you a good director. stereotype. a rising or falling inflection would call attention to the punch line of a joke. A good actor who is uncommitted imaginatively will look like he is “walking through” a role. the actor. I’ve been harping on giving up preconceived ways of saying a line. director. but now it’s time to talk about structure choices that fulfill the material. it’s not up to a level that will engage their imagination and get them into pretending unself-consciously” — Jack Nicholson The last two chapters have concentrated on the “right-brain. emotional truthfulness. and cliché that in no way resembled actual human behavior. Directors often want to learn “actors’ language. In a very professional actor the tension is because they haven’t made a choice that has taken enough of their mental interest. In other words. It became possible to create structure that made a performance repeatable while preserving moment-by-moment reality. formulated acting techniques that were objective and quantifiable but could activate the subconscious and mysterious. Before Stanislavsky. they haven’t made a vital enough choice.” listening. Stanislavsky charged that this work resulted in posing. Powerful actors must connect with something powerful in the script or else they can’t commit their imaginations.” improvisatory. For example stooping and hand-wringing denoted a pitiful character. Certain gestures denoted annoyance or rage. Constantin Stanislavsky. risk. directors. It is still hard for producers. nose in the air a haughty character. acting training consisted of instruction in voice. a catalog of postures and gaits identified class distinctions and personalities. the movie will be better. etc. freedom. Stanislavsky’s ideas are still brilliant and radical today — radical both in the sense of going to the root of things and in the sense of their defiance of conventional wisdom. unpredictable stuff — “in the moment. and selecting a vocal pattern and gesture deemed appropriate to various character types. writers and even actors to understand and trust that if an actor commits to a playable choice rather than to a decision about vocal inflection or facial expression. deal with tension and there are a lot of devices and ways of eliminating it. teacher. What’s needed is a new way of looking at behavior. professional or amateur. artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre. and author of An Actor Prepares. movement.
For a really professional actor.listen with the other actor(s) until he has worked out the choices that illumine the emotional center of the script. a poor choice — a choice .
” Although they are inspired by the script and illuminate its deepest reaches. they are good ones. private. playable. and that engage his own subconscious so that he can be in the moment. The trick of an actor’s preparation is to find choices that 1) connect to the deepest and freshest meaning of the script. or they become forced or mechanical. the “something of his own” must be so simple. Choices create behavior. thinking real thoughts and feeling real feelings. a “what is to be acted. Choices that are arrived at ahead of time are really ideas or probabilities. gateways into the imaginative subworld.” An actor’s work on the script is to find his choice. The actor looks for choices that are objective. if they don’t work. so that 3) he can connect to them with emotional honesty and get to the places he needs to go. This is where not having gotten stuck in preconceived ways of saying a line pays off. They are secrets. and 2) turn him on. They are not something the audience is supposed to “get. they are in service of the actor’s concentration. because the behavior dictates the way the lines are said. they’re bad ones. so present that he need not step out of the moment to find it. When the performances are private. If they work and bring the script alive. there will be a “dead spot. . Thus the more the actor achieves specificity and simplicity. the more the performance achieves universality.that does not fully realize the material — reads as a false note.” a “something of his own” from which to listen and play off the other actor. the experience of each audience member watching the film is a private one. not academic. That is. when the material offers an opportunity to make a choice and the actor has missed that opportunity and failed to “fill” the words. The lines come out of the choice. capture his imagination. Imaginative choices are practical and idiosyncratic. and eccentric to each actor. these choices are not in service of the author of the screenplay. Choices must be specific. choices must actually take place in the moment. Sanford Meisner puts it this way: “The emotion of the scene is a river and the words are like boats that float on the river.” The scene at this moment will seem slow The choices an actor makes activate his inner life. so compelling. The choice the actor gives himself.
“What do you think?” and the actor replies. Or. You have to help him find himself. adding layers.QUESTIONS “Finally. Saying things like. If they do ask you. and get into all sorts of trouble. “Why doesn’t my character tell his wife about the letter?” Perhaps the director says. that’s possible” in a thoughtful way might induce the actor to wonder if . Often the most helpful response you can make to an actor’s question is to turn it back. Now what if the actor asks you a question about the letter. Why would a man not tell his wife about a letter? Maybe he forgot. They may do this work privately. midwives. feeding himself. “Well. in his own heart. I forget the real reason why I do things. It may surprise you in discussion with actors to hear them asking questions with answers that seem obvious to you. “No. Of course. “What do you think?”. I have seen directors get panicky and conclude that the actor is at a loss. “It doesn’t make sense to me. but are insecure. The asking of questions is part of a process. a question. Maybe he had something else on his mind that was so pressing that the letter seemed unimportant by comparison. and that the lighter choice of “he forgot” will actually add more to the mystery and suspense. Maybe his wife is ill and he doesn’t want to burden her. “I think it’s a guilty secret” — and you think that answer is wrong! Maybe in doing your script analysis you have considered the possibility of a guilty secret but decided that adding a guilty secret to the subtext would make the movie too melodramatic.” or even. then the actor responds. but usually they make the actor feel dampened and/or argumentative. The opposite is probably the case. that’s possible. opening up corners and crannies of the character’s world. I consider that my profession as a director is not exactly like a supervisor. No.” — Jean Renoir The best route to making choices is asking questions. What else might it be?” Or. It can be more helpful to say. and you reply. that’s possible. “I don’t know. The actor has something inside himself but very often he doesn’t realize what he has in mind. “What do you think?” Often actors know the answer already. at this point.” The thing to do next is to look at some possible reasons why a person might behave that way. you the director have some options. here is the right answer. to say. Or maybe he forgot! That happens to me all the time. sometimes just saying. “Here is what I want” may work if you have a very close relationship with the actor. Let’s say the actor asks. It’s very helpful to look at as many possibilities as your imagination offers up. I think that’s wrong. “Yes. simply. As he works. Not all actors’ questions need to be answered anyway. “Yes. as director. sometimes they know the answer but don’t know they know it. actors do not always share their questions with their directors. you know. Your least attractive course would be to contradict him. Well. don’t answer unless you have an answer you believe in.” or even. I haven’t a clue. Maybe the letter contains a guilty secret he doesn’t want his wife to know about. We are.” Depending on your relationship with the actor and your own personal charisma. an actor keeps a performance fresh by continuing to ask questions. and you have to tell him.
Try to resist! The fact that actors have questions is not a bad thing — it is a good thing. Sometimes it is tempting to go to the writer and ask the question. But sometimes just asking the question is enough. The actor can use his own perplexity to engage his sense of belief. Questions can be truly magical. The character may not know the answer himself! The character may himself be wondering why the hell he didn’t tell his wife about the letter. You will neglect to look for opposites. like people. or even demand that the writer put the answer into the script. your answers will be plodding explanations. most of the time probably don’t know why they do what they do. Sometimes you need to figure out the answer in order to solve the scene and unlock the choice that releases the actor’s attention. . If you think of answering actors’ questions as an obligation. probably dead-on the surface meaning of the lines. Characters.there isn’t a more provocative choice and to keep exploring and rethinking.
even to him. the material will make sense even if the inner choice is not logical. do it wrong! An opposite choice keeps the actor in the moment because it is surprising. The off-kilter. “I’m going to kill you.” with arms and legs crossed. illogical choice is usually the truest one.OPPOSITES “I’m interested in the flip side. with the action verb “to charm”). A good actor keeps himself entertained and alive — in the soup — by allowing a conflict between the words and his inner life. looking at you from the side of his eyes. and they don’t do the right thing to get it. that makes him complex. And if the actor is alive. Whenever you’re not sure what to do with a line. They are a great tool of script analysis — as soon as you come up with one idea. Best of all. One actor who uses opposites constantly and very effectively is Gene Hackman. People don’t know who they are or what they want. find an opposite. An actor who gets stuck in the logical. the B-side of people. He often says a line exactly the reverse of the way it might look on the page: for instance. consider also its opposite. “on the nose” choice will never look like a real person.” — Ralph Fiennes Opposites are an actor’s best friend.. His body language is saying that he is the opposite of open. People are not especially logical. If a scene isn’t working. the more dramatic that is. your challenge is to get your mind around the psychology of another human being — and the bigger the polarity. “I’m very open to your proposal. We see it in real life: a person who says. the duality makes him more real.” said with a smile (i. . As an actor.e. When a character says one thing and means another. They often mean quite the opposite of what they say.
an evaluation that the character is just a little less self-aware. are not trying to make the audience believe that the events depicted in a movie are actually happening to the actors on the screen. “But I would never do such-and-such. With the words she was given to say she could easily have fallen into a stereotype of a clingy. I tried to put myself in a place where I could imagine what it was like to have a form of prejudice that was so extreme that . Glenn Close says that she “falls in love” with every character she plays. They cause the actor to stand outside the character and describe and explain her to the audience. not the deed itself. As an actor. Ralph Fiennes has said of his performance in “Schindler’s List. If you start doing that. to comment on her — to editorialize and to play at her — rather than to live her life moment by moment and allow the audience to draw its own conclusions. you end up playing the character like a zombie or a vaudeville villain. The imagined world is too fascinating to them. or more weird than the actor herself. but I am not in a position to judge Nixon. You see he finds the impulse. What I don’t believe is that you can never know the impulse to do suchand-such. Lili Taylor in the movie “Rudy” had the small role of the high school sweetheart who wanted Rudy to settle down instead of following his dream. but they are not playable. Taylor found the character’s grit and humor instead of making a judgment and managed to make a not very deeply written character human and watchable. I believe you. I was not required to hurt [anyone] when I was playing Amon Goeth. Now these evaluations may even be true. manipulative suburban matron-to-be.” But there are tiny judgments that creep into an actor’s thinking almost unnoticed: a condescension to the character. an illusion. and become “the person who doesn’t want Rudy to follow his dreams” instead of a real person with dreams of her own. or more naive.” “People are always trying to think that in order to play a sadist you have to be one. Sometimes a director in my Acting for Directors class complains to me when I ask him to try a certain adjustment. But it does mean she creates the character’s behavior using her own impulses. It is the actor’s job to find that impulse and surrender to it honestly in the created reality.” “an anal-retentive type” or “stupid. as filmmakers.JUDGMENT “It’s easy to sit back and judge someone. Every one of us carries somewhere inside us the impulse (perhaps so deeply buried that it will never express itself in behavior) to do anything that any human being has ever done.” “vicious. Because it is not real reality. it is created reality. I can’t judge because moral judgment gets in the way of the characterization. This doesn’t mean that she must condone the character’s behavior or abandon her own values or personal ethics.” “weak. We. Really good actors do not ever judge their characters. and the opportunity to leap into it too precious.” — Anthony Hopkins Obvious ways to judge a character are to decide that he is a “perpetual loser.” Okay.
This made the Nazi he portrayed far more chilling than the one-dimensional Nazis that are sometimes found in movies.certain groups of people became equivalent to cockroaches or rats.” By not judging the character Fiennes gave us the revelation that the face of evil is a human face. .
SPINE / O BJECTIVE / INTENTION / VERB
Spine, objective, intention, and verb are all expressions of what a character (person)
needs. All creatures — not just human creatures, but all living creatures, all living
move toward what they need. Plants grow toward the sun. This is the principle
behind these actors’ tools.
The objective is what the character wants the other character to do, and the
action verb is what he is doing to get what he wants. “Intention” is virtually
interchangeable with either term, and is sometimes called “the emotional intention.”
The character’s spine, or super-objective, is what he wants during the whole
script; you could call it what he wants out of life. It is the one specific thing that a
character needs more than any other, will sacrifice the most to have. Sometimes
people call it the character’s life-need; you may also hear it called his core, his
through line, his, want, the red thread, the thing that drives him, what he is fighting
for, what is important to him.
Each character has one overall spine throughout the whole movie. In each scene,
although the action verb may change frequently, each character has one objective.
In life our needs don’t turn on and off haphazardly. We don’t necessarily stop
needing something even when we do get it. And we certainly don’t stop needing
something just because we realize we can’t have it.
In his “Inside the Actors Studio” interview Paul Newman referred to “active
verbs” which are the same as the “action verbs” I talk about. Michael Shurtleff’s book
Audition, widely read by actors, exhorts them always to connect to “what the character
is fighting for” — this is, by another name, the objective. I have heard actors refer to
a “driving energy” or finding the character’s “agenda” or “motor” — also objectives.
You can use any vernacular for it. It isn’t necessary to use the terms of art in order to
take advantage of these tools.
There is often confusion between “spine” and “transformation,” also sometimes
called “arc.” Many directors, when I offer them the liberating and invaluable tool of
one spine per character per script, persist in the notion that the character wants
one thing until “X” happens, and then he wants something else. This is not a spine; it
is an attempt to describe the character’s transformation.
You might hear someone describe a character by saying that when his best friend
dies, he “learns the value of friendship,” that is, he transforms from a person who only
cares about himself into a person who is capable of love, or unselfish action, or
whatever. It is helpful for an actor to know the character’s transformation; it is
for the director to know all the characters’ transformations. But it is a big mistake for an
actor, after figuring out the character’s transformation, to set out to play “a person who
learns the value of friendship.” This leads him to playing the end of the script at the
Let’s take as an example, the character Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino in
“The Godfather.” What do you think might be Michael’s spine? When I ask
students this question, they often suggest that he wants “power” or “control” or
“family loyalty” or “to get revenge for the shooting of his father.” None of these will
work for the whole script. When I say that I think Michael’s spine is “to please his
father,” or perhaps, “to make his father proud of him,” students sometimes protest
that in the beginning of the movie Michael wants to separate himself from his father
and be his own man, and that it is only after Don Vito is shot that Michael wants to
make his father proud of him.
But look at the facts. In the beginning of the movie Michael is pleasing his father and
making him proud by becoming a lawyer. Don Vito has three sons: the eldest
(Sonny/Santino) is to succeed him as godfather, the second (Fredo) is to be active in the
business, although his activities must be scaled to his rather severe personal limitations.
The youngest (and favorite), Michael, is to become a real “American” (he even has the
only “American” name) and make his life and his living outside the family business.
Michael’s independence pleases his father. By the end of the movie Michael is not only
in the family business but has taken his father’s place as don; this is his
transformation. The transforming event, I think, is Sonny’s death. After Sonny’s death
there is no one else (certainly not Fredo) who can succeed Don Vito. So Don Vito
makes his peace with the notion of Michael heading the family business, and that
becomes the way Michael can please him.
Michael’s spine “to please his father” doesn’t change even after his father’s death. We
know from real life that this can happen, that a person might still be driven by a need
for a parent’s love and respect even after the parent is dead. Perhaps the theme of
“Godfather II” is exactly this: that continuing to live driven by the need to make
someone happy when that person is no longer alive to respond to one’s efforts, robs life
of its zest and creates a hollow in Michael’s heart.
The spine is who a person is. It may even be partly genetic. This is the reason
why many actors seem to play every role the same. Being able to believably play a
spine different from one’s own is quite a feat. Some actors who play the same
character in every movie are operating out of a “secret identity” spine, different from
their own, but for some reason easily and deeply accessible to their imagination. For
example, Charlie Chaplin was in real life quite different from the “little tramp”
character he most successfully played, whose spine might perhaps be described as “to
stay out of trouble.”
There are several ways an actor uses spine as a tool. One is while reading a script
and deciding whether to take the role. A good actor when reading a script looks
(among other things) for a playable spine — a hanger or hook from which all the
character’s actions depend. When he finds a believable spine he knows that a real
been written, not a patched-up plot manipulation.
