Everything a First Time Director Needs to Know About Directing Actors

Its said that there are only two people on a film set that don’t need any experience to be there: the production assistant, and the director.

Which means that in the strange kingdom that is a film production, the serf and the king sometimes have the same amount of experience.

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Where’s my grande pumpkin spice frappuccino?

Many first time directors that I’ve met attempt to remedy their inexperience by learning everything they can about the technical aspects of production, so that they don’t look stupid when talking to their crew (I was guilty of it too).

While knowledge of the technical aspects are important, for the most part you don’t really need to know what a C-47 is (pro-tip, its this) when you’re starting out.

But you do need to know at least two things: how to tell a satisfying story, and how to work with actors.

Needing to know storytelling is obvious, but a surprising amount of directors that I talk with don’t know how to get consistent performances from actors.

Good directors are each unique in their processes with actors – but bad directors are all the same. Bad directors give inadequate, confusing, and contradictory direction to their actors – because they don’t know that effective communication with actors requires empathy.

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“That was great! Let’s do it one more time…”

But directing actors – even child actors and inexperienced actors – doesn’t have to be hard, and when broken down there is actually a very simple process to it.

First let’s go into why you need to think about directing actors differently from directing any other position on the set.

How to Think Like An Actor

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Buckle up, because I’m about to increase your emotional IQ by at least a few points.

Think about the last time an emotional event happened to you – either a positive event, such as graduating from college, or getting married, or a negative event like a pet passing away, or being fired.

Go into that moment in your mind’s eye for a second. Picture the scene – Where were you? Who were you with?

Now picture smaller details, if you can remember them: What was the weather like? What were you wearing? What were you thinking about?

You’ll notice that by remembering more and more details of the event, your emotions are responding to the event as though its really happening right now (maybe a bit less intense, but still similar).

As you recall more and more details, you might find yourself even starting to smile as you remember a happy memory, or tear up if an unpleasant or sad memory was what you conjured.

But had I instead told you at the beginning of this section to just “feel happy”, or “start to cry” you’d likely not feel anything at all.

Why is that?

Its because our emotional systems are not logic based and do not respond to direct commands. You can’t tell somebody to be happy and expect them to just switch to being happy right then and there.

Our emotions can only be accessed indirectly – either through imagination, behavior, or through memory.

Actors are no different, so when you’re directing actors you can’t expect to get consistent results by telling an actor ‘you’re supposed to be sad in this scene/you should cry at this moment/come in excited and happy’.

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Most actors are used to bad direction, so even though your direction isn’t particularly helpful they’ll still likely try to give you what they think you’re wanting. But it won’t be consistent – it will either be too much or not the right type of emotion.

So how do you give direction that will be effective?

By learning a new language.

The Language of Directing Actors

You already know that film is a visual language, but directing actors is its own language in and of itself.

Many directors readily agree on that, yet short of taking acting classes and therefore experiencing the process yourself, there are very few resources to learn the craft of talking with actors.

When you can find advice on the language of directing actors, the most common advice given is to replace nouns with action verbs. Instead of ‘feel sad’, you tell your actor that she needs ‘to surrender’. If you want your actor to be scary in the scene, you tell your actor ‘to intimidate’ the other actors.

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Action Verbs R Us

This technique works because an actor ‘acts’, after all – they perform, they create, they verb.

Remember that emotions can’t be directly accessed – by giving your actor something to do, you’re freeing them to focus their attention on the behavior behind a certain emotion rather than the emotion itself, which bubbles up on its own.

When I was in college, the action verb technique was drilled into me by my teachers as the go-to process for directing actors. But I soon became frustrated with it. I realized that action verbs are actually pretty limiting – sure some verbs work well, but not all verbs are created equal, and I wasn’t about to bring a thesaurus with me to every shoot.

Just learning action verbs is like the difference between learning enough Spanish to order food in Spain, versus knowing enough to win Best Actor in a Telenovela. If you want to go beyond the basics, you need to treat directing like an actual language.

Which means its time for a grammar lesson.

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How to Direct Actors Like a Pro

Remember the emotion exercise you did before – notice that remembering details from your memory acted as a stimulus that ‘coaxed’ your emotions to come up to the surface.

Your emotions came up because they were stimulated to.

I’m leaning very hard on this ‘directing as a language’ metaphor, but to beat that dead horse one last time, the grammar of directing actors is actually a very simple formula:

Imagined Result + Stimulus = Result

I was taught this formula at the Barrow Group Theater by veteran actor/director Seth Barrish, and I’ve never looked back since learning it.

When you direct a scene, first picture how you want the scene to look like, then give the actors an emotional stimulus that you think will reproduce it, and then watch the scene play out and judge how effective your stimulus was.

If the scene doesn’t turn out how you were picturing it, then you know that you need to give a different stimulus.

Its a simple formula, but it works with nearly every actor.

Once you start thinking about directing in stimuli, you realize that there are plenty of ways to produce emotions in people beyond action verbs and direct commands. It could be reminding your actor of her character’s goal(s) for the scene. It could be a prop that indirectly channels emotions. It could be reminding the actor of an event that happened just before this scene, that provides more context for their behavior. (I’ll provide a lot of potential stimuli ideas in a later post)

Though it takes experience to know what stimulus to use for what situation, the trick to ensuring that you never give your actors bad direction is to always test out the stimulus on yourself before offering it to your actors.

This is where that empathy I mentioned before comes in.

Before giving any direction, imagine yourself as the actor receiving your direction. Does your direction make you feel what you want your actors to feel? If not, can you give a better stimulus?

Only when you’ve found the direction that works for you do you offer it to your actor as a note.

Of course your actors are not you, so don’t expect them to respond to your stimulus in the same way that you do. But chances are that if it works on you then it will at least land their performance in the right direction of what you’re wanting.

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Once I was working with a very good child actor who, towards the end of his day, was starting to get antsy and wasn’t holding eye contact with his scene partner for long enough.

We were shooting his close-up and I needed him to stay still and appear to be engaged and listening. So I asked him to study his scene partner’s eyes throughout the scene, and each time when I yelled cut I had him come over and draw the eyes from memory on a piece of paper, asking him to provide as much detail as he could.

It worked.

For every take after that point he looked completely engaged in what his scene partner was saying, because he was engaged – not on the story per se, but on the stimulus that I gave him.

Why did I tell him to draw his fellow actor’s eyes on a piece of paper? Because thats what worked for me when I stepped into his shoes, those of a tired little boy that was becoming bored, and directed myself.

Once you start using your directing on yourself, it will become easier for you to understand what stimuli are effective and what aren’t.

Every actor is different and each will respond to stimuli in unique ways, so its important for you to suss out what each of your actors responds to in the read and rehearsal process. But relying on the formula gives you something to fall back on in that terrifying moment when all eyes are on you to provide the one piece of direction that will save the scene.

Trust in the formula, and you won’t look like a rookie the next time you go on set.

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Now you’ve earned that Trenta Soy Latte.