Once it is found, the actor uses that spine to design the role. This is the way an
actor can play a major, complex role when it is shot out of sequence. Every decision,
every choice made about the character relates to the spine, including the objectives
of each individual scene. But the relationship may be indirect. For instance in “Last
Tango in Paris,” even though the Brando character in each scene with Maria
Schneider has the objective to push her away, or to hurt or humiliate her, it seems
to me that his spine (super-objective) is to find love. The pushing away is a series of
tests to see if he can trust her. Her scene-by-scene objectives, on the other hand, are
nearly all to get affection from him, to get closer. And yet I think her super-objective
is not love, but to grow up, to become an adult. She must draw him closer in order to
overthrow him, the father figure. The moment when he gives up testing and surrenders
to her (at the tango parlor) is the same moment that she gathers strength to reject
him (these are their moments of transformation).
Must the actor and director agree on the spine of the character? Yes and no.
The choice of a spine must be supported by the script, but it is a secret choice.
Sydney Pollack compares the spine of the movie to the armature of a sculpture; it
keeps the thing together, but no one sees it. If what an actor is doing works, what
does it matter if the spine she has chosen is different from your idea? But if you are
not happy with a performance, bringing up the subject (via a question, such as “What
are you thinking of as the spine of this character?”) can be a useful way to begin a
discussion about shaping or changing a performance.
On the other hand, some directors prefer to make all the decisions about
spine. Independent British filmmaker Ken Loach, in an L.A.Times interview, said he
doesn’t give actors a full script ahead of time, and instead feeds them a couple of
pages at a time, because he wants them to give a simple, unrehearsed response
to each circumstance of the script as it arises. I should think that the success of this
approach must depend on the director casting people who have the same lifespine as the characters.
A character’s objective for a particular scene can be very specific and very simple. For
example: I want him to leave the room; I want him to kiss me; I want him to laugh; I
want him to cry. The simpler it is the more playable it is. The most playable objectives
have both a physical and an emotional component.
The physical component means that, if you achieve your objective, you will know
it because of a physical event — the other actor would cry or laugh or kiss you or
leave the room, whatever. So you have a point of concentration that is physical and
real, a simple imaginative task.
Part of the emotional component means that getting this objective, or not getting it,
will constitute an emotional event in the relationship, a win or a loss. To be very simpleminded about it, if my objective is to get someone to leave the room, when he leaves
the room, I win; if he doesn’t, I lose. In either case our relationship has undergone a
small (or a big) change.
The rest of the emotional component is that the objective arises out of the
character’s needs and feelings. Needs and feelings are subjective. Actors who feel
deeply but fail to connect their feelings to intention can become general or selfindulgent. The simple intention — an inclination toward having some effect on the
other person — leads to engagement. Although simple listening has already engaged
the actors, endowing the characters with a need to interact raises the stakes of the
relationship. It also makes it possible for the actors to listen and play off each other
even if the characters are not listening to each other. Objectives make possible
conflict and a sense of event in the relationship, because the actors are doing
something to each other rather than doing something to the lines.
If I want you to leave the room I might invite you to leave the room. If that doesn’t
work, I might demand that you leave the room. If that doesn’t work I might beg. If that
doesn’t work I might whine, tease, punish, etc. The intention, or verb, might
change often, even in the middle of the line, or it might be the same for the whole
scene. The verb changes because of the exchange between the two characters.
Complex characters may change their verb often or make wide swings from, say,
soothing to punishing in one speech.
You will notice that the verbs on the Short List of Action Verbs all carry an intent
to have an emotional effect on the other person; thus they are sometimes called
“emotional intentions.” Verbs stimulate emotion. Honestly committing to any one of
the verbs on the Short List will put the actor at risk (in a theatrical sense).
UNCONSCIOUS O BJECTIVES
A director should be able to determine what intention or objective an actor is playing,
even if the actor doesn’t know it herself. If an audition, rehearsal, improv, or take has
gone exceptionally well, very often the actor doesn’t know what she has done, because
she was in the moment and not watching her performance. It can be very useful for the
director to mirror it back to her. If you want a change in the performance, you might
say something like this: “The thing I liked about the last rehearsal was that you seemed
to be putting [the other character] at ease. This time it seemed as if you wanted his
Actors can fall into the unconscious objective “to say my lines effectively.” Or “to
make the director/producer think I’m a good actor,” or “to remember my lines.” Any of
these objectives take the actor’s attention off the work and hurt the performance.
Sometimes an actor intellectualizes his objective and winds up showing us that he
has such an objective instead of allowing it organically to impel his words and
movements. In other words, he has the unconscious objective “to have an objective.”
Finding the character’s objective is preparation. The actor analyzes the script,
finds something playable, and makes it real for himself. Then he lets go and plays the
moment. If the actor falls out of the moment or loses concentration, he has something to
fall back on. If his objective is to get her to laugh, he can look at his partner and ask
himself, “Is that a little smile around her lips? Am I making any headway in getting her
to laugh? What shall I try next?”
What if his objective is “to be forgiven,” and the other actor has a line late in the
scene, “I forgive you”? If he makes his objective “to make her say she forgives him,” he
hasn’t got enough to do, hasn’t got an important enough task, because she’s going to
say the line no matter what he does. This is called a “soft” objective. To keep his
objective alive he needs to keep his concentration on something physical, such as her
eyes and body language. That’s where one really experiences forgiveness — not in
So once she says the line, does his objective change? No. We look for an objective
the actor can hang the whole scene on, that can be true from the beginning of the
scene to the end. That is the truth of this tool, and the way to make it useful.
CHOOSING O BJECTIVES
We want to find objectives that are active. Another kind of soft objective is, in a boymeets-girl scene, deciding that the boy “wants her to talk to him.” Unless the
actor playing the girl forgets her lines, she’s already going to talk to him! An
objective that would be more likely to work might be that he “wants her to take her
Sometimes students are shocked when I make this suggestion. But I’m not talking
about how to stage the scene but rather an interior adjustment for the actor. It doesn’t
mean that he has any notion that he’s going to achieve that objective; it doesn’t mean
that he is doing anything overt to achieve it. It’s his inner life, it gives him an inner point
of concentration. This particular idea may give the scene a subtle undercurrent of
sexual sizzle. It depends on the actor, however; for another actor that interior
adjustment might make the character look depressed and anxious.
The objective is not the result. It is not a blueprint for the scene. Perhaps you
were surprised earlier when I suggested that the spine for Chaplin’s little tramp might
be “to stay out of trouble,” since the little tramp was always in trouble. The lines or
plot contain clues to the objective, but the objective relates to what is not being
said, the subworld. In the case of the little tramp, humor results from the incongruity of
intention and result.
” His . he might truthfully answer “to talk to her.The interesting thing is that if the character was a real person and you asked him what he wanted from the young woman.
If I say. Sometimes.” Daniel Day-Lewis has a line where he tells Madeleine Stowe that he will find her. If an actor tries to want two things at once. “get him to look you in the eye.” Human beings can’t do more than one thing at one time. Which intent or need should the actor use in the scene? Whichever one works.” It’s more physical and specific.g. Don’t forget that very often they do the wrong thing to get it. There is always something that a person wants the most. People want what they want. Directors (actors too). an excellent actor. This is usually a weaker use of the imagination than phrasing the objective as a positive (“He wants her to smile”). Sometimes it is helpful for the actor to concentrate on what he is doing — the action verb — the simple task. It is the skill of the actor or director to unlock this mystery and find the singular playable key. often come up with all kinds of things the character doesn’t want (e.” my intention is probably not to have you believe that I want you to understand. In rehearsal. will sacrifice the most for. but so out of context that it sounded like a declaration of his intent. he can try them both. when I saw the movie and the line was said in context I could see that Day-Lewis. when asked what a character’s objective might be.” Instead of “get her sympathy. “He wants her to. “He is trying to get her to…” Instead say. stuck on the surface of the words.” A cop-out. Knowing we can’t get something doesn’t stop us from wanting it. “He doesn’t want to hurt her”). Avoid the construction. perhaps “to calm” or “to soothe” or “give her courage” for the ordeal ahead. as if he were playing the intention “to get her to believe that he would find her. but to actually have you understand. “She wants this but she also wants that. Try instead. Often it is more helpful for the actor to create for himself a strong sense of need or objective and then not think about when to change . rather than if my intention or need is to be loved.need to be alone and unclothed with her might be deeper than his conscious intent. however irrational. Although I have no inside information as to how Day-Lewis works. and closer to the way these situations really feel when they are happening.” consider. Later.” It seemed to me like a cliché. had not made Hawkeye’s intent “to get her to believe that he would find her. “Get him to acknowledge you” is a soft objective. The most important thing to understand about choosing an objective is not to get stuck making us believe the truth of the words spoken. This moment was used in all the trailers. for instance. “I need you to love me” comes out very differently if my intention is to make you believe that I love you. “get her to put her arms around you. a person wants respect but constantly seems to be apologizing for his actions. In the film “Last of the Mohicans.” The word “try” may add a strain. “He wants X but he knows he can’t get it.” which would have been the hackneyed “movie” choice. it looked to me as though his choice was something more visceral. “I really want you to understand this.. the two will cancel each other out and make the performance flat.
Some actors .action verbs. but rather let the changes come out of his interaction with the other actor.
In order to understand and effectively use them. you may become known as an “actor’s director. this is one of the things he should be monitoring. When the director monitors actors’ performances. as usual. But whether or not the actor uses this tool. you will have an invaluable tool for casting.prefer not to think about objective or intention at all. in order to be believable. is that reading about objectives. must have a through-line and a sense of intention. If you become adept at discerning actors’ unconscious objectives. The actor doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of it or be able to label it (he may be working some other way). If you can discern whether an actor operates out of a need. can play the verb rather than playing at it. on the grounds that the character probably doesn’t know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. and spines is only a start. you need to practice and see them in action. intentions. but it must be there. the performance. .” The caveat.
warm rain. not just talking about words. Let’s say the character has a line. rain squishing in your shoes. places. that is. the condensation on the inside of the pane. He puts them in the context of the facts of the script. I remember my New England childhood. She would make a fall sensory exploration of all the images of rain that she could conjure and connect with. of course. This includes not only visual images but impressions of all the senses — what we see. the sound patterns as the wind brings the rain in gusts. she can imagine it. the sound of splashing. the word “rain” has some emotional weight. hear. my imagination easily fills in. rain running down one’s collar. This is an important cornerstone of a believable performance. a n d things that inhabit their subworld. The actor is not working to have the image while the camera rolls. he relates them to his personal experience and observation and allows his imagination to weave through them and be captured by them. since it meant no danger of electrocution! My mother would let my brother and me put on our swimsuits and play outside in the rain. Besides memory. taste. he is not stopping the scene to remember his image. but I can recreate many sensory details of that experience. It takes time. all different kinds of rain: hard. where summer rain was usually accompanied by thunder and lightning. the sight of rain streaming down the window. wasn’t present. being indoors in a rainstorm. Even if a person has never been inside a tiny mountain cabin during rain. mud. that means it wasn’t strong enough. “There was rain today.” the actor invests or endows it with sensory associations. the actor might add imagined associations of rain. the smell of rain. A warm summer shower without lightning was a special event. By images in the text I mean every person. Of course everybody knows what rain is. When it comes time for the actor to deliver the line “There was rain today” in front of the camera. place. He does this in order to be sure he is talking about something. if she has never stood naked in the rain.IMAGES There are images in the text and images behind the text. wasn’t meaningful enough. she can imagine it. An actor when studying a script examines all the images in the text and makes sure he understands them. and touch. As soon as I let myself take some time to think about rain. Or maybe it won’t. he has already done the work and the image will be there. cold rain. but he also makes them real to himself. but an actor who works deeply with images would adopt a “beginner’s mind” and not take anything for granted. or thing that the characters mention in their dialogue. The content of what someone is saying is not the words themselves but the image those words evoke. rain on wool.” To give life to the image “rain. soft. If the image is not there when the actor gets to the line. By images behind the text I mean the things the characters don’t talk about — the people. and what I don’t remember. smell. This would involve memories of rain. the taste of rain. And what feelings it brings back! This is all preparation. Or perhaps . private and compelling enough. there is an image behind it. needle-like rain. sweet.
If the actor has mistakenly intellectualized the idea of rain rather than connected to the .that it wasn’t sensory enough.
then the image won’t come unbidden when the actor arrives at the word. “beta-carotene”? What I mean is that I picture him. the actor might substitute a selfish person who is not a man or an ex-lover at all. But if the character’s ex-husband was selfish. then the audience can hear that in the words. In a scene in which the character is talking about her ex-husband. the actor can make a substitution. who is not present. they don’t know what truth is being spoken. Of course she may not have an ex-husband. but they need to be specific and strong. whenever she has a line mentioning him. a great figure. and very firm opinions! Images can be imaginative or they can arise from the personal experience of the actor. That is. for instance. when he says the words “beta-carotene. If at all times the actor is talking about something real. or that it was never very substantial to begin with. that is. The substitution is an emotional parallel to the character’s relationship. She can substitute for the ex-husband someone from her own life. They need to capture the actor’s imagination. even opposite. and they will suspend disbelief and fill in the blanks. The audience will believe the relationship because they will believe that there is some relationship. She may never have been married. that would give the relationship less emotional investment. have little effect on an audience. she would substitute in her own mind the image of her own exhusband. Or she might substitute her own ex-husband even if he wasn’t selfish. Dealing with images is a way to give a word emphasis and color. Usually I would say that the actor in the above example. or that she is in denial about her true feelings. The parallel need not be exact if it is done honestly and simply and with fall commitment. and suddenly it’s a funny word. In that case he goes off by himself before the next take and reinvestigates it. for example. without images connected to the words. The purpose of substitution is honesty in a performance. so they can be surprising.” imagining something other than a vitamin — maybe a person whose name is Beta Carotene. paradoxically. with red hair. She could even substitute for the ex-husband a person she met in a store yesterday. a woman. This would create an adjustment that she’s gotten over the relationship. but they hear truth being spoken. So. but she can still play the role. when substituting for an exhusband. . but I can’t help wondering — is it possible that he prepares by riffing and free-associating in a similar way to the “rain” associations above? Could he have created some idiosyncratic imaginative stand-in for. should pick somebody important in her own life. Michael Richards. I don’t know what he does to achieve his amazing effects. Kramer on TV’s “Seinfeld. an ex-lover or ex-friend. and thus a different attitude. It doesn’t really matter what the substitution is. she could substitute her mother if her mother was a selfish person.” will give an ordinary word some strange twist in the way he says it. Substitutions do not need to be exact. perhaps petite. as long as it captures her and as long as she is talking about a person. Lines spoken as lines in a script.sensory experience of it. They don’t know what the substitution is.
when the actor is substituting — that is. in his mind he is speaking about something other than the words of the script — the audience can hear and believe the words better. .
(It was my choice about the character that to her the ironing was an act of love. but she was talking about ironing. But God put his hand on me. Meeting this person made a tremendous impression on me. I happen to know someone who went to jail for manslaughter. In fact I wanted to see my boyfriend. Besides substituting the things he is talking about the actor can make a substitution of the person he is talking to.) Although my mother ironed my father’s shirts and taught me how. And eventually. I was dry. The substitution gives the actor a springboard into the imaginative realm — the “magic as if. but rather to determine what specific events of this character’s life make him call himself cynical and selfish.) I made my images very specific: a specific gift. the actor must be sure that he is not speaking in generalities. and also to his own life and the lives of people he has known. so the actor goes to his own imagination.” The actor also makes sure that there is an image in place for the facts or events he is speaking about. the Beloved Country. and instead gave myself completely to the substitution I had found. but is speaking specifically of something in the character’s past that might cause him to say such a thing. a certain person the gift was for. I quit worrying about getting the right image. which had to do with the steaming ironing board. Perhaps it is something he did that he knew was wrong but escaped punishment for. The work of the actor is not to decide whether to say this line piously or defiantly or sarcastically. as an adult. of whom they disapproved.A few years ago I performed a demanding lead role in a stage production in which my character had long monologues on the subject of ironing her husband’s shirts. I would not need to do that of course. the ironing image did kick in! The steam from the iron and the crispness of the cotton began to take hold of my imagination. In the Bellevue emergency room there was a kind nurse. the texture and colors of the cotton shirts. but they did not carry the emotional weight for me personally that the writing clearly meant them to carry. (She was not ironing on stage. ironed men’s shirts. So I made a wholesale substitution and as I spoke the images of the monologue.” one of the characters has a line “I am a cynical and selfish man. etc.” In order to make this strange and powerful line his own. I did not try to make the audience believe that I felt the steam. What is it? There are no further clues in the script as to what this event might be. In early rehearsals I tried my best to focus on images of ironing shirts during those long monologues. Perhaps I would borrow his experience and substitute it as my own when it came time for me to say this line. That evening we were in a serious motorcycle accident. Recalling her face and eyes might well start me on the road to creating a reality behind that line. the wrapping paper. it was just there. the tape. I could recall the time when I was nineteen and lied to my parents that I couldn’t meet them for dinner because I was sick. she was actually in a police station. I focused instead on a sensory experience of wrapping a present for someone I loved. I had never. During many performances. In the 1995 version of “Cry. If the character is talking to a person who has betrayed . I could feel the steam on my face and in my nostrils.
the actor can substitute for his scene partner a person from his own life who has .him. instead of working himself up into a phony. actorish rage against the other actor in the scene.
That’s an example of an image behind the words. The whole script has only one character. This image could be connected to the imaginative circumstances of the frontier setting of the story. and this character speaks out loud during the whole episode. . his social class. that conjures up for him safety and love. The substitution gives him a truthful need to speak. in which case he imagines himself as a separate person to talk to. He could be talking to himself. texture of her skin. The words may not come out with rage at all. the actor is always talking to someone. If the image is strong. But a thorough actor will also create for himself images of objects and experiences that relate to his period and occupation. and set decoration for the period. Or it could be personal to the actor — a picture. to give her courage and hope. Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis. Even if there’s only one character in the scene. or even to make a decision as to what it is. the actor creates an image of the face he is in dialogue with. a fragrance. he will of course be given the appropriate costume. In either case.betrayed him. This is necessary also for voice-over narration. An image can impel an intention. These images can come from his imagination or from his own life. He could be talking to an imaginary person. for instance — and put his concentration on transmitting that image to her. He could be talking to objects (the books). making her see and feel and share it. someone he wishes were there to see him now. wearing thick glasses and the only survivor of nuclear war. the actor needs to create the image (a sound image as well as visual image) of a voice on the other end that he is responding to. the actor doesn’t have to think about his intention. or even perhaps with very little emotion. finds himself in the ruins of the public library. the sound of a voice. instead endowed his line “I will find you” with an image of Madeleine Stowe’s future rescue and safety — the strength and warmth of his arms around her. Narrators of documentary (or fiction) films need to give themselves one particular person to whom they are telling their story. but which nevertheless inform his life. as I suggested earlier. her fragrance. Why does he talk? He must be talking to someone. and the results may be surprising. playing Hawkeye. the better. the more specific and sensory (the wrinkles around her eyes. and occupation. Other images outside the writing may be the images of the character’s world that characterize the period and culture he lives in. When a character has a telephone conversation. things which he may have no lines to talk about. rather than articulating an intention for himself. When the actor has a close-up or eye-line that prevents him from eye contact with the actor he is playing the scene with. they may come out with sadness.). he uses the image instead of an intention. props. even though they are supposedly face-to-face. Under what circumstances do people talk when nobody else is around? Take the “Twilight Zone” episode in which Burgess Meredith. etc. If an actor is playing a knight in medieval times.
it’s going to have an . the hiding places. the tear in the screen door. creating a detailed image of the swings. Images have a big effect on all of us. If you start thinking about the backyard of your childhood home.Many actors get emotional colors through images.
eavesdrop. Who knows where Vanessa Redgrave got the images for the shimmering scene in which she describes her memories of Howard’s End to Emma Thompson? Wherever the image comes from. specific. if it is done in an original way. she lets the words come out of her commitment to that image. especially biography and fiction. concerts. talk to strangers. one must have access to images from other sources. the resonating sensory subworld of the text. She will read extensively. mountains and deserts. Even if actors have not been specifically trained to work with images.effect on you. . A dedicated actor or director will always connect images with associations that are rich both in personal meaning and in imaginative breadth. without deciding how she will say them. the more we (the audience) are able to journey in our own imaginations to our own Howard’s End. Franco Zeffirelli gave Glenn Close this image for her portrayal of Gertrude in “Hamlet”: “The walls of the castle are filled with her perfume. and to grow as an artist. This is a mistake. The more private. in order to constantly replenish her repertoire of images and associations. to meadows. It’s true that there is fun to be had in movies that reference other movies. she will ask acquaintances for the stories of their lives. it’s just true. That’s why they are such a useful directing tool. I find that many novice film directors have filled their imaginations exclusively with images from movies and television.” Images are the poetry. and real her image is to her. but to build a real career. spend time with children. go to museums.
” Again. I want you to note that they are choices. In real life. as with determining the objective. Concentration on a problem creates a sense of task. as director. This might work (I’m not claiming any clairvoyance into Dan Ackroyd’s mental or creative processes) if he has a good enough substitution. he will not expose her to humiliation by letting her know about the neighbors’ complaints. Sometimes the productive way to talk about a character’s need is to talk about the character’s “problem.OBSTACLE An important reason for using a personal substitution is that it gives the actor an obstacle. Substituting her own father in the imagined circumstances of a confrontation that she perhaps has never experienced will give her the obstacle that can bring emotional truth to the scene. it is a good idea not to come too dead-on to the lines of the script. not a man. acting up a storm. and keeps the actor’s attention forward. Actors are usually thrilled to be approaching such a meaty role. (Or it might not. Second. indeed. confronting away. They jump in feet first. that she still treats him like a child. A completely different tack might be to give him the problem that he has received complaints (which he knows would upset his mother if she found out about them) from the neighbors that his mother has been driving over their lawns. I think a director could have reasons for preferring either one. ask for the result . This could give him a problem — a grown man.” The concept of “problem” incorporates the sense of need with a sense of obstacle. You could add another obstacle that no matter what. This could add a tenderness to his concern for her. have they had this discussion before? What were those other conversations like? Perhaps her dismissals of his well-meant suggestion make him feel that she doesn’t respect his opinion.) But at this point I don’t want to discuss the merits of these choices. First of all. not focused on whether he is doing the role “right. I want you to notice that exploring these choices is different from asking the actor for these results. who is treated like a child by his mother. The first one might create a deeper undercurrent to the relationship.” You might say that Dan Ackroyd’s problem is to get his mother to agree to hiring a chauffeur. confronting one’s father about the deficiencies in the relationship is likely to be a painful experience. An actor might win the role of a person who after many years of hiding her feelings finally confronts her father about the distance in their relationship. a successful businessman. but usually the actor will ask himself some questions to lead himself to a problem more under the surface. These two different imaginings of the character’s problem would be two different character choices. most of us would put a lot of energy into avoiding. If you. Let’s take as an example the opening scene of “Driving Miss Daisy. one that. of course. There is nothing in the script to prove or disprove either one. For example. The second one might make the character of the son more superficial.
or to make his character more superficial — you are hoping that he searches his imagination and experience for . to bring a deeper undercurrent to the relationship.— for example.
and now I am saying that cooperating is bad. unpredictable. such situations can easily become political. even if they struggle to preserve their composure and keep the other guy from knowing that they are affected. but nothing creative can come of it. Sometimes actors make bargains with each other (“If you are really mean to me in that scene. Sometimes actors forget that an obstacle is a good thing. of generous acting. the through. you could engage in discussion and experimentation with the various ways of looking at the character’s problem. The actors may have agreed on what lines will be spoken and what blocking. perhaps. To work successfully this way. I have been carrying on about the importance of listening. Sometimes actors bargain with the director. not a bad thing. Sometimes the writing should be changed. in the moment.” or “My character wouldn’t say that”). even if they struggle against it. When actors discuss their characters together. and physical obstacles can be the best thing that can happen to the work.line and the beats. it could add to the dramatic tension — or to the comedy — of the situation. and the emotional life becomes a connect-the-dots drawing instead of an event. though not limited to. it is like gossip — fun. The concept of “servicing” or “cooperating” is slippery. and she is standing way across the room. Cooperating. then I will be able to cry”). and sometimes political considerations will force you to respond to such requests with political solutions. means the actors collude on the emotional subtext of the scene. or bargaining or servicing each other. But each actor’s emotional subtext must be sovereign. because the actors are servicing each other. It is a very good idea to ask the actors not to discuss the work with each other. Both characters have to be affected by each other. requesting that another actor stand closer. But if you are interested. A superior actor.e. But sometimes actors cross the line into wanting to stay in their comfort zone. not to be affected by the other actor. or a prop be changed so it is easier to handle. You should understand that if you engage in the problem with the actor. This doesn’t work for a scene. otherwise the scene loses a sense of obstacle. one who is intelligent and is . There has to be something at stake. however.ways (such as. the ones suggested above) to create a believable sense of problem around your request. you will have to be process-oriented rather than result-oriented. Or actors may bargain with the writing (“That line is too hard to say. Sometimes the writing will have a “false note” — something the writer has put in for reasons other than the inevitabilities of story and character. the performance might or might not end up with the result you have in your mind. If the character wants someone to kiss him. you would respond to all such requests in terms of the work. even the emotional structure of the scene — i.. This calls for a decision on the part of the director. Sometimes they make a choice that enables them not to engage. Of course an actor needs to be confident about his choices. In the best of all possible worlds. If you are working with stars. Such bargaining drains the scene of life.
working honestly and organically. will stumble on such lines and be able to call them to the attention of the .
improvised. who insisted he saw no way to change a word. The question raised by Brando was central to solving that scene. pulls out the gun. Terry knows Charlie will not use a gun on him. i. from the “Waterfront” example. Brando. not your writer’s hat. Budd Schulberg. in a 1994 GO article about the shooting of “On the Waterfront. we see the inarticulate depth and strange tenderness of the relationship.director.. And yet. It is the director’s job to mediate any concerns the actor has about the writing. and certainly it is fair to say that the actor created.” reveals that Marlon Brando was unhappy with the taxicab scene and pestered Elia Kazan for a rewrite. claims to have improvised that whole scene! But to me the two versions of the story are not really in conflict. This can be very valuable input. I feel strongly that actor and writer should never meet without the director present — even when the writer and director are the same person! If you are both the writer and the director. agree that it would have been a mistake to change any lines. “What if you just reach out quietly and push the barrel down a little so it’s not pointing at you?” This is an important story.e. we see that whatever failures Charlie has made as a brother. Brando said. What is the scene about? It’s about two brothers. Brando’s problem was the point at which Charlie. Pushing away the gun becomes the transforming event of the scene. I think. but it was also a correct way of working with a good actor who is having a problem with a well-written script. If you have the time and the skill (the more skill you have. “I’ve got all that stuff where I say ‘I coulda been a contender’ and that my brother and Johnny sold me out. Kazan called them together for a reading of the scene. . On the other hand. The rumor reached Schulberg. And if you are really skilled. Terry opens his heart to his brother. and find a way to justify it. when you need to talk to an actor about script changes. Kazan’s direction goes to the heart of the scene. Anyone who has seen the movie will.) I think you can see. because when Terry gently pushes the gun away. and Charlie is moved to love and shame — indeed. After it. played by Rod Steiger. you can give his performance a huge boost by insisting that he find a way to meet the line. all those dreams of what I could’ve been — how can I say all that with a gun pointing at me?” Schulberg says that Kazan responded. the less time it takes). sometimes the writing is solid. This was a major directorial insight. he then sacrifices his own life. or the writer has about the acting. the scene’s emotional life. Brando’s point was a valid one. in his autobiography. what a mistake it would have been for the actor and writer to meet without the director. you will be able to give suggestions on how to do that. It seems to me that Brando was objecting to the pitch of melodrama that he felt would result from the situation of a man pouring out his heart with the obstacle of a gun pointed at him. and the actor has not made the connection necessary to see the life in the line. enter its subworld. you should do so with your director’s hat on. (Interestingly.
Sometimes an actor objects to a line because he is resisting some facet of the .
sometime in rehearsal or performance. and that solution would give me the whole character. and insight and connection result. I never tried to get the line changed. the director can allow the actors time to work out such resistances at their own pace. Since I was trained to theater discipline. sometimes a whole scene. When the resistance is pierced. When they are solved they release energy. In every role I undertook. which I didn’t get.character. or didn’t like. Now if you have a rehearsal period. but often I was secretly sure that no matter how brilliantly I performed. What I had been resisting was a part of myself that was central to the character. But every time. “solve” the line or moment. and not me. Such resistances are not bad. there would be a line. it would not work. I would finally understand. but they are obstacles. actors may need help from the director or else sooner or later the line they are resisting will probably have to be cut or changed. Organically working out the resistances of the actors is one of the purposes of rehearsal. This used to happen to me. Such resistances carry a lot of energy. since it was really the line that was wrong. perhaps to something inferior. . Without rehearsal. tremendous emotional and psychic energy is released.
I tell her that many of the hospital staff come into her room. Then I speak to the female actor alone. The tests have shown that she can hear and that there is no medical reason why she can’t speak. with little time off. . but she still doesn’t speak.” “Danielle” is a female and “the Doctor” is male. I tell her that she woke up in a hospital two days ago and the people there have been telling her she was in a coma for two weeks.” “Danielle” prepares and settles herself and the improv begins. I tell her that she can speak. I call it “Danielle and the Doctor. and he has come up to her room. I haven’t told him what his objective is. Two days ago she woke from her coma. but that for the past two days she has not spoken. He has made no friends in this new city. and has chosen to take his internship in the public assistance hospital of a large city far from his home. Interns work extraordinarily long shifts. I haven’t told him what he feels. and I speak to the male actor. The facts by themselves are powerful enough to activate his sense of belief. And. guess what objective the actor playing the intern has? To get her to speak. He takes extra shifts for other interns when they want time off.” I have given him an obstacle. I’ll give you an example from an improvisation I use in my advanced acting classes. It is now late at night. In that case the actor doesn’t have to know the objective. I have given him only facts. The facts themselves can create a powerful enough sense of need so that it is not necessary to put the objective into words. a “Jane Doe. that’s for her to choose. a young woman was brought into the hospital in a coma. He would talk to her.FACTS A character’s through-line can come from the facts of the scene.” The staff of the hospital took to calling her “Danielle. with no identification. (I also have a variation in which the male and female roles are switched. I haven’t told him what should happen in the scene. The intern comes in.) First I ask the female actor to go out of the room. his shift is over. and one in which the actors are two women. Sometimes these improvs are quite beautiful. at low pay. but every time. I tell her she may or may not remember what caused her coma. through my instructions to “Danielle. I tell him that six months ago he graduated from medical school on a scholarship.” During those two weeks he found himself visiting her room whenever he had time off. Two weeks ago. I ask her to find that place within herself from which she might have no desire or need to communicate. but there is one intern who comes more often and who calls her “Danielle.
” — Bryan Singer. and had never received a letter? These are questions an actor might ask himself in order to create a sense of belief in the given circumstances of the character. is the performances of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in “Toy Story. such as objectives and substitutions. James Dean. and a will to make us believe with them. when the early work of Marlon Brando. “Given circumstances” is another way of saying the character’s situation. exercise belief in an imagined reality. a great will to believe in their characters. if I lived in a tiny village all my life. would commit themselves to the circumstances of the story. no matter how silly or far-fetched. he is likely to fall into the trap of trying to prove to the audience that he does. Montgomery Clift. I can picture these two talented men allowing themselves an effortless imaginative journey back to childhood. All other techniques. but toys. A wonderful example of a pure sense of belief at work.” as does the title character in “Il Postino. Writers and producers tend to call it backstory. . director of “The Usual Suspects” If an actor has a line to the effect that “this is the first letter I’ve ever received. who were working before the teachings of Constantin Stanislavsky took hold among cinema actors..” the actor. seems only to have made the imaginative leap all the more graceful. That the characters are not even people. are really means to an end.” Now I don’t know how they worked. but somehow I doubt it. I like to call it the facts.e. or his predicament. and Kim Stanley seemed to tear open the envelope of the emotional depth an actor could give the audience. which is to kick in the sense of belief. and were able to infect the audience with their sense of belief. who has undoubtedly received letters in his own life. i. But they had a great sense of belief. no matter what techniques of script analysis and preparation they favor. had no education. create a sense of belief in the situation. What would it be like to be a person who has never received a letter? How would I feel. If he does not allow himself to believe in the scene on some simple level. to one extent or another. Some actors are in touch with their imaginations enough to surrender themselves to an unself-conscious sense of belief in the situation no matter how improbable. Geraldine Page. All actors. who would I be. The wonderful film actors of the thirties and forties. They seemed to make a wholesale imaginative leap into their created personas. maybe they mapped out through-lines and beats and adjustments and subtext. it seems to me. we now demand of our dramatic film actors an inner life and moment-bymoment authenticity of feeling that the film stars of the thirties and forties did not always have. Since the fifties.SENSE OF BELIEF “[Acting] is basically a simple exercise of living life truthfully under imaginary circumstances. must create the given circumstance that justifies the facts behind that line. when acting out the inner lives of their toys was daily bread.
based on the events of that afternoon? There are several possible choices. dangerous woman. there are no clues about this and that means the actor can make a choice) will give the actor an adjustment to the other actor that creates a relationship between the two. commands 4) He finds her attractive. One way to approach playing the character of Val would be to look at that fact. There’s nothing wrong with that. Val had arrived in town that afternoon. he first saw her while she was involved in the task of getting her sick.ADJUSTMENTS Some people use the term “adjustment” to refer to any choice or shading of a performance. In Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” (the movie “The Fugitive Kind”). stopping briefly in Lady’s mercantile store. Let’s say that you want to pick a fight with him. right? But sometimes people call it an adjustment. An adjustment arises as a way of interpreting facts. there is a scene in which Lady and Val first become acquainted. who that afternoon brought her invalid husband home from the hospital. “Let’s try a different adjustment. He has returned to the store and he is standing in shadow as Lady. When I gave the “Driving Miss Daisy” example of adding an obstacle for the son. Making a choice about his first impression of her that afternoon (if you go back and reread that scene. demanding husband upstairs to bed and keeping her business running. that could be called adding an adjustment. There is a fact central to this scene: Val was in the store earlier in the day when Lady arrived with her husband from the hospital. She hasn’t slept in days and has lost her sleeping pills. the idea that the neighbors might have complained about tire tracks on their lawns is an imaginative backstory idea. The only words the husband spoke were words of criticism toward Lady. 2) He perceives her as a woman with power who owns a store. They surprise each other in the dark store and their acquaintance begins. leaving his guitar there. descends the stairs to place an emergency call to the druggist. It’s .” That’s really an objective. a director may say. 5) She is the same age as his mother. It is now the middle of the night. based on the facts: 1) He perceives her as a woman in trouble who needs help. For instance. 3) He perceives her as crazy. a difficult. How does he perceive her. respect and could help him (he has no job). Adjustments can be a way of adding imaginative backstory to the facts of the script — a “what if?” Using the “Driving Miss Daisy” example.
It’s a “what if?” as in “What if one of his business associates lives next door to his mother and made a nasty joke during a meeting about Miss Daisy’s driving habits?” .not in the script.
” You see how this could create the same effect as deciding to be very. This is an imaginative adjustment. you make the direction less result-oriented if you connect it to a metaphor-type adjustment. not on himself.Adjustments are ways of talking about the character’s behavior without using adjectives. If you feel the need to discuss the character’s emotion with an actor. “This is the first letter I’ve ever received from the President of the United States. you might say his adjustment is that “B is an important man. The actor in “II Postino. the adjustment could be that B carries a weapon. So you might say.” You could also call this an imaginative subtext. It’s more like when the phone company won’t come out to fix your service until next Thursday and insists that you be there all day.” or. It can also be phrased as an “as if — “as if B is carrying a gun and will use it if he perceives any sign of disrespect from me. but it puts the actor’s attention on the other actor. and has been known to shoot people he feels are disrespectful to him.” in order to say believably the line about receiving the first letter in his life. Instead of saying that character A is “respectful” toward character B. . might make the adjustment that what he is really saying is. The imagined gun is a secret the actor playing A gives himself in order to justify the relationship and the need to speak. very respectful (or deciding that the character is irrationally paranoid). if you want to raise the stakes. it is used for a script in which B does not in fact carry a gun or have anything to do with guns.” The actor can make an off-the-wall imaginative adjustment to justify a difficult line. “It’s not like the rage you would feel if a drunk driver killed your child.
“The subtext is. darling). and if you want to avoid the adjective.’” Sometimes I tell actors to play a whole scene as if everything they are talking about is really about sex. you could use subtext — “Are you serious?” You need to watch out for subtext communications that cross the line and become mugging. that is.” “Please shut the door (so we can finally be alone together.” It can be the reverse of the meaning of the lines. ‘You’re worthless. but to keep the actors interested in the scene and alive to each other. and yet their facial expressions make it clear that they are communicating.” They have no words. what she means. This works especially well if the scene has nothing whatever to do with sex. the actor performs the subtext communication for the benefit of the audience rather than for the benefit of the actor he is communicating with. for example.” The line itself would be the same each time. There are scenes with interaction between characters but no dialogue.SUBTEXT Subtext is the thing that is not being said. They are communicating with subtext. My intention is not to actually make the scene be about sex. for instance. If you want the actor to give a “look” to another actor. it looked better before). If you want the actor to play the verb to belittle. to let it be the subtext. If the line is. you might say. I’m sure we have all occasionally heard an “I’m sorry” whose subtext was “I still think it was really your fault. .” “Please shut the door (and keep that maniac out). “Please shut the door. “You got your hair cut (I wish you hadn’t. Subtext is what the person is really saying. I tell them to be specific and graphic. In a sense the different subtexts give it different line readings.” Subtext is useful as another way to create a sense of intention or need.” “Please shut the door (so we can begin our business meeting). but it would come out in different ways depending on the subtext. On the Short List of Action Verbs I have put what I call anchoring subtexts next to each verb. “You got your hair cut (finally — it was looking like hell)” vs.” there can be several different subtexts to it: “Please shut the door (you stupid ass). It happens in regular life all the time. say a skeptical look. the scene with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr at the ship railing in “Affair to Remember. but not to say it out loud.
If he gives the object life.PHYSICAL LIFE The objects of a person’s life are very defining of who she is. to keep a relationship from coming across too dead-on. and become a physicalization of the character’s inner life. It is the activities and objects of their lives that change. People’s needs and feelings are no different throughout history and throughout social classes. making a sandwich. say. Giving life to the objects and activities of the character’s world is as important as finding her inner needs and impulses. perhaps that the coldness of the steel deadens all feeling in his hands. Objects have tremendous power to create energy. The scene then played beautifully. Once in a class two students were enacting the confrontation scene from “I Never Sang for My Father. Rather than deciding the result — that the character is submissive or defiant — the actor makes a physical adjustment. It is via objects and activities that a sense of period or class distinctions is grounded. An objective can be played through an object. To a prisoner who in real life is handcuffed the handcuffs would feel completely different from the way they would to an actor. or reminds him of a frightening childhood experience. and not merely use it as a prop. When an actor is presented with the prop handcuffs he is to wear in a scene. When directors define the physical staging of scenes. If they concentrate on the task of. I instructed him to be able to tell me after the scene was over what the article was about. To a prisoner who is handcuffed for the first time the handcuffs would feel different from the way they would to a prisoner who has worn them many times before. It is important for actors to think of props not as obligations but as opportunities to add to the richness of their portrayals. they become significantly involved in the actors’ physical life.” The student playing the father was acting up a storm. he needs to make a connection to that object. Objects are wonderful as a way to bring actors into the moment. almost like another actor in the scene. It is very helpful to involve the actors organically in the creating of blocking and stage business. who can take them off when the scene is over. that concentration can impart to the emotional life a sense of task as well. Physical life grounds a performance. Or perhaps the familiarity of the cuffs is almost a comfort. An object can also be a kind of emotional lightning rod. I gave him a newspaper and told him I wanted him to read the paper during the scene. or that it cuts him like a knife. confronting the son in a way that was very dramatic and probably satisfying but not believable. Brando. the actor must really deal with the cards. If a character is playing cards. An actor creates a sense of belief in her character’s life by creating a relationship to the objects of that life. The actor has to make an adjustment to the cuffs in order to believably play the prisoner. out of their heads. look at them and make decisions about whether to draw or hold — not turn them over because the stage directions tell him to. it gives life back to him. and give it life. This allows the emotional event to take place without actorish posturing. in “A .
Streetcar Named Desire.” created a physical relationship to every object — the radio. . the dishes.
Instead of demonstrating to us that the character feels awkward. In order to play a graceful person.” he says. Or perhaps on the hat. it gives him his intention (to tease her). Freeman makes his attention to the suit physical. is brooding because he has no ideas for the character he is about to play. they may create an inner life of physical pain. The glove business physicalizes their relationship: it is boy-like. understanding that the character would lack a sense of where a hat would sit well on his head. They create characters of varying degrees of sensuality through physical awareness of the intimate parts of their bodies. Morgan Freeman’s character in “The Shawshank Redemption. “That’s half the battle. Often these “keys” are physical choices. And it gives Eva Marie Saint a playable objective for the rest of the scene — she wants her glove back! Most actors love costumes and makeup. Actors sometimes have “magic keys” that open up the character for them. In the following few scenes we see him gradually wear civilian clothes more naturally. There is a difference between connecting to the physical life of the character via costume (which is good). If the actor puts his attention on the sensation of shoulder padding. then whatever thematic significance the production design is meant to have can be experienced by the audience as integrated to the story and theme. uncomfortable.” Dustin . rather than presented to them as an intellectual idea.” released from prison and wearing a suit for the first time in forty years. it is a sexual metaphor. playing an actor on his way to a location shoot. which was to keep possession of all his property. but the character isn’t. then each actor needs to make a choice for each costume change as to how she happened to choose that outfit that morning. tighter than those of prison blues. wherever it sat would feel unfamiliar. In “On the Waterfront” he added to the first scene with Edie the business of picking up her glove and putting it on his own hand. They may work on physical centers: an intellectual person has his center of energy in his head. but consoles himself with the possibility that they might have a good costume for him. Or perhaps he puts his attention on the arm-holes. This physically roots her in the character’s reality. this creates for the viewer the illusion that the shoulder pads are unfamiliar to him. it reveals the differences in their education and manners.Blanche’s luggage — in that little apartment. looks odd. if the production designer decides to put all the female characters in white (as in “Crimes of the Heart”). A belief in the character’s physical life can give you the whole character. There is more than a grain of truth in the “Wings of Desire” scene in which Peter Falk. This is called “character work. for example. and “playing the wardrobe” (which is bad). An important part of creating a character is finding activities and behavior for her. Actors sometimes do interior physical work. For instance. Does she knit? Chew gum? What objects are her allies? Her enemies? Watch out for clichés. Morgan Freeman the actor is familiar with the sensation of wearing a suit jacket. This gave a physicalization to Stanley’s spine.
Hoffman has said that he found his magic key to playing the elderly Jack Crabbe in “Little Big Man” when .
like Jeff Bridges in “Starman. He rarely does. should be sensorial. I would learn to subordinate certain muscles in my face.” Do you see the subtle difference it makes that Landau does not say about Lugosi. He rarely does. You see a lot of teeth when I smile. Sometimes complex and difficult character work is done in meticulous detail. He held his head at certain angles. Martin Landau described the physicality of his characterization of Bela Lugosi for the movie “Ed Wood”: “My face is very alive. . you see no teeth when he does. The movies of the Coen brothers demand stylized acting. Stylized acting can be wonderful as long as the style is internally consistent. “I open my eyes wide. whether accompanied or unaccompanied by makeup. I had to learn his face. like Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot. Actors can sometimes fall in love with their “business” and start to play it for its own sake. Sometimes character work is a function of the style of the movie. When I put the makeup on. and as long as all physical adjustments are created organically in their bodies. the audience gladly goes along for the ride. which becomes a judgment. Or they may start playing their character choices for their own sake — “playing character” or mugging.he realized that the guy “probably hasn’t had a decent bowel movement in twenty years. and sensory — not judgmental! All character work.” the actor makes only a very small physical adjustment that suggests his otherness more symbolically than naturalistically. The director needs to monitor these things and ask the actor to give up business or character choices if they get in the way of telling the story. as Bridges did. “he squints”? Instead he says.” His concentration is physical. specific. Sometimes.” or Tracey Ullman in her myriad personas. and as long as all the actors are listening. and are connected to their need. I open my eyes wide. But when. and he had a certain limitation to his face.” In a Los Angeles Times interview. he commits fully and simply to it. It becomes shtick. not as an intellectualized idea of the character. he had a certain walk which is different from the way I walk.
” “levels. It’s also known as finding “colors. After the next take. This adjustment would only work if actor A is actually bothered by such jokes. because if the subworld of the scene is not coming alive. instinctively play intentions.” Finding more specific choices is called “filling” a performance. more specific — work. she will reply that the second take was longer than the first one — the one the director said was too long! This means that in the initial take the actor was “rushing. on “Inside the Actors Studio. But. She is looking for a choice that impels simple. She would recall or create the hallway or room where it happened.” spoke about what to do when a director tells actors to pick up the pace. find beats. truthful behavior in the moment.” or “layers.” not connecting to the subworld of the lines. “A hundred times out of a hundred. The reason it is hard to grasp is that there is no one definition for it. actor A could make an imaginative adjustment that earlier in the day she heard actor B telling an offensive joke.WHAT DO YOU MEAN “SPECIFIC”? All good actors work to some degree instinctively. add adjustments. images. add more specific detail.” Paul Newman. He said the actor should go off by himself and work more on the part. The purpose of technique is not to smother or hobble the actor’s instincts. “Rushing” paradoxically can make a scene feel slow. “Specific” is a concept that a lot of people have trouble with. The way to make acting “specific” is specific to every situation! If an actor A is directed to make her performance more “stern” in a scene opposite actor B. change the rhythms. or by recalling the details of a parallel experience of her own. the heat in her face. . “Great. who are capable of better — that is. and physical life of their characters. “fill” it better.” Paul says to check with the script supervisor on how long the two takes were.” he claims. I know I did when I was first studying acting. just what I wanted. ask himself questions.” She would continue making this adjustment specific by imagining the details of the experience. but to find ways to make character choices more and more specific. the sound of his voice. to be blunt. so she doesn’t have to demonstrate a clichéd. If that is not the case. etc. general attitude of “sternness. possibly because he has not investigated that subworld adequately. opposites. the scene becomes boring and generic and the person watching can’t help but wish it finished and done with as soon as possible. when the director says. There may be some very good actors who don’t consciously use any technique. then she must make some other choice. who instinctively listen.” and pride themselves on never having had an acting lesson. there are some actors who claim to work “instinctively. and instinctively create a sense of belief in the facts. Already this is a more specific choice than trying to “be stern. In fact it needs to be slowed down in order to find the details of inner life that will make it worth watching.
in which the actor is actually rushing. a direction that if followed blindly.In Paul Newman’s example. that is. the direction “Pick up the pace” was a result direction. would .
when subjected to a constant barrage of it. and fill it with her personal and imaginative associations. So it helps when the director can come on the journey with them and give direction in terms that suggest playable choices. When directors can use imaginative adjustments well. but to allow yourself to think and feel more deeply. I was on the set for four days. if they are working. it keeps their attention forward. more specifically. He set all the positioning by giving direction that related to the characters’ situations and relationships.make the scene worse instead of better. chose to give his direction in terms that related to the characters’ relationship. But an inexperienced director forcing his ideas — however properly phrased in the language of imaginative choices — on actors may be seen as a foolish busybody. While we were rehearsing he said to me. Everybody loved him. and spit it out. In that case picking up the pace will simply feel more natural than staying with the rehearsal rhythm. but I warned you there was no cookbook! What are the responsibilities of a director in these cases? Is he supposed to know and fix every problem of every actor? No. We were shooting a made-fortelevision movie starring Stephanie Zimbalist. I never saw anyone on his set put down a piece of tape for the actors’ marks. “You can sit closer to her. should start to go more swiftly. . It engages actor and director in a process. My first professional job was for director John Korty. Picking up the pace will also bring the scene alive if the actor is laboring the transitions or listening to himself act. let go. Or maybe his mind connected instinctively to the created reality of the characters’ interests and needs. actors adore them and will do anything to work with them. Sometimes when a scene seems slow it really is slow. the transitions. however. because you want to welcome her into the family. In that case he needs to stop thinking. Even good actors who routinely translate or fill all result direction. I was to bring cups of coffee out to the porch and sit down on the step next to her. And his technicians never grumbled. the way they do in real life.” Later as I learned more about moviemaking I realized that he probably wanted to be able to put a tighter frame on our two-shot. So why should directors bother to learn how to give playable (choice-oriented) direction? Because it puts things on the right track. In rehearsal the actor needs to go slow to figure out the transitions. but instead of asking me for that result. If the actor goes off to think up more transitions. and interestingly. on-target direction. but the actor may still be stuck in the exploratory rehearsal rhythm. But sometimes the direction “Pick up the pace” is a playable. The goal is not to replace one catch-all phrase (“edge. Sorry about that. this will be a disaster. It is the actor’s job to make all direction her own. That’s why it’s a good idea to try these things out in a class situation or with actors with whom you are friendly. while inexperienced actors can easily lose their bearings. After some rehearsal. I was playing the sister of Stephanie’s new boyfriend. In the first scene we shot.” or “take is down”) with others. can get worn down and confused.
We may ignore. and like lightning they seem to come “out of the blue. AND THROUGH-LINES Actors get into a lot of trouble with transitions. 2) It is indicated or fake. repress. the emotional changes and events of a role. Transitions are the places where actors feel the most self-conscious. or refrain from acting upon such tiny inner events. pushes it rather than not make it at all. lightning quick. They are unexpected. because the actor is worried about forcing or pushing. because the actor hasn’t found it in the script. 3) It is forced. have a new feeling.STRUCTURE: TRANSITIONS.” It is in the transitions that bad acting is most likely to show up. organic things we do. here are some things that can go wrong: 1) The transition is not there. letting us know that even though right now she is in a rage. realize. hasn’t understood. EVENTS. This is a variation on playing the end of the scene at the beginning. The actor decides on a transition and demonstrates it to us rather than creating it honestly and organically. she is getting ready any moment now to break down in tears. We see the actor “winding up. or doesn’t believe that there is a transition or event at that moment. telegraphed. undergo a change of heart. but we can’t prevent them from happening or summon them to our will. We do not plan to change our minds.” anticipating the next emotional event. react. worry the most about whether they are going to be able to “hit it. They must be prepared.” . Actors’ transitions are another matter. or go off on another train of thought. They are set in motion by what is going on in our subconscious. or shifts in thought or feeling. at the last moment. or allowing it. In real life there is no process or motivation involved in the experience of transitions at all. labored. The actor intends to make the transition organically but does not get there and. Transitions. in real life are utterly unconscious.” Directors often exacerbate the anxiety by using the result direction of asking actors to hit a certain emotional “note. 5) It is overprocessed. one of the most spontaneous. But how? First. and is afraid to overdo or overact. out of a feeling of obligation. 4) It is flat. so at the last moment she drops out.
In other words. it still . however well executed. too dead-on.6) It is too logical.
” Now a discussion of moments or “beats” is always complicated by the fact that so many screenwriters use these terms as stage directions. because the emotional events tell the story. “Actors’ choices” are also called “character choices. What is needed from the director is that he or she structure the scene (and the full script). Emotional events for characters can be wins or losses. It has nothing to do with the beats and events I am discussing here. that is. but we don’t want them telegraphed or emphatic. Sometimes it is called a “moment” or a “beat change. Sometimes actors forget thatma moment is an event. that means the screenwriter has in mind a very brief pause at that moment.looks planned. the sub-events leading up to and resulting from the central event. and mistakes need to be made in the moment. must be able to tell the difference between a “dead spot” and an energy-releasing inner accident and must allow a climate in which creative accidents are welcomed. The tools for understanding (via script analysis) and then creating (in rehearsal) scenic structure are what the scene is about. What is needed from actors is connection. the way they do in life. vivid. The forgotten line is likely to come back within a few seconds. in lieu of the word “pause. to deal with each other and with the environment.. when I say that a character’s emotional event might be a “choice” made by the character. of course.” When you see a parenthetical “beat” or “moment” in a screenplay. The director. it is not an end point. A moment means the actors stop each other.e. and affect each other. its beats. A transition is an emotional event. because it lacks the idiosyncrasy of a real-life transition. discoveries.” i. Transitions need to happen in the moment. or its central event. this is a different use of the word from when we talk about actors’ choices. choices that create the inner life of a character. Such inner accidents create a lot of energy. choices. The actor has made a choice that is pedestrian or obvious. Sometimes a genuine moment catches the actor so off-guard that she momentarily forgets her lines. When a moment occurs. This is achieved by having a through-line. By the way. Meeting the transitions in the moment is what makes the performance nuanced. losses. which are not playable. however. and subtle all at once. The character’s wins. They need to count — or read — on the screen. the actor must then do something. a willingness and ability to affect each other and to be affected. the events of . We want them to be spontaneous. it’s an emotional event in the scene. must be open to this idea. She should allow this inner accident to be an emotional event. We want them to emerge spontaneously from the subconscious. discoveries. and she should continue the scene and do something with the energy that has been released. A choice made by the character is something different. An actor should never stop the scene when that happens. The through-line is what makes a performance simple and unfussy. choices or mistakes not realizations or reactions. engagement. not a feeling.
each beat. and the characters’ through-lines. These tools will be examined in detail in the Script .
because that’s the way people’s minds work. we (the audience) will know that a transition has taken place. he can use his “Quick Fix” tools. how he gets the other actor to leave the room. an apology or a seduction. only really work if they happen in the moment. for example. “Will this couple stay together?” In other words. or give him comfort — comes from the moment-by-moment interaction between the actors. What will I do with the dinner I’ve prepared if he will not be there to eat it} The mind works in such incredible ways. however well understood intellectually by actors and director. once that central problem of the scene has been solved. When a director wants to ask an actor for a transition but doesn’t want to use result direction. The image “husband” connected with the image “dinner” and her mind would go no farther.Analysis chapter. that is. they wonder. out of context. she can’t cheer him up. And it will be more believable than if it is made by dragging us through an actorish “process. or cleaned up. especially when information is coming in that one can’t deal with or accept. thus: Images The best way I can think to describe how images and associations work in creating transitions is to relay Stanislavsky’s anecdote. “What happens next?” The director is responsible for putting the events of the scenes together to make a satisfying story. like a hook.” achieving its proper pace and flow. The events. Verbs An excellent way to make transitions is to make a simple full change of action verb. that need to be sharpened. from the director’s point of view. When a scene is structured properly. If an actor changes suddenly and completely from begging to accusing. She stands in place for minutes.” When the audience feels this event. even bizarre. without thinking about the why of it. from AnActorPrep a res. keeping the audience interested in what happens next. The scene will then naturally and inevitably “build. deepened. not moving. is what happens. The most useful images in this regard are off-kilter. An emotional event in a relationship might be “No matter what she does. what I mean by an event. connects to it (whether or not they would describe it that way). The question going through her mind while she’s being told this is. is taken up by it. The “how” of an actor’s choices — for example. then abandon themselves to the moment. But often. there are still transitions here and there that are not working. This is the most dangerous place for a director to use result direction. For now. This is not exactly the same as a plot event — it is an emotional event. and then allowing the actors to play off each other. This is the ideal: solving the scene by finding one simple choice (through-line) for each character that all his behavior can be hung on. actors can commit to choices.” . about a woman who has just been told her husband was killed in an accident at the factory.
he should leave out connective phrases. So instead of saying.When the director is describing such a transition to an actor. and then . “Here she is pleading with him.
. if the writing is strong enough. the absent third character is Kirsten’s father who has loaned them money. in some. “She pleads with him all the way to here. the director can suggest it with exterior means. Through-lines give the actors a sense of history.” and let the actor figure out how to get there himself. a verb. an adjustment. first burning in her pocket and finally shining on her friend’s hand. Another way of thinking about the through-line is as a primary engagement or focus. A through-line can be an objective (spine/need). “Edgy” or “heightened” are. In real life we often pick up each other’s tone. one of the worst kinds of result direction is to tell an actor what he realizes at a certain point or what reaction he is supposed to have. since it becomes melodramatic. an image. of course. emotionally cleaner. then the best thing to say is something like “I think there’s a change here. So it could be an object. Or it could be with a third character. then she punishes. putting down a newspaper. verb or physical activity. it is their young daughter. a given circumstance (fact).” most of the scenes are between Kirsten and Joe. playable event.” or “I think there’s a transition we may need to make here. Most two-person scenes have an absent third character. you don’t want the actors to pick up each other’s tone.” Physical activity If an actor is not getting the emotional event or transition interiorly. or through-line. image. It could be with drugs or booze. a problem. in which a character returns a stolen ring to a friend. in some scenes. suggest the moment quite adequately and avoid the pitfalls of an overwrought transition. If you can’t come up with some specific playable direction. someone who is crucial to the relationship of the characters who are present. Unless you are directing soap opera. or need among the characters. makes him able to listen and play off the other actor without picking up the other actor’s tone. as in a scene. very vague and general and would not be helpful directions to give an actor. Having something of his own. could be the primary focus. even turning her head away can. In “Days of Wine and Roses. such as a through-line. but with something of his own. We unconsciously adopt our antagonist’s reality and start defending ourselves or explaining ourselves in relation to his agenda. Standing up from a chair. a strong choice.something makes her start punishing. This is a place where we want movies to be more surprising. The primary engagement of a character could be with a memory or image.” say. asleep in the next room. Concentration on the through-line keeps the actor connected to the other actor. In any case. for instance. It’s what people mean when they talk about an “edgy” quality or the “heightened” reality required of acting. risk. and more revelatory than real life. The ring itself. a subtext.
heightened style without being fake and .A movie can have a non-naturalistic.
This is how scenes of confrontation — so common in movies and so rare in real life — can be alive and believable. not wishy-washy. While the actors are committing to something of their own they need to be sure that they take energy from each other. I think when many people talk about heightened reality they mistake it for putting a frame around the performance — this causes a performance to look pushed or faked or overdone. when their transitions are crisp and clean. . and physical lives of the actors are all alive and centered in a reality. they use what the other actor is giving them as a playable obstacle. Meryl Streep disclosed in an interview with Gene Siskel that for every role she gives herself a secret. that no matter what the other actor does they make an adjustment that allows them to keep playing their own intention. It becomes casual. and which she herself conceals from her co-stars. it dissipates the energy of the idea and damages the actor’s concentration. their images private and idiosyncratic. When the actor confers with his director about such ideas. their intentions (verbs) opposite to the obvious surface meaning of a line — a performance may have “edge. “Heightened” also has to do with making choices that are not obvious and pedestrian. images. a kind of gossip. it is always best for them to maintain a privacy. Kramer” her secret was that she never had loved her husband. facts. something which her character would not want others to know. that they don’t screen each other out. the transaction needs to be delicate. and committed.caricatured as long as the verbs. And also engaged. in “Kramer vs. This means finding a truth deeper than everyday actuality. When actors keep secrets from each other. And actors should not talk about these ideas with the other actors. seeking insight. When actors find the deeper truths of a script.” And the actors’ performances can contribute to the style of a film. specific. Heightened is achieved by making the choices and transitions crisp. Heightened means more honest than we are in real life. events. This is how comedic or fantastical situations can carry us with them.
or past experience. There are excellent actors who have never taken acting lessons and instead have developed a private technique of their own. 3) imagination. and steal and learn from everyone and everything they encounter. I think that the best actors recognize and seek out true teachers. a means to exploration and growth. a sharing of the most important things one knows and feels about life. on that of others—on everything I have heard and seen… The day Ingmar gives me the manuscript he also gives me the right to feel that henceforward I understand the part best. a path. 4) immediate experience. or the “here and now. the actor has four resources: 1) memory. 2) observation.ACTORS’ RESOURCES AND TRAINING “I…build on my own experience. They experience acting as a kind of laboratory of the soul.”—Liv Ullmann The really great actors love their craft. This chapter addresses ways an actor brings moment by moment reality to his choices. There are other actors who think of their teacher almost as a priest or guru.” . For this task. Acting can be a great act of love. She becomes my reality as much as she is Ingmar’s.
the smells of the kitchen. smell. because in regular life we overuse our eyes as sensory portals and it’s hard to abandon ourselves to our sensations of touch and hearing and smell when sight is available. when an actor properly uses his own experience he can do work that is original. what she is registering is not an intellectual evaluation of the temperature (“it is pretty warm. The attention needs to be sensory. with as much detail as she can summon. The goal of the exercise is not to demonstrate the object to anyone watching. the smell of the coffee. the sensation of steam against her face. In a sense memory exercise the actor recalls physical sensation. Each individual is essentially unknown to all others. aroma. i.e. etc. the feeling of the upholstery under her legs. whereas this use of the senses is a surrender. Once she has given thorough attention to the sensory impressions of the object. For an affective memory exercise..MEMORY EXPERIENCE) (PERSONAL B y memory I mean the actor’s personal memories and experiences—things that have happened to him while living his own life. When I lead sense memory exercises in my classes I usually ask the students to close their eyes. The goal of using personal experience as an acting resource is not self-indulgence but honesty. She imagines the weight. hear. Affective memory (also called emotional memory) is based on the technique of sense memory. Affective memory (or “emotional . She tries to be as specific as possible about the individual sensations of different areas of her skin. taste and touch. The reason an actor uses his own life and experience is not that his particular life and hard times are any more significant or worthy of note than anyone else’s. but to train one’s sensory concentration. the student selects an emotionally charged event from her own life. In a beginning sense memory exercise a student holds in her hands an object. in regular life our eyes are used primarily for evaluation and categorizing. Also. the color of the walls. its temperature. but—this is important—without strain. She allows the memory to occur physically (in her body) rather than intellectually (in her mind). a sense memory of the real object. No one can experience another person’s life. temperature. Memory is the resource actors are using when they make personal substitutions or when they work with the technique of affective memory. her cheek and nostrils. its contours..” or “very hot”) but rather the pure sensation against her fingers and palms. not intellectual—that is. say a cup of hot coffee. that is. the condensation on the glass she was holding. the object is taken away and she works with an imaginary cup of coffee. Sense memory is the creation of imaginary objects via the memory of your five senses —what you see. but her sense memories of the physical life surrounding that event. Hence. and puts her attention on the sensory impressions it makes on her: the weight of the cup. texture. She recalls not the emotion itself or even the event itself. etc. specific and emotionally truthful.
founder of the .memory”) was developed in this country as a technique for actors by Lee Strasberg.
” An actor needn’t use the technique of affective memory or substitution or the “magic as if per se in order to bring his own memories and experience to bear on a characterization.” It’s a way to talk about raising the stakes of the relationship. Sometimes a director can say to an actor who is overdoing. and the leading light of the Actors Studio. Substitution is a kind of brief affective memory.” “As if my own sister has just shot her husband. Actors have many private ways to inform their work with their own understandings of life.Group Theatre. “Forget about the character. . Play the scene as if it were you. and by practicing to revisit the sensory life surrounding that event. at will. The idea was that by selecting an event with a significant emotional charge. It’s also a way to keep the work simple and real. an actor could bring herself back. The “magic as if is another approach to a personal substitution: “As if my own job is in jeopardy. to the emotional life of the event.
Although the first book in his trilogy of textbooks. facial expression. the second.” or Dustin Hoffman in “Little Big Man. Playing a character who ages in the film. Working from the outside in is more associated with British acting and university drama departments and movie actors of the 1930s and 1940s. happy drunks. There have been mighty controversies about whether actors should work “from the inside out” or “from the outside in. relying on external skill rather than engagement and surrender. What about the term “The Method”? Stanislavsky himself called his work a new “System.” An actor may be playing someone of a certain social class or occupation.” In New York and Los Angeles when people refer to The Method they mean the work of Lee Strasberg and specifically they mean the technique of affective memory. angry drunks—and can create a particular physicalization for the kind of drunk he feels a particular character is. a tendency to walk and stand with the feet farther apart. BuildingaCha ra cter. An actor may use observation of the behavior and physical characteristics of people he has come in contact with to play characters that are different from himself. An Actor Prep a res.” The danger of working from the outside in is that the work. American actors had a tendency to label this kind of acting “technical acting”.” an actor uses his observations of elderly people to create that physicality: there is often a stiffness in the joints. in other words. Using observation as an actor’s resource is sometimes called working “from the outside in. An actor might plan gesture.OBSERVATION In addition to his own experiences. Working from the inside out is associated with Stanislavsky. where I first started acting. has always worked behind a desk. even practicing them in front of a mirror. gesture. vocal patterns. concerned itself entirely with creating characterization by physical means—makeup. concentrated on ways to reliably and truthfully activate an actor’s inner life. gait. and line readings. In other parts of the country —in San Francisco. costume. the slightly pejorative ring to that term was intentional. an actor understands what makes a character tick f r o m observing others. An actor keeps an inventory of the different kinds of drunkenness he has seen—quiet drunks. he needs to find the physicality of. sloppy drunks. a person who has lived all his life as a farmer—gestures and behaviors that differ from a person who. and with most acting technique taught today in the United States. for instance. like Cecily Tyson in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman. The funny thing is that Stanislavsky himself would probably be appalled to find that his teaching was thought to be restricted to working from the inside out. The confusion is I think made complete when we notice that the introduction to AnActorPrep a res. any kind of acting training that favors working from the inside out. say. When I was studying acting in the early seventies. may become superficial and stagy. supposedly the bible of the . and in Chicago and other major cities— when people say Method they mean any kind of acting training that follows or purports to follow the teachings of Constantin Stanislavsky.
“inside out” crowd. a classically trained British actor and an . was written by John Gielgud.
To find the physical details he brought so vividly to life. Shelley Winters claims to have spotted him sitting quietly in the back of Actors Studio classrooms during the seventies. It’s an empathy. but based in physical observation. it was he who insisted on stuffing his cheeks to play the Godfather. Actors who have been cast as policemen often spend time riding in patrol cars with real officers in order to understand how a police officer relates to the physical paraphernalia (uniform.” had to play a woman she considered different from herself. the way she wore clothes. really. either personally or imaginatively. Shelley calls this process “substituting. An actor can sometimes adopt whole cloth the persona of someone she has known. acknowledges in his interviews working from the inside out as well. It has to be someone the actor is very involved with. holster. work from the inside out and also from the outside in. She picked a “pseudo-intellectual lady” she remembered from her childhood in Queens and adopted what she remembered of that woman’s physical behaviors—the way she moved her hands. etc. She can then adopt physical and emotional behaviors of that person.) of the job. he also researched and studied a Hungarian accent. Marlon Brando is known as an actor who works from the inside out. A character may remind an actor of someone she knows. . In order to become imaginatively involved with a character. Martin Landau watched thirty Bela Lugosi movies and numerous filmed interviews with the deceased star he played in “Ed Wood”. It’s a kind of emotional transference. Anthony Hopkins. Kubrick suggested that she find someone she had known that she could identify the character with. Actually. an actor often does research. I had a television role once which I decided to play as my mother. for her role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita. but who actually also works from the outside in. her feet.” a different use of that term from the process I described in the “Images” section of the chapter on Actors’ Choices. Shelley Winters.“outside-inner” if there ever was one! Surely the best actors do both. although he is associated with British acting and thus working from the outside in.
building images and associations and backstory (both imaginative and personal) around it. I’ve seen students instantly go believably to the controls of a spaceship or to the jungles of Vietnam. It’s a bubble of belief. in an improv. It’s the director’s job to pay attention to what is needed “at this point in the arc of the script. Directors are the parental figure. actors and nonactors alike. . The bubble of belief is punctured by result direction. I see released the depth and range of my students’ unconscious resources—much vaster than what is available to our conscious minds. when only moments earlier they had been miserably struggling to place themselves in a family kitchen. All of us. Stella Adler included among the riches of the subconscious the resources of the “collective unconscious. feelings. I am a great believer in improv for engaging an actor’s imagination and sense of belief.e. that “at this point in the arc of the script. These are the resources of our story imaginations. It’s something most actors do automatically: the mere mention of an idea sends them off and running.” it’s like being reminded of the adult world. to all practical intents and purposes no longer available to us.IMAGINATION Many actors are drawn to the profession because of an overdeveloped access to the imagination. are sitting on a vast iceberg of submerged resources—memories. They start having ideas for the character’s spine (“I think he’s in love with death!”).” When I use improvisation as a teaching technique. the lives of characters in books and plays and movies) is as real as life itself. Or for ways to physicalize: “I’ll grow a mustache for this role!” “Can I knock over the chair on this line?” Imagination is precious. for instance. associations. Also daydreaming. we need an ominous note. When the actor is told. impulses. A sense of belief in an imagined reality gives the actor solitude in public. since I am one). Sanford Meisner in his book On Acting advocates daydreaming as an actor’s resource. What does this mean? Sometimes nonactors tell me they are analytical and don’t have good imaginations and don’t understand what I mean by daydreaming the life of a character. and more compelling.” It’s the actor’s job to play. For many of us (I must say “us. images. imagined reality (i.” of course. and believably say the lines of a character who is actually very much like them.. observations. allows him to be absorbed in the created realm and reprieved from the duties of the social realm. meanderings—that are not useful to our daily lives and have been filed away. Actors are suggestible and kid-like.
but specifically using the form. When one of them has an impulse.” he instead must say.” etc. The participants are to say how they actually feel. The important rule is that the “you make me feel…” is a form. need.” the imaginative subworld of image. The exercise must be carefully supervised. The repetition makes the “lines” of the exercise a kind of nonsense. and the two of them keep repeating the same phrase until one of them has an impulse to say something else. This is “moment-by-moment” work. and adjustment. For example. but changing the pronoun to “I. regardless of where the feelings come from. because you can repeat what is already being said. “I make you feel…. looking at each other.” After a while the participants are invited to say how they feel. “You have…” and refraining from any descriptive adjectives. giving each other relaxed attention. and into the moment. which then gets repeated in the same way. only using the form. relaxed. “You make me feel…” which is repeated. In my own classes I use a variation on the classic Meisner technique which I learned from David Proval. to the stimuli he’s getting from the other actors and from the environment. Sanford Meisner On Acting. The two participants sit across from each other.” The exercise allows the actors to be engaged without any responsibility to a text or even a situation. if the participant has the urge to say. not because they think it is time for them to come up with something. the students are only allowed to improvise situations after several months of repetition exercises.” The other participant then repeats back. But the beauty of it is exactly that: you can participate in the exercise even if you have no impulse or idea for something to say.IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCE An actor uses the resource of immediate experience by being alert and awake to what’s happening in the here and now.” a teaching technique that promotes moment by moment aliveness and engagement with a scene partner. After a while one of them is asked to say something about the other person. no analysis will be made of where the feelings come from. gets the actors out of their heads and away from watching themselves.” or “My stomach is tense. Two actors sit across from each other. The exercise. so there can be no pressure to say them “right. he may say something—either an observation of the other actor or a statement of his own feelings— such as “Your eyes are brown. Typically in a Meisner oriented class. or because they feel a need to entertain those who are watching the exercise. when properly supervised.” to distinguish it from “inner reality. Some people call this an attention to “outer reality. In fact.” The other actor repeats exactly what the first actor has said. “You have beautiful eyes. . Sanford Meisner invented the “repetition exercise. “You have eyes. It is described in his book. to make sure the participants are speaking out of true impulse.
instantaneous transitions and a simple. students “go places” emotionally. with full.It’s quite a remarkable exercise. deep “solitude in . Without manipulation or bullying.
in which they pushed her around physically.” using everything as energy. they put themselves through some part of the character’s experience themselves. or finding parallels from their own experience. pretending it’s not there. Olivier’s legendary reply: “But my dear boy. instead of shutting it off. Their transitions will be full and unforced. just before the scene was shot. They will generate energy from their honest. why don’t you just act it?” . that is.” The purpose is to build their confidence so that even when they have memorized lines to say.” the story goes. When actors have confidence that they can trust their feelings and the other actor.public. they will be able to give the lines the moment-by-moment life of an improvised emotional subtext.” Holly Hunter has described her preparation for a scene in “Copycat” in which she was supposed to enter a room distraught.” he declared to his costar. he imagines what the character might conceivably be nervous about. If the actor is nervous. screening it out. he arrived one morning to play a scene in which his character had been up all night. “I stayed up all night to prepare for this scene. they receive all stimuli as energy. If the actor is irritated with the direction or doesn’t like the other actor or is shooting on a hot sound stage a scene set in the Antarctic. the actor can still be alive to the “here and now. Some actors use direct experience as preparation. he lets the character have a headache. who happened to be Laurence Olivier.” Oliver Stone led the actors through a kind of boot camp to prepare for “Platoon. If the actor has a headache. real feelings and a concentration on their scene partner. she asked a group of extras on the set to do an improv with her. On the set of “Marathon Man. rather than imagining the experiences of the character. Eric Stoltz spent two months in a wheelchair to prepare for his role in “Waterdance. Dustin Hoffman is known for insisting on experiencing the reality of the character.
the chewing gum his sister left under it. offer students a kind of reprieve from the stresses of daily life which distract us from our creative resources. Character work based on observation must also be sensorially rooted. If actors do not root their imaginative preparation thus. their work may become intellectualized and stagy.” etc.” or whatever). “Do I see forgiveness in her eyes. They return us to a child’s sense of concentration on very simple things. If an actor plays a character with a limp.. he lets himself feel its weight on his body. the actor playing the role does not touch a stove that is hot. such as the color of the inside of a seashell or the texture of a rose petal or the temperature of a cup of tea as it cools in our hands. there may be a temptation to make a mere imitation or demonstration of the outward appearance of an uneven gait. The brilliance of affective memory as a technique is the understanding that it is the sensory life (e. When he imagines himself sitting in the wooden chairs of the period. but a specific limp. The actor does reading and research to get ideas for his physical life. he touches a cold stove as if it were hot. touch.SENSORY LIFE Adding sensory detail deepens and keeps fresh any actor’s choice. Objectives and intentions stay fresh and vivid via the here-and-now physical reality of the other actor’s physical face and body: for example. which originates in a specific stiffness or soreness in the hip or knee joint. say. Sense memory exercises can be very freeing. If the actor is using a substitution. etc. the kitchen table of his own childhood for the kitchen table the set decorator has brought in. If he is substituting. he lets himself feel the rough wood against the backs of his legs. in sensory life. Making it sensory has to do with making it specific—not a generic limp. When a character in a scene burns himself on a hot stove.) or even the event (“My mother was screaming. He uses all his senses: sight. which will be entirely based on imagination. Concentration is the operative word. I find in my own classes that sense memory exercises. the sound of the voices in the next room) that recalls the emotional event far more vividly than pondering the emotion (“I felt frightened. smell.g. its scratches. If the concentration is five or ten percent successful that is plenty. hearing. Sophisticated special effects require . taste. Sense memory has very practical uses for actors. The actor puts his concentration on a sensation of stiffness or soreness. imagination supplies the rest. he recalls its color. he doesn’t just think about armor. hear it in her voice (not just in her words)?” Sensory life is necessary to bring to life the resources of imagination and observation too. But the imaginative work should still be sensory. Let’s say the movie is set in medieval times. he starts from a relaxed condition and explores his memory for true sensory detail about the person or event he is substituting. the pattern of the wallpaper. as long as there is no strain or fear of failure attached to them. When he imagines wearing armor. but not with any sense of strain or obligation to feel it.
actors to perform in front of the blue screen as if they were on a precipice or airplane wing. And .
That’s the wonder of all this acting stuff. the actor creates the sense memory of the sensation of burning. the concentration creates an imagined reality. the actor playing Macbeth has had to be able to see a dagger where there was none. imagined stimuli. . in response to this created. the audience is invited to fill in the blanks with their own experience or imagination. and borrow or imitate that movement. especially the big screen.since Shakespeare’s time. and then lets his hand follow its own impulse and move whichever way it wants to. I think you can see that for film. however. An actor working from the outside in might scan his storage banks of observation for the physical movement of someone touching a stove that’s hot. Working from the inside out. a sense memory is going to be more believable. Does this mean the actor actually feels the pain of a burn? Not at all.
or even attempted. An actor needs to surrender to the emotional honesty that is required for a role rather than crank up its emotional intensity. does he feel it as himself or as the character? If the character is scared. It can be funnier when an actor tries not to laugh at a funeral (like Mary Tyler Moore in the famous “Chuckles the Clown” episode of her long-running TV show). to make the work more personal. For actors. yes and no. I think that when Billie Holiday said (in a radio interview) that to sing the blues you have to feel it. exactly—is the goal. I urge all directors to take an acting class yourself so that you can understand some of these issues at gut level. When actors enjoy their tears and hold on to emotion for the sake of its effect. as I mentioned in the first chapter. Feelings don’t hurt people. bully. Emotions are energy. the acting becomes bad. Does the director have to go with the actor to these dark places? Yes and no. people don’t try to have feelings. should the actor really be scared or should he merely look scared? A dozen actors will answer these questions a dozen different ways. expressing deep feelings can be cathartic.” — Billie Holiday Is an actor supposed to “feel it”? If so. showing us how much emotion they have. Whenever an actor feels something. shame. in other words. she was talking about authenticity. give them permission to “let go even more. but authenticity is unlikely without feeling. he must harness that energy to a sense of task or predicament. for its own sake. Authenticity—not feeling. and respect the courage of an honest actor while also respecting his privacy. In real life. Performances are usually much more successful when actors play against whatever feeling they have. Sometimes directors are afraid of deep feelings and this holds them back in their communication with actors. .FEELINGS “I think that to sing the blues you have to feel it. and frequently they try not to have them. not just on an intellectual level. You can let yourself deeply imagine the characters’ inner lives. or abuse an actor into going to the places you feel are required for the role (even though some of them won’t mind it if you do). they may have chosen the profession for the very reason that it offers the opportunity to go to dark and difficult places.” You need in the next breath to promise that you’ll be watching to make sure the performance is not overacted. There is no need to manipulate. Or you can offer them freedom. Whatever truth the artist gives us must be true on a feeling level. You can invite them to invest more in the images of the scene. more frightening when his rage is contained. more poignant when an actor holds back his tears. Emotion must never be indulged. My own answer is.
Often the events used for the affective memory exercise are traumatic events from deep childhood. The history of the Group Theatre is described in Harold Clurman’s TheFerven tYea rs and the documentary film. but it may not. Bobby Lewis and Stella Adler. one way or another) sensory rather than intellectual. and they sometimes have violent objections to it. “Broadway’s Dreamers: The Legacy of the Group Theatre. 4) You can’t be in two places at once.TEACHERS AND GURUS It was via the Group Theatre of the 1930s that Stanislavsky’s teachings became disseminated in the United States. the actor makes every role be about his own miserable childhood instead of about the circumstances of the script. anger. The theory is that it then belongs to the actor and will always work. Using affective memory is itself a kind of discharge of emotion. and Meisner’s Repetition Exercise emphasizes the value of immediate experience. it makes substitution specific. as well as (more briefly) in ADrea mofPa ssion by Lee Strasberg and ALife by Elia Kazan. We are a little different each day from the day before. As it happens the resources I described earlier correspond in a very rough way to the approaches developed by the great Group Theatre teachers. Students may be pushed into emotional areas they are not equipped to handle.” made by Joanne Woodward. Memory is emphasized by the Strasberg Method. almost every American actor and the current generation of acting teachers. Four Group Theatre members. It can turn into a kind of therapy without a license. 3) In Strasberg classes students practice an affective memory that brings them to tears. 5) The actor may fall into playing “general emotion. observation by British technique. Affective memory has for some people a kind of “black magic” status. became teachers who taught or influenced. Strasberg and Meisner (whom I mentioned earlier). and it helps actors get below the social mask. are these: 1) It can be dangerous. or fear a certain number of times.” . The potential problems of affective memory. In other words. 2) It causes the actor to bring the role down to himself instead of bring himself up to the role. The good things about affective memory are that it makes memory (a resource all actors use. It can take the actor out of the moment to concentrate on his substitution rather than his scene partner. directly or indirectly. and thus changes the emotion attached to the event being remembered. imagination by Stella Adler. It had a farreaching effect on American acting. voiced most vehemently by Stella Adler.
and the work may become subjective. too .Method actors can hang onto feelings.
And direct experience too. this is because they both give the scene to each other. although I find affective memory and sense memory invaluable teaching tools. some vocal work. I am equally devoted to the Repetition Exercise. the needs of the character—plus what he is getting from the other actor—bring him to a feeling or they don’t. At any rate. on the other hand. I believe. the situation. in creating his characterization of Nixon. The “book” scene with Emma Thompson in “Remains of the Day. chin. the spine “to build a wall against the pain of being on the outside. but he chose to focus on a few specific physical behaviors of the man — shoulders. For the movie “Nixon. The actor must play the situation (the predicament. This makes me more influenced by Stella Adler than by Lee Strasberg. All acting technique is in service of creating a spark.” It seems to me that this thinking may have led him. Actors who rely on observation and imagination to the exclusion of memory can turn in work that is shtick. Working honestly this way unlocks the imagination. (An actor could do an elaborate sense memory or imaginative work in order to carry an empty suitcase if it were full. In practice.” Hopkins did not try to imitate Richard Nixon physically.y or merely slick. in particular the insight (shared by director Oliver Stone) that Nixon was an “outsider. if supervised imperfectly. His creation of Hannibal Lecter. sharp. hands. is surely the work of a vivid. The line between memory and imagination is in fact very thin. contains remarkable moments of pure chemistry and real psychological event. He always uses direct experience—always gives and takes with the other actors. Any acting technique can be used improperly. Let’s look at Anthony Hopkins. He also made observations (which he has discussed in the press) of Nixon’s emotional life on which he based the character’s inner life. when met fully . to use. rather than an emotion. In England. not expressed in intention or physicalized in activity—or at worst. It started when I was still a child in school.” Hopkins has said that Stone cast him because the director sensed “my isolation as a person and thought I could relate to Nixon… I was surprised when he said that. becoming indulgent. And observation. selfindulgent.” for example. the task).” In any case. not the emotion. a wonderful actor who. the problem. playful imagination.inward. the actor needs to explore personal experience and associations. but why not instead put something in it?) At some point in his work on a role. and to finding any way possible to get my students to awaken and engage their imaginations. The words. is incorporated more naturally into children’s education. consciously or unconsciously. most actors use both personal experience and imagination. In my classes I always ask students to tie an affective memory exercise to a need or objective or relationship. to create his Nixon he used a combination of observation and personal experience. even out of control. the physical life. uses all his resources. but I guess I’ve been a lone wolf my whole life. I have heard of repetition exercises. Sense memory itself is an imaginative exercise. including Shakespeare. The Shakespeare plays themselves. different techniques work for different people. live theatrical performance.
. imaginative invention. Acting teachers sometimes take it on themselves to attempt to pierce this armor by bullying and manipulating students. are lessons in emotional openness. specific emotional transitions. Getting below the social mask can be difficult. I have found as a teacher that the opposite tack—more freedom and permission to fail —works better. most of us have characterological and social armoring that prevents us from deep feeling. in other words. and clean. Some are tyrants and bullies. among other things. Vanessa Redgrave has pointed out that she feels her classical British training in fencing had to do with actors learning to give and take. Peggy Feury and Roy London never became household names but were beloved teachers who taught many excellent actors. risk-taking. to listen. It is appropriate for an acting class to be therapeutic but it should not be therapy. Some acting teachers are dogmatic about their teaching methods. Actors unfortunately are often wounded souls who expect and respond to such bullying. Acting class should be. a place where the imagination is stimulated and creative freedom is encouraged and where it is very safe to be open and honest and to reveal feelings.(not recited stagily) by an actor. There are excellent American acting teachers who are not as well known as the Group Theatre titans.
Or she might look for another adjustment. This can allow the pure. must connect with the choice in such a way that allows his own subconscious to kick in. and nothing seems to get him to the place needed for the script? Take the example of the actor asked to make her performance more “stern. unlocks some tiny part of it. as it seems to for Ingrid Bergman in her robust portrayal of the belittling mother (opposite Liv Ullman as the daughter) in Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata. and exert her will as no one ever gets to do in real life gives the performance great zest. of course.” Allowing herself to complain. Then she should take another look. demand. An actor catches hold of a corner of a scene’s reality. to preach. the way he himself begs when he does beg. delicious freedom of getting to do something one doesn’t get to do in real life.” . One can play a murderer without having murdered someone. say. e. Under what circumstances would I be capable of murder? Everybody draws his own line. The actor can play characters that are different from himself by making character choices that are different from his in real life. One doesn’t need to sleep with one’s leading man or lady. that is. to achieve the actor’s liberty to kick in.” What if she makes the imaginative adjustment that she heard the actor B (opposite her) make a racist remark. But what if that doesn’t work either? What if “sternness” is foreign to her nature and emotional vocabulary? What if she never behaves sternly in her own life? By now she should have translated the result direction “sternness” into a verb: possibly to teach. Lynn Redgrave has said that her best work is in roles that are not at all like her. I began to discover those characters in me. that actor B has made a mistake that is going to make the production go into overtime and she will miss a social event she’s been long looking forward to. choose to beg in a situation where he himself would not beg. then an objective. instead it makes her feel upset and anxious? Well. The actor gets to find it and then act on it in the created world—to behave in ways she would never behave in real life—and get away with it! The actor must make his choices his own.STRETCHING “By taking on roles of characters that were unlike me.g. Holly Hunter calls it “living on a terrain that I know something of. but is not where I live. Has she really never had the impulse to disapprove or to punish? We have all had the impulse. or to punish. and imagination captures the rest. even if we never act on it.. and make another emotional inventory. she might then try adding a substitution of the actor opposite being someone she is less fond of (or less threatened by). to disapprove. a substitution.”—Al Pacino What if an adjustment doesn’t work? What if an actor tries a given circumstance. and that might give her the stern response. then an imaginative adjustment. He needs to “beg” honestly. and that adjustment doesn’t make her behave sternly toward him. It’s a playable choice. Glenn Close has said the same.
the deep permission to “take a chance.” to play—that unlocks the doors to an actor’s resources.A good director can be the key—can provide the invitation to stretch. .
through-lines. (Four-camera television comedy—rehearsed for five days and then filmed or taped in front of a live audience—is both a stage performance and a film experience for an actor. These are very different experiences for the actor. On stage the actor “disturbs the molecules” up to the last row of the balcony. Sidney Lumet. has said that in recent years he prefers to work without rehearsal. who are. Sydney Pollack. and require adjustments to his energy and concentration. For film. don’t give actors a whole script. Directors as diverse in their rehearsal and shooting methods as Martin Scorcese. FILM AND TELEVISION ACTING Glenn Close has called the performer’s condition a condition in which one allows oneself to disturb the molecules in the surrounding space. Acting that is too fake and stagy for film is. too fake and stagy for stage. in a way. although he comes from a stage background and used to schedule lengthy rehearsals.STAGE ACTING VS. The goal of an actor’s preparation is always the emotional truth of the role. an actor who knows how to craft a full characterization (Meryl Streep. a whole performance can be patched together with tricks and quick fixes. on the theory that the demands of a full characterization will conflict with moment-by-moment freshness. On the other hand. There are stage actors who don’t connect to the camera. rather than by allowing the actors to create a fall characterization. the actor must disturb the molecules of the camera lens. Jane Campion. afraid of the camera. Some directors prefer to work this way. such as Ken Loach and sometimes (reportedly) Woody Allen. Certain directors. and beats. But the ways that stage and film actors prepare are similar.) Stage actors (and four-camera comedy actors) must put together in rehearsal a fully structured characterization. Robert Altman. complete with spine. Since film acting is done in bits and pieces. since film acting is done in bits and pieces. to me at least. and Quentin Tarrantino all rely heavily on the actors’ contributions. confident that he can get the moments he needs with a word or two just before the camera rolls. for one) can be an exciting collaborator with a confident director. transformation. . and there are film actors whose work doesn’t read at all on stage.
half. For example. great listeners. at the expense of listening. how to judge material. You may notice that some of these things. they never demonstrated “quirkiness” for its own sake.” or trying to “slip a moment through the back door. or general. and have a frank discussion. and inflections that become a formula to produce an effect of quirkiness. like lighting.” She meant a reliance on showy emotional or comedic shtick for its own sake. “quirky” comic heroine. This is called playing her bag of tricks. These actors are capable of wonderful. their familiarity with these technical tricks can make their acting slick and less exciting to watch. They always played off their partners. in an interview with Roger Ebert. Over time.” as Tom Hanks. a set of effects they know they can reliably produce. It’s hard to direct people who can fire you. and Claudette Colbert invented and brought to its peak the screwball. They may even take roles they are not particularly interested in just for something to do. camera placement. get sloppy. romantic comedy heroines Carole Lombard. It is also called buying a moment “cheap.PROFESSIONALISM “Skillful actors acquire great expertise.developed bag of tricks are usually highly talented people. and watching dailies. They were great ensemble players. but will enhance it. I think a young director has to cope with the situation head-on. are usually considered director’s jobs. It is also called mugging. and to put her concentration on producing these effects rather than on the response of her partner. how to get respect. But it’s a great temptation for an actress who wants to entertain the public to establish for herself a set of glances. and not blinking. experienced actors may learn the following: how to watch themselves in dailies. the more difficult it becomes to [surrender]. how to design lighting and camera angles.” —Vanessa Redgrave Besides learning the craft of acting. finding their light. from being on many sets with lots of time on their hands. This includes hitting marks. You should understand that actors with a well. honest work. Actors can also burn out. and the greater the expertise. film and television actors also learn camera technique.eyes-to-the-sky” number. shrugs. of punctuating a dramatic moment with a “half-look-away. You’ve got to let actors know that you love and respect them and you want to make the best use of their . Secretly they know this. especially those that will present them and their work most effectively. Actors often develop a bag of tricks. in some early movies. meet with the star. My teacher Jean Shelton used to call this “tap dancing. In addition. Sometimes they just need a director with guts enough to ask for the good stuff and they’ll put it out. described his trick. and that honesty and listening will not cost them their inventive facility. Irene Dunn. He then expressed his gratitude to the directors who knew enough to call him on such gimmicks.
talent—that’s why you’re there. If you’ve gone ahead on a project with an actor that’s been foisted on you and that you don’t even like. I don’t have any advice. But if you’ve .
It would be a mistake for a director to come in and try to change basic characterizations. Directors in episodic television have special problems. The actor is not served by a director who lets him take over directing decisions. who directed nearly all of the “Taxi” episodes and who now directs only pilots. Find ways to communicate with them and tap into their resources and learn from them.gone with somebody that you know might be difficult but that you think will bring excitement to the project—dive in! Go after it. Sometimes you have to prove to them that you know how to do your job. Don’t let yourself resent their power. most episodic directors are “hired guns” who come into an established show and are expected basically to direct traffic. Unlike Jim Burrows. make a script analysis. Go after the relationship. this would be a disservice both to the actors and to the viewing public. Actors at a high level of expertise are very canny about scripts. You should not let yourself feel frightened about working with such actors. so why should they take any substantive direction from you? Professionalism requires actors in television series to maintain their characterizations even though there may be different directors every week. . In this situation the actors can legitimately claim to know much more about their characters than you do. and usually show up for work completely prepared and professional. know a lot about directing. That means that their spines are set. What do you do when the actors have more professional experience than you do? First. Good actors know that if they do their job and if you do your job they’ll look better. but don’t abdicate your responsibilities.
or theatrical devices to be manipulated—but as people. pawns. I have a set of tools which will help you go deeper into the lives of the character. once they have heard the line. and are helpful both for good scripts and mediocre scripts. This makes directing actors actually fun. the dialogue. so you need to create something behind the words. You will be able to think of characters in your movie scripts not as conventions. I think of characters as people. The words on the page. You need ways to bring your vision out of your head and into life. to flesh them out and give them a texture of life. and trust it. I allow the characters I meet the same independence and privacy that I allow the people I meet in real life. and (to some extent) the stage directions are clues to a vast subworld of behavior and feeling which it is the duty and privilege of the director and actors to supply. As a result. you will have insight and understanding that you can communicate to the actors. to adhere rigidly to that line reading or interpretation. Bad scripts are often over-explained and obvious. characters step off the page and take on independent life in my imagination. stereotypes. Many directors are primarily visual in their orientation. Although no actor can really be better than her material (and you must be careful not to burden the script with . They work for every genre. movie elements. The tendency people have. In order to understand the script you need to be able to operate in the sub-world of these characters. but if you are the director of the movie. you need a script analysis in depth so you can dig out every delicious tidbit.SCRIPT ANALYSIS “…Then there are other directors I watch and wonder why they get out of bed in the morning. is very detrimental. and their story imaginations are less well developed than their visual imaginations. But even directors who are also writers often have trouble bringing their story imaginations off the page. It’s all still in your head. This is the ninety percent of the iceberg that is below water. Good scripts are complex with a rich subworld hinted at and not overexplained. but you must do the same work with a bad script. The purpose of script analysis is to find out who these people (characters) are and what happens to them. when you read (or write) a script. You may notice that I use the terms “character” and “person” interchangeably. to believe in it. Then you won’t have to remind yourself to phrase your direction in the correct vocabulary or jargon. because of the stunning lack of homework they do. to hear the lines and see the characters in your mind’s eye.”—Anthony Hopkins It is natural. Instead directors need to know the characters and the script structure inside out. to become the teller of their story. this is only a place to start! This is not a completed script analysis. create in it.
profundity it cannot carry or it could become pretentious). borderline or mediocre material can be made more lively and entertaining by using the .
and to go through your mediocre ideas. for the purposes of this script analysis I need to ask you to let go of such categories and think of each character as a human being in a situation. so you will be ready. I like to make my director’s notes on a lined pad. Writers may find it useful to understand the tools directors and actors use. to treat it as if it is a good script.. This means for one thing that if your thinking about script structure includes ideas such as which character is “hero. and they may find some of my exercises helpful for getting their creative juices going.same script analysis tools you use to dig out the riches and layers of a good script. once you get to rehearsal and the set. . they are a teaching tool. but my script analysis discussions are not meant as a way to design a script you are writing. This kind of script analysis is not a competing approach to any of the various ways that screenwriting teachers talk about script structure.” “enemy. The purpose of preparing is to be ready to meet and trust the moment.”) One of the most important adjustments I want you to make is. There is no conflict between preparation and spontaneity. That these two processes are very different is exactly my point. You must stop judging and begin to engage. or the back of a telephone bill. Script analysis is not really as linear as it looks on the charts. I’m going to refer to a set of charts that I use to teach my script analysis methods.” “mentor.” etc. once you have decided to direct a script. For some people the charts might also work as framework for your notes. (Helen Hunt seems to have done this in “Twister. although I don’t use them that way myself. each with columns. There are four charts. a paper napkin. for your great ideas. They are meant as tools for your design of the adaptation of that script for the screen. But I believe that all the good directors go through something like these thought processes and do work of this kind.
PREPARING FOR THE FIRST READ
The Skim is what I call the first time you read a script. I call it a “Skim” because
I don’t believe that the very first time you pass your eyes over the words of a script
can be a meaningful reading. Even if you read slowly, you do not, on the first Skim,
take in much of the script’s possibilities. You may see that it has possibilities, but that is
not the same as seeing the possibilities, because you are sifting what you read through
the filter of what you expect to read.
The Skim will leave you with impressions and feelings, of course, and these can
be very valuable. Because these first impressions are bound to have more to do with
what you already know and feel than with what the script has to offer, they
tell you something about the personal investment you may be able to make in the
movie, why it might be important to you to do it, what personal and original slant you
may give the material—what, for you, the movie is about. So it’s a good idea to make
notes of your first impressions. Column 1 of Chart 1 (page 184) is a place for such
notations. Don’t worry, at this point, whether you have phrased your ideas as a
result. Once you have jotted them down, I suggest that you let go of them for the
time being, refrain from allowing them to ossify into prejudgments, and prepare
yourself to meet the material itself during your First Read.
If you have written the script yourself you may not need the Skim; you may already
know what you think the script is about. But I invite you to approach the First Read the
same way as a director who hasn’t written the script—that is, with an open, fresh
Directing is an adaptation of a script. You must do this work of adaptation even if
you wrote the script yourself. You need to take off your writing hat, put on your
directing hat, and treat the script as if it was written by someone else. This may
seem almost impossible to do at first, but I can tell you that I have worked with
directors who were able to do this, who believed in their characters so deeply that
they could allow them to have independent life. They were not threatened by the
actors’ contributions and they could collaborate with the actors to bring the
characters out of their own head, off the page, and into life.
So when I talk about figuring out what the words mean I don’t say, “Find out what
the author meant.” I mean no disrespect to the author when I say that the director
must find the meaning of the script, not the meaning the author “intended.” My
intention is not to “deconstruct” the author’s intention. Good writing often takes
place at the most creative, i.e., subconscious level. In working with writers, I have
seen over and over that the author is not always a reliable interpreter of what he has
written. His unconscious impulses are often richer than his conscious intention.
Adapting the clues of the script into cinematic life is a different process and requires
a different talent from the talent of writing. Sometimes a person has both talents, but
they are two different talents.
EDITING STAGE DIRECTIONS
Before you actually start reading you should edit the stage directions—and cross out
most of them. At the very least, all stage directions should be adapted rather than
swallowed whole as emotional marks that the actors are supposed to hit. Movie people
don’t have any trouble understanding that the production designer must adapt
rather than execute rigidly the screenwriter’s description of sets and locations. It’s the
same for actors.
There are different kinds of stage directions, some more needful of editing than
1) Directions that describe the character’s inner life.
“Longingly,” “kindly,” “livid with rage,” “a withering look,” etc. These should all be
crossed out, for the same reasons that you stay away from result direction. It is
especially important to cross out (or at least approach with serious skepticism) the
parentheticals: “pause,” “beat,” and “she takes a moment.”
All these kinds of stage directions are adjectives, adverbs, indications of transitions or
psychological explanations, or emotional maps (“He cannot look away”; “She makes a
decision”). They are not playable. What the writer has done by putting in these
abbreviated emotional guideposts is to take a stab at providing the characters’ subtext.
This is useful to the producers, executives, distributors, and agents who read a lot of
screenplays—dozens per week—and need such time-saving devices.
It is exactly the job of the director and actors to create the sub-world. Heeding
such shortcuts to the characters’ emotional life will make the director’s and actors’ job
more, not less, difficult. You might want to keep an uncrossed-out version of the script
hidden away to look at at some point during rehearsal, to make sure that the choices
you and the actors are coming up with are at least as good as the author’s
suggestions. But crossing them out first is an important invitation to your story
The wrist-cutting scene in “Fatal Attraction” contained the stage direction
“laughing.” Actor Glenn Close tried but could not make it work honestly. Given
permission by director Adrian Lyne to do whatever she needed to do, she ended up
crying in the scene.
2) Directions that depict blocking or business with no plot consequences.
“She struggles with her coat”; “He looks at his watch.” These should be crossed
out too. Such a stage direction as “She struggles with her coat” is still a shorthand
suggestion of the inner life of the character, another version of the first category
above. It’s better writing than describing the character as “frustrated,” but it’s really the
In addition to finding the subtext, finding the movement and activities that
physicalize the emotional events of the script is exactly your job, a big part of the
creative challenge of acting and directing. In “The Bridges of Madison County” Meryl
Streep created a bit of business around fixing the photographer’s collar that was the
sexiest thing in the whole movie.
If there is a bit of business or blocking in the stage directions that looks interesting to
you, that brings to life an emotional event or justifies a character’s line, you might
highlight it with a question mark, to try in rehearsal. But if, in rehearsal, the actors’
connection to the emotional event leads them to some other physicalization (activity),
you can consider that as well, and make a choice.
3) Directions that give us characters’ personal objects.
In the examples above, perhaps we would want to make note of the one character’s
coat or the other character’s watch, as potential personal objects. Objects are very
important elements in a person’s (character’s) life. When we find clues as to the objects
in the characters’ lives, whether they are in the stage directions or dialogue, we need
to circle them, then list them in Column 8 (“Physical Life”) of Chart 3.
“On his desk there is a picture in a silver frame of a woman and two little girls.” This
should be circled as one of the character’s personal objects. Any adjectives or
adverbs that suggest inner life should be crossed out. (E.g., “A picture of his wife
and two daughters has been lovingly placed on the desk.” You should cross out
“lovingly”) Even if you end up without the picture frame in any shot of the movie, it is
helpful and necessary for script analysis. It leads to questions: “What is the history of
this framed photo? Who bought and placed it on the desk? Is its presence a
gesture that fulfills obligation and proper form, or deeply felt? Are they still married?
Is the divorce too painfully recent for him to have put away the photo?”
4) Directions that give us backstory facts.
“The last time a crime occurred in this town was twenty-five years ago”; “He
graduated first in his class at Harvard.” Backstory facts in stage directions fall into two
subcategories: a) facts that are referred to in the script, that is, a line somewhere in the
script refers to the fact that the character graduated first in his class from Harvard;
b) facts that are not referred to in the script, that is, there is no line describing his
education one way or the other.
In the case of (a), since they are already in the dialogue, you don’t need them in
the stage directions and you can cross them out. I find it much more exciting and
creative to do the detective work of deducing the backstory facts than being fed them.
In the case of (b), since they are not in the dialogue, they may contain useful or even
necessary clues. In that case you might enter them on a list of “facts” (see Column 1 of
Chart 2 on page 192). On the other hand such statements by the author may be
imaginative choices which you can use, if you find them helpful, and if not, you can
reject and invent your own. In that case they belong in Column 1 of Chart 3 (page
207). For now I suggest that you circle them with a question mark.
5) Directions that give us an image.
For example, the feather which escapes Forrest’s fingers and floats up into the air
during the opening credits of “Forrest Gump.” This image was described in the original
script, and even if it had never ended up in the completed movie, it would have been
circled as an image of the script, and a potential clue to the themes of the movie. It
should also be listed in Column 6 of Chart 2.
6) Directions that describe an emotional event.
That is, an event with plot consequences (e.g., “He searches through the pile of
clothes until he finds a gun”; “They kiss.”) These need to be left in, after you cross
out any descriptive words (e.g., “He searches desperately through the pile…”). You
should translate any psychologizing explanations (“He cannot look away”) into
emotional events (“He does not look away”). Once you have edited and translated the
description into an event, highlight it. Make sure you are not confusing essential
information about the emotional events of the script with optional stage business;
optional stage business may be highlighted but should have a question mark next to it.
An important reason for crossing out superfluous stage directions and questioning
optional ones is so that you can locate and highlight the necessary ones—the ones
that tell you an emotional event which is not revealed by any dialogue.
After you do this, you’ll be left with very sparse, circled or highlighted stage
directions, and some question marks. The circled images, facts, and objects will have
been entered on the proper charts. Highlighted material will contain clues to the
physical and emotional life of the characters.
Below is the opening scene from the play “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” by
Mark Medoff. Before you read on, you might want to look at the scene and do your own
circling and crossing out.
Good mornin’, Stephen.
(Stephen does not look at her, but glances at the clock and makes a strained sucking
sound through his teeth—a habit he has throughout—and flips the newspaper back up
to his face. Unperturbed, Angel proceeds behind the counter.)
I’m sorry I’m late. My mom and me, our daily fight was a little off schedule
(Stephen loudly shuffles the paper, sucks his
STEPHEN . Stephen.I said I’m sorry. I’m only six minutes late. God.
) STEPHEN Clark can afford it. slipped the coupon into his shirt pocket and crumpled the pack. believe me. you’re supposed to use a glass cup. STEPHEN Oh no? You’re gonna tell me the point though. ANGEL The point is that if you’re drinkin’ your coffee here. right? This is really the kinda dump I’m gonna hang around in my spare time. He basketball shoots it across the service area. ain’t it? ANGEL Stephen. right? Hold it. lemme get a pencil.) ANGEL . (Stephen is entrenched behind his newspaper. Stephen.Only six minutes. you’re supposed to get charged fifteen instead of ten and ya get one of those five cent paper cups to take it with you. huh? I got six minutes to just hang around this joint when my shift’s up. well I’m takin’ it with me. and if it’s to go. ANGEL That’s not the point. that’s a paper cup you got your coffee in. so Where’s the problem? (Stephen has taken the last cigarette from a pack. STEPHEN Yeah. Stephen. That’s the point.
(She retrieves the pack and begins her morning routine: filling salt and pepper shakers.) . the sugar dispensers. Stephen reaches over and underneath the counter and pulls up a half empty carton of Raleighs and slides out a fresh pack. setting out place mats. He returns the carton and slaps the new pack down on the counter. and cleaning up the mess Stephen evidently leaves for her each morning.Stephen .
ANGEL I don’t like callin’ ya Red. ANGEL But ya don’t now. and then’s when counts. ain’t it? I don’t like Stephen. ANGEL Who says counts? then’s when STEPHEN . sips his coffee. I like Red. smokes. It’s stupid—callin somebody with brown hair Red. STEPHEN It’s my name. Now ya got brown hair. Stephen? (Stephen reads his paper. When I was a kid I had red hair.) Stephen? (Stephen lowers the newspaper.What’re ya gonna get with your cigarette coupons.) STEPHEN How many times I gotta tell ya to don’t call me Stephen. STEPHEN (exasperated) But then I did.
My name’s Angel.The person that’s doin’ the countin’! Namely yours truly! I don’t call you Caroline or Madge. well ya don’t look like no angel to me. so — STEPHEN Yeah. do I? ANGEL Because those aren’t my name. .
(Stephen stares at her. Nobody asked me if I minded bein’ named Angel.) ANGEL . but at least — STEPHEN You could change it. ANGEL How come Mabel? STEPHEN Yeah…Mabel. Stephen.ANGEL I can’t help that. setting her up) To Mabel. At least I was named my name at birth. sucks his teeth. ANGEL How come? You like Mabel? STEPHEN I hate Mabel. couldn’t ya? ANGEL What for? To what? STEPHEN (Thinking a moment.
if you’re in such a big hurry to get outta here. how come you’re just sittin’ around cleaning your teeth? STEPHEN Hey. for chrissake.Look. just say so. A person’s . look. I’ll be gone in a minute. I mean if it’s too much to ask if I have a cigarette and a cup a coffee in peace. Stephen.
) Christ. will ya look at the waitin’ line to get on this stool. STEPHEN Hey—com’ere. whudduya ANGEL (pause) I saw ya circle somethin’ in the gift book the other mornin’. . in case you ain’t read the latest medical report. I wouldn’t wanna take up a stool somebody was waitin’ for or anything. then say so. If it’s too much to ask to just lemme sit here in peace for two minutes. ANGEL (pause) Did you notice what’s playin’ at the films? STEPHEN Buncha think? crap. STEPHEN What gift book? ANGEL The Raleigh coupon gift book. (looking around him.supposed to unwind for two minutes a day.
That mean I’m gonna get me that car? ANGEL Come on. tell me. Now I just drew a circle on the newspaper. He snatches the pencil from behind her ear and draws a circle on the newspaper. What’re ya gonna get? .(Angel advances close to him. Stephen.) There.
STEPHEN Back. What are you so upset about? Just tell me what you’re gonna get.STEPHEN Christ. I’m not the FBI or somebody. ANGEL Who’s gettin’ a back pack? STEPHEN . whudduyou care what I’m gonna get? ANGEL God. got home fries in your ears? ANGEL Just that I didn’t hear what you said is all. Stephen. STEPHEN (mumbling irascibly) Back pack. Pack. ANGEL What? STEPHEN Whuddya.
ANGEL You’re gettin’ a back pack? How come? STEPHEN .The guy down the enda the counter. Chingado the Chicano. He’s hitchin’ to Guatamala.
STEPHEN No I ain’t gonna go campin’. ANGEL When be? will that STEPHEN When will that be? When I get it taken care of—when d’ya think? Lemme have a donut. I’m gonna go gettin’ the hell outta this lousy little town is where I’m gonna go campin’.Whuddo people usually get a back pack for? ANGEL Ya gonna go campin’. ANGEL When? when? I mean… STEPHEN When? Just as soon as I get somethin’ taken care of. ANGEL (getting him a donut) Where ya gonna go? STEPHEN .
Where am I gonna go? I’m gonna go hitchin’ that way (pointing left) or I’m gonna go hitchin’ that way (pointing right) and when I get to some place that don’t still smella Turdville here I’m gonna get me a decent job and I’m gonna make me some bread.) ANGEL Rye or Stephen? whole wheat. . (He picks up the donut and bites into it.
yeah. then pours the coffee from the mug into his paper cup. right. ANGEL Rye or Stephen? whole wheat. ANGEL That’s forgot.) I told ya. She sets it down by him. STEPHEN (with his mouth full) Believe me. STEPHEN Christ. that ain’t funny. She pours him a fresh cup of coffee in a mug. ANGEL Don’t talk with your mouth full. my coffee’s cold. I think they glued the crumbs together with Elmer’s. He looks at it a minute. . How d’ya like that? (He looks at her.STEPHEN This is some donut. I STEPHEN Yeah. I’m leavin’ in less’n two minutes.
And with a tattoo on his arm that says “Born Dead. for .” STEPHEN Love and peace my Aunt Fanny’s butt! And who says I want them to pick me.ANGEL You better let your hair grow and get some different clothes if you’re gonna hitch somewhere. You’re outta style. not “Born Dead. Nobody’s gonna pick up a boy dressed like you with his hair like yours.” Stephen.” People wear tattoos now that say “Love” and “Peace. Stephen.
we need to cannibalize the stage directions for clues. ANGEL Two hundred truck drivers? Uh-uh. so you know how many truck drivers still stop in here. just say the word and I’ll get the hell outta here and go to the goddamn cemetery or somewhere. You think I’m gonna lower myself to ride with those other morons—you’re outta your mind. So I am crossing out the rest of the stage directions